Monday, January 12, 2015

Changing The APD Narrative: Ferguson Protestor Arrests


By Jim Chambers

January 12, 2015, Atlanta, GA- In the wake of the now notorious decision of a Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO, not to indict Ofc. Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, the nation-at-large has seen a torrent of protests, marches, rallies, and actions of civil disobedience.
In Atlanta, arguably the most significant, and unquestionably most heavily attended such action (estimates in the low thousands) was a 4-hour rally at Underground Atlanta, a shopping area in the heart of downtown, on November 25th, 2014, the day after the non-indictment. The rally was organized by a coalition of civil rights activist groups known as the “Shut It Down ATL Coalition.” In the wake of this rally, a series of spontaneous marches developed, dominantly propelled by young people of color. The marches largely coalesced on Atlanta’s main thoroughfare, Peachtree St., and in the surrounding areas, commencing early that evening and continuing into the next morning. A number of protestors were arrested by the Atlanta Police Dept., all but one of whom were represented in a group of 23 that appeared Wednesday, January 7th, for arraignment at Atlanta Municipal Court. The vast majority of these arrestees were charged with “pedestrian in roadway,” or “impeding traffic.”  Arrests began after dispersal orders had been given, with APD citing instances of property damage as cause to label the marches “illegal.” The genesis of the decision to disperse, and the nature of the arrests/police response are key points, which have heretofore been largely overlooked.
Quite laudably, a coalition of over 20 volunteer attorneys, spearheaded by the Davis-Bozeman Law Firm of Atlanta, appeared on behalf of the protestors; most of these attorneys were not dedicated activist/civil rights attorneys, but rather, had stepped aside from their customary work to assist in representing, pro bono, a group which they felt had been wrongly arrested, and wrongly charged whilst exercising their constitutional rights.  In a statement issued by Davis-Bozeman, it was affirmed that “none of the protestors represented were charged with any acts of vandalism…{and they} maintain their innocence and 1st Amendment right to protest and assemble.” The attorney group was also given furtherance and aid from a collection of local law students and professors.
In order to thoroughly address these cases, a chronology of events that preceded the arrests, accompanied the arrests, and occurred thereafter must be properly examined.
To begin with, law enforcement communities nationwide predictably took measures to prepare for what would inevitably be a significant reaction to the Ferguson decision; protests in Missouri had been ongoing since early August, when Michael Brown’s killing occurred, and it was largely anticipated that regardless of the decision, some kind of national response would be heard. Preparation and response was visibly multifarious amongst law enforcement agencies in different cities, but in Atlanta, given the historical backdrop of civil rights action, measures were taken to foster pre-emptive dialogue between the rally’s organizers and APD. At APD’s behest, members of the Shut It Down Coalition agreed to a sit-down with APD officials, including Chief George Turner, the week before the event. In that meeting, assurances were given by the organizers that the rally, and any associated actions, would remain non-violent. In turn, Law Enforcement officials assured that excessive use of force in response to the rally would not occur, including, but not limited to, pepper spray, teargas, and riot gear; in essence, there was to be no militarized response.
This is the point at which the narrative sharply turns; by Mayor Reed’s account, which was buttressed by that of Chief Turner, a “splinter group of 150 or so” protestors led the post-rally march, and it was this “group’s” alleged complicity in a blockage of the I-75/85 Downtown connector, and property damage (a broken window at Meehan’s Pub, a broken Taxi window, and a handful of toppled objects), which spurned the arrests. In effect, the litany of events provided by Reed/Turner, the latter of whom at one point in the night announced that “We {Atlanta} are better than this,” was that APD was honoring its pledge to stand back, and this only changed once the protestors, rhetorically monolithic, reneged on their pledge of non-violence.
There are a number of major issues with this account. First, had one been in the vicinity of the rally & the marches, as was this author and myriad eyewitnesses, it was clear that there was no such “splinter group.” As stated earlier, the postliminary marches were almost entirely organic, and consisted of the bulk of those who remained at Underground at the original rally’s conclusion. The numbers were well over 150; groups were scattered around downtown, including a handful on the connector, but it’s worth noting that not one of those arraigned Wednesday were amongst that group. The largest culmination of the spontaneous marches was at Peachtree St and Ivan Allen Blvd. There, protestors were met by police clad in full riot gear, and this is where the bulk of the arrests took place.
If one observes the timeline, something does not add up: I myself “splintered off” from the initial rally, gathering a handful of students in need of rides to MARTA, and when I learned that marches were ongoing, I parked, and began to walk back towards downtown from the GSU area, in order to cover further ongoings. En route, at least 10 witnesses, including my fiancĂ©e and I, observed and photographed a staging area of dozens of APD already clad in full riot gear. The officers performed a series of what appeared to be drills, and proceeded to load into at least 3 full sized buses, including a MARTA commuter bus and a GSU student shuttle, headed towards the marches downtown. A small group of us followed the buses, and were actually led towards the bulk of the remaining crowd by them. When we arrived to Peachtree St., we observed a handful of protestors actually replacing those few toppled objects, including a display of Christmas trees and a magazine dispenser. Simultaneously, the first round of reports of property damage began to circulate, and clearly, the two windows broken, which represent the extent of any meaningful damage, had been broken within minutes of our arrival on to Peachtree.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this author’s photographically documentable timeline is somehow errant by, say, 15 minutes. Let’s give authorities the benefit of the doubt, and say that all militarized response and arrests occurred only upon notification of property damage. If it takes at least 5-10 minutes for an officer to don full riot gear, another 15 minutes of preparation, and another 10 to load a few buses, that’s at least 30 minutes required, notwithstanding orders/organization from above, if not far longer, to mobilize such units to a scene. Other eyewitnesses claimed to have seen such stirring as early as 4pm that day in pockets of the city. Clearly, comprehensive preparation had been in place for hours, if not days, to send riot squad response teams. If APD’s promise had been in earnest, and they had no intent of escalating interactions with protestors, why would this have been the case? The reality is that these units were mobilized and ready well before any alleged breach of commitment had occurred on the parts of protestors, and basic human behavior dictates that if one shows up dressed for hostility, one being whoever was commanding APD’s actions, one is obliquely inciting hostility.
There’s another substantial problem with the APD’s decision to declare the Peachtree march “unlawful,” and to accuse the protestors and organizers en masse of breaking a vow of non-violence; in the midst of a crowd of thousands of mostly young black people, already justifiably agitated by the slayings of other innocent young black people, at the hands of police, and already aware of a looming, ominous police force descending upon them, we’re looking at two broken windows, and a handful of items which were knocked over, and subsequently replaced by protestors, 2 of whom, Sarah Garrett and Corina Cruz, were later arrested. It is this author’s opinion, alluding to Chief Turner, that “we” would be hard-pressed to be much “better than this.” In point of fact, in a metro area that roughly 2 million black people call home, seated in the heart of the South, where race has always been an issue of greater tension, an astonishing level of restraint was shown. What was shown was collective punishment, something that should be quite alien to law enforcement in an advanced democracy.
APD staging riot squads on DeKalb Ave.

