In the wake of George Floyd's death and the nationwide protests that it sparked, changes to how America polices its citizens could be on the way. Two weeks ago, protesters gathered in Atlanta. What began as a peaceful demonstration escalated into violence.
In this episode of Georgia Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs recalls what it was like covering the demonstrations. He also describes how the violent protests weren't a reflection of the "Atlanta Way," a phrase to desscribe how the city's black and white business class have historically come together on racial issues.
Ernie Suggs: Atlanta has always had a history of peaceful marching. So I think a lot of people expected this to be a peaceful march and it just turned out to be a violent one. And I think that surprised a lot of people, shock a lot of people. It shocked a lot of the old-guard civil rights people who are still around. It shocked Chief Shields, it shocked t'ai, Killer Mike. It shocked Keisha Bottoms.
So that was the difference. That was, that — this was like a one instance where everything kind of fell apart.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This week on Georgia today, Ernie Suggs, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Two weeks ago, when he went downtown to cover the first major protest in Atlanta surrounding the death of George Floyd, he was expecting something peaceful. He was expecting the Atlanta Way.
Suggs: Well, in Atlanta, we have this, we have a — we have a way of protesting that is traditional in Atlanta. And that's kind of basically what I was expecting was a peaceful, pro peaceful, but, you know, kind of lively protest, where people would get together. They would march, they would chant, they would probably sing, there would probably be a couple of speeches and then people would go home.
I was expecting to be home by 10 o'clock at the latest. I just thought it was going to be a simple protest, rally and march to the capital and back and that was going to be it. Because that's what we have come to expect in Atlanta. But as you, as you know, that wasn't the case.
News reporter: Overnight, across the country, the calls for justice are growing more intense.
Protesters: Hands up, don't shoot.
News reporter: In Atlanta, where protesters filled the streets, smoke billowed into the sky as a police car went up in flames. Nearby, crowds set their sights on the CNN Center, vandalizing...
Suggs: The protest was basically started on Thursday night. A group decided they were going to meet at Centennial Olympic Park. Another group said they're going to meet a Centennial Olympic Park and march to the capital. So at some point, these two groups got together. I think it was going to start at 3 o'clock. They were going to gather at Centennial Park. They were going to march. They were going to start marching at 3:30. And they were going to start marching back from the capital at 5:30. By Friday afternoon, they had thousands of people at Centennial Park ready to march.
Fennessy: And at that point, there seemed nothing necessarily exceptional about this to you.
Suggs: No, not at all. I mean, people were marching. They were chanting. They were singing. You had the leaders or some people with megaphones. It was black and white. It was, I saw a woman in a wheelchair who, a motorized wheelchair, who was doing it. I saw a woman who had a dog in a baby carriage who's strolling, the kids were there. Older people, black and white, as I said — so I didn't see anything extraordinary. Once we got to the capital area, I did see a couple of people tagging some buildings, tagging some government buildings. But I thought these were just outliers.
The original plan, I think, for the organizers of the event, was to walk back from the Capitol, back to Centennial Park, have a rally, have speeches, have water, snacks, have prayer and go home. So that was the plan. And I think 90 percent of the people follow that plan. The other 10 percent are the ones who stop in front of CNN to antagonize the police.
So you have the police with the, with the bikes there that we're kind of guarding it. You had the police cars behind it. The police were not dressed in any kind of riot gear. The police were dressed as they're regular, if they're regularly on a beat, with their shirt sleeves out, you know? And, you know, they were — you know, it's just a classic photograph of a line of police officers, six inches of space and a line of protesters in their face, calling them cowards and pigs and sellouts and murderers and things like that. It's a typical thing that you see in every rally.
You had these water bottles being thrown, but then, you know, people started throwing rocks. And then people started throwing rocks at the CNN building and basically trying to break all the windows out of the CNN buildings, throwing rocks and bricks. And, you know, these windows are very thick. So, you know, you would — a rock would hit it and make a loud boom and they're thick, so they didn't always break. So you know, once one — once one broke, you would get these loud cheers.
News reporter: We are here inside CNN Center, where just in the last 10 minutes, demonstrators have started to come up and down this thoroughfare of Marietta and break out windows of CNN Center.
Fennessy: CNN had a clip of one of their own camera units from inside, from behind the police who are lined up just inside the doors and the broken windows of CNN. And then a flash bang was thrown in from outside.
News reporter: There's a fire cracker that got fired.
Fennessy: And it was, it was pretty startling.
News reporter: You OK, you OK, guys.
