Athens-Clarke County Police, in concert with the National Guard, fired tear gas canisters at a crowd of peaceful protesters who had gathered at the Confederate monument downtown just after midnight on Monday morning. Police made 19 arrests for “disorderly conduct” with dozens of others fleeing the scene.
“I made the decision to utilize gas as a final attempt to get the crowd to disburse (sic),“ ACCPD Police Chief Spruill said in an email circulated by Commissioner Jerry NeSmith.
UPDATE 6/4/20: ACCPD has confirmed that “bean bag” rounds were also used against protesters.
This came after about 2,000 protesters filled the streets of downtown Athens earlier that day, demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man suffocated by police in Minnesota.
Check out APN’s video coverage of the protest above!
One of the organizers of the protest, called “March for a World Without Cops,” was Commissioner Mariah Parker. Parker used her megaphone to unveil a plan to cut the ACC police force in half over a number of years, replacing them with social workers. She explained to the crowd the need for more public pressure, particularly on Mayor Kelly Girtz, to enact this plan.
Girtz was also in attendance and addressed the crowd briefly to cheers and applause.
The event began at the courthouse and ended up at the Confederate monument at the corner of Broad Street and College Avenue with protesters parading through the streets, blocking traffic. Black organizers gave speeches from atop the monument as the crowd continued to swell in size until about 7:30 pm, when protesters began to disperse.
A small crowd of 100 to 200 people, mostly college and high-school students, stayed put for several more hours, with some spraypainting the words “Black Lives Matter” and other messages on the monument. The protesters remained entirely peaceful for the duration, causing no property damage except this defacement.
At roughly 9:40 pm, Athens-Clarke County declared a state of emergency and a curfew in the downtown area. This happened because police thought a “shift from peaceful protest to violent protest was imminent,” according to an ACCPD press release. It is not evident why police may have thought this. From first-hand accounts, protesters showed no signs of violent activity and no weapons were observed.
Earlier that day, as most protesters were beginning to disperse, four individuals armed with semi-automatic rifles did make an appearance at the Confederate monument. By some accounts, these were members of the far-right extremist Boogaloo movement. Whatever their purpose was in being downtown, they were not present when the state of emergency was declared hours later.
The National Guard, called to active duty by Governor Brian Kemp, assembled downtown in concert with ACCPD and seemed poised to remove the remaining protesters as the state of emergency was declared. However, they waited until around midnight, two hours later, before taking action.
ACCPD and the National Guard then ordered the protesters to disperse. Most of those remaining refused to leave, “lock[ing] arms in the middle of the street in a defensive posture,” according to ACCPD. Then, police fired tear gas canisters, filling the air in downtown Athens with toxic fumes which were more successful at causing those left to flee. Police then arrested those who did not leave.
The next day, ACCPD issued a press release saying that “many” of the roughly 200 protesters occupying the area around the Confederate monument “appeared to belong to a violent extremist group.” This statement conflicts with first-hand accounts, including APN’s on-site investigation.
Mayor Kelly Girtz also released a video statement saying ACCPD had “very strong evidence” that they needed to clear downtown to protect both individuals and businesses. Neither Girtz nor ACCPD ever presented any evidence to support their claims.
Commissioner Tim Denson was an eye-witness to the gassing, and he released a statement confirming that police attacked “unarmed, peaceful protesters.”
“It was absolutely unnecessary, and unacceptable to move in on peaceful protesters with violent, dangerous, unpredictable weapons such as tear gas,” Denson said.