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Columbus NAACP president reacts to recent arrest

and Larry Gierer

, lgierer@ledger-enquirer.com

Columbus NAACP President Tonza Thomas says she felt vindicated after police arrested her and community organizer Marquese “Skinny” Averett for gathering unlawfully during a Saturday protest.

“Sometimes you have to make sacrifices,” Thomas said Sunday during an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “I can remember hearing and reading stories of Martin Luther King and the things that he went through to get change where he was, and for the people in this country. And so I just wanted to bring awareness to what was going on here in Columbus. It was a sacrifice because we knew it was a possibility that we would be going to jail.”

Averett, who organized the protest as head of a Young Minority Leaders group, said he believed the protest was a success because it brought awareness to a big problem, and it was just the beginning.

“The next time we are going to have more people,” said the activist, who recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on Columbus Council. “We are coming bigger and stronger. We are coming to seek justice.”

Thomas and Averett were taken into custody Saturday while protesting on Veterans Parkway at 10th Street with a group of demonstrators in response to recent police-related shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, La., Falcon Heights, Minn., and other cities around the country.

Thomas mentioned the killing of Kenneth Walker, a black businessman, in Columbus by white a Muscogee County sheriff’s deputy during a roadside stop more than 12 years ago. A grand jury returned no indictment in the case of David Glisson. 

“Even though that was in 2003,” she said, “that was the start of what’s going on nationally. ... It brought national attention to the city of Columbus. As the country watched that particular case, it seemed as if it was OK for the killing of black men on the side of the road. It became the the norm and acceptable.”

She said she wants to make sure such a thing never happens here. “It’s not happening in Columbus because it has already happened in Columbus and Columbus is not crazy enough to make another mistake like that,” she added. “But we have to stay vigilant.”

Columbus police officials said the arrests were made after the group blocked Veterans Parkway for three to five minutes. Thomas and Averett were arrested and charged with one count each of unlawful assembly and obstruction of a state roadway, a state violation. The unlawful assembly charge stemmed from the group having more than 16 protesters gathered on public property without a permit, said Police Maj. J.D. Hawk of the Bureau of Patrol Services. Both activists were taken to the Muscogee County Jail where they were released after fellow protesters posted bond.

In a statement posted on Facebook, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson described circumstances that led to the arrest. When Averett posted on Facebook that he was going to have a protest at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, he was notified twice by Police Chief Rick Boren that he did not have a permit and could not assemble more than 16 people on public property, the mayor wrote. 

“Marquese said he understood but was going to move forward anyway,” according to her statement. “The City decided to allow them to unlawfully assemble without arrest given the tensions and emotions across the country. Tonza Thomas of the NAACP was also told the assembly was unlawful, but would be allowed to proceed if they did not impede traffic. However, Marquese and Tonza Thomas instructed a group to block Veterans Pkwy so no traffic could get through. I was there. The Chief was there. Marquese and Tonza were warned three times to move from the intersection of Veterans and 10th Street.”

According to the mayor’s account, a fire truck responding to a call tried to get through the intersection, and Thomas and Averett were arrested only after impeding traffic and failing to respond to officers’ requests. 

“These are serious times and important matters, but we will have civil order in Columbus,” the mayor wrote. “The protesters have to understand that they put themselves and others in danger. As we have seen across the country, others are attracted to these gatherings, not just the protesters, and those individuals can cause serious issues. If people are going to gather, they must obtain a permit so the police can plan and protect them, as well as others. It’s serious. We will exercise our First Amendment rights, but we will have civil order that protects everyone.”

Averett described the protest as peaceful. 

“It was civil disobedience and civil disobedience does not involve obeying the law,” he said. 

Only he should have been arrested, and not Thomas, since he was the protest leader, he added. 

Thomas said she decided to participate in the protest after Averett called her Friday night and requested that she get involved. She said other protesters included members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Columbus State University youth and college chapter. 

Thomas said she and Averett were treated well by the police. Prior to the march, she said Boren pulled her aside and told her officers were there for their protection and would remain out of sight. But Boren, Hawk and Assistant Chief Lem Miller drove along with the group as they marched. 

Blocking traffic wasn’t the original intent of the protest, Thomas said. It was in response to a driver who seemed upset that they were protesting and almost ran her over. 

“So, I got mad and I said, ‘You know, this is where I’m going to stop,’” she said. “And I stopped in the middle of the street and everybody else stopped, too. So it was a way of retaliating against that driver whoever he was.”

Thomas said she and Averett spent about 20 minutes in a holding cell before being processed, and then they were bonded out. It all took about one hour.

She commended the police department for their handling of the situation, and she believes they were genuinely trying to keep everyone safe.

“Chief Boren, Assistant Chief Lem (Miller), Major Hawk, the Columbus Police Department and the deputy sheriffs at that jail, they were awesome,” she said. “I haven’t been in trouble since I was a youth, and the way that they treated me, let me know, it’s how you act when you go in there and dealing with those kind of folk. If you go in there acting erratic, then they’re going to treat you that way. But if you go in acting like a person and being civil, then they’re going to treat you the way you’re displaying yourself. 

“And so we made sure we kept it cordial,” she said. “And, you know, we respect them for what they did, and they respected us, because they felt like: ‘Y’all did what y’all had to do. We had to do what we had to do.’”

Staff Writer Ben Wright contributed to this report.

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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