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COLUMN: LaGrange mayor proposes changes to address racial inequality

We have all witnessed the troubling events of the past few weeks, including the murders of black men and women by police and vigilantes, and we have been moved by the ensuing outrage and cries for justice.

I stand with those who proclaim that black lives matter, but history and these recent incidents suggest that they don’t. 

That is unacceptable and that has change.

I’ve been listening to the thoughts, and the fears, and the hopes of our neighbors, particularly our African American neighbors, and I’ve been trying to take it in, to take it to heart, and to try to find solutions.

Five years ago we started the racial trust building initiative in LaGrange because we wanted to do something on a local level and have the conversations needed to make progress. 

Some very good things have come from that work, including training courses completed by 350 local residents, community relations efforts by the LaGrange Police Department that are now being replicated across the state, and an educational reform task force working directly with school officials to address racial inequalities. 

But there is definitely more to do.

I’ve been struck by the call that it’s not enough to be non-racist, but that we need to be anti-racist. 

We need to actively root out hatred and racism.

Although words and statements matter, action is needed. Victims of racism are understandably tired of people saying the right things but not doing anything.

I believe we each have a responsibility to tend the place we find ourselves. For me, that’s LaGrange.

Therefore, I will continue to support our racial trust building work and will work with the police, the schools, and the businesses to build better community relations. I encourage all LaGrange residents to sign up for trust building training and put that training to use in their individual spheres of influence.

I also plan to present an agenda of action items to the city council. These are things that the city can do. 

I hope the council will approve them.

First, I will ask the council to pass a hate crimes ordinance to punish those who engage in criminal conduct that is motivated by racial hatred. 

While this would only apply to local ordinance violations, such as disorderly conduct or damage to property, I will also advocate for a felony hate crimes law at the state level.

Second, I will ask the council to pass a non discrimination ordinance that will require all city employees, agencies and contractors to treat everyone equally. They will have to acknowledge that policy in writing and act accordingly. The city will simply not tolerate discrimination, and everyone will know it.

Third, I will ask the council to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense. 

Let me be clear, this is not legalization, but mere possession of small amounts does not need to result in an arrest or criminal record, which often hinders job opportunities in the future. 

These arrests disproportionately affect African Americans.

Fourth, I will recommend the city council to place signage at the confederate memorial statue on New Franklin Road detailing the history of the statue and the ugliness that it represents. Current state law prevents the removal of the statue. 

We will seek a change in that state law, but in the meantime we will make sure that everyone who sees that statue and signage will be reminded of the shameful history of slavery, segregation, and racism.

Finally, I will recommend that the city hire a community advocate. This person would actively look for issues in the community, bring them to public awareness, and find ways to address them. 

The community advocate would review all city policies and actions and how they affect the community. 

He or she will be a contact for anyone who is suffering because of discrimination or other mistreatment by our institutions.

There are many other things we need to do in LaGrange, and we will work on other issues. But this will start to address some of our issues surrounding race on the local level. 

I hope that all other local institutions will examine themselves and look for tangible ways they can address racial divisions and disparities.

We will offer no sanction or excuse for racism; we will actively work against it; and we will find ways to protect and improve black lives, because they matter to us all.

Jim Thornton

LaGrange Mayor