Spend enough time hammering on keyboards for news organizations and you are going to build a pretty eclectic library of mental images. Some heartbreaking, some awe inspiring, some tragic, but all memories you aren’t likely to forget.
One of those has been at the forefront the last few days, despite being more than 30 years old.
In January of 1987, Forsyth County found itself an unfortunate battleground for civil rights activists and white supremacists, with a massive civil rights march undertaken after a smaller previous demonstration was ended by name-calling, bottle-throwing Neanderthals.
The bright, clear winter day saw hordes of people descend on the small downtown area of Cumming: civil rights marchers, white power groups, journalists from all over the world, and a massive assortment of law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen from everywhere in the state.
It was a long day, with a phalanx of officers forced to stand in formation along the city’s streets for hours awaiting the arrival of busloads of marchers who ultimately would make the trek into town and around the courthouse square, then back to their buses following speeches from a variety of dignitaries.
The hours-long wait for the arrival of the marchers was a tense one, with angry white supremacists becoming increasingly aggressive as the day wore on. Local officials feared that if the march didn’t start and end before dark, problems would escalate.
The three-deep rows of law enforcement officers stood in formation all day, holding their ground and creating a cleared path for those who would eventually march. What was expected to happen by late morning still had not begun by mid-afternoon, and still the gauntlet of uniformed protection waited.
Among those officers was a member of the Georgia State Patrol, whose name I never learned. Like all the others, he was in full riot gear, prepared for the worst while likely hoping for the best, sweating despite the coolness of January. He was a massive man, with a build you would expect to see on a football field.
And he was black.
The image I will never forget is him standing there, hour after hour, as rabid bigots screamed at him, calling him vile names, questioning his heritage, his family, his honor. If he heard himself called by N-word once, he heard it 100 times.
And he stood there. Never twitched. Never responded. Never made a move. Never forgot the training and the discipline that went with his job, despite being more than equipped to do battle with any of the loud-mouthed troublemakers who screamed at him, some so close their spittle hit his plastic shield.
It was the most amazing example of personal restraint I’ve ever seen, one of which I never would have been capable.
I thought of that officer a lot over the past week. Thought about the incredible amount of discipline shown by other officers all across the nation as they have been insulted, taunted, ridiculed, and challenged, not by the many thoughtful and very intentionally peaceful protesters, but by n’er-do-wells and miscreants whose only purpose has been to cause trouble.
Thought of the fact that while thousands have stoically and professionally done their jobs, hundreds of them defusing potentially explosive situations by refusing to engage in conflict, they all still have been tarnished by the actions of a few.
No one condones the actions of the Minneapolis police officer who now stands accused of murder, or his colleagues who allowed it to happen. No one condones the actions of the officers who lost all control in their assault on two college kids in a car in Atlanta, or those who shot and killed an unarmed man in Louisville, or any of the other examples of police violence and brutality.
It is a cliché to say that a handful of bad officers can make hundreds of good ones look bad, but it is also true. The men and women we have seen on the streets of cities all across the country did not get into police work so that they could quell riots and confront angry crowds of people. They are nervous and scared and apprehensive and worried about their families at home just like anyone would be, though expected to rise above those emotions to be disciplined and professional at all times. And most of them are.
It is true that the law enforcement community as a whole has been too reluctant in the past to deal with officers who do not need to wear the uniform. If we can hope the most recent protests accomplish anything, maybe it will be to break apart that blue line of loyalty that has too often in the past prevented the good from dealing with the bad within the ranks. Maybe that’s the ultimate promise of officers marching with protesters, of hugs and smiles rather than threats and arrests.
We can hope for that outcome. Pray for it.
But let us also not forget that for every bad officer, there a hundreds like the trooper on the street in Cumming, listening to a litany of insults, obscenities and accusations, never taking an untoward step toward anyone and just hoping at the end of their shift to go home without anyone getting hurt on either side of the protest line.
Norman Baggs is general manager of the Forsyth County News and has been a journalist in the state for 45 years.