Author: George Chidi

Former staff writer for the AJC. Councilman for the mighty City of Pine Lake, population 680 not counting geese. Democrat.

The Brannon Hill Movement

A Somali-American child at Brannon Hill
A march and rally for solidarity with refugees and immigrants will be held Saturday, Dec. 12 at 12:30 p.m. at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, close to Brannon Hill and Clarkston.

Samia Abdullah’s about done with the photo ops for politicians at Brannon Hill, the dilapidated condominium complex just outside of Clarkston that I wrote about a few months ago for VICE. It’s not that attention wasn’t warranted, said Abdullah, who helps organize refugees around Clarkston. The Brannon Hill community – mostly Somali, mostly poor, beset by crime in buildings held together by duct tape and the power of positive thinking – plainly needs help.

But while DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester showing up with television crews once a week might put the local Crip set off their crack grind, it doesn’t repair a roof. And free range anti-immigration zealot Phil Kent just pisses people off wherever he shows up.

Especially me.

Kent attributed the crime problem at Brannon Hill to “Somali gangs” in an interview with the BBC about Brannon Hill last month. In fact, the gangs are largely all-Americans, a set of the Rollin’ 100s Neighborhood Crip Gang led by crack dealers from Memphis.

After roughly 10 months of reporting, I noted that detail in the story – a detail I learned at some personal expense and verified at some small personal risk. Kent walked in a couple of weeks after VICE ran it, talked to some people and then spouted off. The truth, it seems, doesn’t raise the ire of folks looking for a reason to target refugees quite as much, though. Evoking images of Somali pirates in your back yard is much scarier.

We’re in a mood to be scared right now. Mass murderers and Donald Trump have seen to that. Trump’s call for all Muslims to be barred entry to the United States comes with some Georgia elected officials endorsing that idea right along with about two-thirds of the Republican primary electorate.

Never mind how scared Republicans might be of immigrants, the Somali community is frightened of all the attention being paid to them, said Guled Abdilahi, a software engineer and Somali community activist. “They’re calling me really late, asking me what’s going on. Text messages. Email. Calls at work about Nancy Jester, wondering about folks coming there. That’s all I can think about.”

How Brannon Hill has reacted to all of this attention might be instructive. They’re organizing, they’re breaking old habits to do so, and they may be on the edge of a real political movement in the immigrant community.   Read more

Stan Watson Used DeKalb Chamber As Pass Through Account

watsonlarge(This story has been corrected. Notes at end.) If I ever find myself bargaining a deal with Satan, I want Stan Watson’s term sheet in my hands.

How else to explain the Douglas Adams-esque levels of improbability that Watson, an aardvark masquerading as a DeKalb County commissioner, has managed to elude indictment for … something … by now?

WSB’s Richard Belcher reported Monday that Watson had a $92,000 account in the name of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, but entirely under his financial direction.

Disgraced, jailed former commissioner Elaine Boyer also had an account. Boyer would from time to time take out $50 Wal-Mart gift cards in thousand-dollar bundles, to do with … whatever one does with a nigh-untraceable cash-equivalent instrument, I suppose.

The chamber is deflecting criticism of these arrangements by attributing it to former chamber president Leonardo McClarty. It has declined to say who deposited money into the accounts. It has declined to say what other expenditures were made. It has declined to say if the use of this money was properly recorded anywhere the public might see it – something I suspect is unlikely, since the Chamber is a private organization with the transparency of a cinder block.

One can wonder at this point what was obtained in return for that money. One can wonder if Watson or Boyer recorded any of these expenditures in their tax filings, or as campaign contributions, or as business expenses. One might wonder why the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce would carry the water for these two clowns, since it means that the business community now has no instrument it can trust to express its honest interest in this county.

But what I’m wondering right now is how much of this the Chamber bothered to disclose to the state legislature earlier this year.