As the march progressed up Peachtree, towards Ivan Allen Blvd., the visible presence of riot squads steadily grew, and a hefty perimeter was formed around protestors, the weightiest contingency grouped across Ivan Allen, thereby stopping the march in its tracks. At this point, dispersal orders were given from various officers, most notably a diminutive, well-groomed ranking officer with a megaphone. The mantra, “you have destroyed property, this assembly is unlawful, you will be arrested if you do not disperse,” was repeated. At the SW corner of that intersection, a group of 4-5 officers took it upon themselves to forcibly seize what had been a wide banner, supported by wooden posts, which read, “Black Lives Matter” from a group of protestors. The banner was torn, and in a particularly heightened moment, the posts were pointed back at protestors, conjuring an image eerily reminiscent of the famous photo of an American flag being jousted at a young man of color during Boston’s busing riots in the 1960’s. It was immediately after this that arrests began, seemingly randomly; if one happened to be in the front line of marchers, or in the wrong spot along the sidewalk, one was at risk of being apprehended. Indeed, to a man, not one of those arrested had been complicit in any way, shape, or form in the earlier destruction of property, and most were detained arbitrarily, as marchers attempted to re-route away from the blockades.
Aside from being effectively innocent bystanders, as were all of those arraigned Wednesday, a number of arrestees were detained amidst uniquely shabby circumstances, and a few sustained injuries at the hands of police:
Nile Bean was working at the downtown Hyatt hotel, adjacent to the dispersing march. He stepped outside, curious as to what was transpiring, and began to film the scene. As one of his feet flirted with the curb, he was grabbed, slammed to the ground, and arrested. Local photographer Steve Eberhardt was able to document much of this.
A young, interracial couple, Renzo Marches and Natasha Stewart, became alarmed when they saw the presence of militarized police units. They turned away from the main group, and pulled scarves across their faces, anticipating a possible pepper spray/teargas deployment. As soon as they had done so, they were accused of “inciting” and “wearing masks.” Ms. Stewart was pulled, by the scarf, incurring bruising to her neck, and Mr. Marches was thrown to the street; injuries to his leg and face were displayed in photographs at a press conference which followed Wednesday’s arraignment.
Corey Toole, a young black student, was also apprehended at random, and managed to gain access to his phone from the back of a prisoner van; he posted a troubling image of a bloodied, beaten face to Twitter, while the march was still ongoing, and his injuries remain visible to this day.
Corey Toole's photo, tweeted from APD Prisoner Transport Vehicle

Samuel Albanez, a Hispanic male who has worked for some time with local NAACP chapters, sustained injuries excessive enough to keep him at Grady Hospital overnight, resulting in a booking the following day.
The rest of the arrests occurred over the next two hours. Arrestees were released between 3am-8am the following day, and appeared in court that afternoon, November 26th, where arraignment was postponed until January. Two members of the press had also been detained, but per the Mayor’s orders, charges against them were dropped in the morning.
Following Wednesday’s court proceedings, 14 of those initially charged pled not guilty, and await a hearing on January 21st to determine a trial date, presumably to be set for mid-February. Six of the remaining defendants were granted dismissals, due to “ticket discrepancies,” on the part of arresting officers, while one man, a member of CopWatch, had charges dismissed due to video evidence provided to the prosecution amidst court proceedings by Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, 11Alive News. The footage clearly demonstrated that he had been filming the events on the street, and had violated no appreciable laws. Regrettably, another member of CopWatch also appeared in the video in the same capacity, but had already pled not guilty when the video appeared; as such, he will have to re-appear when a trial date is set. One remaining arrestee sought private counsel, and chose to plead no contest for personal reasons, receiving a commuted 2-day sentence and a small fine.
The assemblage of volunteer attorneys have indicated that their aim in this case is to achieve general dismissals, and have expressed vigorous confidence to that end, and no less. Without reserve, it is this author’s unwavering opinion that anything but dismissal would be an odious moment for the City and its administration; this is an opportunity for city officials to concede their own error, unfortunately disproportionate response, or perhaps even more germane to the issue at-large, to retract the narrative of irresponsibility and criminality previously ascribed to a group of well-intentioned, non-violent protestors. It would behoove the mayor, and the courts, to provide a show of magnanimousness, and embrace Atlanta’s Civil Rights legacy in a meaningful way, rather than persisting on a path of punitive chicanery, and politics of fear.

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