Atlanta’s own race riot

Lou Arcangeli chuckled a bit when asked if Ferguson could happen here.

“We had ours already,” said the retired Atlanta cop. “It can only be described as a race-riot. Anything less would be sugar coating.”

Arcangeli was referring to the riot in downtown Atlanta on April 30, 1992, after an all-white jury cleared white Los Angeles cops of beating a black man named Rodney King. Arcangeli used the word “riot” to tweak the media and city officials who were loath to use that word.

What happened here was termed “violence” or a “disturbance.” Atlanta doesn’t have riots, it’s The City Too Busy to Hate, and, I must admit, the newspaper bought that line at the time.

More than 40 people were hospitalized. Those with white faces on the streets of downtown took a beating. The worst was when a mob of young black demonstrators by the CNN Center kicked in the brains of a white, middle-aged computer programmer, forever changing his life.

“The riot ensued when students walked across the (Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) bridge from the Atlanta University Center,” Arcangeli said. “Some came with rocks in their backpacks.”

He recounted the hospitalization reports: “The black people there had encounters with police. The white people had encounters with black people.”

Cops “didn’t want prisoners,” he said, and often thumped those caught rampaging. They did take prisoners, however, at least 320 — twice the total of arrests in Ferguson.

Those raging in 1992 were a combination of young, aimless men without a future and those with hope, students from Atlanta’s historic black universities, although the official narrative was it was more the former than the latter.

But a decade later, Eldrin Bell, who was police chief in 1992, splashed water on that myth, telling me, “Yes, those were our students. A lot of students were arrested. We want to lay it off on others. But we can’t lay everything on hoodlums.”

Those in 1992, like the demonstrators these days in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, were enraged about incidents that symbolized systematic mistreatment of black citizens.

I called Arcangeli, who retired in 2002 after 29 years on the force, because he is a thoughtful fellow who later spent 10 years teaching at Georgia State University. He is a computer nerd who headed the crime analysis unit 30 years ago but also worked narcotics, drove the streets and at least twice shot suspects (he didn’t want to talk about those a lot, but they survived).

He is probably best known for getting demoted by Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell’s underlings on the force because he brought to light the fact that APD was under-counting crimes.

Arcangeli doesn’t buy the notion that Atlanta is different than St. Louis, that Atlanta has less of a chance of trouble because the civil rights movement has a home here and the city has worked through many of these issues.

Metro Atlanta has a large black population with many of the problems that bedevil black communities: high rates of unemployment, school drop-outs and incarceration.

“There’s so much frustration and the frustration is unfocused,” he said. “They’re mad, but they don’t know who they are mad at. The police have to face that frustration.”

And when the match is lit …

“Young people are easily influenced,” he said. “Think about the French Revolution.”

Today, crowds can spread the word faster through social media and iPhones. And the news-all-the-time environment fuels the anger and uneasiness. “I’m surprised by the misinformation from CNN, MSNBC and Fox,” he said. “There is so much bias now being reported as news.”

The reports make one’s head spin. Michael Brown, the Ferguson victim, was shot in the back. No, he wasn’t. Brown was stealing cigars from a store and struggling with a clerk just minutes before getting shot. No, he paid for them.

One thing has vastly improved since 1992: Violent crime rates are now half what they were then — although many people think otherwise, thanks to that misinformation cycle. The number of cops dying on duty has dropped accordingly, from 161 in 1992 to 100 last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Another outfit, the Officer Down Memorial Page, said 64 cops died from gunfire in 1992, 30 last year.

Much of that is due to better, and mandatory, bullet-proof vests, a less violent society and different police tactics and training. I told Arcangeli the so-called militarization of police can be disconcerting, that many people view officers like an occupying force.

Arcangeli doesn’t see it that way. “Most of this military equipment is defensive in nature,” he said.

But, he added, one of the most important parts of policing is getting to know the community, getting out of cars and creating relations with people.

Back around the time of Rodney King, Lt. Arcangeli was at a community meeting telling neighbors they should videotape drug dealers.

“Then someone asks, ‘Can we videotape police officers?’ I said, ‘Please, videotape my cops, because everyone acts better on camera.’ “

Some colleagues resented this statement, but he believes it now more than ever.

“We’ll see more on-body cameras. Video cameras create accountability in both the cops and the citizens. There’s no downside to video cameras during these governmental interactions. It’s the future, and it’s here now.”

He worries that the political furor around Ferguson will keep witnesses from coming forward, people who may chip away at the narrative that the cop executed a young black man. And he has another fear.

“I hope this incident doesn’t make officers shut down, to not check out suspicious people, and make them not want to engage.

“You don’t want your police afraid of confrontation. The black community needs police.”