A reporter’s perspective: This hurts seeing it happen in your hometown

AJC reporter Ernie Suggs June 2, 2017 (KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com)
AJC reporter Ernie Suggs June 2, 2017 (KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com)

Veteran AJC reporter has covered many protests. Then Friday arrived.

Editor’s note: Ernie Suggs has been a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1997, primarily covering race and culture. Born in Brooklyn, he is a graduate of North Carolina Central University and was a 2009 Harvard University Nieman Fellow.

He has reported on many protests up close, here in Atlanta and in other cities, including Friday’s downtown Atlanta march, organized to protest racial injustice and police brutality against African Americans. As the AJC reports on the protests, we will continue to share many perspectives, including firsthand accounts of AJC journalists who are covering events on the ground.

When I covered Ferguson in 2014, I thought I had seen it all in terms of chaos. Running from tanks and tear gas and having a kid point a gun at me, echoed similar scenes that I covered in subsequent places like Baltimore, Charlotte and Charleston, when unarmed black men were killed by police officers.

Protesters stand in front of a burning vendor cart outside of the visitor bureau office in Centennial Olympic Park on Friday, May 29, 2020, in Atlanta. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Protesters stand in front of a burning vendor cart outside of the visitor bureau office in Centennial Olympic Park on Friday, May 29, 2020, in Atlanta. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

I just never thought I would witness this chaos in Atlanta. Friday afternoon, I honestly believed that the protest would be like most Atlanta events — a march, some speeches (a little yelling) and everyone would go home. My main concern, honestly, was social distancing and trying not to catch the coronavirus.

But by the time I saw a fleet of three police cars burn in front of the College Football Hall of Fame, I couldn’t help but think, “This is worse than Ferguson.”

After a peaceful march the Georgia State Capitol that swelled into the hundreds,  protesters returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
After a peaceful march the Georgia State Capitol that swelled into the hundreds, protesters returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Hours earlier, the amazing Raisa Habersham, Ben Gray and Alyssa Pointer were camped out in front of CNN as the situation grew tense. But it ebbed and flowed. Protesters yelled at cops, climbed the CNN sign and were pushed back. Rinse and Repeat.

Then the bricks came, and CNN’s windows became the targets. Then the skirmishes with the police that would result in someone getting dragged off amid cheers.

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Another retreat. Then you heard the explosions.

Not of fireworks and guns, but it is amazing how loud it gets when people stomp on cars. In the middle of the street, just minutes after I took a photo of a poster stuck to an APD car, protesters became rioters dead set on destroying the fleet of cruisers.

The stomping on the windshield was deafening. I was amazed that as they used their skateboards as battering rams, they didn’t splinter in their hands.

Then, someone set one ablaze as the crowd suddenly turned silent. A man walked up and lit a cigarette on the car.

Atlanta police officers form a shield around an Atlanta firefighter as he extinguishes an Atlanta Police Department patrol car that was set aflame by protesters outside CNN Center in Atlanta, Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Atlanta police officers form a shield around an Atlanta firefighter as he extinguishes an Atlanta Police Department patrol car that was set aflame by protesters outside CNN Center in Atlanta, Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photo: ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

When the night finally ended, I walked to my car, which I though was parked far enough down the street at a parking garage on Marietta Street. The street where so many of us learned our craft and learned to love what we do, was destroyed. I walked past the CNN building where all the windows were broken.

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Through Centennial Olympic Park, where its structures were smoldering. Past the Omni and a few restaurants. Past the three burned up cars and the destroyed Embassy Suites and Ruth Chris Steakhouse. Past the Hall of Fame and a Chick-fil-A.

At the parking deck, I saw that Stats was totaled. My car, parked at the top of the deck, was fine. But driving down Marietta Street, I saw where the owner of a tiny store was inspecting the damage that his life savings probably went into.

As a journalist, who has been on the front lines for all of these uprisings, I thought I was desensitized to all of it. But there is a special ache that comes when you see it happening at home.