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‘We feel like we’ve been abandoned.’ Atlanta suffers a deadly July 4

In a city rife with tension, July 4 couldn’t come soon enough.

At the University Avenue Wendy’s, where, nearly three weeks earlier, Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by an Atlanta police officer, demonstrators organized a family-friendly block party, with music, games and food. It was the kind of event a core group of protesters had envisioned for the site just south of Georgia State Stadium, the facility long known as Turner Field.

A few miles away, rising third grader Secoriea Turner celebrated Independence Day at her grandmother’s house. The energetic 8-year-old was supposed to go to her dad’s place, but wanted to keep playing with her cousins.

Sometime after 9:30 p.m., Secoriea rode with her mother and her mother’s friend toward home. Just before 9:50 p.m., their Jeep exited the Downtown Connector onto University Avenue. Within minutes Secoriea would become the first victim in a spree of holiday violence in Atlanta that saw 28 people shot within 24 hours, three fatally.

MORE: Funeral services set for Secoriea Turner 

A $20,000 reward has been offered to anyone with information leading to the arrest and successful prosecution of Secoriea’s killers.

After Brooks’ shooting, the Wendy’s had been a striking scene. Arsonists set fire to the restaurant and armed civilians emerged as unauthorized gatekeepers. There were at least two other shootings and reports of harassment and threats toward motorists who ventured into the area, including journalists.

At one point armed people blocked University Avenue with barriers, deputizing themselves to decide who could pass. Negotiations led by City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd and nearby residents kept the road clear in past weeks, but on July 4 the barricades were back.

A leading protester at the Wendy’s, who identified herself only as Lady A, said she didn’t recognize the group blocking the road, some of whom toted semi-automatic assault rifles. She said she told them to remove the barriers, to no avail.

Georgia State student Joshua Ingram was far removed from that particular unfolding tragedy, but another awaited him. He left Cobb County for Atlanta early Saturday night for what promised to be the biggest bash in town. The 20-year-old, who stood 6 feet 6 inches, had been enamored with automobiles from an early age, said his mother, Sherlyn Ingram. Fast, tricked-out cars would be the main attraction at the street party on Edgewood Avenue.

Area residents and business owners say the non-sanctioned gatherings have been an almost weekly occurrence for the last six years. Lately, the crowds had grown bigger and more unruly in the Sweet Auburn district, which encompasses Edgewood, they say. Three people were wounded in a shooting near the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard three weeks prior, and merchants and residents implored police and city officials to take control of the area before it was too late.

Wanda Davila, who lives in Sweet Auburn, was preparing for another sleepless weekend as July 4 approached, certain the worst was yet to come.

“We’re pretty much zombies around here,” Davila said.

‘Nobody helped me’

When Secoriea’s mom, Charmaine Turner, and her friend saw the roadblocks across from the Wendy’s, they attempted to make a U-turn.

Speaking to reporters later on Sunday, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she had been informed of the obstruction at least 45 minutes before learning of Secoriea’s death. Asked why the road wasn’t cleared, interim Atlanta Police Department Chief Rodney Bryant blamed a busy night. All week police and city officials have avoided giving specifics during news conferences and didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment regarding exactly when they learned the road was blocked and whether police were on the way when Secoriea was shot.

During a meeting Wednesday with the editorial board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the mayor did say that police had planned to clear the Wendy’s and the area around it weeks ago, but Sheperd asked for, and was granted, more time to negotiate with protesters. Bottoms also said she had ridden through the area the week prior to the fatal shooting and found things to be peaceful.

Investigators believe at least four people at the roadblock shot into the Jeep Cherokee carrying Secoriea on July 4, according to Atlanta police.

“They shot my tires before we had time to turn around,” Turner said.

And at least one of the shots hit Secoriea, who called out for her mother. Turner cradled her daughter and tried to call 911. There was no answer.

Turner’s friend drove toward Atlanta Medical Center and finally got through to 911.

“These folks just shot my baby on University,” he told the dispatcher, according to an audio recording of the call obtained by The AJC. “It’s a child!”

