OPINION | The Wendy’s fiasco: The one that broke the city?

The Wendy's on University Avenue in Atlanta was in flames after demonstrators blocked the interstate and set it on fire Saturday night, June 13, 2020. Protesters gathered there after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening during a struggle at the Wendy's drive-thru line. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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The Wendy's on University Avenue in Atlanta was in flames after demonstrators blocked the interstate and set it on fire Saturday night, June 13, 2020. Protesters gathered there after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening during a struggle at the Wendy's drive-thru line. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The recent charges announced against Jerrion Amari McKinney, the second suspect in last year’s killing of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner outside Atlanta’s infamous Wendy’s, has regurgitated this nasty episode of city history.

It also brought a text from my old buddy, Steve Visser: “Doesn’t McKinney, the newest arrestee in Secoriea’s murder, look like that kid who showed us around (the Wendy’s)?”

Visser, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, was referring to a “tour” led by two young gun-wielding guides who escorted us around the exterior of the burned-out fast food joint on June 21, 2020. It was where Rayshard Brooks was shot to death a week earlier by an Atlanta cop after fighting him, snatching a police Taser and trying to run away. The restaurant got burned down the next night.

Our “tour” started off with a very stern warning: “Don’t make any sudden moves, or you will get shot.”

I believed them then, and especially now.

The guy guarding me carried a shotgun. After the visit, I wrote about the madness calling it “Mad Max in The ATL, a bizarre scene with a post-apocalyptic feel. It’s a space where gun-toting dudes stand sentry to barren territory, where they serve as a ragtag Checkpoint Charlie, stopping bemused and sometimes alarmed motorists.”

Almost two weeks after our visit, Secoriea Turner was killed at such a barricade.

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Impromptu street barricades were thrown up near the Wendy's that was burned down in June 2020 after Rayshard Brooks was killed by police. Such barricades were manned by young men with guns who threatened motorists. Photo tweeted by Felicia Moore, Atlanta City Council President

Credit: Felicia Moore

Impromptu street barricades were thrown up near the Wendy's that was burned down in June 2020 after Rayshard Brooks was killed by police. Such barricades were manned by young men with guns who threatened motorists. Photo tweeted by Felicia Moore, Atlanta City Council President

Credit: Felicia Moore

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Impromptu street barricades were thrown up near the Wendy's that was burned down in June 2020 after Rayshard Brooks was killed by police. Such barricades were manned by young men with guns who threatened motorists. Photo tweeted by Felicia Moore, Atlanta City Council President

Credit: Felicia Moore

Credit: Felicia Moore

In an arrest warrant released this month, McKinney allegedly carried a shotgun on July 4, 2020, the night Secoriea was shot to death. Earlier that evening, the armed vigilantes stopped a bus — yes, they stopped a MARTA bus on a busy Atlanta street.

Later, they stopped the car of a local neighborhood leader who somehow disrespected their authority. So McKinney and Julian Jamal Conley allegedly leveled their guns at that driver and his passenger.

Six minutes later, the vehicle carrying Secoriea and her mother, Charmaine, approached the barrier. The driver, Omar Ivey, tried to go around, causing Conley, who is charged with murder, to start firing his AR-15 style rifle, authorities say. Eight bullets entered the vehicle. The GBI says the little girl was struck in the head by a “projectile,” almost assuredly a bullet. Both men have been indicted on multiple charges, including felony murder and malice murder for Conley.

ExploreThirty seven-count indictment handed down in Secoriea Turner case

As I look back on the day of our visit two weeks earlier, I can’t really remember if it really was McKinney or Conley who shepherded us around the armed encampment. Visser and I tried to look cheery and not gaze at them too much. It seemed wise.

I had gone to the site, which had been the scene of weeklong protests, because people had been shot there the previous two nights. Also, another old friend, and former AJC reporter, George Chidi, was beaten up there the previous night by gun-toting goons. He was trying to write about the atmosphere and the denizens of the Wendy’s didn’t like nosey interlopers.

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A few armed guys are seen in this screenshot of a video widely viewed online, marching down the street by the Wendy’s on University Avenue in southwest Atlanta, seconds before bullets started flying the night of June 19, 2020. Someone else, not them, started the gunfight. SCREENSHOT

A few armed guys are seen in this screenshot of a video widely viewed online, marching down the street by the Wendy’s on University Avenue in southwest Atlanta, seconds before bullets started flying the night of June 19, 2020. Someone else, not them, started the gunfight. SCREENSHOT

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A few armed guys are seen in this screenshot of a video widely viewed online, marching down the street by the Wendy’s on University Avenue in southwest Atlanta, seconds before bullets started flying the night of June 19, 2020. Someone else, not them, started the gunfight. SCREENSHOT

Chidi insists the woman who seemed to be leading his attackers was Ashley Brooks, who said she was Rayshard Brooks’ sister.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd told Atlanta Magazine that she tried to “negotiate” with Ashley Brooks and other protesters who had occupied the site. They said they wanted it to become a “peace center.” Sheperd told the magazine those talks “broke down” on June 25, more than a week before the murder.

