About three dozen people gathered at Anniston’s City Meeting Center Saturday afternoon to discuss concerns about racial relations between African Americans and police, local court systems and city officials.
The meeting, which was hosted by the Anniston-Calhoun NAACP, lasted more than two hours and featured Huntsville defense attorney John Taylor as a guest speaker.
He and other speakers urged their audience, both in attendance and in the wider community, to know their rights when interacting with city officials and police. When speakers voiced complaints, they were at times heated and emphatic.
“As a black race of people, we have always stuck together,” NAACP chapter president Glenn Ray said. “If we intend to move in this city, we’re going to have to do it together.”
Anniston City Councilman Ben Little said he and fellow Councilman David Reddick received several complaints about racial profiling by the city’s police department.
“We’re not attacking the police department. We need the police department,” Little said. “What we don’t need is individuals in the police department that are harassing people out there and, when they’re told about what’s going on, they continue to allow it to happen.”
Anniston police Capt. Nick Bowles said by phone after the meeting that accusations of discrimination against the department are “categorically untrue.” Bowles said officers should not hold any prejudices in the first place and are warned against racial profiling at the beginning of training.
“If they’re arrested, they’re arrested because of the crime they’re committing, not the color of their skin,” Bowles said, regarding suspects. “If we are made aware it was happening or noticed a dangerous trend, we would address that with the individual officer and we haven’t had to do that.”
Little also accused the city’s municipal court of unfairly targeting black people and poor white people, and said he has noticed two judges sitting on court sessions.
“You have two judges sitting in there, one on the bench and one on the sidelines,” Little said. “I want to know where else in Alabama do you have two judges in municipal court?”
City prosecutor Jason Odom, also by phone after the meeting, said it was “absolutely untrue,” that the city court was targeting anyone. He wrote later in an email that the city court has in "multiple instances" might need more than one judge to avoid conflicts in cases or to deal with a heavy volume of cases, and sometimes uses other prosecutors for the same reasons. The most recent city court session to which Little had referred was such an instance, he said.
“One of the judges had a conflict, in which the defendant was a former client,” Odom said.
"I categorically deny any allegation of racism in the Anniston Municipal Court," he wrote in the later email.
Glenn Ray also referred to the Calhoun County Courthouse as “one of the most corrupt buildings in the city,” accusing judges of trying cases without evidence.
Attempts made Saturday to contact Calhoun Cleburne District Attorney Brian McVeigh were unsuccessful.
Reddick said many of the local black community’s problems with racism began after City Manager Jay Johnson was hired, and the councilman encouraged residents to start showing up at City Council meetings to voice their concerns about Johnson as well
Contacted later, Johnson he felt “ambushed” by Reddick’s words. Last month, Reddick and Little called for Johnson’s termination, and Johnson said he believes they are still trying to remove him from his job.
“It’s unfortunate that such statements are made without any basis, factand discussion by the city council,” Johnson said.
Taylor, the guest speaker, said he regularly travels to encourage people to learn about their rights and get involved with their community.
“You have to be a smart defendant. You have to be a smart citizen,” Taylor said. “If you’re smart, you make your attorney smart.”
Oxford resident Virginia Stone reminded people that anyone facing charges can request a new attorney and a new judge if they feel inadequately represented in court. She said she regularly tells her children and grandchildren what to do when they are pulled over by police.
“I teach them all you don’t have to show nothing but your license and registration,” Stone said. “Don’t say nothing, don’t reach for nothing, just sit there.”
He encouraged members of the black community who may face discrimination to begin organizing, starting with churches.
When he was growing up during the civil rights era, Anniston resident Harold Ray said churches were often the focal point of activism.
“Now the time has come for our community to bring ourselves together and rid ourselves of the fear we have of succeeding,” Ray said. “We need to get together with our leaders and tell them ,without fear in our hearts, that we’re fed up.”
Taylor also urged black people to be more proactive working to improve issues within their communities. He cited his impoverished early life in New York and his current situation as a successful attorney.
“How did I get from there to here? That’s the question,” Taylor said. “That is the lesson that your pastor should be teaching you in your churches.”