Police turn Georgia Capitol protest into ‘battle space’

A little past 7 p.m. Tuesday, police officers standing guard outside the state Capitol decided enough was enough.

A crowd protesting racial injustice had been chanting for hours, sometimes spilling into Washington Street, sometimes shouting epithets at the officers. It was almost two hours before Atlanta's citywide curfew would require the demonstrators to go home, but a commanding officer with a bullhorn ordered them to leave, anyway. Immediately.

The officers, most protected by full body armor and face shields, strapped on gas masks. Some protesters, sensing a confrontation, began to run.

And then the officers fired tear gas canisters and other projectiles toward the fleeing crowd.

“Everyone was screaming, everyone was running,” said Hannah Riley, who had arrived at the protest minutes earlier. “It was a miracle no one was trampled.”

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta protests

The episode, reconstructed from videos and photographs posted on social media and from interviews with protesters, illustrates the combative tactics that law enforcement agencies have used to suppress the uprising sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

While some police officers have shown solidarity with protesters, taking a knee at the scene of demonstrations to honor Floyd, others others have clamped down on protesters with little or no provocation and without giving them time to follow orders to disperse.

Police in riot gear control the area around the Capitol as protests continued for a third day on Sunday, May 31, 2020 (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

At the Capitol, for instance, many protesters said they hadn't even heard the order to leave when officers moved on the crowd. The officers fired rubber bullets – officially, "less lethal" ammunition – as well as tear gas canisters that emit a cloud of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects and, according to their manufacturer, "other reproductive harm."

Their actions came a day after President Donald Trump called on police to “dominate” protesters and Defense Secretary Mark Esper described demonstrations as a “battle space.” Esper has since said he regretted the characterization. Regardless, military police and other federal officers forcibly cleared an area near the White House on Monday so Trump could stage a photo opportunity outside a church.

To Gerald Griggs, an attorney who is first vice president of the Atlanta NAACP, the use of extreme tactics “harkens back to a time when Bull Connor and George Wallace did not understand the voice of the people.”

Police officers dressed in riot gear are stationed in front of the Capitol building during the fourth day of protests in Atlanta on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

A few hours before the incident outside the Capitol, Griggs marched with another group of protesters along Washington Street. State and local police officers, along with National Guard troops, surrounded the crowd, Griggs said, allowing no one to leave. When he asked a state officer who authorized corralling the protesters, “they said it came from above the mayor.”

Thirty-five demonstrators were arrested.

“My concern,” Griggs said, “is the erosion of people’s civil rights in the birthplace of the civil rights movement.”

State law enforcement officials declined to comment on their response to protests.

State law enforcement officers are seen behind a cloud of tear gas toward protesters fleeing the Capitol area on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Contributed photo: John Ramspott

Officers have not yet filed an incident report on the Capitol protest, but the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Georgia State Patrol and other agencies, is tracking its officers’ use of “less lethal munitions,” said Lt. Stephanie Stallings, a spokeswoman.

Officials will release information “once this detail has ended,” Stallings said. “There could be an extended time before that happens, depending on protest activities.”

A cloud of tear gas engulfs protesters at the Capitol area on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Contributed photo: John Ramspott

The confrontation at the Capitol began about three hours after Gov. Brian Kemp promised during a news conference to quell violent demonstrations with "whatever is necessary."

Kemp said he supports peaceful protests done “in the right way.” He blamed “bad actors” for the looting and vandalism that occurred after protests last weekend downtown and in Buckhead.

“We have to have people follow the law,” Kemp said. “When they don’t, they put us in a bad spot.”

Marchers kneel near the Capitol during a march in honor of George Floyd's funeral on Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Atlanta. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As Kemp spoke, perhaps 200 people assembled along Washington Street in front of the Capitol. The crowd was significantly smaller than one that blocked streets around Centennial Olympic Park, a mile and a half across downtown, and some people attended both protests.

Officers from several state law enforcement agencies – the state patrol, the departments of corrections and juvenile justice, and others – arrived in black suits of body armor. A protester’s video showed the officers marching in step, pausing after every two steps and thrusting their wooden clubs forward.

As the officers formed a line in front of barricades at the edge of the Capitol grounds, a state patrol armored vehicle sat in the intersection of Washington and Mitchell streets, near Atlanta City Hall.

“Don’t shoot,” people in the crowd chanted. “We are not armed.”

“We were gathering peacefully,” protester Thema Swift said. “People were kneeling and chanting.”

Another protester, who asked not to be identified to avoid antagonizing her employer, said an officer made an announcement from the Capitol lawn. Many protesters couldn’t hear the officer, she said. But a moment later, she heard a scream from the crowd: “Run!”

A spent canister of tear gas, fired at protesters outside the state Capitol on Tuesday. The canister’s manufacturer says it emits chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects. A protester photographed the canister after police dispersed demonstrators.

As she fled, she heard what apparently were tear gas canisters detonate behind her. A few blocks away, she saw other protesters with “tears streaming from their eyes, breathing very heavily.” At impromptu first aid stations, protesters used saline solutions and water to wash the chemical irritants from each other’s eyes.

“There was absolutely a lot of fear,” she said.

Several protesters said they saw no one attack police officers, and no provocations appeared in the online videos.

“It was very peaceful,” said John Ramspott, who photographed the protest. “No one was throwing anything. No one was doing anything. It was before curfew. In my mind, there was no justification.”

But Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp, said Friday that protestors threw rocks and “unknown objects” at officers, injuring a state trooper.

She provided no details of the officer’s injuries. She declined to say whether Kemp authorized or knew in advance about the use of force a few yards from his first-floor office in the Capitol.

Gerry Weber, a senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said police appear to have violated the rights of lawfully assembled protesters. He said officers must give people time and a means to leave a protest.

“If people are running away, they are trying to disperse, they are trying to comply,” Weber said. “You’re firing at people trying to comply with a police order.”

Griggs, the NAACP official, said this week’s protests show that political leaders need to listen to people who have legitimate grievances about police tactics and systemic racism.

“Dispersing the people with tear gas, with batons, with rubber bullets is not going to bode well in November.”

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