The murder of George Floyd sparked enormous protests that continued for months. In response, police agencies often overreacted, resorting to violence and intimidation to keep the peace. As a result, protesters across the country have been gassed, shot and targeted for surveillance and arrest.
This video focuses on the night of May 31 in Athens, Georgia when the police tear gassed a crowd of peaceful protesters and shot them with rubber bullets. The police may have cleared themselves of wrongdoing in an internal investigation, but was their response really justified based on what they knew at the time?
Watch the video above to find out!
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There is a lot of visual information presented in the video that’s not included in the transcript below, so we recommend watching instead of reading. But, we’ve got the transcript if you prefer to read, as well:
On May 31, 2020, thousands of people filled the streets of Athens, Georgia to protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. This was one of the largest demonstrations in Athens’ history, energized by the spirit of revolution that was sweeping the country. Polls estimate between 15 and 26 million people participated nationwide.
And they were successful at achieving some of their objectives, but at a cost. Up to thirty people may have lost their lives in connection to these protests. Over 14,000 people were arrested, mostly for low-level offenses like curfew violations.
Protester #1: “Aw, don’t do that.”
Protester #2: “What the f***?”
In Minneapolis, business owners claim over $500 million in property damage. Despite the protests being entirely peaceful in most areas, 32,000 National Guard troops have been activated nationwide as of June 9.
Without exaggeration, it’s clear that these protests are one of the most significant events in modern American history.
Today, I’m going to focus on one small part of these protests, which is the violent police overreaction here in Athens on the night of May 31. We’ll find out what really went down, what the police said about it, and how we can stop this kind of overreaction from happening in the future.
First, let’s take a look at the facts of what happened. On May 31 at 5pm, black organizers in town, including Commissioner Mariah Parker, called for a “March for a World Without Cops.” The protest began at the courthouse in downtown Athens. From there, they took to the streets, marching to College Square where speakers, including Mayor Kelly Girtz, stood atop the Confederate monument to address the crowd, which by this point numbered between 1,500 and 2,000 people, according to police.
The protest was entirely peaceful, although at around 7:30 a small group of “Boogaloo” extremists armed with rifles made a brief appearance as the protest was winding down. It’s unclear what they were trying to accomplish, but this is the only time anyone reported as having seen them. By all accounts, they left the scene before dark, as did most of the crowd.
But about one to two hundred people stayed put, hanging out around the Confederate monument, which some of them defaced with spray paint. APN examined the scene at the monument around 9pm, when the National Guard was already mobilizing. Most of the protesters remaining were of college or even high-school age.
Around 9:40pm, ACC Assistant Manager Deborah Lonon declared a state of emergency and a curfew downtown, making the gathering around the monument illegal. At that time, four different military and police agencies coordinated to surround protesters on all sides. At midnight, ACCPD gave the official order to disperse through a drone flying overhead. Some protesters left, although most stayed put, locking arms in a defensive formation as the police started to close in.
Then, in the words of Chief Spruill, “I made the decision to utilize gas as a final attempt to get the crowd to disperse without having to use higher levels of force.”
Before police fired canisters of smoke and tear gas at protesters, no protester behaved violently towards police. Although, they did throw water bottles in their general direction and set off fireworks.
Regardless of Spruill’s wishes, the police did use high levels of force. Rubber bullets*, or “bean bag” rounds, were fired at protesters, specifically those who tried to snuff out tear gas canisters or kick them back at police.
At this point, remaining protesters either fled to a nearby building under construction, or sat down where they were and awaited arrest. Nineteen people were arrested in total, and all, I believe, were released the next day. No weapons were found on protesters or at the scene.
Let’s be clear – this was an unprovoked assault on Athenians exercising their first amendment right to assembly.
What they said about it
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “While yesterday was mainly very positive, there were some elements that were dangerous and challenging. Beyond those individuals that were visible, there was an element that was not visible, that was behind the scenes, and our department had very strong intelligence that after the demonstration, we needed to clear downtown for the safety of the individuals who live there and frequent there, and for people’s workplaces.”
