Zoe Bambara, 19, smiled and watched on as Centennial Olympic Park filled with people Friday afternoon. She had no inkling her planned peaceful protest would end with bricks flying through windows, cars set ablaze and the deployment of the Georgia National Guard.
Bambara and some other young people organized the protests online to express outrage over the violent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery of Brunswick, George Floyd of Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor of Louisville.
“I contacted a couple of girls and started a group chat, we made a poster Wednesday night, and got a whole bunch of attention Wednesday night,” she said. “We were like, we need to find a concrete venue because we need to stay as legal as possible with all of this.”
Bambara said she wanted to start a peaceful protest to raise awareness of Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was killed when Louisville Police serving a no-knock drug raid on her house shot her March 13.
“Nobody was talking about Breonna Tayor, and black women tend to get ignored by everyone, and I’m so tired,” she said. “So I was like, I need to get people to know that a black woman started this, and I need some more support for us, because we get ignored. Of course I’m mad about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Mike Brown, everybody else too, but we need more support for black women.”
Others in the crowd did not seem in the mood to march quietly. Some carried signs bearing anti-police slogans such as ACAB, short for All Cops are Bastards.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Centennial Olympic Park at 3 p.m. to protest the recent slayings. They marched toward the Georgia Capitol holding signs and chanting slogans like “Police the police” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Among the crowd was Latangela Puckett of Atlanta, her young son and six nieces and nephews. She said it was important for her to bring her young family members to the protest because she worries they could become victims of racist violence.
“If they’re not with me, I’m scared for their lives,” she said. “Every time they’re not with me, I’m scared for them. I’m scared that something is going to happen to them, they’re going to be the next Trayvon, they’re going to be the next George, the next Ahmaud. I don’t want them to be the next ones on the T-shirts.”
Some of the demonstrators climbed the steps of the Capitol building, where police officers were standing guard. State Rep. Erica Thomas, a south Cobb Democrat, was waiting on the steps with a megaphone and defied law enforcement to confront the peaceful crowd.
“We as representatives stand here between you and these patrolmen, and we wish they would.”
People briefly started chanting “Wish they would.”
Thomas explained her meaning.
“I wish they would try to do something to all these people that are out here because the point is that if we are peacefully protesting, you should not touch us,” she said. “We want to make sure at the end of the day that you will not do anything to these peaceful protesters because we as people have been protesting since years before and we will protest years after, even after what is going on right now.”
The marchers left Liberty Plaza across from the Gold Dome around 5 p.m. and headed for Centennial Olympic Park where speakers addressed a peaceful rally. By 7:30 p.m., a more confrontational group gathered at the nearby CNN Center to face off against police in front of the iconic CNN sign.
Rocks, water bottles and other projectiles flew from the crowd, smashing through the windows of CNN Center bouncing off police helmets and sometimes striking other members of the crowd. Anti-police graffiti covered the walls of the cable news headquarters.
While a line of police and protesters stared each other down, other demonstrators destroyed police cars parked in front of the building, smashing windshields with skateboards, hammers or bicycle racks. One police car was lit afire, spreading thick black smoke and the smell of burning rubber.
Officers rushed the crowd, pushing them away from the building and into the street. A firefighter doused the flaming squad car. Officers with wooden batons formed a cordon in the street. Shouting “Move back!” in unison, they marched forward a few steps while protesters resisted.
Tamika Conway of Decatur stood off to the side and spoke with a member of the Georgia State Patrol.
“I have five black brothers, I have two black sons, and I need to be the face of this because I worry about my kids every night,” she said. “And it ain’t just black men, it’s women, it’s children.”
After 8 p.m., a splinter group headed away from downtown on Marietta Street and began smashing the windows of businesses there. First came McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood and Steaks, where young men smashed the windows with rocks, bricks and anything they could find.
A woman tried to stand between the young men and the restaurant, pleading them to stop to no avail.
Late Friday night, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms convened a televised press conference with Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields and others to plea for the lawlessness to stop.
“We are better than this,” Bottoms said. “We are better than this as a city. We are better than this as a country. Go home.”
Some of the protesters came with gallons of milk, which is used to remove the sting of the tear gas police deployed several times to disperse the crowds. Officers were also seen carrying stun guns and beanbag guns.
While some protesters wreaked havoc on downtown restaurants, banks and CNN, more stood back and watched the chaos. Among them was Tristan Hazelton of Gwinnett County.
“With all this police brutality that’s going on, I just wanted to show support, but there’s a better way to handle the situation,” he said. “I hope it will help a change come around, but the looting and all that other stuff, I’m not with that, I’m just with the protest.”
On Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp said his office spoke with protest organizers and he expected a peaceful demonstration.
“They want to have a peaceful protest and we stand ready to help them do that,” Kemp said. “I want to make sure that you know anybody that’s coming to state properties, whether it’s the Capitol or public streets or anywhere else is in a safe environment.
“We’ll have our law enforcement there to help maintain the safety of those folks but also the safety of our citizens,” Kemp added.
Kemp cited the Brunswick rallies calling for justice in the Arbery case as examples of how large groups of people have been able to safely come together to express their concerns.
If any riots spark from protests, then law enforcement would take swift action, Kemp said.
“It is our intention for everyone to be able to express their First Amendment rights in a safe way, and we’re going to continue to support them doing that,” he said.
By shortly after midnight, as the protests spread to nearby Lenox Mall, Kemp had ordered 500 Georgia National Guard troops to the area to tamp down the rioting.
“We will continue to make all state resources available to local leaders during this emergency situation,” Kemp tweeted.