A Wednesday night rally to support a family of a 19-year-old killed by a police officer ended in the vandalism of a Union City government buildings -- an act that family supporters fear will focus public attention on the disruption and not the shooting.
"It is a distraction from the issue, which is an unarmed man was shot in the back," said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing the family of the man killed earlier this month . "It is unfortunate that some individuals selfishly decided to engage in basic vandalism."
Steve Rapson, city manager for the south Fulton community, said the vandalism was committed by a handful of people following the rally and was largely limited to spray-painted graffiti of obscene messages about the police and a broken window at the city's jail in which brick was thrown with such force that it embedded in the inside wall. The vandals also set fire to an American flag that was flying at the Post Office, Rapson said.
Ariston Waiters died from two gunshots to the back on Dec. 16 after fleeing from police during a fight in a Union City subdivision, according to an autopsy report by the Fulton County Medical Examiner. The killing has brought together civil-rights groups and Occupy Atlanta who contend it was example of trigger-happy police.
The vandals were an anarchist group that has attended Occupy Atlanta rallies, said Tim Franzen, a spokesman for Occupy. Franzen said the acts were opposed by the protest group, which had agreed to adopt a respectful tone at the Wednesday night rally as was desired by the Waiters family. About 250 people attended the rally that drew various civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the National Action Network, said organizer Derek Boazman.
The vandals has been described as a group of between five and 10 people, who wore masks to the rally.
“I think it is sad that five opportunist young men can hijack the conversation and, I don’t think we should let them," Franzen said. I think a more important question is what are we going to do about this cop problem.”
Rapson said the city kept the police presence minimal at the rally because it didn't want to antagonize the crowd and that the vandalism occurred at the end. Once the vandalism started, police called for support from the Fulton County and Fairburn police departments. No arrests were made.
“As soon as Fairburn police cars crossed the tracks with their lights on, they dispersed,” Rapson said. "It was just a fringe of this otherwise calm crowd.”
He said the city has talked to organizers to ensure that they coordinated future events with the city in hope of avoid problems.
Neither Rapson nor the Union City police department would comment on the shooting, which is being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or name the officer who is on administrative leave. In initial reports, police said Waiters was shot in a tussle with the officer but two witnesses -- both friends of Waiters -- to the shooting contradicted that claim, Davis said.
The shooting happened after police were summoned to a fight in the subdivision after someone fired a pistol into the air, Davis said. Waiters was not at the fight but he fled when police arrived because he believed he had a warrant out for his arrest for failure to pay probationary fees for a criminal trespassing conviction, Davis said.
The officer followed Waiters behind some townhouses where Amber Dorsey and Darren Turner witnessed the shooting from a back porch, Davis said.
"They said the officer said, ‘Freeze,' and a second later he fired the shots,” Davis said. "Nobody has identified Ariston as having a weapon or shooting a weapon or being involved in the fight.
Waiters’ mother said at the protest she did not "hate" the officer but wanted justice for her son.
“I am so hurt because my son was gunned down like an animal. He did not deserve that,” Freda Waiters said according to Channel 2 Action News. “To the officer that did this, I do not hate you and I’m not angry... I love you like I love my son."
Boazman, a former Atlanta City Council member, said activists would continue to shine a spotlight on the killing to pressure authorities to take action against the officer once the GBI investigation is concluded. He said he thought the public would recognize that the rally organizers didn't sanction the bad behavior.
“Anybody engaged in that kind of behavior should be rounded up by the police. They should be identified, arrested and convicted," Boazman said. “We came down there to make a statement that this young man’s life must mean something."
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