Residents gather for talk on race relations

LILBURN - Outside, attendants handed out programs and wallet-sized cards explaining what to do if ever stopped by police.

Inside, Gwinnett residents shared personal stories of what they believed to be discrimination by law enforcement.

Our Lady of the Americas Catholic Mission church was the site Saturday morning for a forum - co-hosted by Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment (ABLE) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia - organizers said was meant to kick off a campaign against racial profiling and educate the public.

"Whether you're black, brown, white or Asian, all of us fall victim to racial profiling at some point," said the Rev. Gregory Williams, ABLE's president.

The rally was organized on the heels of the recent 287(g) agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department that allows authorities to run an immigration check on anyone taken into custody. If authorities discover a person is here illegally, they have the right to turn that person over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for possible deportation.

Sheriff Butch Conway welcomed the program into Gwinnett, saying it is an ideal way to help manage the "tremendous problem with illegal aliens being arrested in Gwinnett" and not showing up for court.

Azadeh Shahshahani, ACLU of Georgia National Security and Immigrants' Rights project director, has a different opinion.

"The new 287(g) leaves the door open for local law enforcement to continue abuses of power such as racial profiling under the guise of federal immigration authority," Shahshahani said.

Matilda Vargas, a mother of six, cried as she talked about how a recent run-in with police turned ugly after she was called "stupid" and told to "shut up."

Rene Gonzalez, 73, is of Mexican descent but was born, raised and educated in the United States. The Duluth resident has earned two master's degrees and a Ph.D. and speaks perfect English.

"I was stopped on Buford (Highway) for this T-shirt I was wearing ... the way I look," Gonzalez said. "The officer asked for identification, which I provided. He asked me where I was headed and I said, 'Home.' He said, 'No, you're not; your home is Mexico.'"

Alleged incidents like these are why residents were encouraged to tell their stories to a group of lawyers and law students on hand for the forum.

"We hope this will lead to a measure of accountability for law enforcement, and transparency," Shahshahani said.

State Sen. Gloria Butler, a Democrat whose district includes part of southern Gwinnett, was the keynote speaker. Butler has sponsored anti-racial profiling legislation before and plans to reintroduce such legislation in 2010.

Currently, 46 states do not ban racial profiling based on religious appearance. Twenty-six states, including Georgia, have no law explicitly prohibiting racial profiling.

"When the 'I' turns to 'we' and the 'me' turns to 'us,' then we can make changes in our state," Williams said. "Our young people must have a better world than us."