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Protesters Question Police Account of Tear-Gassing

Tear gas fills downtown Athens early on the morning of June 1. Credit: Whitley Carpenter/file

Athens-Clarke County Police, in concert with the National Guard, fired tear gas canisters at a crowd of peaceful protesters who had gathered at the Confederate monument downtown just after midnight on June 1. Police made 19 arrests for “disorderly conduct” with dozens of others fleeing the scene.

“I made the decision to utilize gas as a final attempt to get the crowd to disburse [sic],“ ACCPD Chief Cleveland Spruill said in an email circulated by Commissioner Jerry NeSmith.

This came after about 2,000 protesters filled the streets of downtown Athens earlier in the day, demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man suffocated by police in Minnesota.

One of the organizers of the protest, called “March for a World Without Cops,” was Commissioner Mariah Parker. Parker used her megaphone to unveil a plan to cut the ACC police force in half over a number of years, replacing them with social workers. She explained to the crowd the need for more public pressure, particularly on Mayor Kelly Girtz, to enact this plan. Girtz was also in attendance and addressed the crowd briefly to cheers and applause.

The event began at the courthouse and ended up at the Confederate monument at the corner of Broad Street and College Avenue with protesters parading through the streets, blocking traffic. Black organizers gave speeches from atop the monument as the crowd continued to swell in size until about 7:30 pm, when protesters began to leave after being frightened by a man who appeared to have a gun, which later turned out to be a lighter.

A small crowd of 100–200 people, mostly college and high-school students, stayed put for several more hours, with some spray-painting the words “Black Lives Matter” and other messages on the monument. The protesters remained entirely peaceful for the duration, causing no other property damage.

Meanwhile, four white men armed with semi-automatic rifles did make an appearance at the Confederate monument. By some accounts, these were members of the far-right extremist Boogaloo movement, although a person claiming to be one of them said in an interview with the Athens Banner-Herald that they had been invited to protect the protesters. Whatever their purpose was in being downtown, they were not present when the state of emergency was declared hours later.

Shortly before 9 p.m., Athens-Clarke County Assistant Manager Deborah Lonon declared a state of emergency and a curfew in the downtown area. Police used drones to inform protesters, but the curfew was not communicated to the general public until nearly an hour later. Spruill asked for the curfew because police thought a “shift from peaceful protest to violent protest was imminent,” according to an ACCPD press release. It is not evident why police may have thought this. From first-hand accounts, protesters showed no signs of violent activity and no weapons were observed.

Police said they found bricks stacked in tents and observed people carrying heavy backpacks that could also have been filled with bricks. Three civilian medics told Flagpole that they were carrying water, food and medical supplies in their backpacks, that there were no bricks in tents, and that police never came close enough before deploying gas to observe whether tents contained bricks or not. When they finally did move in, witnesses said police were able to lift the tents with one hand.

The National Guard, called to active duty by Gov. Brian Kemp and waiting in the Classic Center parking deck, assembled downtown in concert with ACCPD and seemed poised to remove the remaining protesters as the state of emergency was declared. However, they waited until around midnight, two hours later, before taking action.

ACCPD and the National Guard then ordered the protesters to disperse. Most of those remaining refused to leave, “lock[ing] arms in the middle of the street in a defensive posture,” according to ACCPD. Then, police fired tear gas canisters—technically cayenne pepper spray—filling the air in downtown Athens with toxic fumes that were more successful at causing those left to flee. Police then arrested those who did not leave, booking 19 people into jail on disorderly conduct. Although police initially said that most of the remaining protesters were not from Athens, 13 of the 19 do live in Athens, with the others hailing from nearby towns and one from Alpharetta. Also arrested that night were a group who police said took advantage of the focus on downtown to attempt to steal guns from an Atlanta Highway sporting goods store. No other looting or property damage—other than the graffiti on the Confederate monument—was reported.

The next day, ACCPD issued a press release saying that “many” of the roughly 200 protesters occupying the area around the Confederate monument “appeared to belong to a violent extremist group.” This statement conflicts with first-hand accounts, including this reporter’s on-site investigation.

Mayor Kelly Girtz also released a video statement saying ACCPD had “very strong evidence” that they needed to clear downtown to protect both individuals and businesses. Neither Girtz nor ACCPD presented any evidence to support their claims.

Commissioner Tim Denson was an eyewitness to the gassing, and he released a statement confirming that police attacked “unarmed, peaceful protesters.”

“It was absolutely unnecessary and unacceptable to move in on peaceful protesters with violent, dangerous, unpredictable weapons such as tear gas,” Denson said.At least two protesters told Flagpole and Athens Politics Nerd they had been shot with what they called rubber bullets, in addition to the tear gas. Spruill finally acknowledged the use of “bean bag rounds” in a YouTube interview with Girtz on June 4. He said police used bean bag rounds—small fabric bags filled with 12-gauge shot—against protesters who were throwing gas canisters back at police. However, that’s yet another police statement protesters dispute.