I’ll admit it. I was a bit nervous after the grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict the Ferguson MO police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. That night, violence had erupted in Ferguson. Protestors in Atlanta had already planned events for the following day.
As the grand jury report was unveiled, somebody named Thomas Gibbons sent me an unsettling tweet. It had a humorous touch, but the sender’s profile pic also showed a young man pointing a pistol. I retweeted it, just because I was impressed that he was familiar enough with my bio to reference events 22 years previous.
I was a bit sullen during the morning editorial meeting the following day. My colleagues pitched a lot of pretty great ideas that related the Ferguson story to the Atlanta market. I was not so clever. At the end of the meeting, the managing editor asked what people thought might happen that day. I ended up blurting out what, in hindsight, was a rather alarmist speech.
I’m expecting the worst. I hope I’m wrong. But we should all expect to be targets. It only takes a few hotheads to make it turn ugly.
Whatever happens today won’t just be about Ferguson. It’ll be about a lifetime of frustration, experienced by people in metro Atlanta who genuinely believe they — or their friends or family or neighbors — have been mistreated by police and by the justice system. Most of us at this table don’t understand that frustration first-hand. Today will provide an opportunity for such folks to gather and make an emphatic statement..
This will be a target-poor environment . Government buildings will be well protected. Police will be armed. News crews will be unprotected. Like it or not, people with cameras and microphones will represent “the man” in the eyes of folks looking to lash out. We need to be very careful.
The editorial meeting ended with a bit of a chill. I found myself shaking as I retreated to my desk.
Fortunately, the protests were much more like Occupy Atlanta than they were like Rodney King. Police gave the protestors a pretty wide berth, up until the point that they decided to march on the I-75/85 Downtown Connector.
Who knew that, at that point, a few hotheads in law enforcement would become the problem.
(Oh, wait — that was kind of the whole point of the protest…)
When the protestors ventured down the ramp to the interstate highway, news crews followed. The protestors blocked traffic. Police who’d followed told photogs to stay on the shoulder.
11Alive photog Tyson Paul was among them. There came a moment when he watched some cops physically remove some protestors from a lane of traffic and put them in a paddy wagon. Tyson turned to shoot it. Then he felt a cop grab his wrist. His camera lurched to the left. His voice is heard on the video saying “I’m with channel eleven.” The cop orders him to put his camera down. He was taken to Turner Field, where he was processed into the city jail along with a couple dozen arrested protestors.
It’s unclear why the cops singled out Tyson — and Creative Loafing freelancer John Ruch. Ruch was arrested on a sidewalk outside APD’s Zone 5 precinct on Spring St. Here’s the last photo he took before the cops cuffed him. (If Ruch has published a first-hand account of his experience, I can’t find it.)
I have always heard that it’s illegal to just take a stroll on an interstate highway — even in the emergency lane. Obviously, if your car is disabled, that’s one thing; but many interstate highways have signs that say “no pedestrians.” It’s quite likely that by following the protestors onto the highway, the news crews broke a law.
But Tyson is a pretty fearless photog. He followed his instinct to follow the story.
When they got onto the highway, Tyson says cops actually advised him to confine himself to the shoulder in order to avoid running afoul of law enforcement. The young Atlanta cop who cuffed him apparently wasn’t part of that conversation.
He spent the night in jail. The next morning, a municipal court judge dropped the charge against Tyson. When Tyson went to court, he had his first face-to-face encounter with Jennifer Rigby, 11Alive’s new news director. She started work last week, and made a point of attending the early morning court hearing.
Thankfully, I was wrong about the protests. The police, however, surprised me. As somebody said– it only takes a few hotheads to make it turn ugly.
Friday, the Atlanta Police public affairs unit is hosting one of its regular “get to know us” sessions for the news media. This one may be worth attending.