On June 1, ACCPD issued a press release saying that “many” of the protesters occupying the area around the Confederate monument “appeared to belong to a violent extremist group.”
This is, as you can see, a lie.
At a press conference on July 31, police changed their story on this. They now say that they merely saw “indications” that “suggested the presence of extremists,” such as one protester out of roughly 200 wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
They also said they saw protesters carrying heavy backpacks into a tent at the center of the protest area. Could they be stockpiling bricks or other tools of destruction? Once police cleared the area, Chief Spruill said that they did find “stacks of bricks … inside tents that we believe the group was planning to use to throw at officers or … damage buildings.”
This was also untrue, which was admitted by police at the press conference.
Journalist: “What were they doing with the tent? Was that kind of a medical triage kind of a situation?”
Lieutenant Harrison Daniel, ACCPD: “I don’t know everything they were doing with the tent. We weren’t sure what it was, it was kind of an unknown threat at that time, is my understanding. As you can see in the video, at one point one of the officers moves the tent and it appeared it did not have anything significant in it of weight. And so I don’t know anything else beyond that.”
Regarding Mayor Girtz’s statement that they had strong evidence they needed to clear downtown to protect businesses there, this appears also to have been mostly inaccurate. How do I know? Well, first, if protesters were keen on smashing windows, they could have done that any night for the past two months. There have been many protests in Athens since May 31, but to date no property here has been destroyed related to them.
But let’s take a look at the events of May 31 from the perspective of police, so you can decide for yourself if you feel their actions were justified.
Why the police turned violent
Commissioner Mariah Parker: “I stand in solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Detroit, Louisville, Kentucky, Brooklyn, Atlanta and those who will be gathering here in Athens as they use whatever means necessary to make their voices heard and demand justice for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the countless victims of police violence and systemic racism in this country.”
Before the protest on May 31 even started, police were already concerned that it would get out of hand. Reports of arson and destruction were coming in from around the country. In Athens, police were monitoring the social media feeds of organizers and groups they classified as “extremist.” They were also monitoring the feeds of people who were not involved with protest organizing. After George Floyd’s murder, many Athenians were of course angry and were not always careful with how they expressed their anger. But Police took every outburst very seriously, and became progressively alarmed and frightened of their own community.
This letter from A Traumatized Blacqueer Activist was circulated before and during the May 31 protest and was read by police with concern. Other people began to share stories about past violence they suffered at the hands of police. One such story went viral and caught police attention. Next we have Commissioner Mariah Parker’s statement of solidarity with the nationwide protests – the police were paying attention and they were not happy about it. Even this completely harmless Tweet by an Atlanta socialist group seemed to cause panic at police headquarters.
Because the group is based in Atlanta, police labeled them “outside agitators.” Never mind that they aren’t outsiders or agitators at all – both members of the Party of Socialism and Liberation who attended the rally live in Athens and they left well before dark. Never mind the fact that the people posting stories of police violence were not involved in the protest organizing. Never mind that the actual organizers had no violent intentions and never encouraged violence. Commissioner Parker wanted to promote her plan to reduce police funding, she didn’t want to break windows!
But it seems that everyone involved became a suspect for a crime that hadn’t happened yet.
As Chief Spruill became more and more worried about the possibility that the coming protest might turn destructive, he reached out to state authorities for help. That’s when the National Guard was activated. He also asked the local government for an emergency declaration and curfew before the protest even started. He was denied at that time by Deborah Lonon, who thought there wasn’t enough evidence to justify a curfew. She was right of course, but Police had also received reports that members of the Boogaloo movement would show up – as they did. Now, they are extremists and their presence, armed with rifles, was certainly agitating to everyone nearby. That included the police.
Lieutenant Daniel: “The presence of Boogaloo confirmed the department’s pre-event intelligence concerning extremist groups and elevated the threat assessment at that time.”
When they arrived on scene, it seemed to confirm everything police had been worried about. From then on, they started interpreting normal behaviors like wearing a backpack or a respirator during a pandemic as potentially threatening.
