When three Forsyth County teenage girls announced the cancellation of their planned protest against police brutality over Facebook, they could not have known that it would spark an immediate call to action from other community members and eventually lead to the creation of Forsyth County United — an online group that has brought Black voices to the forefront in Forsyth County.
Grace and Greg Cronan said that when they saw the girls’ post on the Forsyth County Democrats Facebook page, they were angry to hear that part of the reason for canceling the protest was because of harsh backlash they got from the community. Grace and Greg quickly decided to plan their own protest, and they created a Facebook page called Forsyth County United to get the word out.
After a couple of days of working with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to get a permit and figure out a spot to hold the protest, Grace found Candice Horsley, who was also planning a protest and already had her permit for downtown Cumming approved by the FCSO.
Horsley, who is white, is in an interracial relationship and has biracial kids in Forsyth County, and she said she wants to bring about change in Forsyth County for them. She said she could no longer simply stand by watching riots break out after George Floyd’s death on the news, and she didn’t feel safe taking her kids to protests in Atlanta. Eventually, she decided to organize her own.
“So I said we need to message Candice and get with her,” Greg said. “And make this thing big, and make sure people get their voice heard, and make sure that it’s well known around here that people of color in this community are welcome and that they are loved and they have people here supporting them.”
Keisha Johnson was scrolling through local Forsyth County Facebook groups when she saw Grace and Horsley messaging back and forth about possibly combining their efforts to start one protest in front of the main courthouse in Cumming, and she couldn’t believe that protest might actually happen in the county.
Thinking about her kids, who were all born and raised in Forsyth County, she immediately jumped in to help. She joined the Facebook group, and was shocked to see so many others joining in, too.
“It feels like when you don’t believe in Santa Clause and then you walk in and you see that the elves have been behind the scenes making toys in a magical way,” Johnson said. “That’s really what Forsyth County United has been.”
As Johnson and Candice started to interact with others joining the group, they realized that many felt the same. With the help of fellow resident and online supporter Racheal Nintzel, the group quickly put together the protest in only a few days, unknowingly sparking a change in Forsyth County that many thought they would never see.
A shocking crowd of supporters
Johnson, Horsley, Grace, Greg and Nintzel — all complete strangers — joined a group chat together and immediately started planning. They set up a schedule and speakers, made sure there would be tents and water, and they put it all together in only a few days without ever meeting one another in person.
“When we met at the courthouse, it was the first time we even saw each other,” Horsley said.
Johnson agreed that there was simply no time for them to actually sit down and meet with each other. The days leading up to the protest were a whirlwind of reaching out to other community members and making sure that everything was set up.
At the beginning of the week, none of them knew they would be planning a protest. By that Saturday morning, hundreds on the Facebook group had said they were excited to join in and show their support. Now that the group has been together for about three weeks, nearly 2,000 people have joined in online.
Of course, actually coming to the protest on Saturday afternoon and seeing the number of people out with signs and chanting, “Black Lives Matter,” was a completely different feeling for the organizers. The FCSO later confirmed that the crowd grew to approximately 900 protestors before it was all over.
“I really didn’t expect that many people,” Greg said. “You know, a lot of people say they’re going to do it, but I didn’t expect them all to follow through with it. Just seeing the support from the community was awesome.”
Johnson said that when she showed up to help set up the event, she saw that there were already a few people there about an hour before the protest was meant to start.
“I keep seeing people coming up and coming and coming, and it’s not even 12 o’clock yet,” Johnson said. “And I could not stop crying to get it together. Every time a new group of people walked across the street, I was just in tears all over again. Fast forward an hour into the protest and just — wow.”
In her rush to make sure everyone was getting water and food and making sure speakers were ready, Horsley said she didn’t even notice the number of people surrounding her at first. One of her friends who promised to come had showed up late, and when she found Horsley in the crowd, she was in tears.
“I was like ‘Melinda, what’s wrong?’ and she just said, ‘Candice, do you see this?’” Horsley said. “And I think that was the first time I really looked around and I was just like — oh my god, this is amazing!”
‘Working in tornado mode’
The protest that weekend had shown many in Forsyth County and in the Forsyth County United Facebook group for the first time that support for minorities in the community is there, and suddenly, some are no longer afraid to come out and speak about issues of race in the county.
Johnson and Horsley said that the group got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback online after the protest, and hundreds more started to join the Facebook group. Many in the community started gathering online to thank the organizers, but Horsley said it meant so much to her to see others admitting that, before the protest, they didn’t realize there was an issue that needed to be addressed in the county.
“I think when we read posts like that it feels like we know what we’re doing is reaching out to other people,” Horsley said.
Not only are we celebrating black culture, but we’re also investing in it from a community standpoint and allowing other people toCandice Horsley
After that, Johnson and Horsley said that they knew they couldn’t stop at the protest. Even during the protest, other community members were coming up to them and asking about what they had planned next, and so they started almost immediately.
Forsyth County United organizers have held an event every single weekend since it was first created only about three weeks ago. Johnson said that since starting the group together, none of them have had a chance to sit down and really take in everything.
“We are working in tornado mode,” Johnson said.
The weekend after the protest in Cumming, Horsley went with her husband and kids to Johns Creek for another protest they organized after Johns Creek Police Chief Chris Byers posted a controversial statement about the Black Lives Matter movement on his personal Facebook page.
A week later, the group also held a celebration for families, friends and community members for Juneteenth — a holiday that has been mostly overlooked in Forsyth County and surrounding communities.
Horsley and Johnson both said that these events showed them how excited and willing people in the community are to get involved and support when they can.
“We’re not getting over it,” Johnson said. “To turn the tide and say we’re not saying you need to get over it, we’re just going to get behind you. We’re going to stand behind you and help propel this into a different direction. Is there a perfect fix? Of course not. A Juneteenth celebration isn’t going to make everything better all over, but I really believe the community saying we’ll get behind you is so powerful. And it means the world to so many people.”
Horsley said that these events have offered a place for support in the community that simply was not there before.
“Not only are we celebrating black culture, but we’re also investing in it from a community standpoint and allowing other people to,” Horsley said.
Johnson and Horsley still are not sure of what is ahead for Forsyth County United. The group hasn’t had a chance to come together and really talk about what the group is and what actions they plan to take moving forward.
“We just have not gotten a chair to sit in yet,” Johnson said.
While Forsyth County is already seeing some change from lifting up the voices of the black community at protests and online, such as the reopening of the case relating to Tamla Horsford’s death in 2018, the group still believes there is more work to be done in the county.
“I hope that we get the chance to just sit down for a second and really look at — I don’t think we’ve really sat back for real and looked at what we’ve accomplished,” Johnson said.
Now that the group has held these different events and gained a following online and in the community, they want to start working behind the scenes to bring about change in areas such as education and law enforcement.
This includes holding the FCSO and its officers accountable when it comes to training and issues of racial profiling, especially in traffic stops. They also hope to push for change both in local school curriculums and in making sure schools are a safe environment for all students.
In the coming weeks, they plan to use their Facebook group to educate people more in-depth on racial issues in the U.S. and Forsyth County and on the county’s history.
For now, however, they are just excited to know that their actions have brought out new voices in the community, and they are hopeful for more change in the future.
“I feel like as Forsyth County United, we’ve definitely given our community a voice,” Horsley said.