If there was ever a place to take a toddler to a protest against racial injustice, it was Decatur, Georgia.
Perhaps it was the late spring heat that sapped otherwise violent energy from the crowd, or maybe it was the simple fact that this city neighboring Atlanta, where recent protests have led to burning police cars and shattered store fronts, is known as a haven for families seeking good public schools.
Whatever the reason, there was no hint of mayhem as hundreds pulsed through the town square, chanting angrily and pumping their fists into the air Wednesday afternoon, as children meandered nearby.
Helicopters, including a nondescript one painted gray, whirred overhead as the spontaneous, mostly white gathering, listened intently to young black men and women talking angrily through a loudspeaker about lethal police violence against black people.
"We're here to send a message," one of them shouted: "George Floyd!"
Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC.
Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC.
Hundreds echoed the name of that latest victim, a Minneapolis man who died with his neck under the knee of a white police officer. Former Officer Derek Chauvin has recently been charged with second-degree murder, up from third-degree, and his fellow arresting officers now face felony charges, too.
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It is unclear how much the nationwide outrage and spasms of violence influenced those cases, but the protest in Decatur was a peaceful one despite all the brutal videos and the recent revelations that the city itself is not immune to ugliness involving race.
Last week, Decatur was dealing with a racist video by a white Decatur High School student. Reportedly filmed a year ago, when he was 14, it surfaced online, showing him waving a gun that looks like a toy and claiming he uses it to shoot black people. He is the son of a Decatur High School administrator and a nephew of the Presiding Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Hearing him use a racial epithet to describe black people has shaken the city with its reputation for progressive politics and friendly race relations.
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It was at least the third racist video in a month to emerge from the city of 25,000. It triggered a rally on the steps of city hall last week, where local black leaders — both adults and teenagers from the local high school — critiqued “white privilege” and said it was time for white residents to advocate for equality.
On Wednesday, hundreds of white people joined fewer black people on a march around the town square, chanting "black lives matter," "no justice, no peace" and “I can’t breathe,” among the last words Floyd uttered before he died.
Some adults brought little kids with them obviously expecting a peaceful protest.
DeKalb County marshals in black vehicles trailed the crowd as it marched around downtown, but officers and protesters appeared unconcerned by a handful of young, well-armed black men and a woman. They wore Black Panther insignia, protective vests, ammo clips and all-black clothing.
They wouldn’t give their names but were friendly.
"We're here out of love, loving our friends and foes alike," one of the men said, when asked about the rifles and sidearms. "But we will protect ourselves if we need to."
The city and county police left them alone and, unlike in Atlanta during the recent spasms of violence, were not kitted in riot gear.
Mostly, the officers stood around, chatting in the shade.
It seemed almost festive, as volunteers handed out refreshments. The Brick Store Pub, a downtown eatery known for a vast selection of brewers' finest, shut down for the day and employees distributed bottles of water from iced buckets. A couple Emory students, David Nichols and Arturo Luna, toted cooler bags filled with water, apples and granola bars, offering them to anyone nearby. Luna said he picked up the food at a grocery store Tuesday, figuring it would come in handy at one protest or another.
He had no idea at that point that a protest was brewing in Decatur.
Neither the Black Student Union at Decatur High nor the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights — the two groups behind last week’s rally outside city hall — claimed responsibility for Wedneday’s showing.
The spontaneous crowd may have assembled because of social media posts by Decatur High graduate Chaléah Head, 19. The Georgia State University student said she posted a flier calling for the rally on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook Monday night, but got few responses.
She was surprised by the turnout — and wide-eyed by the sight of the armed Black Panthers. She said she called for the protest in the city where she still lives because she wanted a break from the livelier scenes she has experienced around metro Atlanta. She knew Decatur would be calmer.
"I'm tired of getting teargassed," Head said around 5 p.m., as the protesters quietly left the Decatur square.