Activists decry ‘outsiders’ who hijacked peaceful march for justice

As the screams started and tear gas filled the air Friday evening, Zoe Bambara, 19, sat on the Centennial Olympic Park stage and began to cry.

From the stage to the horizon, all she could see were crowds of people who had gathered in peaceful protest against police brutality. Bambara, a beauty school student who lives in East Point, had in two days organized a larger protest than many experienced activists had done during their entire careers.

“I was overjoyed. I was surprised. I was angry. I was frustrated,” said Bambara, lead organizer for #ATLFORUS, the coalition that joined together on social media to march from Centennial Olympic Park to the Capitol.

Strangers handed Bambara tissues and rubbed her back to comfort her. She knew the Atlanta she loved was behind her. Peaceful protests need to continue.

“I understand that everybody is angry. What I do want to say is please stop hurting other people,” Bambara, who is black, said Saturday.

“Do not destroy our city. We built it,” Bambara said.

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For those who took to the streets Friday, the day was made up of two separate events, tied together only by shared feelings of outrage.

There was an orderly protest launched by Bambara, a former Parkview High School student who until last week aspired to be a skin care specialist or lash technician. She brought her mother, stepfather and 10-year old brother for moral support.

Lawmakers, attorneys, longtime activists and representatives from established civil rights groups joined in to give suggestions and equipment, and police gave her advice on the safest route to the Capitol.

Then there was what took place afterwards, when people started fires, broke windows and looted stores. Some law enforcement officials think many were not from Georgia. Experienced activists called them “outsiders.”

“This is not how we get down,” said Dontaye Carter, who owns a public relations firm and attended the peaceful demonstration with attorney Gerald Griggs, a leader with the NAACP. He said he was one of the last to leave the organized protest, and was pulling into his garage when he got a call that violence broke out.

“I felt like what happened was missed. People of all ages came together around the theme of justice,” Carter said. “They bonded around justice, accountability and transparency and that was missed because of some bad actors and outsiders that came in.”

‘It was crazy’

Lawmakers made speeches about proposed hate crimes legislation for Bambara and other marchers who made their way to the state Capitol Friday afternoon. Some members had no patience for their words, said Dre Propst, a veteran organizer who marched with them.

“My brother got shot by police,” one shouted to state leaders, Propst said. “Where were you?”

Demonstrators rejected advice from State Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta, who told protesters to stay six feet apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Griggs and others recalled.

“We gon’ be alright,” they chanted back, quoting from the Kendrick Lamar song that became the unofficial soundtrack of the Black Lives Matter movement five years ago. Many were too young to have participated in those protests, Propst noted.

Chaos grew as protesters from the Capitol left to join a separate group outside CNN Center, Propst said. A friend of his shouted at a white man in his 30s to stop spray painting walls. Black kids are the ones who get arrested for the trouble caused by whites, she warned.

“He didn’t care. He kept walking and doing stuff,” Propst said.

Demonstrators who tried to leave the area around CNN grew panicked when they were blocked by police trying to control the crowd, Propst said. Someone in the crowd brought a blow torch. Another had an accelerants. A police cruiser started to burn.

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Propst and many of the other experienced activists left.

“It was too much. It was crazy,” he said.

At Centennial Olympic Park, activists surrounded Bambara to protect her from the turmoil.

“When I saw everybody I just burst out in tears. It warmed my heart,” Bambara said. “I had people willing to be right beside me.”

‘Lenox at 11’

The crowd outside CNN grew in size to hundreds as darkness fell, but there was no clear authority to guide them. The Black Lives Matter movement has no hierarchy or centralized leadership. The #ATLFORUS coalition was formed on Wednesday by people who met on Twitter.

Voices shouted to head to Lenox Square Mall in Buckhead.

“Lenox at 11,” they cried out.

Others organized a makeshift first aid station at the Olympic rings in the park, pleading supplies when pepper spray filled the air.

A tall African-American man on Walton Street urged the crowd to walk away, one eye trained on police nearby.

“They’re trying to surround us,” he said.

An elderly white woman was cheered by the crowd as she used her metal walker, stepping quickly in the middle of Centennial Olympic Park Drive, with a sign “Our terrorists wear badges.” The woman walked to a line of a law enforcement officers, with the crowd behind her. Tear gas suddenly filled the air and the crowd fled.

Many of the people on the streets Friday night may not have been from Georgia, Dunwoody police spokesman Sgt. Robert Parsons in an email. The agency towed cars for a number of them who were parked at Perimeter Center Mall.

“If tags were displayed, almost all of them were from out of state,” Parsons said.

At a City Hall press conference, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told protesters “Go Home,” gaining her praise from the spokesman of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and others.

But no one was listening on the streets, said Griggs of the NAACP, who said Bottoms ignored her own role in the current troubles. She and other city leaders may have headed off some of the violence if they had done more to enact reforms recommended by protesters who took to Atlanta’s streets after the 2016 deaths of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn. and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.

Black people continue to die at the hands of police in Atlanta, he said.

“For the mayor of the City of Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement, to get on TV to say that Atlanta does not have a police brutality problem — that’s disingenuous,” he said.

Criticisms from civil rights leaders and other members of older generations were unfair, Griggs said

“It was a fringe element did what it did after 7 p.m.” Griggs said. “That was no excuse to treat young people that way. Young people have been the life blood of civil rights. The life blood of social justice.”

Bambara said she plans to organize more peaceful protests soon. She no longer wants to go into cosmetology.

“We can’t just have this one moment in time,” Bambara said. “This is a revolution. I’m going to dedicate my life to this.”