On Friday, I called the attorney for Brooks’ family and he said he was traveling and did not know if she was Brooks’ sister.

The application for McKinney’s arrest warrant was written by the GBI and documents an embarrassing period of appeasement. It was a time when order and public safety were shoved aside in the hopes that those angry about the Rayshard Brooks killing would not get violent. Instead a bad situation festered. And violence ensued.

ExplorePrevious coverage: OPINION: Atlanta Wendy's: An armed camp where Rayshard Brooks was killed

The document states that members of the Bloods street gang created an “autonomous zone” where they “exerted all control” and precluded Atlanta police from entering. “These acts of violence were done in the most highly visible of manners, in a broad public intersection of a major metropolitan city,” the GBI wrote.

“The area surrounding (the Wendy’s) was seized from the authority of the city of Atlanta in response to a Bloods criminal street gang uprising,” the GBI wrote, adding that Brooks, himself, was a “member/associate” of the gang, as were McKinney and Conley. His family has said they were unaware of any gang affiliation by Brooks.

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Atlanta City Councilperson, Joyce Sheperd was on the scene where Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings from outside the Wendy’s on Monday July 6, 2020 where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. The last concrete barricade was put in place around noon. Some of the protesters milled nearby while a worker from the BP gas station next door pulled boards off the windows. Monday’s cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that started Saturday night when 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant. The site has served as ground zero for protests since Brooks was shot in the parking lot following an attempted DUI arrest in the drive-thru line June 12. The restaurant was destroyed during a large protest the next day. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Atlanta City Councilperson, Joyce Sheperd was on the scene where Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings from outside the Wendy’s on Monday July 6, 2020 where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. The last concrete barricade was put in place around noon. Some of the protesters milled nearby while a worker from the BP gas station next door pulled boards off the windows. Monday’s cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that started Saturday night when 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant. The site has served as ground zero for protests since Brooks was shot in the parking lot following an attempted DUI arrest in the drive-thru line June 12. The restaurant was destroyed during a large protest the next day. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Atlanta City Councilperson, Joyce Sheperd was on the scene where Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings from outside the Wendy’s on Monday July 6, 2020 where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. The last concrete barricade was put in place around noon. Some of the protesters milled nearby while a worker from the BP gas station next door pulled boards off the windows. Monday’s cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that started Saturday night when 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant. The site has served as ground zero for protests since Brooks was shot in the parking lot following an attempted DUI arrest in the drive-thru line June 12. The restaurant was destroyed during a large protest the next day. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

During my visit, I saw there was a hierarchy — an older guy told our two guardians to take us on the tour. However, I assumed it was just some opportunistic interlopers with guns who were just hopping in on the protest scene.

But the GBI’s take on the situation is wrong. The Bloods (or the guys with guns) did not seize anything. The scene was ceded to them by city of Atlanta leaders.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms figured she did not want to poke a hornet’s nest and later said she was giving Sheperd time to work out some sort of peaceful solution. That the administration allowed this to continue as long as it did, in plain sight, well, that’s going to cost the city a bunch of money.

Secoriea’s family has engaged Mawuli Davis, a local civil rights attorney, and Samuel Starks of the Cochran Firm, and they appear to have a winning case.

The city, they wrote in the lawsuit “allowed armed and violent individuals to encamp and take control of a major city street by erecting barriers in the middle of University Avenue and deciding who would be able to pass.”

“Mayor Bottoms and city officials ignored community leaders’ pleas for police assistance and failed to protect the safety of the public,” the suit continued. “When asked why the barricade of men was not cleared by police, (Police Chief Rodney) Bryant blamed it on a ‘busy night.’”

Police I have spoken to remain livid about the department’s acquiescence. “We should have never let that happen!” one cop angrily told me. He asked to remain anonymous to prevent demotion and permanent assignment to the airport.

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Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was killed is demolished

Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was killed is demolished

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Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was killed is demolished

Granted, police have been in a tough situation. In June 2020, following the protests of the police killings of George Floyd and then Rayshard Brooks, violence in Atlanta exploded. Late that month, I wrote a column saying the number of those getting shot and those getting killed had more than doubled compared to the same time the previous year.

During that time, the two cops involved in the Brooks case were almost immediately indicted. This led to scores of officers contracting the Blue Flu while others were asked to scale back on enforcement to prevent animosity. One can see why. After responding to a shooting near the Wendy’s a week after the Brooks killing, an angry crowd shouted and jeered at white officers, forcing them back into their vehicles.

And the slaughter continued. Last year, Atlanta police investigated 157 homicides, up from 99 the previous year. This year, it’s worse. As of August 7, the department had investigated 90 homicides and there had been 540 people shot so far this year, compared to 80 homicides and 476 people shot during the same period last year.

And the aftereffects keep rippling. The day after Secoriea’s murder, a post went out on social media proclaiming the launch of a “citizens exploratory committee for a new city in Buckhead.”

The movement, which threatens to hollow out 40% of Atlanta’s revenue and drive a stake through the heart of the city, has gained momentum since. They want to have a referendum next year.

It could be that this sad, sorry episode was the straw that crippled the camel.