“Violence and unlawful destruction of property are not acts of protest,” Kemp said late Saturday. “They are crimes that will not be tolerated in Georgia and will be prosecuted fully.”
His allies say the recent violence could also influence other measures as he prepares for a State of the State address this week that was already expected to focus on anti-crime measures key to his second-term agenda.
Democrats, too, denounced the violence. U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff said it “cannot be permitted or tolerated and must cease immediately.” Others noted the state’s permissive gun laws or concerns about the greenspace sacrificed for the new center even as they criticized the chaos.
“None of this is happening in a vacuum,” said state Rep. Ruwa Romman, a Gwinnett County-based Democrat. “Anger about property destruction must include anger about destroying our communities. Losing the forest will further reduce what little greenery is left.”
The violence erupted Saturday night as a small group of masked demonstrators hurled rocks and lit fireworks in downtown Atlanta, setting an unoccupied police cruiser ablaze. Authorities arrested at least six people and said they recovered explosive devices.
They had converged on a skyscraper-lined section of Peachtree Street after dozens of protesters gathered at nearby Underground Atlanta to demonstrate against the city’s plan to build the training center within forestland in DeKalb County.
The event was also intended to memorialize activist Manuel Teran, who was fatally shot by a state trooper at the project’s site this past week. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Teran was killed after Teran shot and wounded a state trooper.
The GBI has said there was no bodycam footage of the incident, though activists have demanded an independent investigation as they cast doubt on the official narrative. Before the violence on Saturday, demonstrators chanted “no justice, no peace, no killer police.”
No law enforcement, demonstrators or civilians were hurt during the protest and the violence that ensued, authorities said.
Perhaps no politician will be tested by the clashes over the past week quite like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, a supporter of the public safety complex who won office in 2021 with a pledge to reduce violent crime and stave off the Buckhead city movement.
So far, his efforts to forge strong political alliances with Republicans have shown success. He worked to reset the city’s strained relationship with Kemp and sat conspicuously among the front rows at the governor’s inauguration this month.
House Speaker Jon Burns, who won the gavel weeks ago, heaped praise on Dickens’ effort to combat crime. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who once endorsed carving a separate city out of Atlanta’s border, has notably not made Buckhead part of his jobs-focused agenda as the Senate’s leader.
But Republicans have made clear their patience with the capital city and its rising homicide rate is not limitless. Frustrated by Atlanta’s response, Kemp announced a multiagency crime suppression unit during his first term targeting violent crime in metro Atlanta.
And Kemp has long warned that the state can take new steps. He threatened a special legislative session in 2021 to address the spike in deadly crime, though he ultimately waited, and he has floated new efforts to ensure local prosecutors act with urgency.
He’s backed by Attorney General Chris Carr, a fellow Republican who sent a pointed message to the media not to describe the violence as “peaceful.”
“Rioters smash windows, set police cars on fire & shoot law enforcement officers,” Carr said on Twitter. “Stop calling these people protesters.”
Dickens, for his part, sought to demonstrate a firm hand as he thanked police for restoring order “in a swift manner.” Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, Dickens’ pick for the job, said at least six people were arrested Saturday and warned of a broader plan by the activists.
Credit: Channel 2 Action News
Credit: Channel 2 Action News
“This was not the focus tonight just to damage the windows of three buildings and set a police car on fire,” Schierbaum said. “The intent was to continue to do harm. And that did not happen.”
In an appearance on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Dickens also described many of those involved in Saturday’s violence as out-of-state activists who “traveled into our city to wreak havoc.”
“We love to support people when they’re doing right. Peaceful protest is a part of our freedoms,” he said. “But when you are violent, we will make sure that you get held accountable.”
A note of disclosure
The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.