Violence rocks Atlanta as peaceful protest ends in flames

After a peaceful march, a protest turned violent Friday night. Some protesters returned to the area around  Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center where some confronted police, who sprayed some demonstrators with pepper spray.
After a peaceful march, a protest turned violent Friday night. Some protesters returned to the area around Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center where some confronted police, who sprayed some demonstrators with pepper spray.

Atlanta woke up Saturday to shattered glass and the burned hulks of police cars following a protest that turned into violent chaos and looting overnight.

Rioters burned police cars and smashed their way into stores in downtown Atlanta and Buckhead despite pleas by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and civil rights activists who urged demonstrators to stay home and seek meaningful ways to honor the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis officer pinned him down with a knee on his neck while he was handcuffed.

Protests against the killing George Floyd started out peacefully in downtown Atlanta but eventually devolved into violence with looting and property damage. Police dispersed tear gas and deployed SWAT teams to combat the crowds. (AJC Staff / edited by Ryon Horne)

Stunned city officials, long accustomed to peaceful protests in the cradle of the civil rights movement, were left to reassess their strategy after masses of demonstrators defaced the CNN Center, torched a visitors center in Centennial Olympic Park and stormed through Phipps Plaza, an upscale mall in Buckhead.

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“This is not a protest,” Bottoms said during an emotional news conference late Friday. “This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country.”

City officials said police officers trying to maintain the peace were targeted with knives, eggs, firecrackers and other projectiles. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, who condemned the actions of Minneapolis officers involved in the call that left Floyd dead, had said she would allow protesters to mass so long as they didn’t violate laws.

Workers clean up the CNN sign on Saturday morning. 
Workers clean up the CNN sign on Saturday morning. 

The demonstration started off as a peaceful march from Centennial Olympic Park to the state Capitol, and participants waved signs expressing outrage over Floyd’s death and chanted demands of justice and equality. But it took a dangerous turn as the night wore on and splinter groups gathered outside the park to engage in testy clashes with law enforcement officers, who at times fired tear gas into crowds that turned barricades into weapons.

Hours after the peaceful gathering began, it had morphed into vandalism and arson and spread to Buckhead, where upscale stores were set upon by people who smashed windows and helped themselves to inventory. Numerous restaurants along Peachtree Road in the Buckhead financial district suffered damage, including Del Frisco’s Grille, Corner Bakery, Bistro Nico and Maggiano’s.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced early Saturday that he’d deployed the National Guard to restore calm.

A massive cleanup effort was underway by Saturday morning in the area around Centennial Park, and more than 20 members of the National Guard stood nearby on Marietta Street.

The windows had been busted out of the Waffle House, McCormick and Schmick’s restaurant, the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame and other businesses. Graffiti was painted on walls and columns around downtown, with messages like “No justice no peace” and “We will not stay by and watch people die.”

Outside the CNN Center, which was the early center of Friday’s clashes with police, a barricade surrounded the CNN sign while crews cleaned graffiti off it. Several residents from around the city came downtown to clean trash, debris and ash off streets and sidewalks, while small business owners reckoned with the damage to their property.

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The last time a major protest rocked Atlanta, when Black Lives Matters protesters massed outside the Governor’s Mansion in 2016, it was defused by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed when he promised a sit-down with demonstrators. But the outrage over Floyd’s death presents a different challenge, as demonstrations spread widely across the nation to protest police brutality.

Late Friday, Bottoms turned to aging civil rights activists and young hip-hop stars to plead for calm and an end to the looting, staging a news conference just blocks from where the largest group of demonstrators had gathered.

“It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy,” said a tearful Killer Mike, also known as Michael Render. “It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.”

Amir McRae, who owns the ATL Cruzers downtown Segway tour business, was awoken early Saturday by an ADT alarm call. He’d hoped his “black owned” signs would spare his building, but his windows were smashed in nonetheless.

“I’m just feeling hurt,” he said. “Here we are with utter destruction of property.” As he spoke, he shooed away looters picking over a Circle K that was overrun. “We worked way too hard for this,” he said, as they slinked away. “Do what’s right. Keep it moving!”

Just as police officers seemed to contain the violence in downtown Atlanta, large crowds moved north to the affluent Buckhead area. Big-box stores were ransacked and video showed trespassers trying to empty luxury retailers at Phipps Plaza. Atlanta Fire Rescue responded to reports of blazes at the historic Tabernacle downtown and Del Frisco’s Grille in Buckhead.

Firefighters were unable to respond immediately to Del Frisco’s because of the large protester presence. Once they were able to extinguish the flames, crews returned to trucks that had been set upon by vandals.

The beleaguered local authorities and Georgia State Patrol officers were reinforced shortly after midnight by Kemp's order, which activated as many as 500 Georgia National Guard troops. A contingent of 100 soldiers was immediately deployed to the Lenox Square Mall area and authorized to make arrests.

Video clips posted to social media showed people breaking into retailers, restaurants and a grocery store, many with no sign of law enforcement.

At 1:30 a.m. Saturday, Atlanta police provided an update on protests in the city, including multiple instances of shots being fired outside Phipps Plaza and downtown and widespread looting. “Protesters continue damaging businesses, looting and setting fire to buildings,” Sgt. John Chafee said in an emailed statement. “There has been looting at the College Football Hall of Fame, Phipps Plaza, the Target at 3535 Peachtree Road, the AT&T store on Lenox Road, the FedEx store at 100 Peachtree Street, the Starbucks at 100 Peachtree Street and many other businesses.”

As police strained to control the damage, civic leaders stepped up their pleas for calm. Atlanta rapper T.I. urged protesters to stay home – “this city doesn’t deserve this” – and bright-red digital billboards lit up with a message: “If you love Atlanta, PLEASE GO HOME!”

“We have to be better than this moment. We have to be better than burning down our own homes,” said Killer Mike. “Because if we lose Atlanta what else do we have?”

Staff Writers Alexis Stevens, Raisa Habersham, Christian Boone, J.D. Capelouto and Ernie Suggs contributed to this report.