Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was watching live video of a semi-truck stopped by protesters on the downtown connector Friday night, but he was thinking about 1992 Los Angeles.
That’s the year L.A. burned during rioting that followed the acquittal of four police officers charged with use of excessive force in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. One of the victims on the first day of the riots was a truck driver named Reginald Denny, who was nearly beaten to death on live television after being stopped by protesters.
Reed made the decision to go into the crowd as he watched Atlantans shake and climb on top of the the truck.
“It just struck me as a moment when things could go really badly and we needed a pause,” Reed said during an interview Tuesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.. “I thought if that truck had been turned over, there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong, and the energy would have moved to a different place.
“When I got to the protest … the young people moved toward me and away from the truck.”
Reed has twice entered the fray since demonstrations started Thursday, after African-American men were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. He did so again Monday night, when demonstrators camped in front of the Governor's mansion began chants, demanding a meeting with him and Police Chief George Turner.
The mayor and Turner showed up and met with four young protesters, emerging from a police command vehicle 45 minutes later to announce a larger meeting Monday at City Hall. It's unclear if the demonstrations will continue this week.
Reed said his motivation for meeting Monday was opposite of Friday: “My feeling was they had been non-violent, done minimal property damage, and I watched them attempt to have a more orderly demonstration, so I thought it was appropriate to meet.”
Public protest and civil disobedience come with high political risk, no matter what an elected official does, experts say.
Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, called it a "no win situation."
“Mayors are quite literally caught in the middle,” Jacobs said. “If they sit back, they face shame for failure of leadership. When they go into the streets, they risk appearing ineffectual or face the political cost of being repudiated by allies.
“How do you speak to your base, who are livid and feel assaulted by police, and at the same time work cooperatively with that essential group of public servants?”
Reed seems to have somehow pulled it off, said Angelo Fuster, a communications expert who served in the administrations or worked on the campaigns of three Atlanta mayors — Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young and Bill Campbell.
“There is risk, period,” Fuster said Tuesday. “I was a little surprised he showed up last night, because I don’t think the administration responds well to demands like that. But I was pleased that he did show up. He listened and invited them to City Hall next week.
“I thought that was effective.”
Avery Jackson was one of the students who met with Reed Monday night. Jackson, who has demonstrated each night, said he wasn’t surprised that the mayor decided to meet with them.
“Because of the intensity, because of the willingness of folks to constantly be in the streets, the strategy for dealing with the issue has to be deeper than just policing,” Jackson said.
Not everyone thinks the mayor’s approach has been effective.
Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, said Atlanta police "manhandled" protesters Monday night prior to Reed's meeting with them. He said a white Presbyterian minister was still in Grady Hospital Tuesday because of a shoulder injury he suffered during arrest.
“To manhandle protesters, throw them in jail like they did last night, is not consistent with what Mayor Reed said he would do,” Johnson said.
About 16 people were arrested Monday; fewer than 25 were arrested during the four previous days.
Georgia Sen. Vincent Fort, who has clashed with Reed over many issues, questioned why so many people were arrested during one night of protests in Buckhead.
“The thing that aggravates me, and that concerns me greatly, is that when students are downtown they are given latitude. But, but when they go to Buckhead, they are arrested in mass,” Fort said. “The location of the protests was the only variable. That’s a problem of justice.”
Reed said the protesters were arrested Monday when they impeded traffic in a major business corridor. The mayor said he does not regret inserting himself in the demonstrations. Atlanta’s reputation and history of non-violent protests is too important, he said.
“It’s my job to listen and to try and address the challenges that generate this kind of frustration,” Reed said. “You can’t fear the people you represent.”