OPINION: Atlanta is ‘a city under siege,’ pastor says. Amen, preach

Specialist O'Donnell was posted guard in front of the Georgia State Capitol building on July 8, 2020, after the Georgia National Guard were dispatched in response to a surge of violence in Atlanta and the ransacking of the Georgia State Patrol's headquarters, according to their commander. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM



Late in June, I wrote a column saying violence was off the chain in Atlanta. There had been 75 people shot in the three weeks since May 31, the weekend when the protests over the killing of George Floyd started. It was more than twice as many as the same period last year.

Then things got worse.

On the Fourth of July weekend, 31 people were shot, five fatally. Secoriea Turner, an 8-year-old girl who liked unicorns, was part of that tally. She was shot to death in her family car by some gun-toting dolts intent on both terrorizing a community and somehow making a social statement.

The crime occurred near the burnt-out Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by police last month, a site that had become an epicenter for anger against police brutality.

People came to protest, gather and demand change. Activists said they wanted a “peace center” set up on the site, although much of what happened there was anything but peaceful. Armed sentries stopped traffic and threatened people. Shootings and beatings occurred. And that was before the little girl’s death.

Those who clamored for peace said they weren’t the ones who committed the acts of violence, but the location became a dystopian way station for grievance.

This week, Secoriea was laid to rest, a teen was arrested in connection with her murder, and the husk of the torched Wendy’s building finally was bulldozed, an act that came a couple of weeks too late.

The Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by Atlanta police last month was torn down on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Construction crews used an excavator to demolish the charred remains of the University Avenue restaurant. It is not clear who ordered Tuesday’s demolition, which comes a little more than a week after demonstrators who had camped out at the site following Brooks’ death were forced off the property. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Police employed a hands-off approach there, largely because political leaders worried that wading in and clearing the site would lead to trouble. Instead, doing nothing led to violence.

The girl’s family has hired civil rights attorney Mawuli Davis, who has urged those responsible to surrender. My guess is that those who fired the bullets don’t have two nickels to rub together, so it’ll be the city on the hook. I can see Davis poring through the email and texts of city leaders and police brass to see exactly who allowed this social disintegration to fester.

Between May 31 and July 4, 18 people have been murdered in Atlanta. Last year, it was seven during that time. I’m missing data for the past two weeks, but I have counted five killings since Saturday. That means at least 23 people were killed by violence in Atlanta since the end of May. But it’s almost certainly more.

“We’re in a crisis, a city under siege.”

- The Rev. Darryl Winston

Last month I wrote: “These are not police shootings. They’re civilians shooting civilians. They don’t carry the outrage and notoriety that a cop shooting someone will. But the victims are just as dead.”

That comment drew a flurry of anger, some arguing that’s what those who want to deflect the subject say.

Then, the day after Secoriea’s killing, an emotional Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms pointed to the growing violence saying, “The reality is this: These aren’t police officers shooting people on the streets of Atlanta, these are members of the community shooting each other.” Later, she added, “What I want to see from us, I want to see the same anger and outrage. I want to see it on behalf of Secoriea and all other people and children being shot on our streets.”

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Three days after her comments, 9-year-old Javonni Carson was shot in a drive-by shooting in East Atlanta that also wounded two men. Javonni was filming videos with two siblings. Cops found 42 bullet casings. Fortunately, he will survive.

Police say they’ve been forced into a shell, afraid to fully perform their jobs for fear of being fired or quickly arrested — as eight cops were last month, two in the Brooks shooting, six in an incident that involved using Tasers against two unarmed college students. Also, police have been met with hostile crowds and witnesses who melt away at crime scenes, making solving crimes often impossible.

Policing in recent weeks has become “reactive rather than proactive,” said Jason Segura, an Atlanta cop who heads the department’s union. “We desperately want to do our jobs, but the rules have suddenly changed.”

That disengagement has been stunning. Traffic stops were already down perhaps 40% since COVID hit, but in the three weeks following the June 12th killing of Brooks, police in Atlanta made just 534 traffic stops. Last year, they made 9,803 traffic stops during the corresponding three-week period.

This year during that three-week time frame, Atlanta police made just 369 arrests, compared to 1,759 arrests during the corresponding three weeks last year.

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Right now, far too many people bent on mayhem have nothing to fear.

Recently, retired Atlanta police Sgt. Valerie Sellers reached out to me. She said that as a black woman and police officer, she watched the department morph from an old-timey, hard-nosed, testosterone-driven force to one that has become diverse (more than half the officers are Black) and embraces best practices.

Sure, more changes are needed. “Sometimes there’s a heavy-handedness that should not exist,” she said. But “Atlanta police, who are one of the most progressive and community-responsive departments in America, are being unfairly targeted and hamstrung by local political leaders, media, protesters and average citizens in an attempt, I guess, to confuse the issue of law enforcement with lawlessness to prove a point, or further another agenda.”

She went on, “Non-enforcement is not, and should not be, peddled as reform — at least not one that should be acceptable to anyone. As a citizen I fear Atlanta is in danger of becoming more racially divided than ever, less safe than anyone can imagine, and will grind to a halt, indefinitely, over anger and indifference.”

I called the Rev. Darryl Winston, a southeast Atlanta pastor who organized a Juneteenth event at the Wendy’s property. That was hours before things “disintegrated” there, he said.

“We’re in a crisis, a city under siege,” he said. “When you have a city that is a powder keg and have combustibles underneath, all you need is one thing to set it off.”

Winston said the forced isolation from COVID, mass unemployment (especially in poor neighborhoods), the George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks killings, and summertime heat have caused frustration to bubble into rage.

“This is not the first time we have seen a surge” in violence, the Atlanta native said. He’s right, it used to be worse, much worse in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

But now there’s another crisis, he added — one of leadership, both in the political and faith communities.

“The alarm has been sounded,” Winston said. “We can hit snooze or we can jump up and deal with it.”

It’s ringing loudly.

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