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Two Differing Views of the Protest

ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill, Sr. published the report reprinted here in its entirety, detailing police actions Sunday night, May 31 and early Monday morning, June 1. ACC Commissioner Tim Denson was among many who questioned the chief’s summary of events, and Denson’s statement follows the chief’s statement.

Summary of Police Actions During May 31 Downtown Protest 

DATE: June 1, 2020 

TO: Assistant Manager Deborah Lonon 

FROM: Police Chief Cleveland Spruill, Sr., Chief of Police SUBJECT: Summary of Police Actions During May 31 Downtown Protest 

The purpose of the memorandum is to provide you with a summary of Athens-Clarke County Police actions that occurred during the May 31 planned protests in remembrance of the Mr. George Floyd.

 Late in the week of May 29, ACCPD learned of plans for a protest that was scheduled for the Downtown area for May 31 and began to develop an operational plan to facilitate the event. The goal of our operational plan was to ensure the safety of participants and other citizens, manage pedestrian and vehicle traffic, protect life and property and deter criminal activity. Our overarching goal was to provide a safe environment for citizens and participants to exercise rights guaranteed under the 1st Amendment to peacefully protest, while at the same time protecting life and property, and preventing and responding to criminal activity.

With this goal in mind, officers were deployed to multiple locations in the Downtown area beginning at 2:00 pm until approximately 2:30 am the following morning. Three of these locations included City Hall, the Court House and the Arch on Broad Street, all of which were identified as locations where the protests would occur. While our stated goal was to facilitate a peaceful protest, ACCPD realized Subscribe Past Issues the need to be prepared to respond to destructive and violent protests should they occur. 

This need for preparation was based on recent events across the nation involving peaceful protests that turned destructive and violent, and based upon potential for participants from outside the ACC area to attend and engage in destructive behaviors and violence. Our preparation included coordination efforts with UGA Police and seeking the assistance and resources of other state and local law enforcement agencies. ACCPD coordinated with ACCGov’s Central Services Department to place barriers around City Hall, and the courthouse. This was done in a manner that left more than ample room for protestors to gather and voice their concern but to allow law enforcement to protect critical infrastructure. 

At various points during the event, streets were blocked off and traffic was redirected to allow for the protestors to safely assemble and march.

Protesters began arriving around 5:00 pm, grew to an estimated 1500 to 2000 participants, marched between the three aforementioned locations, pausing at each to give speeches and peacefully protest. 

For the most part, the protest went without incident early on. One exception involved an incident where a participant began waiving an object in the air that appeared to be a gun and other participants began running away from him out of fear. Officers who were in the area quickly responded, took the individual into custody and removed him from the area. It was later determined that the object he was waiving was not a real gun (cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun) and he was released without being charged with any criminal offense. 

More troubling was the arrival of a group of individuals who self-identified as members of the Boogaloo extremist organization. This group has as one of its stated goals, the desire to instigate race wars across America. To learn more about this group, please visit their website at https://www.adl.org/blog/theboogalooextremists-new-slang-term-for-a-coming-civil-war . A number of these group members were armed with rifles and handguns and when questioned, indicated they were exercising their right to open carry. This was troubling because the organization is known for their involvement in destructive and violent behavior at other protests across America. It was also troubling because, although they did not state their intent, there was potential for these armed counter-protesters to conflict with, or commit acts of violence against the peaceful protestors, reminiscent of the Charlottesville, Virginia protests. However, with no legal authority to stop them, they were allowed continue into the crowd of protestors and monitored throughout the event. Upon their arrival a number of the peaceful protestors began to leave.

Throughout the evening the protestors continued to dissipate and by 8:00 pm, only one group of approximately 150 to 200 participants remained. Officers noticed that most of the remaining group members did not appear to be from ACC and were primarily made up of many of the Boogaloo members. Throughout the evening, officers also observed signs that these individuals were planning to engage in destruction and violence, likely targeted against government buildings and infrastructure and against law enforcement officers defending them. 

These signs included instruments consistent with those utilized in riotous behavior. Some of these included: Long weapons—Rifles and shotguns Sidearms—variety of hand guns Leaf Blowers—Used to compel smoke and gas used by law enforcement to disperse unlawful crowds Gallons of milk—Used to wash the face and reduce the effectiveness of gas People wearing gas masks People carrying heavy backpacks—potentially filled with instruments of destruction, likely bricks. 

At one point the group, which was assembled at the UGA Arch on Broad Street, moved into the street, sat down and blocked Broad Street traffic in both directions. ACCPD chose to overlook this unlawful behavior at this time to avoid instigating conflict. Instead, traffic was rerouted to streets around them. 

Based on our observations and intelligence gathered that destructive and violent behaviors by the remaining group was imminent, I made a request for a Declaration of a Local State of Emergency with a Downtown curfew between 9:00 pm on May 31 and 5:00 am on June 1. You approved this request and signed the Emergency Declaration shortly before 9:00 pm. Between 9:00 pm and 1130 pm officers cleared all other Downtown areas in accordance with the curfew, with the exception of the group on Broad Street. 

After other areas were cleared, at 11:54 pm, ACCPD began making notifications to the Broad Street crowd that they were unlawfully assembled and would need to immediately disperse and leave the area or face arrest. The specific message, which was delivered between six and fifteen different times was as follows: “This is the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. You are currently in violation of Georgia Law (O.C.G.A. 16-11-33) prohibiting unlawful assembly. You are hereby being lawfully commanded to immediately withdraw from your unlawful assembly and disperse. If you do not withdraw and disperse you may be arrested and criminally charged. There is potential that force may be used against you during arrest. Withdraw and disperse now.” 

