On the Tuesday, Sept. 5 edition of Georgia Today: A trial that starts today could result in new voting district lines for Georgia; Activists opposed to a police training center in Atlanta are indicted; and a look at Punk Black, an organization which bolsters alternative music created by people of color. 

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Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Tuesday, September 5th. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode, a trial that starts today could result in new district lines for some Georgia voters. Activists opposed to a police training center in Atlanta are indicted. And a look at Punk Black, an organization that bolsters alternative music created by people of color. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.

An illustration of a Georgia's county map.
Credit: Sam Bermas-Dawes, GPB News

Story 1:

Peter Biello: Challenges to Georgia State and congressional district maps headed to trial today in an Atlanta federal court. A trio of lawsuits alleges the latest round of redistricting in 2021 saw Republicans draw maps that diluted the voting power of Black Georgians. For more on this, we turn to GPB's Stephen Fowler. Hey, Stephen.

Stephen Fowler: Hey there.

Peter Biello: Georgia lawmakers met in 2021 to draw these new boundaries for state and congressional districts. Remind us what changes were made in those maps.

Stephen Fowler: Right. So once every decade there's a legislative reapportionment process after the census numbers came out. And Georgia's population has grown a lot, and so we saw districts have to stretch a little bit farther in rural areas and be a little bit tighter in the metro urban areas. And with that, the maps became slightly less Republican in both the state House and state Senate, but then slightly more Republican with a congressional seat as lawmakers redrew a district in the Atlanta suburbs that was represented by a Democrat and is now represented by a Republican.

Peter Biello: So is it hard to say that this is partisan, given the fact that both Democrats and Republicans won some and lost some?

Stephen Fowler: Well, so that's why we have this trial. There are three different lawsuits and three different groups, among others, that have filed lawsuits arguing that the changes weren't enough and weren't reflective of Georgia's growth over the last decade. You know, Georgia added about a million people from 2010 to 2020, and about half of that growth was driven by Black voters. And so across these various lawsuits, you have the argument that lawmakers should have drawn one more majority Black congressional district on the west side of Atlanta's metropolitan areas. They also argued that there were a couple state Senate districts that could be drawn to have more majority Black state Senate districts and five additional majority Black state House districts sprinkled across the state. And so while the numbers were a little bit more Democratic at the state level, they have data and math that they say proves that there should be even more and that the Republican-led General Assembly didn't do that.

Peter Biello: I see. So what's allegedly illegal about this is the way they drew lines to cut out some Black representation?

Stephen Fowler: That is the argument being made, is that it violates the Voting Rights Act and that it violates a lot of principles around certain communities being able to elect a candidate of their choice. It's important to point out that even though some of these areas may be majority Black districts they're calling for — or majority minority districts calling for — it doesn't necessarily mean that there will be a Democrat representing those districts. But the other thing to consider in all of this is that what's known as racially polarized voting, meaning that there's a lot of electoral evidence in Georgia that where there are large concentrations of Black voters, they tend to vote for the Democratic candidate. And so that's something to factor in in all of this complex test of legal theories about making sure that apportionment is equal and representative.

Peter Biello: So what possible outcome could we see if these lawsuits are successful? Would just a few districts change or could this change the map entirely?

Stephen Fowler: Well, Peter, you can't change the boundaries of one district without it affecting those around it, because you have to have equal numbers or pretty close to equal numbers of people within each of those districts. So you add a little nip here, a little tuck there, and you could see much of the boundaries change just a little bit. Somebody likened it to squeezing a balloon. When you squeeze a balloon, it's got to go somewhere. And so it won't be massive changes. Most districts will likely look the same. But for several districts throughout the state, it could be a huge difference maker before the 2024 elections.

Peter Biello: And does the judge, Steve Jones, give you any indication of which way this case can go?

