OPINION: Uprisings reveal how Atlanta police and protests have changed

Atlanta Police Officer J. Nguyen (center) and his fellow cops knee-down in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with demonstrators, and exchange handshakes and fist bumps with protesters at Centennial Olympic Park on June 3, 2020 — the sixth consecutive day of protests in Atlanta against police brutality and racism. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Former Atlanta cop Trudy Nan Boyce was watching television on the Friday night that the anti-racism demonstrations roiling Minneapolis and other U.S. cities spread to Atlanta. It was a face-off between protesters and police, and she noticed a sea change from when she was in the front lines of the 1992 street disturbances.

“The front line of protesters were all white and the front line of officers were all black,” she said. “Someone was holding up a Black Lives Matter sign. I found that incredibly ironic.”

The dynamics have changed in the nearly three decades since crowds of metro Atlantans took to the streets to protest L.A. cops getting acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.

In 1992, the protesters were almost all black and were joined by a legion of freelancers bent on causing mayhem. If you were white and caught on the streets of downtown Atlanta, you had a good chance of being beaten. More than 40 people were hospitalized.

Groups rampaged through Underground Atlanta, breaking windows and overturning carts.

Joe Martin, who headed the earlier renovation of Underground, once told me that event helped spell the eventual doom of the shopping-and-entertainment attraction. “Underground never recovered,” he said.


The recent protests have created waves of looting and mayhem that have damaged property, but beatings have been relatively rare compared to 1992.

However, there is a tragic and reminiscent twist — the manager of Underground Atlanta was beaten on that Friday night by a crowd of young men who chased him down and pounded him into the pavement. Whether they were protesters or violent dirtbag opportunists is unknown. I’d put my money on the latter.

April 30, 1992 — Atlanta police and SWAT team members arrest looters at a clothing store at Little Five Points during a riot in reaction to the Rodney King verdict. (W.A. Bridges Jr. / AJC 1992 file photo)

The difference in the protests this time is twofold:

» We live in a much less violent society. (I can almost hear some of you arguing, but crime today is HALF what it was in 1992)

» The crowds are racially mixed, so there’s less of an us-against-them racial component on the streets.

Well, there’s still the us-against-them when it comes to the crowds and police, although that is somewhat tempered from the confrontations of years past.

The ubiquitousness of cellphones means that everything happening is instantly broadcast, which has quelled some police officers’ enthusiasm for harsh measures. Social media has also enabled protesters to get called together day after day after day.

Protesters dodge tear gas deployed by police after the 9 p.m. curfew in downtown Atlanta on June 2, 2020. Rallies and marches, often marred by violence, continued for a fourth day in Atlanta amid nationwide and global demonstrations over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The arrest rolls from the first few days bear out the crowd’s wide-ranging demographics. Nearly 500 people were arrested the first five days of the protests, mostly for curfew violations or “pedestrians in the roadway” charges. Of those arrested, 30% were white.

The theory trotted out by officials that outta-town troublemakers wreaked havoc is not necessarily borne out by the stats. About 10% of those arrested are from other states, about a third are from the city, and the rest largely come from the ’burbs.

Marcus Coleman, an organizer of protest marches in Atlanta, speaks to a crowd outside City Hall. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

Marcus Coleman, one of the organizers, said, “I have seen a swell of different races, specifically Caucasians joining this fight. This is organic and it is growing.”

Concerning the image of white protesters facing off against black cops, he said, “We have strategically put Caucasian comrades on the corners (of the crowds). The police take a different approach when there are white people on the front line.”

In a rally in front of City Hall early in the week, Coleman grabbed his bullhorn and shouted out demands: That cops live in the cities they police, that they are drug tested, that there is increased de-escalation training and psychological evaluation.

>> PHOTOS: Atlanta Protests — The Police

>> PHOTOS: Protesters gather across metro Atlanta

One of the most distressing visual events of the protests is video — many videos, in fact — of Atlanta cops dragging two black college students from a car, tasing them, roughing them up and arresting them.

It occurred on the second night of the protests, a night during which police were determined not to have a repeat of the damage and looting of the previous night. So some cops overcompensated.

The students were caught in traffic and were talking with a friend on the street when the pedestrian was slammed to the pavement and an officer chased down the vehicle. Soon, the cop’s cohorts went to town breaking the car’s windows to get to the “suspects,” who were confused, shocked and terrified.

Spelman College student Taniyah Pilgrim speaks to the crowd while her boyfriend, Morehouse College student Messiah Young, right, listens to his mother, Genesis Young, at a press conference on the Morehouse campus Monday, June 1, 2020. The two were on their way to get dinner shortly after 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, when Atlanta police pulled them from their vehicle, tased them both and fractured Young’s arm. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields quickly fired two of the officers. “We gave conflicting instructions; we didn’t allow the driver or passenger a chance to respond,” she said. “We created chaos and we escalated a low-level encounter into a space where we introduced violence. Once this occurs, we need to own it.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who is in a bitter race for re-election, upped the ante and almost immediately charged six officers with crimes, five of them with serious felonies.

Shields then took aim at the DA saying, "This does not mean for a moment that I will sit quietly by and watch our employees get swept up in the tsunami of political jockeying during an election year."

Her response was extraordinary but understandable: She must keep the trust of her troops. But it’s a tightrope walk to win over the public and keep officers on your side.

One important note here: Five of the six cops charged are black — 60% of the Atlanta Police Department is African American — so this was not a white-on-black situation. But it might go to Coleman’s thought that blacks more routinely get manhandled in these situations.

Policing has changed dramatically in the past three decades and even since 2014, when there were protests over the killing of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

And things are trending in a more positive direction in Atlanta.

>> RELATED: Atlanta mayor, police chief walk in 'solidarity' with protesters downtown

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields talks at a press conference while Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms looks on. (STEVE SCHAEFER for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer /Special

Credit: Steve Schaefer /Special

“The biggest change is Chief Shields and to have a police chief who is willing to admit when an officer is wrong,” said Dan Grossman, an attorney who has sued the city concerning police mistreatment. “That is a sea change. George Turner (Shield’s predecessor) would never admit an officer ever did anything wrong.

“It’s corrosive; it sends a message to officers that you have immunity,” Grossman said. “There was a top-down attitude that you guys are bulletproof.”

“In general, things have gotten better, there’s a sense there will be accountability.”

In Other News