U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak speaks during a press conference outside of the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse in Atlanta on Sept. 4, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

U.S. Attorney probing some incidents tied to Atlanta protests

Authorities are examining if federal charges are appropriate in fewer than a dozen incidences of property damage and violence against police officers that occurred amid Atlanta’s protests of police brutality and racial injustice following George Floyd’s death, U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said Tuesday.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office are examining individuals who might have traveled across state lines to incite a riot, which is a federal crime, Pak said. Pak told reporters during a livestreamed Atlanta Press Club event that his office is acting in a support role to local law enforcement.

The matters under investigation by federal authorities mostly relate to arson, including the torching of police vehicles, which occurred May 29 in the first night of demonstrations in downtown Atlanta. Demonstrations that night started peacefully but devolved into vandalism and looting in downtown and Buckhead.

Similar violent outbursts across the country prompted U.S. Attorney General William Barr to direct federal law enforcement agencies to apprehend and charge “violent criminal agitators who have taken over peaceful protests.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms instituted a curfew that lasted for seven nights, and Gov. Brian Kemp mobilized the National Guard.

Protests that have occurred since have been largely peaceful. Over the weekend, Bottoms rescinded the curfew and Kemp’s order to mobilize the guard expired.

“We are not interested, nor are we doing anything about folks who are peacefully protesting or even breaking curfew,” Pak said. “That’s not what we’re here for. We’re only looking at instances where people are coming for the purposes of inciting a riot and causing damage and endangering lives of people who are peacefully protesting.”

Atlanta police officers form a shield around an Atlanta firefighter as he extinguishes an Atlanta Police patrol car that was set aflame by protestors outside of the CNN Center in Atlanta May 29, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pak said as additional police reports come in, other matters might come under federal scrutiny. Local authorities arrested hundreds of people in connection to curfew violations and vandalism in the early days of the protests, though Atlanta police reported no arrests over the weekend.

Pak’s remarks were part of a wide-ranging discussion about law enforcement priorities in the Northern District of Georgia, including the opioid crisis, elder fraud, cyber-crimes, terrorism, extremism and public corruption.

Pak said it is critical for authorities to get at the root of distrust in law enforcement in African-American communities and seek reform. But Pak cautioned against painting all agencies with a broad brush.

“As racism and bias in our institutions is front and center, we need to look at the causes of that,” he said.

Pak also expressed confidence in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes regarding the prosecution of three men on charges connected to the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick. The U.S. Department of Justice is also examining potential hate crimes charges.

Two local DAs initially tied to the case declined to press charges, but a video of the incident released in May sparked national outrage and led to a takeover of the investigation by the GBI and the appointment of Holmes.

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