By Stephen Deere - The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionBen Brasch - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
July 7, 2020
The deadly shooting death of an 8-year-old girl outside of a Wendy’s restaurant occupied by armed people raises questions about why the mayor, city leaders and the Atlanta Police allowed the group to continuously remain on the property and block a city street.
For weeks, there were multiple reports of threats — and at least one beating — against people approaching the site in the days leading up to the fatal shooting of Secoriea Turner, who was riding in the back seat of her mother’s car Saturday as she tried to turn into a liquor store near the restaurant and was stopped by a group of protesters.
There have also been at least two other shootings at the site.
Secoriea’s shooting was among more than 20 others Saturday night and Sunday morning. These included 14 people wounded at a huge party on Edgewood Avenue. Two died there.
And just last week, armed individuals at the Wendy’s threatened to shoot an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and photographer.
The violence, along with Saturday’s ransacking of the Georgia State Patrol headquarters, prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to deploy as many as 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to protect state buildings Monday.
The AJC Monday tried to ask Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant why the city did not remove the armed protesters, but the mayor, who announced she tested positive for COVID-19, did not comment.
A spokesperson for the chief didn’t respond to questions from the AJC about if police were aware that the group had threatened people with guns, and if so, why they took no action. The protesters who camped out at the Wendy’s denied responsibility in Secoriea’s killing.
The police chief also declined to answer questions about whether Bottoms made the decision to allow protesters to remain at the site, if the department was aware of people being threatened by armed protesters, and why they didn’t stop armed demonstrators from using guns to block the road.
Secoriea’s death comes at a time when some U.S. mayors have failed to contain protests in their cities. Last week in Seattle, the city finally disbanded the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone after Mayor Jenny Durkan issued an emergency order declaring the blocks-long area an “unlawful assembly” that required immediate action. It had been occupied by protesters for most of June.
“The CHOP has become lawless and brutal,” said Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, who said two shooting deaths, robberies, assaults and countless property crimes had occurred in the area.
Members of Atlanta’s City Council could not provide answers to why the city failed to reign in the armed protesters.
City Council President Felicia Moore said she visited the Wendy’s more than half a dozen times since Rayshard Brooks was shot. She described a noticeable lack of police presence, especially after a woman was shot there on June 20. Moore said demonstrators believe a white man fired a gun into the crowd and that the police were slow to respond.
She also pointed to video on social media to a prior shooting depicting demonstrators cursing and shoving a white officer away from the scene.
“Get your white face out of here,” one man shouts on the video.
Councilwoman Carla Smith told the AJC on Monday that she didn’t know conditions at the protest site had gotten worse.
During an emotional press conference Sunday, Bottoms said there was little police could do because of Georgia law that allows gun owners to carry firearms openly.
“I just want to remind you all Georgia has open carry law,” Bottoms said. “Unless somebody is pointing a gun or doing something unlawful with that gun, simply because they are walking around with this gun, doesn’t give us probable cause to stop them.”
Bottoms said at the press conference that council members had requested the group be allowed to stay at the site while they negotiated an exit with them.
Moore said the protesters wanted the site to be turned into a “peace park” for Brooks, the man killed by an Atlanta police officer after a DUI encounter on June 12. The restaurant was burned to the ground that night.
Those talks fell apart because the city does not own the property, Moore said.
Richard Rose, president of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch, said the shooting is a failure of city leadership.
“It should not have been allowed to fester the way it did to result in gunfire,” Rose said. “Political leadership should have anticipated and reached out. They can’t keep reacting.”
Lorenzo Boyd, Director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, said it is sometimes difficult for police to distinguish peaceful protesters from those meaning to do harm.
Sometimes “it’s like taking (a) rose out of (a) thorn bush, kind of hard to pinpoint exactly what’s good versus what’s bad,” Boyd said.
Atlanta Police union officials have acknowledged mass sick outs in the wake of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s decision to charge officer Garrett Rolfe with murder. Rolfe is the officer who shot Brooks June 12.
Bottoms said most officers scheduled to work Saturday reported for duty, but that 911 lines were flooded with calls.
“You can’t blame this on police,” she said.
Rose said he’s only now learning about the armed people drinking and doing drugs at the site and would have been willing to visit with protesters, but no one reached out. He agreed it would have been a bad idea for police to clear the site.
“The police don’t seem to really understand what their role should be in the community, and that’s a shame,” he said. “But America has too many guns in the first place, so when you leave it out there, you got people who are angry, confused – you’re looking for a disaster, and that’s what we have.”