After delivering this message multiple times and receiving no response, I made the decision to utilize gas as a final attempt to get the crowd to disburse without having to use higher levels of force. It should be noted that gas is the industry standard and preferred method of disbursing crowds because its effect is temporary and goes away within a short period of time with no lasting injury. This is as opposed to the use of rubber bullets, batons, bean bag rounds or conducted energy devices (Tasers), which are much more likely to cause lasting injury. 

At 12:06 am gas was deployed by the ACCPD Special Response Team (SRT) and members of the crowd were again given the opportunity to voluntarily leave. At this point a number of the people left the area. However instead of leaving, some of the group members began picking up the gas canisters, throwing them back at the officers and using leaf blowers to blow the gas away from the crowd. A few sat on the ground as a final act of defiance. 

After a wait period at 12:10 am, SRT and supporting units moved forward and the remaining people at the scene were arrested with minimal force. No other force options were necessary or were used. As the SRT team moved in, several individuals were observed fleeing into a building that was under construction. Officers were able to locate these individuals hiding in the building and they were also arrested. A total of 19 arrests were made in the Downtown area. Six of the arrested individuals had addresses outside the ACC area. During our search of the area after the area was cleared, stacks of bricks were located inside tents that we believe the group was planning to use to throw at officers or use to damage buildings. It should be noted that ACCPD and Central Service had taken precautions before the start of the event to clear the area of all trashcans bricks, bottles and other items that could be used as projectiles. The bricks that we located after the incident were likely what was being carried in inside the backpacks that we noticed the group members carrying. It should also be noted that ACCPD had intelligence that there may be a coordinated effort to burglarize gun stores while officers were tied up addressing the civil disturbance Downtown. Shortly before 1:00 am on June 1, officers responded to a report of looters at the Academy Sports Store on Atlanta Highway and disrupted a burglary in progress. 13 individuals who had broken into the store were arrested for Burglary and Damage to Property. In all, 32 arrest were made to include the 19 Downtown and 13 at Academy Sports. I have attached a video of the event to better illustrate our actions during the final minutes of the incident. 

(NOTE: The video has not been forwarded to the Commissioners at this time. I will send it when I get access.) 

CLEVELAND L. SPRUILL SR Chief of Police Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County 3035 Lexington Road Athens, Georgia 30605 (706) 613-3351

Statement on arrests & tear gassing of peaceful protesters

June 1, 2020

Early this morning, just after midnight, peaceful protesters at the intersection of Broad Street and College Avenue were forcefully removed by police after having multiple rounds of tear gas fired upon them from the Georgia National Guard and police. After hearing that troops were moving into position, I headed downtown to witness the situation and to attempt to have protesters safely leave. Just as I arrived the tear gas shots went off, the tear gas moved swiftly throughout downtown and quickly caught me. As I arrived to the scene I witnessed folks running out of the gas cloud, crying, coughing, and vomiting from the gas.

Earlier in the day, a massive, peaceful march of over 2,000 people took the streets of downtown Athens. People stood in solidarity demanding police reforms in response to the killing of George Floyd and so many other black people due to excessive force by law enforcement. As this march was ending, a handful of armed instigators did arrive from out of town and unsuccessfully tried to escalate the situation. During this time, the National Guard moved into downtown Athens and an emergency curfew was put in place. These individuals supposedly vacated the area by 10:30 but were potentially lingering in the area.

When the National Guard and police moved in, they moved in on the remaining unarmed, peaceful protesters. No violence or damage had occurred. If one watches the many videos online, you will see that nobody fought back against the cops. A handful of protesters sat in the streets until the heavily armored police officers, backed by armored vehicles, approached them and arrested them; they did not resist. Many individuals frantically ran away from the scene. Some were allowed to leave, others were cornered into the police line and arrested also.

To advance economic and racial justice in our community, I have taken part in civil disobedience in the past and been arrested for it. None of those times was I met with tear gas, national guard troops, or officers pointing rifles. In those experiences, we made it obvious that we were non-violent and not a threat. I would argue that the protesters in Athens did the same as they raised their hands in the air saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot” and how many sat in the street when officers moved in and did not resist arrest.

At some point, city officials and law enforcement likely would have had to work with protesters to be able to reopen the state highway. But in my opinion it was absolutely unnecessary, and unacceptable to move in on peaceful protesters with violent, dangerous, unpredictable weapons such as tear gas. It was unnecessary to arrest these non-violent individuals and take them into custody. It is unacceptable that we had finished cleaning the confederate memorial, which had received some graffiti, before we had finished booking and releasing all of the individuals from jail.

During Sunday afternoon’s protest the people of Athens proved that they deserve better than this. We must do better. Black Lives Matter.

I cannot speak for the entire Mayor & Commission but I personally support and advocate for the following to happen:

  • Dropping charges on the arrested peaceful protesters
  • Pass an enforceable Non-Discrimination Ordinance for Athens-Clarke County
  • Fund an additional Mental Health Co-responder team for ACCPD in this year’s budget
  • Fund a study and plan for ACCPD to move 50% of its force in a tiered fashion to unarmed, community officers prioritizing social work skills such as resource connection, deescalation
  • For the sake of community safety, move the confederate memorial on Broad Street to storage until a safer, contextually proper location can be designated

In Solidarity,
Commissioner Tim Denson