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2020 in Review: The Year We Hunkered Down

Credit: Whitley Carpenter/file

Remember when President Trump was impeached? It seems like it was back in 1868, but, no, that was Andrew Johnson. A mere year and five days ago, House Democrats initiated the process of removing the president, which the Senate would vote down along mostly partisan lines six weeks later—a portent of things to come. It was a simpler time, when our biggest worries were the Mueller Report and Trump threatening Ukraine to try to get Hunter Biden investigated.

Three hundred thousand deaths, a summer of protests and untold damage to democracy later, those seem like quaint concerns.

2020 has been perhaps the most postmodern of years. Truth, for half the country, ceased to exist. Either you believed the experts about COVID-19, stayed home and wore a mask when you had to go out in public, or you believed Trump and his Fox News enablers who told you it was all a hoax as the death toll soared into six figures. Maybe you rallied against police violence and racism, or maybe you stormed a state capitol demanding that the governor liberate nail salons. If you are one of the 47% of Americans who opted not to repudiate Trump for empowering white supremacists and minimizing a pandemic, there is a very good chance you still believe the election was stolen from him, despite recount after recount and court ruling after court ruling showing Joe Biden was the clear winner.

While Trump’s support never budged through countless scandals, life changed for everyone late last winter when the novel coronavirus arrived on our shores. In Athens, the date was Mar. 13. That’s when the University of Georgia decided it would shut down for the rest of the semester. Public schools and businesses quickly followed suit. Festivals were canceled. No one has seen live music in this town since. Most of us haven’t eaten inside a restaurant. 

Thanks in part to federal relief funding—much of which is about to expire as Congress bickers—and to Athenians’ penchant for helping each other in need, most beloved local institutions have been able to limp along during the ensuing recession. But not all of them have survived. The Caledonia Lounge and vintage shop Atomic were among those that fell victim to the pandemic, and they may not be the last.

Athens residents have risen to the occasion, though. Mutual aid organizations cropped up. People donated their stimulus checks to charity, bought takeout and tipped their bartenders virtually. Venues live-streamed concerts. The local government devoted millions of dollars to feeding the hungry and housing those without homes. 

Not that the state was much help. Gov. Brian Kemp was widely criticized, even by Trump, for opening back up too soon, and he stymied local efforts to stay on lockdown to flatten the curve. For a time, Kemp even blocked cities from requiring such common-sense measures as wearing masks inside public places. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents was hell-bent on bringing students back to campuses, which resulted in a terrifying period in late August when, thanks to unmasked students partying in frat houses and packing into the bars Kemp ordered reopened, Athens-Clarke County had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country.

But it eventually subsided—somewhat. The Bulldogs managed to play three-quarters of a football season. K-12 schools reopened in November, only to shut down again thanks to a post-Thanksgiving spike and the anticipation of another after Christmas. As the first vials of vaccine are arriving, the numbers are trending up again. 

As the virus was raging, so was anger over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans. On May 31, a large crowd gathered downtown to express themselves peacefully. Nevertheless, late that night, county officials declared a curfew, and police moved in to disperse 100 or so remnants with tear gas and beanbag rounds. Chief Cleveland Spruill cited intelligence that white supremacists had been spotted in the crowd and bricks found in tents—accounts disputed by protesters and later disproven by an internal investigation. Another protest the following weekend drew thousands and went off without a hitch, despite the presence of what appeared to be the entire Georgia National Guard and members of every law enforcement agency in the state. 

In the aftermath, the commission moved the Confederate monument downtown away from its prominent location on Broad Street, and Mayor Kelly Girtz appointed committees to create a police review board and tackle the legacy of urban renewal projects like Linnentown, a primarily Black neighborhood that was razed to make way for UGA’s Baxter Street dorms in the 1960s. But Commissioner Mariah Parker’s plan to defund the police fell short.

Oh, and there were elections, too—SO MANY ELECTIONS. Georgia Democrats started to pick a presidential nominee in March, then stopped due to the pandemic. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the most popular picks in Athens, but when voting started again in June, Biden already had the nomination sewn up. The chance to choose a new district attorney for the first time in 20 years was also put off, this time until November, after Ken Mauldin abruptly resigned rather than finish out his term. (It was nearly put off for two years until candidate Deborah Gonzalez filed a successful lawsuit.)

In June, voters returned four incumbents—Parker, Allison Wright, Jerry NeSmith and Mike Hamby—to the commission, although NeSmith died in an accidental fall and was replaced by his opponent, Jesse Houle. Andy Herod opted not to run again, and Carol Myers won his Eastside seat. Running on a progressive platform, police Sgt. John Q. Williams narrowly ousted Sheriff Ira Edwards in the Democratic primary.

That was a shocker, but the biggest surprise yet would come in November, when after days of counting an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, Biden would become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. That’s right: After a decade of entirely Republican rule, Georgia was blue again. The margin wound up being less than 12,000 votes, but it held up after an audit, a hand recount, a machine recount, numerous debunked conspiracy theories and several lawsuits that were laughed out of court. Trump and his supporters, refusing to admit Biden won, turned on Kemp, and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger became a hero for standing up for the rule of law under tremendous pressure to somehow reverse the outcome.

In December, Gonzalez emerged as the winner of a runoff for DA on the strength of her pledges for criminal justice reform, making history as the first female DA in the Western Circuit, the first Latina DA in Georgia and the first Puerto Rican woman in the nation to serve as DA. And there is still one more runoff to go: on Jan. 5, when Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff face Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. What’s at stake? Oh, nothing—just control of the U.S. Senate and whether Mitch McConnell can hamstring the Biden administration as he did to President Obama’s. Many things changed in 2020, but some things stay the same.