X

Atlanta officials balance safety, virus, First Amendment amid protests

June 5, 2020 - Atlanta - Groups of demonstrators gathered late Friday afternoon as protests continued in downtown Atlanta. Marchers are demonstrating against racial inequality and police killings of African Americans. Hyosub Shin / hyosub.shin@ajc.com
June 5, 2020 - Atlanta - Groups of demonstrators gathered late Friday afternoon as protests continued in downtown Atlanta. Marchers are demonstrating against racial inequality and police killings of African Americans. Hyosub Shin / hyosub.shin@ajc.com

City officials wrestled with maintaining the peace and preventing the spread of COVID-19 while supporting the First Amendment as Atlantans hit the streets Friday for an eighth night of racial justice marches.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lowered the city’s curfew by one hour to 8 p.m., a restriction she said would extend through Sunday as leaders braced for the possibility of swollen weekend crowds.

Demonstrations downtown were largely peaceful early Friday night as thousands mourned the deaths of three African Americans – George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick and Breonna Taylor in Louisville – and called for an end to racial inequalities and police violence against people of color. As the curfew began, some protesters had marched to Piedmont Park and the Beltline.

Stormy weather earlier in the day did not stop other marches and rallies across the metro area, including in Roswell, Suwanee and on Emory University’s campus.

In Kennesaw, several dozen young adults called for the closure of a store displaying Confederate and Jim Crow-era memorabilia, and in DeKalb activists renewed their push for the removal of the pro-Confederate Lost Cause monument at the heart of Decatur Square.

ExploreATLANTA PROTESTS: COMPLETE COVERAGE

In downtown Atlanta, some marchers turned the day’s protest into a family affair.

Felisha Carpenter said she brought her 18-year-old son to show him that he matters as much as “his white counterpart.”

Carpenter added that she’s a nurse, so she hopes police officers are held to the same level of accountability as people in her profession.

“If I mess up and give someone the wrong medicine, I’m held accountable,” she said. “My license is on the line.”

With a marching snare at his waist, Abraham Malobe and his family trekked between Atlanta City Hall and Centennial Olympic Park.

“We all don’t need to love each other,” Malobe said, with his four kids at his side. “Some black people don’t like white people. Some white people don’t like black people. But the justice system should be equal.”

Meanwhile, the Atlanta police provided an update on Officer Maximilian “Max” Brewer, who was seriously injured by an alleged drunken driver on an ATV last weekend. The department said Brewer, who remains at Grady Memorial Hospital, is in “good spirits,” adding that the city council surprised him with balloons Friday.

A GoFundMe page was created for the 18-year police veteran. It has raised more than $167,000.

The relatively quiet nature of Friday’s marches — some protesters brought their own trash bags to clean up — came in sharp contrast to a week ago, when demonstrations turned violent as some protesters looted stores and threw bricks, Molotov cocktails and knives at officers.

In recent days, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields indicated she was grappling with how much to enforce the curfew with peaceful protesters.

“When the curfew sets in, one of the things we struggle with is that they (the peaceful protesters) don’t understand why they are being forced to leave,” Shields told the Atlanta City Council on Thursday. “The curfew is across the board, and until we can navigate out of this space where these extremists are assaulting us, we are just going to have to embrace the curfew.”

Bottoms was willing to make one exception. On Friday afternoon she instructed the police not to enforce the curfew for people waiting in line to vote, she announced on social media, amid reports of a busy final day of early voting ahead of Tuesday’s primary election day.

Still unclear is how much of an impact the week’s protests will have on the state’s coronavirus cases, which have also had a disproportionate impact on African Americans.

Many of the demonstrations have drawn hundreds or thousands of attendees, often standing shoulder to shoulder. And while some protesters have worn masks, others have not.

That’s worried public health experts, who warn about the potential for a super-spreader event, especially since tear gas and other irritants can cause people to cough or touch their eyes, which can help spread the virus. Yelling and singing can also increase how far respiratory droplets can travel.

Bottoms has repeatedly urged people who have been protesting to get tested, and the city of Atlanta publicized a free testing event being held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Chosewood Arts Complex near South Atlanta.

Dr. Jay Varkey, associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said he understands why so many people, even during a pandemic, would feel compelled to protest.

During a briefing with reporters on Friday, Varkey recognized there is a danger of spreading the virus at these gatherings, but said he would not discourage people from attending the protests and exercising their right to free speech.

“If we are going to be honest, we need to acknowledge racism didn’t stop during the pandemic,” said Varkey. “It is important we acknowledge the very reason and constitutional right for people to assemble especially in the threat of ongoing racism and its impact in disparate and unequal action on the part of law enforcement. What I have told people who want to apply their constitutional right to assemble is to do it safely.”

He recommended protesters take steps — such as wearing masks and either goggles or glasses, and to bring hand sanitizer — to lower the risk of exposure.

Staff writers Helena Oliviero, Zachary Hansen and Stephen Deere contributed to this article.