Wailing could be heard in the background.

“Nobody helped me. I prayed to God and he didn’t help me,” Turner later told The AJC. “My baby died in my arms.”

Secoriea’s great-uncle, Gregory Williamson, blamed both protesters and the police for the 8-year-old’s death.

“They are killing the movement. The movement is for peace,” Williamson said during a Tuesday vigil. “If the police department had done their job two, three weeks ago, my niece would be here today. They dropped the ball.”

‘Destroyed’

Kayla Washington, Charmaine Turner’s longtime friend, was at a relative’s home in Jonesboro when she received a call from a mutual friend. Secoriea, the caller said, was gone.

“What do you mean?” Washington kept asking. She jumped in her car and headed to Atlanta Medical, where she found Turner in a daze.

“She was distraught,” Washington told The AJC. “She was destroyed.”

A few blocks from the hospital, a phalanx of officers had blanketed Edgewood Avenue, determined to keep the street party at bay. Street racers waited nearby.

“They’ll hang around until 4 in the morning, just waiting for their opportunity to take over,” resident Davila said.

They wouldn’t have to wait long.

At 11:30 p.m., shots were fired on Hardee Street in northeast Atlanta. A man and woman had been shot but refused to talk to authorities, according to police. Investigators determined the victims were shot after confronting a group of people shooting fireworks near their home. Fifteen minutes later, another shooting was reported, a drive-by on the southside. Five people standing on Lakewood Avenue were hit, all taken to local hospitals.

As of Friday afternoon, police had made no arrests.

Early on July 5, police having been summoned elsewhere, crowds had swarmed neighboring Auburn Avenue. Music and the roars of car engines filled the air at the intersection of Auburn and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive.

Around 1 a.m., one of the cars struck an onlooker and a fight, then gunfire broke out. Fourteen people were shot, including Joshua Ingram.

Someone drove him to Grady Memorial Hospital. At 6:45 a.m., doctors told Sherlyn Ingram that her son was gone.

Outside the hospital, she had to stop herself from pouring out her grief to strangers. She wanted to tell everyone: “I just lost my baby.”

Turning point?

That night, Mayor Bottoms spoke to reporters in a tone reminiscent of her “We are better than this speech” delivered at the end of May following a night of violent protests and destructive looting.

“Enough is enough,” Bottoms said. “You can’t blame this on a police officer. You can’t say this is about criminal justice reform. This is about some people carrying some weapons who shot up a car with an 8-year-old baby in the car.”

Retired APD deputy chief Lou Arcangeli said the fissure between the police department and City Hall has led to grim results.

“Choices have consequences,” he said. “Mayor Bottoms and District Attorney Paul Howard, in their rush to judgment and in an attempt to appease the mob, have made irresponsible and unacceptable choices with enormous long term consequences.”

Howard’s decision to charge Officer Garrett Rolfe, since fired, with felony murder for shooting Brooks in after he scuffled with Rolfe and another officer and grabbed one of their Tasers, sent a chill through the department. Arcangeli, sharing a view held by others in law enforcement, say Rolfe followed his training.

“They’re now in what’s called firefighter mode, totally reactive,” Arcangeli said of officers still on the job. “They fear what might happen when dealing with someone who resists arrest. They know it could cost them their jobs, if not their freedom.”

Bottoms, who says she does not support calls to defund the police, said she knows officers are looking for direction and clarity from city leaders and vows to provide both. She also noted that Howard alone made the decision to bring charges in Brooks’ shooting, and said voters can express their reactions in the Aug. 11 runoff between Howard and challenger Fani Willis.

Meanwhile, homicides are up 15 percent from this time last year and 23 percent from this time in 2018, records show. Shooting incidents are up 23 percent from this same point in 2019.

Merchants and residents in the Sweet Auburn district, which encompasses Edgewood, say many of their neighbors are reaching their breaking point.

“We just have to hope we don’t get hurt or our property gets destroyed,” Davila said. “It’s not sustainable, the stress we’re under. We feel like we’ve been abandoned.”