A year after Rayshard Brooks shooting, Peoplestown hopes for change

It was lunchtime and Billy Quezada walked out of his office in Peoplestown, looking for something to eat.

Across the street was a barren lot surrounded by a chain-link fence and concrete barricades. A Wendy’s, an economic center and the only fast-food restaurant in the neighborhood, had stood there a year ago. Today, the site is a stark reminder of the rage and fear that followed the June 12, 2020, killing of Rayshard Brooks, shot to death there by an Atlanta police officer.

“We are just trying to deal with the trauma of the last year,” said Quezada, a native of Guatemala, who has lived in Peoplestown for 12 years and is working on developing a formula for lightweight concrete. “Having this place empty reminds us of a neighborhood that has lost something. I am reminded every day that this neighborhood has changed.”

Billy Quezada welds in a warehouse across from the Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Ben Gray

Coming weeks after the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd at the hands of a since-convicted former Minneapolis police officer, Brooks’ death brought the issue of police shootings to Atlanta’s doorstep. The fatal shooting set off weeks of protests, some which devolved into chaos. Less than a month after Brooks died in the Wendy’s parking lot, an 8-year-old girl was shot to death nearby.

As the community marks the somber anniversary of Brooks’ death, those who live and work there are wondering what’s next.

On June 3, 2021, a poster and graffiti marked a barrier blocking the lot where the Wendy’s used to stand in Atlanta's Peoplestown community. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Ben Gray

“When this happened, I was in Florida and turned on the television,” said longtime resident Sheryl Bennett. “It was a crazy sight to see something like this happening in your backyard.”

Established as a neighborhood in 1885, Peoplestown is located just south of the stadium formerly known as Turner Field, and the neighboring communities of Summerhill and Mechanicsville. Near Stanton Park on its southern border, new apartments and townhouses are springing up on the Atlanta Beltline.

The area was at one time very diverse, according to the Statistical Atlas. Today, 83% of the 2,700 people who now live there are Black and have a median household income of about $28,000.

Sherry Pyburn, left, and Michelle Thomas hug while working at Carver Market, a community grocery in South Atlanta, just outside Peoplestown. The market and the attached Community Grounds coffee shop are hubs of the community. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Ben Gray

“We are all trying to get back to the new normal,” said Carla Smith, who has represented parts of Peoplestown on the Atlanta City Council for 20 years. “We need to get that area cleaned up and be whole again.”

Smith, who is not seeking reelection, said development is coming to Peoplestown as part of the Beltline, a renewed interest in intown living, and what she calls proactive rezoning.

“I still consider us one of the best neighborhoods in Atlanta,” Smith said. “We are still somewhat affordable, heavily working class and friendly.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, right, leans her head on the shoulder of her chief of staff Sheryl Bennett following an interview on June 3, 2021, in D.H. Stanton Park in Peoplestown. Smith represents Peoplestown and Bennett lives in Peoplestown. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Ben Gray

Peoplestown Neighborhood Association President Chris Lemons is less optimistic.

“Things have not gotten better in Peoplestown because things have not gotten better in Atlanta,” said Lemons. “Peoplestown is a microcosm of everything that is happening in Atlanta.”

Following a historically deadly 2020 — authorities investigated 157 homicide cases, the most in decades — Atlanta’s homicides are up nearly 60 percent over this time last year, the Atlanta Police Department says. Authorities have investigated more than 60 homicide cases this year. At least a dozen happened in the zone where Peoplestown is located.

Columbus Ward, who has lived in Peoplestown since the third grade, serves as the president of the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation, which has created 300 units of low-income housing since its establishment. He believes the rise in crime is a direct result of the Brooks killing.

“People feel that if the police can get away with shooting and killing somebody, they can do the same with no consequences,” Ward said. “That is why the violent crime rate has increased tremendously. There was no justice for Rayshard Brooks.”

It was a late Friday night when police officers found Brooks asleep in the Wendy’s drive-thru. The line was long that night, as it was most nights, residents say.

After being told he was under arrest for suspected drunken driving, Brooks struggled as Officer Garrett Rolfe attempted to handcuff him. Brooks then struck Officer Devin Brosnan, grabbed his Taser and aimed it at Rolfe, who fired three shots, striking Brooks twice.

Brooks suffered organ damage and blood loss and died from gunshot wounds of the back, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office determined. He was 27.

Rolfe, facing felony murder and other charges, was fired by the Atlanta Police Department soon after the shooting, but was reinstated this year on May 5 by Atlanta’s Civil Service Board. The board ruled Rolfe was denied due process when he was fired less than 24 hours after Brooks’ death. The order does not return him to active duty.

Brosnan faces aggravated assault and other charges.

It’s not clear who will take on the case, or when. A judge recently granted Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ request to recuse her office from prosecuting Rolfe. Willis had cited concerns about the conduct of the previous district attorney, Paul Howard, in bringing charges against the two officers.

“I expect that this will allow the case to move forward in a manner consistent with achieving a just result that all parties will have confidence in,” Willis said in a statement.

