In metro-Atlanta, a fractured conversation on race and police


As 10,000 marchers gathered in Atlanta’s Centennial Park on Friday in the aftermath of a nightmarish week of police shootings, there was a soul-deep conflict evident in the voices of the protesters.

Through the night and pre-dawn hours of Saturday as they streamed through downtown and tried to block the Connector, it was inescapable: How to reconcile and work through an ugly American milestone?

Ever since video surfaced of Baton Rogue police officers shooting Alton Sterling to death in front of a convenience store last Tuesday, hour by hour, city by city, the nation’s long, unhealed wound of racial discord deepened.

Not 48 hours had ticked by since Sterling’s death, and the trauma intensified. Diamond Reynolds had the grit and presence of mind to raise her cell phone to film and narrate the death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, after a St. Anthony, Minn., police officer shot him multiple times during a traffic stop for a broken tail light.

Then Thursday night it all exploded on the streets of Dallas. A black man decided to exact a twisted form of what he told police was retribution.

Before Sterling or Castile there was a litany of names: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Arthur McDuffie, Leonard Deadwyler. All black men beaten, choked or shot by police.

In murdering five white law enforcement officers in Dallas — officers who were protecting a peaceful protest over police misconduct—Micah Xavier Johnson again made the story of race in America unavoidable.

Just hours after the crowd dispersed in Atlanta, President Barack Obama would say during a press conference at a NATO conference in Poland, “There is sorrow. There is anger. There is confusion about next steps.”

“As painful as this week has been, I firmly believe that America is not as divided as some have suggested,” Obama said.

Across metro Atlanta, not all were as optimistic. On Friday night, this is how the conversation about race, policing and hope unfolded.

5:40 p.m. Avondale Estates

Bill Hallisey, 66, is sitting at the bar in O’Keefe’s, part of the Avondale Pizza Cafe in Avondale Estates. He’s nursing a Beck’s non-alcoholic beer, a slice of pizza and a plateful of worry.

“It’s a godawful mess and it’s my fear that it escalates,” the Decatur man says of the shootings in Dallas. “This is such a crazy situation where a guy sets up as a sniper. Nobody expects that.”

More members of the Friday night crowd roll in as driving blues blares and NBA teams fight it out on a TV behind the bar.

Hallisey, who retired from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta after a bout with cancer, now works three days a week as a prep cook at the restaurant.

He worries that the Dallas shooter felt growing rage for some time, and used the protests as an opportunity to attack the police and bystanders and that others now may try the same thing.

He worries that the police will become even more skittish after the Dallas shootings and more likely to over-react in tense situations.

He worries that the growing number of people armed guns will only lead to more deaths.

“If you have a concealed carry (weapon), are the police going to be able to shoot you just because you carry a gun?” he says.

This week’s shootings, Hallisey says, show that both police and the public need to learn how to act differently to avoid escalating routine encounters into fatal confrontations.

“The police officers need to be able to talk to the people in a non-threatening way and then explain the situation,” he said, rather than treating people like potential threats or criminals. Police need to understand they are there to protect and to serve.”

Hallisey’s still perplexed about how a traffic stop for a broken taillight ended in the driver’s death.

“I’ve been stopped by the police before,” he said. “I just keep my hands on the wheel and do what they say.”

6 p.m. Centennial Park

It’s sweltering as the crowd at Centennial Olympic Park thickens. The second Black Lives Matter protest in two days gets underway.

In the middle of the crowd, a 28-year-old man stands with sign curved around his chest like a soldier would carry a shield. “No mo killing us,” the red paint reads.

“I was already tired and angry when I got here,” Jamieson Lewis says. The Alton Sterling shooting made him mad, but Philando Castile’s murder made him want to take a stand.

“When a black man dies, the media looks for his mug shot,” Lewis, of Decatur, says. “Philando didn’t have a record.”

He says he doesn’t condone violence or the killing of the Dallas police officers, but when something happens to an officer everyone comes out with support and prayers for their families.

Lewis says his anger comes from the complex issues involved with police brutality.

“I feel like I’m free as long as I don’t act free, meaning I’m free as long as I don’t act, think or move as a free man should.”

The crowd of thousands begins to swell through the streets. Lewis moves forward.

6:40 p.m. Avondale Estates

The bar is full. Conversations have all but drowned out the music.

“This is where I come to eat Friday nights,” says Steve Bonacci, 62, of Stone Mountain.

What happened in Dallas was “abominable,” says Bonacci, an operations coordinator at DeKalb Medical Center. “It’s going to start something. At least I fear it will.”

He fears there may be more copycat shootings. More police will be on-edge, making additional shootings more likely.

“A lot of cops are going to be re-thinking their careers,” he says. “If this becomes a rage and it looks like it’s spreading, would you want to put your life on the line if you were a rookie cop in Atlanta, for what they earn?” he asked.

Bonacci said both of the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota were tragic, but he can understand why the driver got shot while reaching for his wallet.

“He should have listened” to the officer’s instructions to keep his hands up, Bonacci says. “When someone’s reaching and they tell you they have a gun, how long are you supposed to wait?”