You see, the legislature passed an ethics law for DeKalb in March. That law, ratified by 92 percent of DeKalb voters all of 35 days ago, stripped the county commission of the power to appoint ethics board members. It instead gave that authority to outside organizations like the local colleges, the probate court, Leadership DeKalb … and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce.  Read more

Trump: The Devil Comes Back To Georgia

Donald Trump returns to Georgia today, to Macon, where he will likely say something stupid and outrageous about African-Americans. There’s something to be said for picking your audience, after all, and Macon — where slightly less than half of the county is black — is as good a place as any for it.

He’s primed the pump, after all, announcing that he would be meeting with black ministers for an endorsement last week. That meeting appears to have been called off after basically every black activist in America tracked down every single pastor who had been considering it to give them a piece of their mind.

Mary-Pat Hector, a freshman at Spelman — and a major local Black Lives Matter activist — set off alarm bells in the activist community almost immediately. One by one, she and her partners contacted people in the Trump flier, circulated by Mark Burns.

Reaction was swift. Wiley Jackson, a megachurch pastor with churches in southeast Atlanta and Stone Mountain, said “I’ve always encouraged the people who listen to me and believe in me to get involved in the political process,” in a YouTube video responding to criticism. “There should be a coalition of leaders in a position to ask the hard questions … Nowhere on the flier did it say we endorse Mr. Trump, or I personally endorse Mr. Trump. However, we need to ask the hard questions.”

Jackson didn’t say what those questions might be, of course.   Read more

No, Senator Isakson Is Not A Klansman

Though I generally despise Internet anonymity when it comes to politics, I like Anonymous. Always have.

When it’s actually Anonymous, that is, and not just some lower-case anonymous person with a Guy Fawkes mask and delusions of grandeur.

Senator Johnny Isakson was apparently forced to issue a statement today refuting Internet claims that he is on a list of Klansmen to be outed by Anonymous’ OpKKK project.

“This information is absolutely false and comes from an unverified source. Senator Isakson has never been affiliated with the KKK,” the statement reads.

Someone claiming to be Anonymous posted a handful of phone numbers and email addresses to a Pastebin account on Halloween, which should have been our first clue.

Snopes takes it from here.

“While it’s difficult to definitively label any source as an ‘official’ Anonymous account (as anyone is free to claim membership to the group, which has no central organization), its largest social media presences denied the information released on 2 November 2015 was linked to the promised data dump,” Snopes writes. “Whether information of that description will be released on 5 November 2015 has yet to be confirmed, and the details of that purported release have not yet been verified.”

The International Business Times posted a link earlier today to a different OpKKK data dump purportedly from Anonymous, which lists a series of email addresses from Russian service providers and phone numbers to curious places in the United States, including what appears to be the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office. But, as Snopes noted, Anonymous has denied that any of the data coming out right now is legitimate.

When the real data dumps on Thursday, we’ll be watching.

Tucker. They’ve Earned a Yes.

I was asked a moment ago why I think it makes sense for Tucker’s voters to choose to become an actual city on Tuesday. After all, incorporation comes with costs.

Well, yes. Good government costs something.

We live in Georgia, where government is a curse word. So we cheap out. We contribute less tax revenue per capita than almost anyone. Starve the beast, and all. And then we wonder why DeKalb County management often can’t find its own ass with two hands and a sherpa guide.

There’s something to be said for having someone close to yell at when things are screwed up. There’s something more to be said when you’ve got someone close who is paid to yell at the right person, because you don’t have time to find out who that person is.

For residents of Tucker, the benefit is planning and zoning control, for one, along with the power of local legislation. It is worth noting that Tucker has been a dumping ground — literally — for corruption problems in DeKalb County related to this kind of control.

The DoJ indicted a state DoT manager a couple of months ago for taking bribes to allow dirty fill to be dumped in restricted areas … of Tucker.

Jerry Clark, who will be serving a sentence in federal prison for bribery, took money to let a shady nightclub operate without proper permits … in Tucker. That’s Lu Lu Billares — now La Vaca — on Chamblee-Tucker Road.