Suggs: You had fireworks going off. And then, as they were, you know — police lined the front of the CNN building to try and, I guess, prevent people from actually getting in the building. And the cars were basically left exposed. And, you know, the cars were always kind of being surrounded by marchers and protesters. And then all of a sudden they just started tagging the car. It was just so loud because people were jumping on the hoods, stomping on the cars, stumbling out — kicking the windows out. They were just like using these skateboards like baseball bats, just destroying these cars.
Fennessy: What's going through your mind? Because, you know, you're here to cover a protest about the death of a man who was killed in the most abominable way. And what are you thinking about as you're watching these protests devolve into this kind of violence?
Suggs: I never thought that I would see this in America. And this is stuff that I never even saw — I mean, I saw stuff in Ferguson where the police were using militarized vehicles to push back protesters. But I've never seen protesters actually do this to the police. They basically beat the police at this point.
Fennessy: What happened next? What did you do that?
Suggs: Well, at that point, you know, it just becomes a matter of once, you know, once the car were on fire, the fire department came, put it out. And at that point, it just becomes a free for all — things are beginning to get really, really ugly in terms of just how, how this completely got out hand. So as the, as the cat and mouse game between the police officers and the protesters continue, just starts getting more violent as did minutes progressed. And that violence was manifested on businesses basically down Marietta Street, all through downtown Atlanta, all through Atlanta, the city of Atlanta.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: If you want change in America, go and register to vote. Show up at the polls on June 9th. Do it in November. That is the change we need in this country.
Suggs: Keisha Lance Bottoms, she's saying that basically you can march for George Floyd, you can be upset about George Floyd. But what good is stealing alcohol or looting the College Football Hall of Fame of its T-shirts gonna do for George Floyd? What is that, how does that correlate?
Lance Bottoms: You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country.
Fennessy: On Saturday, the police presence we saw was very different from the one we saw the night before.
Erika Shields: Good evening. My name's Erika Shields. I'm chief of police for the Atlanta Police Department. As we come back into today, we have an absolute zero tolerance policy — zero. There will be no lawlessness.
Fennessy: That was probably most egregiously represented when two Atlanta college students were pulled forcibly from their car and tasered by two police officers. The student's names were Taniyah Pilgrim, who goes to Spelman, and Massaih Young, who goes to Morehouse. Here they are talking about what happened.
Taniyah Pilgrim: I'm sorry you guys even had to see something like that occurred. Like, it's disgusting and like — that's that's all I have to say.
Massaih Young: This isn't just about me. This isn't just about us. This is an entire generation that has to deal with brutality and injustice and wrongdoing for nothing.
Suggs: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wants change and wants to be at the forefront of this change. If you look at that Saturday night, the quickness in which she fired those two police officers who tased those two college students, that's an indication that we're not going to tolerate that. The city is not going to tolerate that anymore.
So several days after the two police officers were fired, all of the officers who were involved in that arrest and that apprehension were criminally charged by the Fulton County district attorney, Paul Howard.
Paul Howard: So based upon our consideration of the facts, we have on this morning presented to one of our superior court judges, six arrest warrants for these six officers. These are all Atlanta officers. And I'm sure you recognize that two of these officers have already been terminated by the Atlanta Police Department.
Suggs: And that came as a complete shock to Chief Sheilds, who in a memo to the police department said that, you know, she was blindsided and she felt there was a political move by the district attorney to brandish himself as a law enforcement guy on the edge, on the eve of an election.
Fennessy: So allying himself with with the Black Lives Matter movement?
Suggs: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. By saying, "hey, I'm not going to tolerate this now." I mean, you know, if this had happened two weeks ago, you know, would he have made the same decision? We don't know.
Fennessy: And Chief Shields, one of her concerns about it was that it was going to hinder her ability to bring in officers from other departments for fear of being exposed to liability.
Suggs: Exactly. Exactly. And I mean, I think she also felt used, and felt as that she was being used. The department was being used as a political pawn, right. You know, "on days before the election, and, you know, you're charging police officers, you know, that I've already fired."
Fennessy: How is this, covering this affected you compared to, you know, past protests, past killings of black men by police officers? How is this one felt different for you as, as not just a journalist, but as a black man in America?
Suggs: As a black man, you know, watching George Floyd die, watching the videotape that they, that they, that they created for his funeral of him living as a man was emotional. So those things do strike you on an emotional level. But as a reporter, you know, I still have to basically tell the stories and try to be as neutral as possible and tell the most stories.
Fennessy: During the course of the protests, you know, and in the days after that, the initial protest of Friday, May 29, one of your colleagues was detained, no?
