Aiken’s elected officials and community leaders didn’t just talk about the need to address the issues of inequality and injustice during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
They also offered some specific plans for action during an event that drew more than 100 people to the Lessie B. Price Aiken Senior and Youth Center.
“Your Aiken City Council stands together with a call for justice and a call for equality throughout our city,” said Mayor Rick Osbon. “As the City of Aiken has protests and demonstrations, we will continue to stand with you and pursue nothing less than equality.”
Osbon also announced a new initiative that is being spearheaded by City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh.
“He is creating a Community Resource Center,” Osbon said. “The purpose of the center will be to help community members navigate through and stay informed about programs that are available to assist our citizens in reaching positive outcomes with their dreams and their goals.
The Community Resource Center also will help increase awareness of “what help is available when that help is needed,” Osbon added.
The press conference was a response, on the part of the City of Aiken’s government, to the recent deaths of several African Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that have horrified and angered many.
All members of City Council attended the event and one of them, Gail Diggs, said it was important for city leaders to make their reactions public following the series of tragedies.
Floyd, who died May 25, was restrained while being arrested in Minnesota. A Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and laying facedown.
“I think this community needs to be reassured that what happened in Minnesota will not happen here, that we can trust our law enforcement officials to take care of us and protect us,” Diggs said. “And as elected leaders in the city, we needed to speak up. You know what they say, silence is almost like you’re giving people permission (to treat others unfairly).”
She also mentioned the following words spoken by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Eugene White, president of the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP, offered specific recommendations for effecting change locally to prevent injustice.
“No. 1, let’s demand that every law enforcement agency in Aiken County from the top to the smallest municipality have a citizens review board with subpoena power,” he said. “No. 2, let’s take a hard look at our use of force policies, and if in our evaluation, we find things like chokeholds and knee holds and other techniques that if used improperly can hurt someone, (then) let’s evaluate those and train our officers how to handle them in another way.”
White also suggested banning no-knock search warrants, which allow police officers to enter a home without announcing their presence beforehand.
Taylor, a medical worker, was shot and killed in March when a no-knock warrant was served in Louisville, Kentucky.
In addition, “let’s ban boxes for employment applications in the city and the state,” White said. “Statistics show that African Americans have an exponentially harder time in applying and winning a job offer and position, and it’s even more the case if you have a unique name. And you dig yourself even deeper in the hole when you have to mark a box that says, ‘I’ve been a felon.’ Let’s take that box away.”
Other speakers during the press conference were Bedenbaugh, Aiken Councilwoman Andrea Gregory, Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce Chair Julie Whitesell and the Rev. Paul Bush, president of the Concerned Ministers Fellowship and a former Chamber of Commerce chair.
Bush and Senior Pastor Jeff Erbskorn of St. Paul Lutheran Church led prayers.
Jesse Colin Young, a founding member and the lead singer of the 1960s group The Youngbloods, performed “Get Together.”
Whitesell announced an event called Aiken Mosaic Bells that will be held Friday and is being organized by the Chamber of Commerce’s Aiken Mosaic program.
Beginning at 9 a.m., churches are being asked to sound (toll) their bells seven times in recognition of sorrow, respect, unity, dignity, honor, justice and the value of life.
There will be nine minutes of silence beginning at 9:05 a.m.
Then at 9:14 a.m., participating churches will ring their bells.
Following the press conference, Bedenbaugh provided more information about the Community Resource Center, which won’t be an actual building.
“The name may change,” he said. “Basically, it will be equivalent to an ombudsman type position” that will offer assistance to “anybody who has any concern. It could be something as simple as ‘Hey, I need a building permit’ or it could be 'I need assistance. What nonprofits are out there to help me with a utility payment?’”
Shifting of staff internally will be done to create the position, Bedenbaugh said.