APD Chief Erika Shields to Jerome and Stephanie Russell: ‘Atlanta is not going to be a city of hate’

By Maria Saporta

Stephanie and Jerome Russell were enjoying themselves at a Super Bowl party in Houston Saturday night when their 16-year-old daughter reached out to them.

Someone had vandalized one of her friend’s car parked in front of the Russell’s Ansley Park home by writing racist slurs – including “nigger”, “faggot”, “kyke”, “hollacauct” (sic) meaning holocaust, and “fag.”

There were also sexually explicit drawings on the car.

“I literally had to find a quiet spot,” Jerome said as soon as he got the news. “I was disgusted, angry, hurt – why did this happen?”

Jerome and Stephanie Russell

Jerome and Stephanie Russell right before the Super Bowl game in Houston after learning a car parked in front of their Ansley Park home had been vandalized with racist slurs (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Jerome Russell is the oldest son of the late Herman Russell, an entrepreneur  who created one of the largest minority-owned construction companies in the country. He also had been an important figure in the civil rights movement – supporting Martin Luther King Jr. and the Atlanta Student Movement.

Once they got the word, Stephanie Russell immediately went into the protective mother mode – wanting to make sure her daughter and her friend were okay. The Atlanta Police Department sent an extra car to watch over the home that night to make sure there were no further incidents.

On Sunday morning, Stephanie received a call from relatively new Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields expressing concern.

“Atlanta is not going to be a city of hate,” Shields told her defiantly.

The shock of this incident is deep because it happened in Atlanta – a city too busy to hate. And it happened in one of the most progressive neighborhoods in the city.

“The lack of respect for differences are feelings that exist everywhere,” Stephanie reflected. “This is a reality in every community. The privilege is that we have the ability to resolve this.”

By the time the Russells were flying back to Atlanta on Monday, the Atlanta police had taken fingerprints and “samples of the dried saliva that was on the windows” for DNA evidence where someone had spit. The APD brought in Homeland Security Investigator Matthew Condland, who was especially helpful.

The police investigators also had determined the vandalism had been done by four teenage boys, one of them lived in the neighborhood, and all four of them knew their daughter and her friend whose car was vandalized.

Then the emails, phone calls and messages started flowing in (letters also were placed on the Russells’ front porch) – from the boys’ parents and even from three of the boys themselves. The parents reassured the Russells that their boys had not been raised that way, and they apologized for what their sons had done.

They also have expressed interest in apologizing to their daughter’s friend as well as her parents.

What really hurts Jerome is that there were four boys involved, and during the act, not one of them said this is not right. “That’s the piece that’s difficult,” he said. The fact they also spit on the car also hit him hard.

But both Stephanie and Jerome want this incident to become a teaching moment for the community, for the boys and for their daughter as well as her friends.

“There’s going to be a face-to-face,” Jerome said. “We want to use this as an experience of what it feels like to be African-American. We want feedback and creative perspectives on this.”

Jerome also would love to involve the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a destination that his family’s company helped build – literally and figuratively – as way to build the bridges of understanding and humanity. Stephanie also serves on the Center’s board.

Both Stephanie and Jerome have no regrets about moving to Ansley in 2014 in a home they built. They love the centrally-located community and their “awesome” neighbors.

As bad as the incident was, they have seen good come out of it – especially the sensitive and professional way it was handled by the Atlanta police department.

It also gave them an opportunity to recognize the core strength of their daughter and of their own souls – knowing how difficult it is to live at a time with divisive national leadership that seems to have given some people a license to behave badly.

But that is not a reality they are willing to accept.

“We do not live in a perfect world,” Stephanie said. “But we are not going to be nasty to people. In moments like this, you don’t give up.”

 

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

10 replies
  1. Renee says:

    Apologies are nice but they need to be charged with a crime. There are appropriate consequences for vandalism and hate crimes. If they are okay with these real actions they need to face real criminal charges.Report

    Reply
  2. Brian says:

    Absolutely a teaching moment but what are the consequences of the action. Are they given a pass because of where they live and the color of their skin?Report

    Reply
  3. Jarrod says:

    This is disgraceful, indefensible, and in no way should be considered a “mischievous” act committed by teenagers. A mischievous act is when kids would throw toilet paper in your trees or around your house, but this sh*t is crazy! Unfortunately, the demographics are changing in the City of Atlanta and too many people have become emboldened by antics of Donald Trump. The bigger question is why haven’t they been charged for vandalism, trespassing, hate crime, and destruction of private property?? If the teenagers were black, they would already be in jail.Report

    Reply
  4. Marty Matthews says:

    Wow this is a tough call. In one since we have to use this as a teaching matter but what kills me is the parents use a letter and didn’t do what my mom would have done she would have took me to the folks house knocked on the door and made me apologize and then beat my ass when I got back home. Instead we leave a letter because we are too embarrassed to see folks face to face. They should be charged with a crime and go through court and be required to do community service in a low income area as punishment. Because if the script was flipped it would be national news and the kids would be charged without a blink.Report

    Reply
  5. Mid Town realist says:

    maybe nobody was charged because it couldnt be proven that it even happened. How many incidents have we seen that were later proven to be made up. funny how it happened when the parent were out of town.Report

    Reply

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