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Americus residents tired of violent crime rally and are ready for change

AMERICUS – A group of Americus residents gathered at Bessie Mays Circle Park on Saturday, June 12 to express their concern, displeasure and their determination to try and stop the recent spike in violent crime that has plagued the city over the past few months. Ironically, this rally, which was called “Ready for Change”, took place near one of the hot spots in which much of the violent crime is taking place: Bessie Mays Circle.

Rev. Courtney Moore, pastor of the Kingdom Church in Americus, along with Lorenzo Walters, started the Ready for Change movement here in Sumter County to get local residents to work with local law enforcement and community leaders to help stop the violence here in Americus and Sumter County.

“This is a Stop the Violence rally. We’re speaking out against the crime that is going on in our community, in our city, black-on-black crime, the gun violence that has been plaguing our community” Rev. Moore said. “We’re here to stand up against that and to bring awareness to it.”

There were several vendors and representatives at the event to hand out free food and drinks. There was also a jumping castle and a jumping slide for the kids and an organization called Black Voters Matter was there to get people to register to vote.

An African Libation is performed at the Ready for Change Rally. This is normally done with candles and incense, but in the case, water is poured out to honor the ancestors.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

At least three local community leaders spoke at the event and urged the attendees to do what they can to make a positive difference and to help provide alternatives for the youth of the community to steer them away from the current violence going on.

Dwight Harris, who serves as the Athletic Manager for the Sumter County Parks and Recreation Department (SCPRD), was the first speaker to address the crowd and was dressed in a basketball referee’s uniform. He told the crowd that he considers himself a “referee for life”. “We must, in Sumter County, stop the violence, stop all the shooting, stop all the molestations,” Harris said. “Everything that we are doing that is not right and decent and in order, we must stop it. Not tomorrow, not next week, but we must stop it today.”

Dwight Harris, Athletic Manage for the Sumter County Parks and Recreation Department, spoke to the crowd at the Ready for Change Rally and exhorted the adults and parents in the crowd to set the right example for the community’s young people.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Harris went on to say that in his opinion, much of the problems that are resulting in violent crimes being committed are the result of a lack of discipline. “We need to be well-disciplined. That word “discipline”, the root word is “disciple”…the difference between right and wrong,” Harris said. “Some of us, some of the shooters, some of the killers, they respect their mamas, but they don’t respect other adults. So what are we doing? Are we helping? I mean, how can you tell one child not to smoke and they see you smoking?” Harris continued by stating that children will behave like and copy the behavior patterns of adults and it’s the responsibility of the adults to set the right example for the children to follow.

Black Voters Matter, an organization dedicated to getting people to register and vote, had a booth at the Ready for Change Rally.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

“Let’s blame some of this stuff on us,” Harris said. “So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to have more rallies like these, or are we actually going to get out and walk the streets and do something to help these boys?” Harris went on to describe the terror that residents go through when shootings are taking place in their neighborhoods and that some people cannot even sit down to eat a decent meal or take their trash out because they are terrified that they might get shot. “You got elderly people who almost have to eat off the floor because of the gun shots coming through their windows,” Harris said. “So what are we going to do? Are we just going to talk, or are we going to walk the walk? What we’re doing today is a positive start. This is something good.”

There was plenty of free food and drinks at the Ready for Change Rally in Americus last Saturday.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Harris went on to send a message to all of those in Americus who are getting involved in violent criminal activity to “aim high” as far as improving themselves and their lives, rather than shooting at other people. “Put your guns down and aim high. Shoot for the stars. Shoot for the moon. Shoot for education. Shoot for something positive and constructive. Shoot for a job because we know that the Bible says that a man who does not work does not eat,” Harris said. He concluded his message by stating that people cannot be ready for change by sitting at home and doing nothing. Instead, those who want change must take action. “We must do something about this city,” Harris said. “We’re sick and tired of all the shooting, all the killing, all the crime. Now I’m a referee for life. If you do anything you’re not supposed to do, if your conscience doesn’t condemn you, neither can I. That conscience is that Holy Spirit. We all have it.” Harris continued to persuade and exhort each person in the crowd to never let anyone else convince them to do something that they know is not right. “Make your own mind up,” Harris said. “And once we start making our own minds up, we are in the game for life for as long as life allows us to be. Otherwise, you keep shooting, you keep killing, you keep stabbing, you’re going to wind up in that casket (Harris was referring to a casket that was placed in the middle of the field at the rally to remind the crowd of the ultimate result of violent crime). As a referee for life, once you wind up in that casket, the game is over.”

Local entrepreneur and businessman Roger Jackson shared his story about how he went to prison for federal drug charges and pleaded for those who are involved in the violent crime in Americus to stop the violence.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

The next speaker to address the crowd was local entrepreneur and businessman Roger Jackson. Jackson started out by saying that he was raised by his mother and knew that the things that he did were wrong. He also stated that starting in school, African-Americans get punished at a much higher rate than their counterparts and that the living arrangements of African-Americans are worse than those of their counterparts, but he also added that it doesn’t mean that African-Americans can’t succeed. “I can give you a lot of stats coming from 2019,” Jackson said. “Did you know that one out of every three black males is going to prison, and I did not say, “Jail” or “charged with a crime”. He’s going to prison.” Jackson went on to say that 50 percent of black men go to college, but only 50 percent of them will graduate. “Those numbers are not good,” Jackson said. “So we need to do better in the home.”

Jackson went on to tell his story about the fact that when he was a youth, he got involved in the same types of crimes that some of the youth of Americus are perpetrating today and that he paid a heavy price for his actions. “Back in 2003, I caught a federal drug charge and was sentenced to 20 years in a federal prison,” Jackson said. “When that judge sentenced me, I cried, my mama cried. My children cried. I’m beginning to think that people don’t realize the consequences of what they’re doing out here.”