Local government gives someone — someone — direct responsibility to the local community to watch out for this kind of thing. We need eyes on these problems. Good government comes with a cost. Incorporation pays for eyes.

Here’s another reason: Identity matters. Tucker is fundamentally more than just a neighborhood. Most people already think they’re a city. Actually becoming a city reinforces local identity.

Identity matters because it breeds civic participation … which is the solution to 80 percent of the problems in this county, and in metro Atlanta. Civic participation rates in the metro region are among the lowest in the country, whether measuring voter turnout or community meeting attendance, school board meetings, PTA stuff, Rotary Club, or others. About the only area this part of the world rates in is bitching online.

That’s not a joke. Georgia ranks sixth in participation in online discussion of politics. Thank you Eric Erickson.

If the word “Tucker” means something to people, they’ll fight to defend it. And it’s the fight that counts right now.

One more: Tucker is about the last bastion of middle-class America left in metro Atlanta. A city of Tucker can maintain that. And that’s something that needs maintaining.

In this, Tucker is fundamentally different from LaVista Hills, which still feels like a 50-year-old marketing VP buying an overpriced BMW — incorporation as aspiration.

But metro Atlanta has the widest split between wealth and poverty in America. Communities are either very rich, or very poor. Buckhead, or Bankhead. North Peachtree or South Fulton. A gated community or a larval favela.

There are few places around here in the middle. There are damned few that also have a healthy ethnic mix, one reflecting America’s future. That social and economic combination of melting pot middle class values can actually breed the kind of leadership that makes sensible politics possible in Georgia.

We need that. We, as in this county and this state, need that. We are rapidly forgetting what that looks like. We will soon forget how to make policies relevant to that.

So. Vote yes. Vote yes on the ethics referendum and yes on Tucker. After acting like a city for about 100 years already, they’ve earned it.

The Rule is Simple: Live Where You Serve

Angla MooreUpdate below the fold: I have one less Facebook friend today.

An administrative judge halted Angela Moore’s bid for a seat in the State Senate last week. Secretary of State Brian Kemp knocked her off the ballot on Tuesday. Any votes cast for her leading up to Election Day won’t be counted. The polls will have signs telling voters directly that Moore isn’t eligible … and telling voters indirectly that our elections are held together with duct tape and the power of positive thinking.

Moore and I went back and forth on Facebook on Saturday morning about this. I noted that her home address is in the 10th District, and that she should have had enough sense to consult a map before qualifying for the ballot and raising money on a campaign.

“There are many circumstances that you are not aware of and my attorneys are taking care of the issue,” she replied. “Also, there are other people that have run and have gotten a waiver to run outside of their dst.”

That’s news to me. The Georgia Constitution is pretty plain. Article III, Section II, Paragraph III of the Georgia Constitution denotes the qualifications of members of the General Assembly. “At the time of their election, the members of the Senate shall be citizens of the United States, shall be at least 25 years of age, shall have been citizens of this state for at least two years, and shall have been legal residents of the territory embraced within the district from which elected for at least one year.”

Moore appears to own two houses — one on Georgian Woods Circle near Decatur and another on Cleveland Road near Lithonia. (Hat tip to Andre Walker at Georgia Unfiltered for that.) Both are in State Sen. Emanuel Jones’ district, not the 43rd. Moore told the Rockdale Citizen that she believes the 2010 redistricting that moved her precinct out of the district was illegal, and plans a challenge on that basis.

Moore had a flash of political fame while running for Secretary of State in 2006, when the “Vote for Miss Angela” campaign rap song written by a 12-year-old boy went viral. (She came in third in a five-way primary). She ran against State Sen. Ronald Ramsey in 2008, then for Secretary of State again in 2010.

One might figure she’d know better. On the other hand, this is Georgia politics we’re talking about.   Read more

What A New Downtown DeKalb May Look Like, And Cost

Kensington constructionDeKalb issued a request to architectural firms last week for renderings of a new Downtown DeKalb next to the proposed soccer stadium at I-285 and Memorial Drive, the AJC reported yesterday.

