Spasms of violence shook Atlanta overnight Friday as a peaceful march against police violence transformed into chaos that left parts of the city in flames and shops and restaurants ransacked by looters. Gov. Brian Kemp announced early Saturday that he’d deployed the National Guard to restore calm.
Friday’s chaos gave way to order on Saturday as clean-up efforts began.
Andrew Song and his family spent Saturday morning cleaning up Kwan's Deli and Korean Kitchen, which was broken into and looted Friday night, its front windows shattered.
Song, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from Korea and started the business next to Centennial Park in 2002, said the destruction was a “huge shock,” though he is relieved the damage wasn’t worse.
“We’ll get this cleaned up and then we’ll see how tomorrow works,” he said.
Outside the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame, 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, who added that he agrees with the message behind the original protest.
The sign outside the CNN Center, defaced with graffiti on Friday, had been cleaned by Saturday morning.
Kimberly Beaudin, CEO of the heavily damaged College Football Hall of Fame, was also outside sweeping up broken glass Saturday morning and cleaning up the ransacked gift shop. She said there is a “level of disbelief” following the destruction and no estimate yet on the cost of the damage.
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.
Stunned city officials, long used 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.
“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.”
Nirav Bodiwala's liquor store on Baker Street was a disheveled mess Saturday morning.
"These guys were thugs," he said, as workers swept up the broken glass from his storefront. When he got to the store Saturday he found the interior strewn with blood and debris, his best liquor bottles gone, and his cash register raided. They even hauled off his safe, which had been bolted down.
Worse, Bodiwala said, They tossed lighted cardboard into his store, apparently attempting to set it ablaze.
Peachtree Liquor Store sits at the base of a 23-story building, the floors above filled with hundreds of apartments.
"That would have burned the whole building because of the alcohol I have in there," he said.
They left behind a small white sign. Scribed in red: "Justice for George Floyd."
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 death, had said she would allow protesters to mass so long as they didn’t violate laws.
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.
>> COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta protests
At some damaged spots, Friday’s rioters were replaced with Saturday’s Good Samaritans.
Samuel Harden and his wife usually celebrate Valentine’s Day at McCormick & Schmick’s, a restaurant in CNN Center ransacked Friday night. On Saturday morning, the Hardens were there to help clean up.
“We hate that the frustration tuned 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.”
Recent Georgia State University Devin Mitchell also pitched in.
He said he understands 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, who played basketball at GSU. “It was just really tough to watch everybody going crazy … I had to come do my part.”
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.
Bottoms turned to aging civil rights activists and young hip-hop stars to plead for calm and end to the looting, staging a press conference just blocks away 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.”
The violence that shuddered through this city threatened restaurants, retail stores and businesses already reeling from a coronavirus pandemic. 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!”
Sakeema Freeman, a 26-year-old student in a construction management master’s program, was cleaning graffiti from a placard outside Centennial Olympic Park that read: “Black Lives Matter.”
She said she took part in the peaceful part of the protest early Friday before peeling off when it grew more raucous. She followed the events from her downtown apartment on social media and out her window, and helped to watch younger demonstrators who wanted to steer clear of the violence.
“I tried to do my part,” said Freeman, who saw the damage in the morning and got out a rag and soap and went to work with her father, Veree.
She wasn’t mad Saturday — just matter of fact.
“You’ve got to clean up your family’s mess.”
Across the street, Katie Labgold and Yvanna Pantner were busily wiping away graffiti as well. Labgold, a doctoral student in epidemiology, said it “seemed like an immediate action to start the healing process and, long-term, to help to end racist actions and fight white silence.”
Pantner, who is about to start a social work program, described it in a similar vein.
“Our goal is to recognize that being anti-racist starts with the individual. My job is to look within myself and say, ‘What can I do to be anti-racist today?’ And to listen to people of color in my community and ask what my role is in all of this. This is really a systemic issue. It has to be viewed that way.”
The scene was far different Friday night.
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.
Early Saturday morning, Atlanta police reported gunshots outside Phipps Plaza and downtown Atlanta, and widespread looting at stores across the city. Rioters smashed windows of firetrucks and ruined police cars; a WSB-TV news truck was also targeted.
As police strained to control the damage, civic leaders stepped up their pleas for calm. 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 and Ernie Suggs contributed to this report.
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