Jackson went on to say that he doesn’t understand why all of the black-on-black gun violence is taking place here. “We have militaries that go to war. Aint no sense here in Americus, GA and Sumter County being at war,” Jackson said. “I’ve heard this 100 times: ‘We’re at war’. Who are we at war with and why?” Jackson went on to explain that all human beings bleed the same red blood and made a plea to those who are involved in the shootings to please stop. “You’re killing somebody’s son, and now we’ve got black women doing the same things now too and those are the ones we use to come to with our problems, the black women,” Jackson said.

He went on to say that parents are having to bury their children and that grandparents are having to bury their grandchildren because of the deadly gun violence that is taking place. “This is not how it’s supposed to be,” Jackson said. “I love Americus and I love my city. I love Sumter County. I don’t like what’s going on in it. I love y’all and I’m asking y’all. I’m pleading. Please put these guns down. Talk to somebody please!”

Sumter County Sheriff Eric Bryant (right) speaks to the crowd at the Ready for Change Rally. To his left is his nephew, Michael Flemmings Jr.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

The third and final speaker of the day was Sumter County Sheriff Eric Bryant. Sheriff Bryant began by introducing his nephew, Michael Flemmings Jr., to the crowd, then began his speech by saying that his role is to be the carrier of the overall, key message of the rally: Stop the Violence. “What that means, ladies and gentlemen, is that my role today is for each and everyone of you to take a message back to your neighborhood, your street and your household,” Bryant said. “Unfortunately, too many young people are making too many life-changing mistakes and it’s not because they don’t have all of these many different organizations that are out here today supporting them.” Bryant went on to say that if all of those organizations, such as churches, non-profit organizations and charities only try to help young people during the day time hours and not as much at night, they will miss them every time. “Now what needs to happen is we need to activate a rally in the parking lot of the Astros and the legion (American Legion Post) at 2 in the morning because we have to get uncomfortable to make these young people’s lives better and give them an opportunity to make better choices.” Bryant went on to say that the courts are handing down stiffer and harsher sentences to young violent offenders like never before and that it is the responsibility of the community to engage the young people before something like that happens to them. “Adults, we’ve got to engage our young people in conversations like never before,” Bryant said. “No longer can we say ‘No! You don’t talk to me that way. You don’t talk to Dad or Mama about those things.’ If we don’t talk to these kids about everything, the jail cells are open.”

Various organizations and churches, such as the Kingdom Church, Black Voters Matter and Classic Printing, were there at the Ready for Change Rally.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Bryant went on to say that more events, such as the Ready for Change Rally, need to take place when an 18 year-old is given a life sentence here in Sumter County. Bryant was referring to the life sentence handed down to 18 year-old Keaton Minter for Armed Robbery. He also referenced that too many people under age 25 in Sumter County have died as a result of violent crime and that the jail population has at least 30 young black men under the age of 25 incarcerated on felony charges. Bryant proclaimed that because of those facts, the community has to step up and do something “Then you have to be crazy enough to set your tent up to engage these young people and to say something to them,” Bryant said. He continued by saying that this rally was designed to motivate people to be bold enough and to have the courage to tell young people who are perhaps physically taller than they are that wrong is wrong. “I want to say, ‘Put me out of business’. Put me out of business because there should not be households full of bullet holes,” Bryant said. “There should not be emergency rooms flooded with children that all they’re talking about is foolishness, but can’t even conduct business when it comes down to providing medical care.” Bryant added that not only is there a problem with violent crime in Sumter County, there is also a problem with drugs. “Now, that stresses the whole family element,” Bryant said. “You’ve got to go to the jail. You’ve got to go to the hospital. You’ve got to go to the funeral home. Organizations today, with rallies like today, let this be an encouragement and motivation to you. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable to intervene. We have to be brave enough to stand in front of that bullet, if that’s what its going to be, and say, ‘Stop! Put it down, or put it up’.”

Classic Printing was one of the businesses and organizations that were represented at the Ready for Change Rally. Classic Printing Staff back row left to right: Aniria Jenkins and Virginia Moore, Front Row left to right: Lavette Thomas, Judashia Eley (Office Manager) and Aziah Smith
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Bryant concluded his speech by exhorting the crowd to intervene in the life of a would-be shooter before he or she shoots up a house or gets killed and is laid out in the drive-through viewing areas at the local funeral homes. “All of these speakers before me, we are all engaged and committed to helping these young people,” Bryant said.

Lorenzo Walters is the co-founder of Ready for Change; a local, grass roots organization dedicated to stopping violent crime in Americus and Sumter County.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

He added that if the young people aren’t reached at an early age, the criminal element will snag them. “It’s time to engage. No longer can we make excuses because we’re all brothers and sisters,” Bryant said. “No longer can we say, ‘It’s not my problem’. It is all of our problem and the only way that we are going to do it is by engaging, starting just like you are doing today.”

Residents who attended the Ready for Change Rally in Americus expressed their desire with a sign that said “Our Lives Matter: Saving Our Community.”
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Bryant concluded by saying that the adults need to intervene at places like Waffle House and the American Legion parking lot, where criminal activity has happened and could potentially again take place. He also asked the organizations represented there to support his nephew and his brothers and sisters in law enforcement. “Get to know them,” Bryant said. “Ask them a question about what they do and why they do it, but more importantly, it has to start now and the violence, it has to stop.”

The rally and festivities lasted until 4 p.m. There was free food and raffle tickets with various prizes.