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Tensions high as campers evicted from Atlanta Wendy’s after child death

Credit: AJC

Police clear the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was shot

Credit: AJC

The now infamous Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was killed last month by Atlanta Police was cleared Monday morning of protesters who had encamped at the site for weeks and had refused to leave until demands for police reform and a memorial to Brooks' memory were met.

Protesters were forced off the property by Atlanta police, who'd been sent by city leaders to clear the parking lot amid outrage over the death of Secoriea Turner.

The 8-year-old died Saturday night after someone shot into the Jeep her mother had been driving down the road in front of the Wendy’s when a group of armed people stopped the car. In recent weeks peaceful protesters had been joined by armed men who put up barricades in the road and controlled access to the site.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who had been aware of negotiations between city council members and the protesters for a mutually agreeable exit, said Sunday the “mediation is over” because of the child’s death. “I tell you if you are looking to be part of the solution and not the problem then you are going to have to clear out,” Bottoms said after Secoriea’s anguished mother was led away from cameras.

As police dismantled the encampment Monday morning, protesters told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they, too, were outraged and grieving for the child. They said they didn't know the shooters, that they weren't with them and they pointed out repeatedly that the shooting took place across the street, not at the Wendy's — even though the mayor said Sunday a shot came from the restaurant parking lot.

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Earlier in the day Saturday, there had been an event honoring Brooks with live music, games for kids and food for everyone.

Monday, though, marked another stage of transformation for the site.

Immediately after Brooks fell dying in the parking lot three weeks ago, the Wendy’s building was burned down. In the days after, it became a shrine to his memory. People spray painted the exterior walls and the pavement.

On the spot where he fell, was a message in white paint, 20 feet or longer reads: “REST RAYSHARD, WE GOT IT FROM HERE.” People camped out in the parking lot. They grilled dinner. Bouquets of flowers were lined up along the curb in tribute to Brooks.

But sometimes, armed men and women guarded the insular encampment, threatening journalists and assaulting one. They also ran off police at least once after a young woman was shot in the leg. The scene frightened passersby and some visitors, particularly because of openly carried firearms.

Interim Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant told protesters at the site Monday the “environment” around the Wendy’s needed to change because several shootings had happened since the protesters took over. He agreed to meet with a protest leader to talk about how common ground could be found. He said it was unacceptable that the road was barricaded before the child was shot.

“Even when you shut the street down for a minute, it’s problematic,” Bryant said. “It’s problematic for people who are supposed to use this street, trying to get home.”

Dean Dabney, chairman of Georgia State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, wasn’t surprised by Atlanta’s move.

“The longer they waited,” said Dabney, “the harder it was going to get.”

Leaders of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association agreed.

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“It was the right move,” said Butch Ayers, executive director of the chiefs’ association. He said the lawlessness that seemed to persist around the Wendy’s was harmful and not closing down what appeared to be at the center of the issues — the Wendy’s — wouldn’t be “good for anybody.”

Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who represents the area, said she’s heard from constituents in the neighborhood that they wanted the encampment cleared, too.

The operation to evict the campers started shortly after 9 a.m.

The protesters hurriedly took down their tents and collected their belongings, loading them into the back of cars while occasionally sending angry looks at police. At the same time, city sanitation workers picked up pictures and flowers and other items that had been placed in an altar to Brooks’ memory and put them in the trash.

Zoe Williams was angry. He loaded a van as a street sweeper whirled across the parking lot. Williams and others had come to see this as sacred ground, a memorial to Brooks.

“You don’t mess with someone’s memorial,” Williams said. “We’re not trying to promote violence. We’re not trying to promote negativity.”

A woman who had taken on a leadership role at the site was outraged to see officials and media connect the shooting to the occupiers of the Wendy’s. The woman, who identified herself only as Lady A, acknowledged that the shooting happened after someone barricaded the road — which people connected to her group had done a few weeks ago — but she said it had been done Saturday without her knowledge. When she saw the barricades, she said, she immediately ordered them to be taken down.

The message didn’t get through.

Secoriea’s mother Charmaine Turner said she encountered the barricades and the armed group wouldn’t let her pass.

Secoriea Turner, 8, was fatally shot on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Atlanta. FAMILY PHOTO
Secoriea Turner, 8, was fatally shot on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Atlanta. FAMILY PHOTO

“They didn’t give us time to make a U-turn,” Turner said Sunday. “They shot my tires before we had time to turn around.”

Protesters said they were cooperating with investigators trying to catch the two men said to have been the shooters. As the campers were forced off the property while giant concrete barriers were placed around the parking lot, the lead Atlanta police investigator came to the scene. He passed out flyers with Secoriea’s face and information about a $10,000 reward from Crime Stoppers. Several people spoke with him.

The scene was mostly calm, if tense, until Lady A saw a sanitation worker pick up a bouquet of flowers and drop it in a trash can.

She stood up and began to scream and cry in outrage.

“They’re trashing what we built!” Lady A yelled. “This is a peaceful spot! We don’t know nothing about a shooting! If we had something to do with a murder, you think we would be here?”

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