Council members aspire to become agents of change

Published 12:01 pm Saturday, June 13, 2020

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LAPLACE — Systemic injustice dominated an emotionally charged video meeting of the St. John the Baptist Parish Council this past Tuesday.

Each of the council members spoke out against the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin, sharing some of their own painful experiences as well as concerns.

Councilwoman Tonia Schnyder, who asked the item to be placed on what was a short agenda, called the issue “very sensitive” to her, “one that is near and dear to my heart.”

“My brother was a victim of police brutality right here in St. John Parish,” Schnyder said. “He was and is still traumatized by the event.”

She went on to say promoting unity has been her mission throughout her adult life. Schnyder said with unity comes equality.

“It is something I truly believe in,” she added, her passion rippling through her voice.

Racism is not new, said Schnyder, and “not talking about it does not make it go away.”

She says racist comments from some St. John residents on social media have left her “heartbroken.”

Schnyder, a first-term council member continued, “I know racism does exist but I was heartbroken to see how much of it exists in our little parish. If you watched the video of Mr. George Floyd as he begged for his life, as he begged for his deceased mother and you did not see a problem; if you are watching people of all races around the world protesting the injustice and you don’t see a problem; if you have a problem with a man who took a knee during the National Anthem because of police brutality and don’t see a problem with a man who took an oath and is paid to protect and serve and take a knee on another human being’s neck, I need you to take a good look in the mirror.

“Maybe, just maybe, you are the problem or part of the problem.”

Schnyder said solutions must begin with parish leaders and elected officials.

Schnyder’s stirring words set the tone for the remainder of the nearly 40-minute discussion. Councilwoman Tammy Houston said she cringes at the idea that it is the 21st Century and the country is still grappling with racial injustice.

“We should be more advanced than this,” she said. “Some of the things happening now did not happen in the Civil Rights Movement (during the 1960s).

“To think we are regressing and not progressing as a people, I can’t even wrap my brain around it.”

Houston said people look to elected officials to set the standard and that parish leaders must be emphatic in stating that racism will not be tolerated in St. John Parish.

She added that not all law enforcement officials are racist but did say there are “bad ones who need to be policed.”

“We cannot remain silent any longer,” Houston said.

Tyra Duhe-Griffin said she believes the American justice system is broken but said, “Together let’s create a world that is fair, a world where we are not judged by our race, our color or our religion.

“We are witnessing a historic moment with our very eyes,” she said. “I truly believe this is the beginning of what is to come.”

Council chairman Lennix Madere said he was likely the only council member who can remember riding in the back of the bus going to New Orleans to go shopping.

He also recalled how he was part of a peaceful protest at Southern University in 1972, where law enforcement officers killed two students.

But Madere said he is encouraged that the recent protests have been multi-cultural, inclusive of people of all races and skin color.
“This is an American protest, to stand against racism,” he said. “I do believe we are getting closer. Everyone is in this together.”

“Everybody realizes that all lives matter,” Madere said, adding, “We all have to fight this together.”

Madere sees this as an important step to assure that his grandchildren and the children and grandchildren of others will not have to fight the battle against racism.

Parish President Jaclyn Hotard also participated in the discussion, saying the current anger and frustration is borne out of years of racial injustice. She implored council members to use their positions and become agents of change.

Saying she stands “very united” with the Black Lives Matter movement, Hotard, who is white and raising an African American daughter, said it is imperative for everyone to speak out against racial injustice.

“Call a wrong when it is wrong,” she said. “Even though I won’t ever face racism, (her daughter) may and probably already has. I think about it all of the time.”

Madere said the country has not progressed in generations but he remains hopeful.

“Together, we shall overcome,” he said.

 – This article submitted by Richard Meek, contributing writer to L’OBSERVATEUR.