Suggs: Yes. We had a photographer, a young African-American woman who was detained by — I'm not sure exactly what department detained her. It wasn't the Atlanta Police Department. We don't know what the circumstances were. As far as I know, the circumstances were that she was a black woman and she showed her badge, she showed — she had tons and tons of camera equipment on her. And she was detained. She was put on the ground. She was zip tied.
And she was not freed until she was vouched for by two white journalists. What does that say? I think it capsulized the frustration that we've been seeing for the last 400 years, which we've been seeing since the death of George Floyd. It's all, it's all, it's all one. It's all part of the same narrative that we've, that we've been living through — that African-Americans have been living through for 400 years.
Fennessy: George Floyd is just the latest black man to die at the hands of a police officer. But could his death be the one that finally sparks real change? That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.
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Fennessy: This is Georgia today. Ernie, what is the Atlanta way and how is it played out here — or not played out — during the protests surrounding George Floyd?
Suggs: Well, I think that, you know, Atlanta has always lived by the state called the Atlanta Way. And it's based on another saying, called "the city too busy to hate." In talking about the Atlanta Way, if you recall, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was killed. Dozens and dozens of cities, urban cities went up in flames from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri, to Detroit, Chicago, all over the country.
Old Time Newscaster: 1968: a year of change. A year of protest. Protest through vocal, but orderly demonstration, and protests through murderous lunacy. Robert Kennedy, murder it in June, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, man...
Suggs: Atlanta, where Martin Luther King was from, and where he lives, and where he obviously meant the most to people, they had a peaceful march on April 9, I believe, from the church to his burial, to Morehouse College, through the city — very quiet. There was no rioting, no fires, no destruction, just a peaceful march to honor this man whose death had occurred. So the Atlanta Way was that kind of way of, kind of like "we settle things, you know, kind of peacefully and talking about it, and not being violent." I think a lot of us went into Friday's protest rally thinking that was going to be a repeat case.
Fennessy: So the lions of the civil rights movement are aging. Some have passed on. And so this torch has been passed to new generations.
Fennessy: And as civil rights becomes and remains a profound issue within America, how has the Atlanta Way been sort of updated to meet the times?
Suggs: The question is, does the Atlanta wave still exist? You know, a lot of the businesses, a lot of the people — like you said — a lot of the people who created this or who, you know, who are the forefront of this, have passed away. A lot of the businesses that were so heavily invested in Atlanta because they were run and controlled by Atlanta families are now multi-global businesses that are led by people who don't have real ties to Atlanta. So you kind of have that. There's no real connection to the city anymore. So that Atlanta Way way of thinking may not be the same thing that was going on 50, 60 years ago.
So you have a new generation of protesters. You have a new generation of leaders, kind of this loose, amorphous generation. You know, Black Lives Matter, mixed with college students, mixed with activists, who don't necessarily follow the same rules that their forefathers follow, and I say forefathers, they are people who came before them in civil rights movement.
Fennessy: Let's take a second and hear from Andrew Young, former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor, who did not mince words when he was talking to 11 Live News about protests in Atlanta.
Andrew Young: We saw a bunch of clowns showing off toward the end. Now, that wasn't true in the beginning. It was a beautiful, multiracial, multiethnic — different people were there with their parents and children. And it was a terrible thing that happened in Minneapolis. But one sick policeman should not be able to destroy Atlanta.
Fennessy: Ernie, what kind of substantive changes could we see emerging from these protests?
Suggs: You know, I think right now we're going to have to start getting into the, to the actual planning, the legislative look at this, to look at systemic ways in which we change the police department. I think that the protesting and the violent — the protesting, I'll just say the protesting.
I think that protesting worked because it opened up the conversation and let people know that African-Americans and people of color and — and Americans in general, it shouldn't be just defined, confined to African-Americans — are tired and they want a different way. You know, they voted to defund and disband the police department in Minneapolis. I'm not sure how that's going to work. And hopefully that's not going to happen all over the country. But people are looking at different ways in which America can be policed. And I think that George Floyd kind of open up the conversation.
Fennessy: Our thanks to Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs. In the wake of George Floyds death and the nationwide protests that it sparked, changes to how America polices its citizens could be on their way. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said one of the greatest strengths of law enforcement can also, at times, be its greatest weakness.
Erika Shields: We hire people who represent society and sometimes the worst parts of society end up on our payroll. Knowing this, we had APD consistently discuss, very openly, race and race-related issues. Behaviors need to be put in check. Being polite, sensitive or afraid of hitting problems head on just doesn't work. We have too much authority not to deal with issues firmly and immediately.
Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy and this is Georgia today. Our show is produced by Sean Powers. Thanks for listening.