The plans are ambitious. They’re also bound to be incredibly expensive.

A concert hall. A convention center. Hotels. A new 20-story government office building. And the jail converted into condos.

That last bit is why I’m thinking of this RFP as a publicity stunt. I absolutely cannot imagine the county agreeing to build a new facility to replace a 25-year-old jail that cost $88 million in 1990 and operates at about 75 percent capacity today, never mind the cost to renovate it into some kind of mixed-use facility.

The county is suggesting that the giveaway soccer stadium — $12 in public funds with zero return for the investment — would be surrounded by the glories of suburbia, a-la-Brookhaven or Dunwoody.

Interestingly, the RFP calls for two renderings; one with the stadium, and one without. That suggests the $12 million deal isn’t quite done yet.  Read more

A Response To Being Called A Terrorist By A Cop

Butch Conway is a friend, and I sincerely hope we remain friends after this. I’ve long admired his work as Gwinnett’s sheriff. But I’ve read his commentary regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, and I believe he’s wrong, both on the facts and on the substance of the concerns of people seeking accountability for the use of force by law enforcement.

Conway is arguing that police are being targeted for violence by the Black Lives Matter movement, and that police have suddenly become unsafe. I believe this to be untrue.

There is no evidence of some systematic change in officer safety because of a nonviolent movement for police accountability. The number of officers killed in the line of duty is likely to reach a historic low this year, even as the number of people killed by police appears to be twice as high as previous estimates.

Any attack on police should be denounced, of course, as the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have done. “We’re targeting the brutal system of policing, not individual police,” the statement reads. “We seek a world in which ALL Black lives matter, and racial hierarchy no longer organises our lives or yours. This is a vision of love. As Black survivors of White supremacy, our hearts go out to all victims of violence.”

One might expect any unwarranted use of force by police to similarly be denounced. But that’s not what happens. Excuses and justifications rise instantly, unbidden, because — until now — the judgement of police officers has been considered above question.  Read more

DeKalb Democrats: Cleaning Up After The Party’s Over

Local party organizations – Democratic and Republican – all tend to be absolutely stark staring mad, an unbirthday party with crack-flavored tea and crazy biscuits. People involved in politics understand that they’re vehicles for ridiculousness.

Tonight, I got out of the car.

I resigned my seat as the chairman of House District 87 in the DeKalb County Democratic Party tonight. Most people who know me don’t know I was actively involved in the local party organization. That’s probably for the best.

As long as we’re talking about our secret political histories, here’s mine. In 2002, I quit a promising job at a web news company to run as an independent for the Massachusetts State House. I was 29, two years out of college and three years out of the Army. I had lived in Boston for all of 18 months.

The state had just passed – over the mighty objections of the powerful legislature – a mechanism for public funding of political candidates as a way to take money out of politics. My state rep, a party hack, had just quit. I ran as a publicly-funded protest candidate on a clean elections platform, to make sure someone worth having would be on the ballot in the general after the Democratic primary.

(That … and I was still sore about losing an election at Boys’ State in high school.)

I got my clock cleaned of course. I won 13 percent of the vote. 16 percent of voters cast a blank ballot. The winner, Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, has been an able legislator for 13 years now … and has never faced a serious opponent.

I learned a lot by losing that race, not the least of which is that having an organization matters. No one wins alone. There’s a reason parties exist. In Boston in particular, the Democratic Party really is a machine designed to cultivate leaders and to connect neighborhoods to the levers of power. Boston is an amazing city. Is there political corruption? Sure. But it’s functional. Corruption exists there in part to control how many stupid people are allowed near the good china.

In DeKalb, not so much.  Read more

Something Is Very Wrong With DeKalb’s Police

I’ll start off by saying that I’m grateful for a fast response from the DeKalb Police tonight to a horrible shooting near my home. Two young men from the Aberdeen neighborhood east of Pine Lake are dead.

