24-hour rally in downtown Atlanta draws attention to police shootings

More that 30 activists groups — ranging from the NAACP to Black Lives Matter — embarked on 24 hours of protests at the Fulton County Courthouse on Tuesday night to bring attention to the number of black men killed by police.

The protest is in anticipation of the grand jury findings surrounding the officer-related killing of Deravis Caine Rogers.

But one activist said that it was also serving as a “release valve,” to let people in the birthplace of the civil rights movement protest nonviolently.

“Cities all over this country went up in smoke,” said activist Derrick Boazman. “We needed a place to let us use our music, our minds and our message to focus on getting justice for that family.

At about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, more than 150 activists had gathered in downtown Atlanta. It was mostly peaceful and orderly as people took turns speaking. A concert was scheduled for midnight.

Mawuli Davis, an Atlanta attorney and one of the organizers of the event said the activists will stay in place — likely in shifts — until 6 p.m. Wednesday.

On Wednesday, a Fulton County grand jury will convene in the case of James R. Burns, a former Atlanta police officer who was charged and jailed for murdering Rogers in a controversial shooting on June 22.

An attorney for Burns said the former officer feared for his life when he made a split-second decision to shoot Rogers. Burns was terminated on July 1 by the Atlanta Police Department after an internal affairs investigation. He we also charged with aggravated assault and violation of his oath of office.

According to the investigation, Burns, who is white, shot Rogers even though he did not know at the time if the 22-year-old black man was a suspect in any crime.

Burns had been on the force for nearly two years when he responded to a call to backup an off-duty officer who spotted a suspicious person at an apartment complex in northeast Atlanta.

As Burns drove into the complex, he spotted a vehicle’s headlights turn on and then the car started to drive toward his car. Rogers was behind the wheel, but he didn’t stop when Burns flashed his blue lights. Rogers kept driving and that’s when Burns shot him.

The Atlanta police department’s internal affairs investigation determined that Burns was not reasonably in fear for his life, and ruled the shooting an unnecessary and excessive use of force.

“As a black man, this saddens me,” Boazman said. “When you look at this brother, who was 22-years-old, with lots of promise, from a beautiful family. To lose his life over nothing. He was unarmed and committed no crime.”

Melva Rogers, Deravis’ mother, addressed the crowd late Tuesday.

She said she has watched from her living room over the last two years as police encounters with black men have seemingly increase, largely because of social media and access to digital cameras. She said she never expected it to hit home.

“When the violence hits your living room, it knocks you out,” Rogers said.

She said she and her seven-year-old son planned on staying the whole 24 hours.

“We are on the cusp of history here in Atlanta,” DeKalb Lawyers Association President Miguel Dominguez said. “Hopefully, when we go home. It wont be ‘what were those grand jurors thinking.’ It will be finally.”

Shean Williams, an attorney with the Cochran firm, has represented other victims of police violence, namely Kathryn Johnston, the 82-year-old grandmother killed inside her home by Atlanta police’s Red Dog Unit.

“I’m a lawyer, but I want to be unemployed,” he said. “I love Melva Rogers, but I’m tired of meeting families this way.”​

The mood, while serious, was also laced with light moments.

Tables were set up with food that was given out to the homeless, while a radio station broadcast live music from the event.

Fulton County Deputies hung around, but faded into the background. Homeless men camped out at a church across the street watched silently.