Stephen Fowler: Well, one of the reasons we have this trial now, Peter, is because the hearing on the initial lawsuits before Judge Jones did say that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed. That didn't mean that he's definitely going to rule for them. But the lawsuit came too close to the 2022 midterms and there's federal precedent to not make changes right before an election to cause chaos. We're sitting here right now in September of 2023. So it's likely possible that this could be done in enough time to have lawmakers do a special session, redraw the maps and have everything squared away before you qualify for the 2024 cycle.

Peter Biello: GPB's Stephen Fowler, thanks very much for the update.

Stephen Fowler: Thank you.


Story 2:

Peter Biello: Sixty-one people have been indicted in Georgia on racketeering charges for their ties to the movement opposing the construction of a police training facility in Southeast Atlanta. In the sweeping indictment, prosecutors allege the defendants are militant anarchists who have supported violence dating back to 2020. Republican Attorney General Chris Carr brought the indictments. Opponents say the training center will lead to greater militarization of the police and damage the environment. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens says the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers. Among those indicted are three dozen people who faced domestic terrorism charges in connection with violent protests and the administrators of a bail fund who were charged with money laundering earlier this year. Activists leading an ongoing referendum effort against the project condemned the charges, calling them anti-democratic.


Story 3:

Peter Biello: Nearly four dozen Georgia mayors are urging Gov. Brian Kemp and state lawmakers to help curb gun violence in their communities. GPB's Donna Lowry reports they sent a letter asking for stricter gun laws.

Donna Lowry: Mayors ranging from Adel in South Georgia to Dalton in the north and places in between wrote, quote, "Gun violence has become the No. 1 killer of children and Georgia has become a top exporter of illegal weapons." Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz says they want help.

Kelly Girtz: We're asking for continued enhancement of behavioral health support, a level playing field for background checks, including places like gun shows and online sales, and that those people who've been demonstrated to have a propensity for violence or self-harm can be prevented from accessing weapons. We're asking that those high-capacity clips are prevented from being sold, and we're asking for requirements for safe storage of guns.

Donna Lowry: Girtz says they have not heard from the governor, but some lawmakers have expressed support. For GPB News, I'm Donna Lowry.

Story 4:

Peter Biello: U.S. Coast Guard officials are urging boaters along Georgia's coast to use extra caution in a hurricane's wake. Lt. Tyler Pfenninger of the Coast Guard's Charleston sector says storms like Idalia can erode beaches, turning sand into underwater obstacles.

Lt. Tyler Pfenninger: You have sandbars that can shift, especially after this hurricane. Definitely in South Carolina and Georgia, mariners need to proceed with caution over the next couple of weeks until they — they relearned their route as the land underneath kind have shifted.

Peter Biello: The Coast Guard rescued three people Sunday stranded on a sandbar after their boat sunk near St. Catherine's Island, south of Savannah. Meanwhile, officials from Georgia's Department of Natural Resources say a 23-year old-man died by drowning in North Georgia's Lake Lanier on Saturday after running on a dock and slipping into the water.


Story 5:

Peter Biello: Georgia's two U.S. senators visited Valdosta Sunday to tour areas hard hit by Hurricane Idalia last week. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock helped volunteers pass out meals which Greater Valdosta United Way resident Michael Smith says residents still need.

Michael Smith: Until schools open. There's a lot of kids that are missing out on breakfast, lunch and snacks. So it is very important that meals continue to flow.

Peter Biello: Valdosta and Lowndes County schools are scheduled to reopen tomorrow.

Story 6:

Peter Biello: Georgia's behavioral health officials plan to ask for more funding from state lawmakers next year. The head of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities told the agency's board last week that infrastructure shortages are leaving people with acute mental health issues with nowhere to seek help. GPB's Sofi Gratas reports.

Sofi Gratas: Even after Georgia builds the three new crisis centers approved by the Legislature this year, there will still be far more people with mental health issues who need placement than beds that can hold them. The gap is expected to widen unless the state invests millions in several new facilities over the next five to 10 years. A preliminary budget from Commissioner Kevin Tanner includes money for updating facilities, new diversion programs and one new crisis center. Tanner says workforce needs are also a focus.