I was writing on my porch around midnight when the gunshots — some kind of rifle or machine gun, I suspect — woke everyone within a mile of us. It sounded like 30 or 40 shots, rapid fire, louder than anything I’d heard here before. I wanted to dismiss it as fireworks, but the thump had a rhythm and a ring, and it was just too loud. It took a moment for the dread to register.

Facebook lit up. I could hear conversations in the background of the 911 call center, all about the same thing, when my frantic call connected. DeKalb Police had a dozen cruisers there within minutes, the first within seconds.

I don’t mean to detract from that. DeKalb has erased my concerns about response time.

But our county police have had a litany of use-of-force issues arise over the last year, and after what I saw tonight I am beginning to understand why. I found the conduct of officers on the scene to be deeply disturbing, despite the conditions.

For one, DeKalb arrested an Atlanta police officer who lives in the neighborhood. The fellow went to the scene to see if his son had been involved. He identified himself as a police officer. It didn’t matter. Police apparently didn’t give him a chance for that to matter. People at the scene told me they threw him to the ground and used a Taser on him, in front of neighbors who had come out to see what happened.

The crowd screamed at the police, telling them the fellow was a cop, and a neighbor, and belonged there, and it didn’t matter.

I know this man.

We met last year, when I was knocking on doors for Sheriff Mann’s campaign. (I’m not naming him until I’ve had a chance to talk to him.) He had a campaign sign in his yard … for another guy. We talked for a long time about violence in the neighborhood, about Pine Lake’s changing reputation, about policing in general, about politics. The neighborhood looks to this man as an intercessor between themselves and the police. This is the guy that keeps them safe.

Tonight, his wife told me that had he gone armed as he usually does, DeKalb Police would have simply shot him dead. Read more

DeKalb Ethics Board Chairman Resigns

Last night, the DeKalb Board of Ethics voted to censure Commissioner Stan Watson for voting to award contracts to a firm he worked for instead of recusing himself. It’s the first time in at least 15 years that the Board of Ethics had managed to take action against an elected official.

But in the view of the ethics board chairman John Ernst, it’s hardly sufficient to restore trust to a county government that DeKalb’s internal investigator described as “rotten to the core.”

So, perhaps, it’s unsurprising that Ernst resigned his position as chairman the next morning.

Ernst ruffled feathers through his tenure, communicating directly with the public about the state of the board — underfunded, without a quorum and beset with administrative insanity. A combination of quiet diplomacy with lawmakers and public shaming of the commissioners contributed directly to changes to the board’s financial position and power to investigate.

Ernst’s attention-getting advocacy contributed directly to the introduction of a referendum on the November ballot, changing the way the Board of Ethics will be appointed. If the referendum passes, community groups will choose board members instead of the politicians on the board of commissioners. The DeKalb Bar Association, the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, the DeKalb legislative delegation, the judge of the DeKalb Probate Court, Leadership DeKalb, DeKalb colleges and universities, and the chief judge of DeKalb Superior Court will appoint members.

(I would have liked to see the DeKalb Municipal Association get a pick, too. But no one cares what I like.)

Ernst’s resignation letter urges voters to support the referendum.

“We must actively promote transparency in the county and do a better job of holding our elected officials accountable,” he wrote. “We must not just give lip service to the essential job of solving this crisis of confidence in DeKalb.”

The county has been short of leaders who have made ethics and good governance central to their work. I note offhand that Ernst happens to live in the city of Brookhaven, where competent government has been a bit of a problem. Just sayin’.

DeKalb: No One Watches The Watchmen

You could see the moment Viola Davis’ heart broke tonight.

Commissioner Stan Watson had just been found guilty of three counts of violating DeKalb’s ethics code, despite comic attempts by new ethics board appointees to squirm out of their duty to vote. But the board’s six members — including its stalwart chairman John Ernst — had unanimously declined to remove Watson from office for the sin of voting to award a million-dollar contract to a company he worked for.

