OPINION: Went to the torched Atlanta Wendy’s and got guns with that

Armed protesters prowled site where cop shot Rayshard Brooks

"Don't make any sudden moves, or you will get shot."

The warning was matter-of-fact, almost indifferent, and issued by an armed young Black man perhaps not yet out of his teens. The warning was given to me and Steve Visser, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who accompanied me to the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by a cop this month.

The fast-food restaurant was torched the night after Brooks' death, and America watched on CNN as flames engulfed it. The charred, graffiti-scrawled ruins have since become part shrine to a Black man's death, and part Occupy Atlanta — the University Avenue branch.

Welcome to Mad Max in The ATL, a bizarre scene with a post-apocalyptic feel. It's a space where gun-toting dudes stand sentry to barren territory, where they serve as a ragtag Checkpoint Charlie, stopping bemused and sometimes alarmed motorists.

» MORE | Rayshard Brooks coverage from the AJC

Since late last week, University Avenue near Pryor Street has become a place where the law won’t go. Or at least where police have employed a hands-off strategy so as not to fan the flames of rage and contempt that stews in the streets.

The spot is right off the Downtown Connector, just south of the old Turner Field. It’s a forlorn stretch of now-boarded-up businesses — a car parts store, a package store, a couple of gas stations, and the Wendy’s where Brooks passed out in his car while trying to grab a late-night meal at the drive-thru.

Brooks was shot to death after fighting two white cops who tried to arrest him. Garrett Rolfe, who shot Brooks as he ran, has been charged with murder.

» EXCLUSIVE | Atlanta cop in Brooks case: ‘Truth will come out’

The Wendy's became ground zero for protests until it got dangerous last Friday night. A widely viewed video shows several gun-toting fellows strolling down the street as an admirer films them, gushing, "Man, I wish I could hold me a pistol. That's the @#&$!"

Almost on cue, gunshots — lots of them — break out. People scatter, although some not as urgently as you might think. A 24-year-old woman is hit in the leg.

Someone says the shooter was white. There have been rumors white supremacists have been itching to target the area. In fact, it's like some want it to be the KKK. It fits the narrative.

“It’s a Black guy,” the injured woman responds as she calmly attends to her own wound.

Minutes later cops arrive and one is shoved away — forcefully — by a man in a Black Lives Matter shirt. Soon, two white cops are shouted back into their cars by a menacing crowd. The cops realize discretion is the better part of valor. They skedaddle.

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The next day, a couple in a car driving on University "were forced to stop by what was described as a mob," a police report states. Several in the so-called mob are armed. Someone reaches in, slaps the driver. Someone throws a rock through the window. The driver gets slightly injured.

Hours later, a man gets shot in the leg. Also in the area that night, my old AJC buddy George Chidi, who is an activist and a journalist, got punched out and sent to Grady Memorial Hospital by a group of men.

The following day, which was Sunday, a man on the scene told me Chidi had been extolling the importance of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, there were no constitutional scholars within earshot.

I had decided on Sunday to witness the madness for myself. I met my buddy Visser, who lives nearby. I figured it’d be harder to beat up or shoot two people than one.

The scene Sunday afternoon was part flea market, part curiosity. There were groups of people sitting in chairs under two picnic tents in the parking lot, and three vendors hawking “Black Lives Matter” and “George Floyd” T-shirts.

We were approached by a massive guy with what resembled a TEC-9 semi-automatic pistol dangling from his chest. We were then directed over to someone who might be described as their spokesman. He said they were part of a peace initiative. Or something. I can’t recall exactly what he said because I was warned not to take notes, shoot videos or make sudden movements. We could get shot.

I was told they were protecting the community from “your kind,” and they didn’t mean nosy reporter types. The youth assigned to me — he went by “Fast Lane” — couldn’t have been 17 and carried what appeared to be his grandfather’s single-barrelled shotgun.

The older fellow accompanying Visser was 20, tops, and also armed, although it’s funny neither of us can recall what kind of weapon he carried. “The age and maturity of the gunmen was a concern,” Visser later said. The trigger discipline is not the same as one finds with older folks who shoot.

» OPINION | Public gun toting in black and white — and when blues see red

Visser’s “guide” gave us our “tour,” meaning the young man proudly pointed out stuff as we strolled around the burned-out Wendy’s, gazed at the graffiti, and peeked inside the wreckage of a molten safe. The guide mentioned that $300 in quarters were retrieved from it.

Later, the centurions ambled out onto University Avenue and blocked the fairly busy thoroughfare with an old car on one side of the road and some junk on the other. A young fellow with his shotgun pointed skyward stopped cars, glanced inside, and then determined who could continue or not. Black motorists went through. White drivers had to U-turn.

During my 90 minutes there Sunday, I saw two police cars approach this insanity but slowly drive away. The department’s standing in some quarters is in the toilet, so the force decided to let this hornets’ nest remain unmolested.

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council held its public safety meeting, and Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who heads that committee and represents that district, said she’s been fielding calls from residents asking, “My God, what is happening?”

Good question.

POSTSCRIPT: Police didn't say much about the situation when I asked on Tuesday and then wrote this column. On Wednesday, the day after Brooks' funeral, the police arrived and moved the barriers. The area was largely calm Wednesday afternoon.