Now, protesters were preparing to protect themselves from potential police violence, there’s no doubt about that. Apparently, they were right to do so.
After the Boogaloo arrived, Assistant Manager Lonon finally agreed to declare a curfew. This was the first in a series of small decisions that led to the police turning violent. The second happened when the National Guard informed Chief Spruill that they would be pulling out a little after midnight. Spruill was fearful that he wouldn’t be able to maintain control if the National Guard pulled out.
Chief Cleveland Spruill, ACCPD: “Those assets were needed elsewhere. My officers did not have the training and did not have the equipment that was necessary to be effective in that kind of an environment. And so, rather than waiting longer, we decided we were going to disperse at that time.”
Since he believed the crowd was about to start breaking windows, setting fires and possibly even attacking police officers, he felt he had no choice but to disperse the crowd while he still could.
The third decision in this series of events involved how the crowd would be pushed out of downtown. One option could involve approaching the protesters and arresting everyone who refused to leave. But that’s not what Spruill chose to do.
Chief Spruill: “Our objective was not to arrest people, our objective was to get people to leave.”
When police saw protesters forming ranks and linking arms, they realized they would be difficult to remove without using tear gas. ACCPD aren’t trained on how to handle a group of people like that who choose to resist arrest. They also feared that some protesters might fight back. They were imagining officers being hit with bricks, and they were also worried some protesters might have guns. Covert operatives say they did see that some protesters had firearms, although ACCPD hasn’t presented any proof of that.
If protesters fought back, they would be shot or clubbed with a baton.
Of course, this is a completely paranoid scenario. We’re talking about unarmed high school and college students! If any protester had a gun and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, my guess is that they would have done that regardless of the method police chose to clear the area. But that didn’t happen.
So, the decision was made to use tear gas. And that decision led straight to the next one, which was to shoot protesters with rubber bullets. And hey, if you believed those tear gas canisters were the only thing stopping an all out brawl, or potentially even a gunfight from breaking out, you’re going to protect them. And that’s what they did. Any protester who interfered with the canisters was shot. And although these weapons are less-lethal, they can cause permanent injury or even kill you.
So, that’s how it happened. One decision led to another, and another, and finally to potentially deadly force being used against regular people who weren’t doing anything besides standing in the road. This was an irrational response disconnected from the reality of what was actually happening.
And unfortunately, they didn’t come to their senses afterward, either.
You may not have heard this, but Chief Spruill asked for another curfew which would have canceled the AADM protest held a few days later. Spruill’s reasoning? He was freaked out by a public art project. Yeah. There’s an artist in town who likes to paint railroad spikes to look like colorful little characters and they’re scattered around town as public art. They have nothing to do with the protest but for some reason the police thought they were “pre-staged weaponry.” And I’m not kidding, Spruill wanted to cancel AADM’s protest. I mean, is Spruill okay? Does he need help? Thankfully, the Manager’s Office saw things differently, and declined to grant him the curfew. And nothing happened, of course. I mean this must be so embarrassing for them. I’m embarrassed!
And yet police are using this shameful and embarrassing chapter in their history as a reason why they should get more funding. They want to buy an LRAD sound cannon to use against protesters next time. I … don’t know what to say. I wish I could end this on a more positive note, but the truth is the police have completely lost all credibility with me.
*About less-lethal ammunition
I use the terms “rubber bullets” and “bean-bag rounds” interchangeably in the video, but they are not the same thing. According to Wikipedia, metal bullets with a rubber coating were first used in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve been used less and less often because the rubber sometimes makes them bounce uncontrollably.
Modern police departments use less-lethal bullets made of different materials which have a similar effect. “Bean bag” rounds are lead shot wrapped in a cloth covering which helps reduce the lethality somewhat. They’re also fired at a lower velocity. It was primarily this type of ammunition used by ACCPD on May 31, although they also used “sponge” rounds.
Even if actual rubber bullets are no longer used by police, the term is still used by the public. Therefore, I also use the term in the video at the expense of precision.