City Council President Discusses How Atlanta Reacts To George Floyd's Death
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Atlanta, reporting from here today because we are trying to tell the story of this dizzying moment in our country from as many parts of our country as we can, including here, Georgia, the Deep South, and Atlanta, birthplace of the civil rights movement, now rocked by a fifth straight day of protests. Today came word of charges against six Atlanta police officers for excessive force against protesters.
Straight off the plane there are signs - literal signs - that you are arriving in a city on edge. As we drove north last night up I-75 from the airport, big, illuminated warnings across the highway read curfew - 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Downtown, the city streets are either eerily quiet or anything but.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.
KELLY: Walking past the front gate of Centennial Park, all kinds of armored vehicles rolling up. The National Guard here in uniform with big glass shields, helmets.
In the crowd, we find people who are angry, who are fed up, including this woman, Stacey (ph) - middle-aged, African American, didn't want to give her last name. She is holding up a cardboard sign that reads George Floyd. We demand justice.
STACEY: So I'm here because I want my sons and my daughter to live in peace in America. They are Americans. We are Americans. We deserve equality. And while we have the world's attention and a platform right now, we demand change in the system itself.
KELLY: Stacey leans closer to her son, Sean (ph), standing beside her. He is 23, just graduated college.
STACEY: He's an upstanding citizen. I don't want him to be targeted because he's not a target. He's not a target for police. I want my son to stand as a man in America because that's who he is.
KELLY: Across the crowd we find Hannah Walden (ph). She's from Atlanta, was a bartender, lost her job with the shutdown, one of quite a few white faces among the protesters.
HANNAH WALDEN: As you know, white privilege is real. And I want to be here to protect as many black lives as I can because, you know, most likely they're not going to hurt me because of the color of my skin. And even as heartbreaking as that is to say that, that is the reality.
KELLY: Not long after, somebody in the crowd throws what looks like a bottle of water towards the line of police. The police press forward.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
KELLY: A canister of tear gas lands.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
KELLY: Everybody is running, rubbing their eyes. Tear gas does not discriminate based on the color of your skin. I will remember the African American man who cycles past us. He calls out to the line of law enforcement, wish you all would go home. To us, you all stay safe tonight. This afternoon came word curfew will be enforced here again tonight.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, we back tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Same time.
KELLY: Witnessing the protests firsthand left me with questions for the city's leaders, questions I put today to Felicia Moore. She's president of the Atlanta City Council.
FELICIA MOORE: We're used to protests here. This is the cradle of the civil rights movement. But what I'm not and the city is not used to people coming to a protest with the intent of destruction. Who comes to a protest with a spray paint can or devices to set fires?
KELLY: What is the danger as you see it? You lead the city council. You obviously have to be concerned about physical damage and property damage and all of that. But is your concern that the looting, that the vandalism risks shifting attention from legitimate grievances?
MOORE: Well, it certainly does because that's what you report on. You know, I'm just concerned about the level of violence and how high it will ratchet up as time goes on. I'm hoping that it will quell, but I'm not sure.
KELLY: What do you say to protesters, those who have been engaged in or may be contemplating a more violent kind of protest, who argue that city leaders, including you, are concerned about property and property damage and that they're out fighting for the lives of people of color who have been killed by police?
MOORE: I want people to protest. I want them to have their voices heard. But I also want those who do it nonviolently to please do their best - and I know they're already doing it; I've talked to some of them - to police those who are bringing in violent tactics and destructive tactics that are taking away from the message.
KELLY: I will say - I grew up here - it is jarring to walk the streets of downtown Atlanta and see the National Guard on the ground, men and women in military fatigues, these enormous armored vehicles that I have seen in Baghdad, but never on the streets of Georgia. What message...
MOORE: I know. It looks like a force that occupied the city. You know, the sheer number of troops that were on the ground yesterday was staggering. You know, many people said they don't want to see that, the militarization. Then on the other side, the people are afraid and frightened and want to make sure that things don't get out of hand and people aren't able to loot and destroy the city. So it's a very delicate balance and a game that you can't win on either side.
KELLY: There have been a couple of Atlanta police officers fired for using excessive force. Do you think Atlanta has gotten the balance right in terms of allowing free speech, right of assembly and also trying to keep order?
MOORE: I think the mayor and the chief moved swiftly, understanding that that would be something that would fuel other protests. And so I think that police officers all over the country have to re-evaluate how we do policing.
KELLY: Last thing - you mentioned Atlanta is the cradle of the civil rights movement. And I wonder in the city where Martin Luther King lived and preached and is buried, do you feel as leader of the city council a particular responsibility for leadership in yet another moment of deep racial division and fear?
MOORE: Yes. I feel that the city of Atlanta has a duty and a responsibility to lead. I want us to be the leader in figuring out how we deal with the issue of police brutality. I want us to do the thing that nobody really wants to do and they just kind of pick around the edges of, and that's dealing with the issue of race, which is the heart and the foundation of all of these issues, whether it's this police brutality issue or whether it's the coronavirus and the disparities in health. We as a country need to deal with that issue, and I think we have a responsibility here in the city to be the leaders.
KELLY: Felicia Moore - she's leader of the city council here in Atlanta - thanks so much for your time.
MOORE: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.