After a night when parts of Atlanta were torn apart, city residents came together early Saturday, volunteering to clean streets and storefronts in downtown and Buckhead that were vandalized and looted the night before.
The destruction followed a peaceful protest march against police brutality that turned chaotic as the evening went on. Groups gathered outside Centennial Park and engaged in clashes with law enforcement officers, who at times fired tear gas into the crowds. Rioters burned police cars and smashed their way into stores in downtown Atlanta and Buckhead, despite pleas by officials who urged demonstrators to go home.
» READ MORE: The AJC’s full coverage of protests
The full extent of Friday night’s damage was still not known Saturday afternoon, even as retailers and shop owners said they were bracing for the potential return of violence Saturday night.
Shattered glass littered the streets around Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta, especially along Marietta Street, stretching from the CNN Center to the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame. In Buckhead, the destruction reached high-end retail strips stretching from the area around Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza to the Buckhead Triangle shopping center.
Residents and families from around the city, armed with brooms and trash bags, quickly organized into groups to clean up the mess. They scooped broken glass into recycling bins, swept ash from burnt cars out of the street and wiped graffiti off of signs. Several parents brought their kids along.
Many said they supported the central message behind the original protest — but did not condone the vandalism. Others said they understood how the frustration and pain from the protest could boil over, especially following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the recent fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick.
Samuel Harden, 54, said he woke up Saturday and thought, “let’s just get up and go help.” He and his wife cleaned up glass outside McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant, where they likes to celebrate Valentine’s Day together. The eatery on Marietta Street was damaged and looted Friday.
“We hate that the frustration turned into damage of property,” said Harden, who grew up in the city and now lives in Douglas County. “I understand the anger, but you’ve got to go peacefully.”
Outside the College Football Hall of Fame gift shop, which was broken into and looted, Fred Turner of Grove Park helped sweep up glass. He wore a sign around his neck stating that “two wrongs don’t make it right.”
“Tearing up our city doesn’t make sense,” said Turner.
Devin Mitchell, a recent graduate of Georgia State University, said the community is “grieving” due to racial injustice, but the protest “escalated into something it wasn’t.”
“As far as tearing our own community up, I don’t think that’s the right thing, I don’t think that’s what anybody from the past would’ve wanted us to do,” said Mitchell, a former GSU basketball player who came downtown to help clean up. “It was just really tough to watch everybody going crazy … I had to come do my part.”
Rebekah Hudgins Vepraskas and her three boys swept glass off the sidewalk late Saturday morning outside Dick’s Sporting Goods in Buckhead, as Peachtree Road thrummed with traffic nearby. She said her sons wanted to do something helpful after watching the violence explode the night before.
“We love this city,” she said. “We’re sad. We should have done more sooner. This has been brewing for years.”
Rioters left a greater impact elsewhere in Buckhead. Signature Nail and Day Spa suffered significant water damage when protesters broke through the front doors and damaged the pipes to the sprinkler system Friday night. On Saturday morning, water continued to pour through the pipes into the parking lot below.
Julia Nguyen, whose family owns the business, said it was hit twice by rioters, and a massage room was set on fire. Nguyen said they saw the chaos from a security camera and came to start cleaning up from 2 to 4 a.m. Saturday.
“We left and came back this morning and saw they made many attempts to burn down our spa,” she said.
Peter Embarrato and his partner, Michael Baker, cleaned up broken glass and jewelry display cases until after the sun rose Saturday morning at the Topaz Gallery, Embarrato’s Buckhead art and jewelry store on Peachtree Street.
A front window was smashed and looters made off with several pieces, Embarrato said, though police suggested boarding all of the windows up as a precaution. The men worried what they could find Sunday, as social media posts suggested the possibility of more unrest to come.
“We’re leery and very cautious,” Baker said. “We don’t want to leave, but we don’t want to stay, either.”
Michael Vohn, a manager at Eminence Nails and Spa in Buckhead, said he was also worried about what might happen Saturday night.
“A few of my employees have already moved their cars closer so they can see them and just feel more comfortable,” he said.
Peachtree Liquor Store was looted, owner Nirav Bodiwala said as workers swept up the broken glass from his store Saturday morning. He came in to find blood and debris on the ground, his best liquor bottles gone and his cash register raided, he said. Bodiwala said they tossed burning cardboard into the store and he is thankful it didn’t catch, because the store sits at the base of a 23-story apartment building.
“That would have burned the whole building because of the alcohol I have in there,” he said.
The rioters left behind a small white sign. Scribed in red: “Justice for George Floyd.”
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