A spokesman for Attorney General Chris Carr, who had previously denied Willis’ attempts to recuse herself and the Fulton DA’s office, said he would respect the court’s decision.

One family escapes site; another doesn’t

Protesters torched the Wendy’s the night after Brooks died. It was razed 10 days after Secoriea Turner was shot. Natalie Hanna White was arrested June 23 and charged with first-degree arson. She is currently free on $10,000 bond and her case remains open, Fulton court records show. In early July, two others were charged with arson in connection to the Wendy’s fire. John Wade and Chisom Kingston also were released on $10,000 bond and their cases also are pending, court records show.

Through a spokesperson, the Brooks family declined to comment.

Some residents hope the site will become a permanent memorial. Others want a restaurant there again.

“People need to understand, when we destroy things in our own community, it impacts us,” Bennett said. “And somebody’s kid, father or mother doesn’t have a job now. That place actually meant something to us.”

For now, the site evokes a host of emotions.

Kimberlee Payton Jones stopped on her way home last week. A lawyer, she has lived in the area for five years and serves as the president of the Historic South Atlanta Neighborhood Association.

Kimberlee Jones on June 3, 2021, in Atlanta, in front of the vacant lot that's the site of a former Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was killed. “There are so many great people who live in this neighborhood,” Jones said. “People who are committed to the neighborhood. But for some reason, the city just refused to see us. It is very typical of how racism can play a role in how a neighborhood can be allowed to deteriorate.” (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Last July 4, Jones and her son, Judah Lion, were on their way home when they ran into an armed, unauthorized roadblock just off the University Avenue exit that leads into the community. They were met by a man with a long gun. Judah, 6 at the time, told his mother to keep going. He’d heard “they would let Black people through,” Jones recalled. She made a U-turn and took side streets home.

Later that night, the car that 8-year-old Secoriea Turner and her mother were riding in also encountered the roadblock. Police believe as many as four people opened fire.

“I just felt her trying to hold on, but she couldn’t,” her mother, Charmaine Turner, said after the shooting. “Nobody helped me. I prayed to God and He didn’t help me. My baby died in my arms.”

Jones learned about Secoriea’s death the day after it happened.

“It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I learned that another family who had come through the same way we had come through, were shot at and a young child was killed,” she said. “You can imagine, as a parent, how that made me feel. That my son and I were so close to that being us. It made me angry.”

Why it’s not enough to have a dream

On Monday, Turner’s family announced a lawsuit against the city, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd and Wendy’s International, alleging “that they were negligent in their duties by failing to remove armed vigilantes who had gathered alongside peaceful protesters at the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reached out to Atlanta police for comment but did not receive a response. Bottoms and Sheperd, who represents parts of Peoplestown, each released statements declining to comment.

“It’s been nearly a year since the loss of Secoriea Turner. The pain still resonates with me, within the community and the city at large. My heart is with the family and those who have been impacted by this loss,” Sheperd said before declining to make what she called “any official statements related to the lawsuit.”

From his office at Emmaus House, a Peoplestown-focused nonprofit, executive director Greg Cole recoiled at the violence that followed Brooks’ death and recalled watching a community in fear. Neither he nor other Peoplestown residents believe those responsible for burning the Wendy’s or shooting Secoriea lived in the area.

Greg Cole, executive director of Emmaus House in Atlanta's Peoplestown community, in the organization’s food pantry on June 3, 2021. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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“They didn’t represent the voice of Peoplestown. The people I spoke to in Peoplestown wanted to lift up their voices and be heard,” said Cole, who has been at Emmaus for eight years and organized peaceful marches during that period. “What I am hearing from the community that I am here to serve is that there is a real fear of police. That became crystal clear to me as I tried to put myself in someone else’s shoes.”

Both the Brooks shooting and the coronavirus pandemic hit the community hard, he said. Emmaus, a faith-based organization that has offered numerous services and programs since 1967, has seen a surge in requests for rent and mortgage assistance and food.

Mark Clark, a volunteer at Emmaus House, takes a food order from a woman visiting their food pantry in Atlanta's Peoplestown community on June 3, 2021.  (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Ben Gray

“When you layer that on top of the racial unrest and fear, on top of the pandemic, it is been a really tough year for people,” Cole said.

Around the corner from the former Wendy’s site is the Carver Market, where residents can get groceries, fresh fruit and produce. In the days following Brooks’ killing, rioters smashed all of the market’s windows. The staff boarded up the windows but never closed.

Jeff Delp operates Carver Market and the Community Grounds coffee shop in South Atlanta, just outside of Peoplestown. The businesses employ local residents and is a hub of community activity. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Ben Gray

“Last summer was hard,” Jeff Delp said. “It was very odd to have this nationwide event happening here, but we as a community needed to process it differently than (how the media) was processing it.”

Ward, the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation president, agrees. He said that if his beloved neighborhood is to thrive, change is going to have to be led by the community.

“We got to stop having a dream,” said Ward, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. “We got to make some changes now. We got to take some of the responsibility of making these changes and not depend on others.”

— Reporters Alexis Stevens and Asia Simone Burns contributed to this article.