Kevin Tanner: We need to build more beds, but we're not going to be able to just build our way out of this problem. That is not a one-solution issue.

Sofi Gratas: Tanner also plans to ask for roughly $25 million to raise salaries for crisis center staff and other clinicians. For GPB News, I'm Sofi Gratas.


Story 7:

Peter Biello: Buford Highway could see major redevelopment in the coming years if what's billed as a visionary plan from the Brookhaven City Council comes together. The redevelopment plan would create a high-density mixed-use area with retail, housing and greenspace around two major intersections along Buford Highway and [Briarcliff] Road in North Druid Hills. The sites were picked because of the popularity of already existing MARTA transit and walking trails there. Brookhaven Council member John Funny says the city wants the development to serve the existing community ideally.

John Funny: I would love to see many of the employees that work at Emory or Children's Healthcare of Atlanta live within the area so they can say, "I drive to work or I walk to work and I could be there in 10 minutes."

Peter Biello: Brookhaven City Council is accepting bids on what for now is called the Buford Highway Nodal Redevelopment Plan.


Story 8:

Peter Biello: State highway safety officials say 21 people died on Georgia roadways over the Labor Day weekend. The fatalities include five high school students who died yesterday in a three-vehicle collision on Interstate 85 near Duluth, north of Atlanta. Morehouse College also is mourning the deaths of two students who died in a wreck yesterday in East Point, south of Atlanta. Last year, the State Department of Public Safety reported 15 deaths over Labor Day weekend.


Story 9:

Peter Biello: A former White House drug policy adviser is asking Gov. Brian Kemp to reject a rule that would allow more than 100 independent pharmacies in Georgia to sell medical marijuana. Kevin Sabet served the Clinton second Bush and Obama White Houses and now leads Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, which advocates for what the group calls Health First policies. He objects to a Georgia Board of Pharmacy rule in June that was aimed at expanding medical marijuana sales beyond the limited number of Georgia dispensaries located near large cities.

Kevin Sabet: That gives the impression to, you know, small pharmacies, especially, that these are somehow federally legal. They're actually federally illegal.

Peter Biello: State lawmakers legalized the cultivation and conversion of marijuana into low-THC oils to treat patients suffering from a wide range of diseases back in 2019. Georgia's first dispensaries opened in June near Atlanta, Savannah and Macon. Gov. Kemp and the Georgia Board of Pharmacy did not respond to requests for comment.

Story 10:

Peter Biello: Metro Atlanta's public transit agency, MARTA, plans to send some of its retired rail cars into the Atlantic Ocean off Georgia's coast. The agency said today that two of its rail cars have been stripped, cleaned and made ocean ready. It's part of a Georgia Department of Natural Resources program that deploys large objects to the sea floor to become, over time, reef habitats for marine life. It's also part of MARTA's replacement of its original fleet of railcars with newer models.


Story 11:

Peter Biello: President Biden has nominated former Columbus state Rep. Calvin Smiley to serve as an official representative of the United States to the United Nations General Assembly. The White House named the Democrats Sunday among five nominated to the temporary post, which does not require Senate confirmation. Biden last year named Smiley to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas, a nomination in the Senate has not yet considered. Smiley was the longest-serving member of the Georgia House with 48 years in office when he retired from the House last year.


Story 12:

Peter Biello: Rock music has long been dominated by white male musicians. Punk Black is an Atlanta based organization working to shine a light on people of color in the rock music scene. This summer, the group launched a record label and signed its first three bands: Howling Starr, Hijas de la Muerte and The Rack. They're all bands led by people of color and all bands that started in the South. GPB's Amanda Andrews brings us this audio postcard of Punk Black.

Awleen Knight: I was always kind of ostracized, like, "Oh, you're trying to be white." You know, "Why are you listening to that white people's music?" I always wore all black and all that. So it just feels nice to just kind of be, you know, as I've always been. But it's just the right time, you know? My name is Awleen, and I'm the lead singer of The Rack.