On the other hand, “the cops need to be punished” in the Baton Rouge shooting, Bonacci says. “There was no reason to shoot him point blank,” he says, because the officers had already subdued the man and he apparently wasn’t reaching for a gun.

It would be better if “cops still walk the beat,” he says. Police would “get to know the community,” and it would be a way to cut down the suspicion and hostility on both sides.”

8:30 pm Downtown Atlanta

Karen Reagle watches the sun set over skyscrapers.

The 73-year-old with short blonde hair is the type to lean in and look over her gold-framed glasses when she wants to make a point. But she also looks away when her voice breaks and she starts to tear up.

She came to Centennial Park to show strength and disparity.

“I felt so hopeless when I saw Baton Rouge,” Reagle says. “Then I saw the man who was shot with his girlfriend and daughter in the car with him. They couldn’t call the police, who are they supposed to call to help them?”

She wears a banner around her hat with the Black Lives Matter slogan. After the shooting in Dallas, Reagle said some might think the issue has shifted. It hasn’t for her.

“I don’t think Dallas has a place in the Black Lives Matter conversation,” she said. “We had a deranged person who was too frustrated because he couldn’t figure out what to do.”

Even so, violence doesn’t solve violence, she says.

8:46 p.m. Clayton County

The bass is bumping and the crowd is packed in tight at the Sports Cafe on Tara Boulevard. Basketball and ultimate fighting championship matches blare on the overhead flat screens that ring the restaurant. Some of the TVs cut to live shots of downtown Atlanta where throngs of protesters have gathered on the streets just above the Grady Curve.

At the bar, Felecia Johnson sits with a friend. Johnson takes a stab at a game of “Candy Crush” on her phone as she waits for her order of wings and fries. She and her companion seem oblivious to the television. Their voices are filled with resignation as they talk about the week’s events.

“To me, it’s like modern day slavery,” says Johnson who lives in Forest Park. “Back then, they could hang you and lynch you. Today, they just shoot you. It’s more like they’re getting away with it.”

Johnson’s friend opts not to talk about it. Disgust registers on his face.

Aretha Phillips and three friends are seated nearby, enjoying a girls’ night out.

“It’s very emotional,” says Philips, mother of a 15-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter. “My son’s been stopped twice for walking down the street.”

The week of killings have put her on “high alert.” She recalled the time in the 60s when she saw civil rights marchers sprayed with water hoses and attacked by dogs.

“It seems like we’re going backwards,” she says above the din.

Calvin Copeland sat alone in the back of the bar nursing an O’Doul’s beer.

What happened in Dallas was sad Copeland says, but “it was just going to be a matter of time. It’s pent-up frustration.”

9:30 p.m. Clayton County

David Duncan calls for a round of tequila shots for three young men sitting next to him at the bar of Applebee’s Restaurant on Tara Boulevard, as the group bonds over football and life in the Army.

After a bone-weary week of news about police killing black men and a black man killing police, it’s good just to talk about a good old American pastime like football.

“It’s all about heart. You want it bad enough, you can accomplish it,” Duncan tells the trio as they down quesadillas, wings and drinks.

After stints in the army, the trio are headed to Georgia State University in the fall where they’ll play football.

“These guys are young football players. I’m just giving them some advice. I passed up a chance chance to play (college) ball,” says the 37-year-old trucker from Texas, and one of only two white guys perched at the bar.

Despite their differences in age and race, LaDarious Clark, 24, says “we have so much in common. It doesn’t matter the color once you have mutual understanding.”

Eventually the conversation turns to the week’s news.

“If you think about it, it’s a repeat of history,” Clark says. “It’s like the Rodney King case. It’s kinda fearful being a young black male. The random stops. There have to be other options (for police to use). It should be escalated force. It should be steps you take. Pepper spray. Tasers and finally a gun.”

Clark is just as concerned about the killings of police officers in Dallas as he was about the killings of the two unarmed black men. Johnson, the military vet who killed the officers in Dallas, “probably was a good guy with a nice life,” Clark says, but “emotions drive people to do something when they’re out of their mind. Some people feel enough is enough.”

Duncan, one of only two white guys perched at the bar, thinks about it for a moment and chimes in.

“If everybody would just take the time to spend with other races there would be more understanding. Everybody’s just American and closer than we think,” Duncan says.

About 9:50 p.m. Downtown Atlanta

As the night wears on, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed ventures out into the crowds. He likens them to a modern-day incarnation of the Civil Rights Movement. But he admonishes them not to block the interstates.

“We’re going to be vigilant and we’re going to be respectful,” he tells them.

“[w]e’re going to get through this in the spirit of Dr. King.”

10:00 pm West Midtown

A five-minute drive north on Marietta Street from Centennial Park, three friends sit outside with half-empty coffees on Friday night.

The only light comes from a string of Christmas lights above them and the headlights of passing cars.

It’s impossible to go anywhere without hearing about violence, says Eric Bruce, but it doesn’t affect him much. The 23-year-old recent Georgia Tech graduate says reaction depends on who you are and where you live.

“The conversation is fractured,” he says.

Staff Writers Ellen Eldridge


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