The police shooting of a black man plunged Atlanta into turmoil on Saturday, with the police chief resigning and protesters shutting down two highways and setting fire to the Wendy’s restaurant where it happened.
It was the latest paroxysm of unrest in Atlanta, where there have been demonstrations for weeks—first over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by white men in southeast Georgia and then over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white cop in Minneapolis.
Like the Arbery and Floyd slayings, the shooting of Rayshard Brooks on Friday night was captured on cellphone video. Within hours, demonstrators had gathered and by afternoon, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the resignation of Chief Erika Shields and condemned the officers’ actions. The police officer who fired the fatal shots was fired hours later, and the other officer was placed on administrative duty.
“I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do. I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force and have called for the immediate termination of the officer,” Bottoms told reporters.
The confrontation with Brooks that sparked the protests unfolded Friday night, when police said that at about 10:30 p.m. they found Brooks passed out in a car in the drive-through lane. After administering a field sobriety test, the officers attempted to arrest him for DUI, but he resisted and grabbed a Taser from one of them, the Atlanta Police Department said. GBI Director Vic Reynolds said the officer fired at Brooks only after he aimed at him with the Taser, but it’s unclear why that would warrant the use of lethal force.
In body cam footage released by police late Saturday, Brooks is seen trying to run away when an officer starts to put handcuffs on him, but much of the ensuing struggle then takes place out of view after the body cam was apparently dropped. A police officer can be heard shouting “Stop fighting” and “Hands off the Taser” before saying, “He’s got my fucking Taser.” Three shots then ring out.
Even the mayor's swift action did little to ease the public outrage by Saturday night. After nightfall, protesters set several fires outside the Wendy’s, which had been spray-painted with messages like “R.I.P. Rayshard” and “Fuck 12,” and later flames could be seen in the dining area. Protesters roamed around the blaze until an armored police SWAT truck pulled up outside the restaurant and cops lobbed tear gas into the parking lot, apparently to keep the crowd from getting too close to the fire.
Protesters eventually started throwing water bottles at police, and one protester hurled a hard hat at a SWAT team member, prompting police to fire tear gas in retaliation.
Meanwhile, other demonstrators streamed into I-85 and I-75, shutting down 14 lanes of traffic in both directions until officers in riot gear began making arrests.
Police confirmed that the Zone 3 precinct had also been surrounded by a separate crowd of protesters, but they said authorities there still had the situation under control.
Even before Brooks’ death, thousands had called for Shields to resign as police chief.
“Our first demand has been met,” one protester, Antonio Lewis, told The Daily Beast as the news of the resignation filtered through a crowd gathered outside the fast-food restaurant on Saturday evening.
Bottoms named an interim police chief to succeed Shields. In a statement, Shields said she had offered to resign “out of a deep and abiding love for this city and this department.”
“I have faith in the Mayor, and it is time for the city to move forward and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” she said.
The mayor said the city would begin a search for a new leader for its force and implement reforms within 45 days.
“To the family of Mr. Brooks, there are no words I can offer that can change your loss. I do hope you will find some comfort in the swift actions taken today and the reforms our city will implement,” Bottoms said.
As hundreds of demonstrators held vigil for more than 12 hours at the Wendy’s earlier Saturday, Atlanta City Council member Andre Dickens said there was no reason Brooks should have died.
“Police must de-escalate situations like these before they turn deadly,” he said in a statement. “Once the suspect fled unarmed and intoxicated through a parking lot of bystanders, this could have become an investigation rather than a shooting.”
Brooks’ cousin Kedaro Jackson, who also lives in Atlanta, described his younger relative as “another young black man who was trying to get himself together.” Brooks had moved back to the city from Ohio less than three months ago for a job in construction. He often came to Jackson for advice, and the two were close.
Brooks left behind a large family, including five siblings—two brothers and three sisters. He had a baby this year, his fourth with his wife, according to Jackson.
Jackson, who welcomed a new baby himself on Friday, was the first in the family to learn of Brooks’ death, though video of it had already begun circulating online.
“I’m confused. It’s a lot to process right now. Everything has a time,” he told The Daily Beast. “The last thing I told him was to stay focused and continue doing the right thing.”
Jackson saw the video of the scuffle between Brooks and the officers differently than GBI did.
“If you look at the video, he didn’t grab the Taser until the officer was already trying to tase him. He tried to grab it so the man could stop tasing him. He was pushing the officers off him and running and saying, ‘Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!’ When the police shot the three shots, they said ‘I got him, I got him!’” he said.
Seanny Georgie, a local musician who has been marching for law enforcement accountability since May 30, the day after Atlanta’s latest spate of Black Lives Matter protests kicked off, caught wind of the officer-involved shooting around midnight. He immediately began to round up fellow protesters to head to the Wendy's.
“There were like 50 protesters and four cops behind us with their guns ready, just looking at us really weird, trying to scare us off,” Georgie said of the scene when he arrived. The early-morning situation intensified as demonstrators chanted that the police were “pigs” and “murderers.”
Atlanta rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris made a brief appearance at the rally, urging protesters to vote with their wallets, as well as at the ballot box. “Corporations spend money on politicians campaigns, so when you find out that there’s a corporation that’s supporting a certain politician that doesn’t support your concerns, stop spending your money there,” he said.
Asked about rumors that protesters planned to destroy the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot, Harris said, “I honestly don’t think Wendy’s is ‘our community.’ But I don’t think that destroying personal property is an answer. Why burn this building down if the people who did it ain’t in the building?”
Atlanta City Council member Antonio Brown said he was nearly asleep when he found out about the incident. By 1:30 a.m., he was on the phone with Shields, assuring her he’d serve as a buffer between law enforcement and the growing crowd. “I told Chief Shields I would help try to deescalate the crowd and keep them in order and peaceful,” he said.
Brown said he planned to pitch legislation to the City Council on Monday that would bar the city’s police force from using rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters.
In response to the unrest Atlanta witnessed during the early days of the protests, Bottoms launched a task force to evaluate the government’s use-of-force policies. And though the deadline for officials to make recommendations for potential reform is set for June 18, Brown said, “We cannot wait.” By then, he said, “another person could lose their life.”