Still, the board has the power to suspend a commissioner for 30 days without pay. It’s a small punishment, but a material one. Ernst voted for a suspension. And then four commissioners voted against it.

The result, after a year of staccato steps and legal maneuvering was a mere censure. Stan Watson: you suck. The end.

Davis’ bright eyes went dead.   Read more

DeKalb CEO Deliberately Left Commissioners Out Of Stadium Negotiations

(Note: this story has been amended with new information.) If Nancy Jester, Kathy Gannon or Jeff Rader are your commissioners, you are not entitled to representation in DeKalb County government any more.

Commissioner Nancy Jester revealed today that other commissioners signed a letter to open negotiations with Arthur Blank in April for a new soccer training facility, and that she wasn’t informed of it until about a week before the vote. I suspect commissioner Rader will say the same. I will amend this story when I know.

One week ago, interim CEO Lee May said this on Twitter:

Confronted with Jester’s revelation on WABE’s “A Closer Look” this afternoon, May said Jester wasn’t informed because the land on Memorial Drive isn’t in her district. Never mind, it seems, that Sharon Barnes-Sutton was apparently worthy of being informed, since the territory isn’t in her district, either. Nor that the $12 million public “investment” in a private company’s sports facility comes from taxpayers across the county.

Kathie Gannon wrote a letter of support, as did Sutton, Watson and Johnson. But Gannon appears to have been informed of the details of the eventual deal late in the game.

I have questions. Many, many questions.   Read more

Mike Bowers Thrown Out Of DeKalb Commission Meeting

I got up at 4:30 this morning to get in line at the DeKalb commission meeting, to speak against the use of $12 million of public money for Arthur Blank’s proposed soccer complex. I remember how Cobb County screwed the public out of an honest thrashing of their elected leaders when the Braves Stadium came up for discussion, stacking the speaking list with shills so that opponents would be shut out.

The DeKalb commission decided they didn’t need to be so clever. They simply denied public comment entirely.

I’m glad I showed up early, though, because I ended up killing an hour or so with Mike Bowers’ team. Bowers, a former attorney general, is ostensibly being paid a small fortune to help uncover graft and corruption in DeKalb County. I am inclined after hearing from them to brush up on the finer points of the Gratuities Clause in the Georgia constitution.

The commission’s recent vote to strip the investigation of funds leaves the state of the Bowers investigation in question. Bowers hoped to speak to the commission today, to discuss the state of his interim report and the path forward.

I watched him argue with Nichole Simms, one of Lee May’s staffers. And then he was asked to leave, which he did — visibly pissed off.

Bowers may dump his report early. Be prepared.   Read more

The Rebel Flag Isn’t About The Flag. It’s About Identity.

Obama on a rebel battle flag

I turned from a speaker at the Confederate flag rally this Saturday as he prattled on about some esoteric tax issue he’s utterly certain caused the Civil War to see this image: a man, holding a rebel battle flag incorporating a resplendent photograph of Barack Obama.

Shepard Fairey would die.

I didn’t get the name of the fellow selling flags out of the back of a new pickup. I regret that. This flag is fascinating. It deliberately, instantly creates cognitive dissonance, leaving the observer to impose meaning on the two juxtaposed images. Is it racist? The image chosen of Obama isn’t a caricature or overtly negative. It’s almost a propaganda shot of him looking powerful.

Is this a proclamation of Obama as the leader of the Confederate South? A statement of defiance against his authority? A con, meant to force sites like eBay or Amazon to ban an image of Obama if they’re going to ban sales of the rebel battle flag?

I gotta say, as art, it has merit.

It provokes. It also encompasses the central contradictions of the current flag debate, all of which were on display Saturday.

I went because I wanted to see the argument first hand. I’m also finishing a book on civic participation, and the idea of an innocuous Facebook post raising an army of supporters in under a week shows how power is shifting away from formal authority.

Also, I had just shot an op-ed for Fox 5 about the construction of the Stone Mountain memorial, and I wanted a sense of how people might react to the history lesson.

Read more