As Atlantans wonder whether the race rioting in Ferguson could happen here, they should consider this: It already has.
When a California jury acquitted police officers after the beating of Rodney King in 1992, the explosion of anger that spread across the country quickly reached downtown Atlanta. Hundreds of black youths smashed windows, looted stores and attacked whites on the day after the verdict. In one case, a white Stone Mountain businessman was hospitalized with brain damage after being beaten and robbed near CNN Center.
On the second day, a protest at the Atlanta University Center degraded into violent clashes with police. The protesters threw rocks, and the police deployed tear gas.
A total of 400 young people were arrested and 50 people required hospital care for injuries over the two days. Then-Mayor Maynard Jackson imposed an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, and some 600 National Guard troops were placed at the ready.
Many of the same conditions that people point to when asserting that racial unrest could not happen here today, were in place then. Atlanta had a black mayor, a black police chief and black members of the City Council.
“It could happen anyway,” Eldrin Bell, who was Atlanta’s police chief, said last week. “It made me know these kinds of situations are unpredictable.”
The 1992 riots in Los Angeles lasted three days and left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and swaths of Los Angeles on fire. Uprisings also occurred in Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Bell, now 78, said he called upon his relationships with community leaders and Atlanta University Center officials to help defuse the tension. Also, he eschewed old-style police confrontation techniques, essentially pulling officers back to contain the unrest when possible.
But Glenn Park said his family, Koreans who owned a grocery store near the AU Center, suffered because of that strategy. As the lawlessness escalated around them, the family shut down their Five Star Supermarket and pulled down the metal gate in front. But a group of about 50 youths broke through the gate and started looting and tearing up the place.
Though Park’s parents tried to hide, the mob discovered his mother and father and chased them up onto the roof, where the couple tried to barricade the door. The crowd threw rocks, hitting his mother in the back. His father started throwing things down on the crowd.
Park himself was at another location when he saw footage of the rioting on TV and recognized the family store. He said his family called police numerous times without receiving a response. The police eventually used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
“My parents could have gotten killed,” said Park, of Lawrenceville. “For my mother, it was a trauma.”
In 1999, the families that owned the grocery, as well as a nearby liquor store, settled a lawsuit against the city for $307,000.
Thousands of downtown workers watched the unrest from high-rise office windows, while much of metro Atlanta remain glued to television broadcasts. The Five Points train station was a congregating point from which the violence spread. Underground Atlanta suffered extensive vandalism.
From the sixth floor of the former offices of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reporter Ken Foskett saw the waves of young people rioting through the streets and grabbed a notepad.
“It was very tense,” said Foskett, who is now an editor at the AJC. “It was very, very tense.”
Eventually he followed a group into Macy’s where they smashed windows and glass cases and knocked down all kinds of merchandise. The police chased them out and locked the doors, leaving Foskett stuck inside for about a half hour until security let him out.
Later, Foskett was on the street talking with fellow AJC reporter Doug Blackmon when he spotted a young man raising a large rock to strike Blackmon from behind.
“I said something and looked at the guy,” Foskett said. “And then there was a mutual retreat.”