Awleen Knight: We were really mostly only allowed to listen to gospel in my younger years. It took me, like, getting fired for my, like, kind of racist boss that I like went home one day and I just started jammed into these rock instrumentals. And I started screaming for — for the first time.


Russell Denny: I been playing in this scene since 2005, and I've seen how it all changed in 2005 to now. My name is Russell Denny, the drummer for The Rack. When me and Von was playing guitar in front of Big Lots. Everybody always call us and say, "Hey, why are you guys playing rock music?" I was like, "Because we want to."

Von Phoenix: I am Von Phoenix from Punk Black and Howling Star. For Punk Black. I would be the president, although I consider myself more of the architect. And for Howling Star, I'm the lead guitarist and the person who speaks the most.


Von Phoenix: Of the sounds we go for Punk Black Records just stem from people just being dope. Just because we — we love so many different types of rock music. Howling Star is more, I would say we're more experimental funk rock. Like Hijas de la Muerta is more — it's sort of like punk alternative. The Rack has like a lot of multiple sounds. I would just like, identify them as just rock, not to just like, say, like, "Oh, they only do rock," but they just do all the genres that are encompassing rock.

Awleen Knight: How yall feelin' out there?

Carlos Laquanous: My name is Carlos Laquanous and I'm the bass player for The Rack. We're trying to get it to the point to where is the full-time job and we don't have to work no more. That's 'cause this is our job; it's just we have to do other stuff to pay the bills. But this is our — this is our occupation. It's our profession. With representation, people treat you slightly different. They treat you a little better than when you come in unrepresented. So that's been the main thing so far is our level of gigs, steadily been climbing up.


Carlos Laquanous: It's hard to fake rock. It's one of those genres where so many people that's in the crowd play guitar, bass, drums and sing. So it's one of those type places where, you know, if you're really kickin' it live, people appreciate it.

Awleen Knight: I want the audience to feel like they are watching a classic rock band, like they've seen Bon Jovi or KISS or some crazy favorite of their own. You know, I want to be their new favorite.

Peter Biello: Punk Black is on the road right now with its first group of signees for a multi-city tour ending in Austin later this month.


Story 13:

Peter Biello: Former Georgia and NFL linebacker Jarvis Jones was arrested for speeding and reckless driving ahead of the Bulldogs season opener. An Athens-Clarke County police report shows Jones was arrested shortly before midnight last Friday for maximum limit speeding and reckless driving. He was released on a $2,400 bond about an hour later. Jones now works as a player coordinator for the Bulldogs. His arrest is the latest driving investigation to tarnish the team. A high-speed crash killed offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting staffer Chandler Lacroix in January.


Story 14:

Peter Biello: In sports, the Savannah Bananas played their final home game of the season last night, losing 3 to 2 to the Party Animals. That's the rival team that the Bananas organization faces for most of their games. They'll finish off the season later this month when the Bananas take on the Party Animals in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In Major League Baseball, the Atlanta Braves come home tonight to begin a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Michael Soroka is getting the start for the Braves, who are coming off a 3-1 series win against the Los Angeles Dodgers. That series was considered an important one since it matched up two first-place teams: the Braves in the NL East and the Dodgers in the West, and it is a possible preview of a postseason matchup. The Braves hold the best record in baseball right now with 90 and 46. Other records to note: Braves pitcher Spencer Strider leads the majors in wins with 16 and strikeouts with 245. Matt Olson leads the majors in RBIs and is tied with 44 home runs with Shohei Ohtani, and Ronald Acuña Jr. leads the majors in both hits and stolen bases.

And that's it for this edition of Georgia Today. Thank you so much for tuning in. We'll have more news in your podcast feed tomorrow. So if you subscribe, we will be there automatically tomorrow afternoon. If you want to learn any more about these stories, head on over to our website, GPB.org/news. And if you've got feedback for us or story you'd like us to know about, let us know by email. The address is GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.


For more on these stories and more, go to GPB.org/news.

Read the latest updates on the Georgia indictments here.