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White Decatur lacrosse players confronted a black man and touched off a debate about privilege

COVID-19 Crime and public safety Decatur Metro ATL Trending

White Decatur lacrosse players confronted a black man and touched off a debate about privilege

Elliot Baca, 18, bangs on the door of an Oakhurst resident's home. His friend, a blond-haired lacrosse player named Will Garstka, 17, looks on from the street. Screen shot obtained from security camera footage.
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Update: Both young men were arrested on Saturday, May 16, and quickly released. To see that story, click here

Decatur, GA – The eight-minute-long video shows two young white men walking up to the porch of a black resident in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood and knocking on his door.

They were there on May 10, Mother’s Day, because the black man allegedly made comments on Facebook accusing the young white men of having “interactions with prostitutes,” as the police report put it. The young white men demanded that the black man come out and talk to them “like a man.” A security camera recorded the confrontation.

The video touched off a bitter debate in Decatur’s Oakhurst community about race and privilege. Why weren’t the young men arrested that day? And if they were black men instead of white, wouldn’t they have been arrested then and there?

Almost everyone who has seen the video has an opinion, though everyone agrees that the young men in the video shouldn’t have been on that porch knocking on the man’s door for eight minutes. And as with every controversial video, there’s a story behind it. It’s a story that some in the community see as a neighborhood confrontation that got out of hand, unmotivated by race. But other people, particularly people of color and their white allies, see it as a reminder that white lives are valued above others.

The video serves as an inconvenient reminder of liberal Decatur’s years of concern about decreasing diversity within its city limits and accusations of racial profiling by its police department. Recently, another racial controversy erupted within City Schools of Decatur when videos emerged of high school students using racial slurs.

The video of the Oakhurst confrontation also reinforces broader angst about recent acts of racial violence, like the shooting of unarmed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery by two white men in Brunswick, GA. For people of color, the confrontation seen in the Oakhurst video is another reminder that they have no assurances of personal safety in a world where white people can move with impunity and people of color can’t.

“Like a man”

Decaturish is referring to the man in the Oakhurst home by his first name, Elliott, because he hasn’t been charged with any crime in connection to this confrontation and he fears for his safety.

In the video, one of the young men, a black-haired Decatur lacrosse player named Elliot Baca, 18, banged on the door. His friend, a blond-haired lacrosse player named Will Garstka, 17, looked on from the street. Decaturish is naming both men because arrest warrants have been issued for them in connection with the incident. A warrant was issued for Baca on the charge of simple assault and a warrant was issued for Garstka for the offense of being a party to Baca’s alleged crime, according to a Police Department spokesperson.

In Georgia, you are an adult for the purposes of criminal prosecution at the age of 17, according to Georgiacriminallawyer.com. The Georgia Recorder reports there’s an ongoing debate about whether that law should change.

In the video, Baca appeared to be the primary instigator of the incident. He opened Elliott’s storm door and began knocking.

“Come outside for me,” he said. “Come on outside.”

The knocking continued as Baca peered inside.

“You came to the door with a gun?” Baca asked.

Elliott did have a gun, which was confirmed by his white neighbor, Matthew Baird who knows many of the details about the May 10 confrontation and what led up to it.

Baca appeared unconcerned that a gun had been introduced into the situation.

“That’s fine,” he said.

The knocking continued. Baca continued telling Elliott to come outside. He taunted him for being a “grown man scared in the house.” Baca argued his case both ways, raising his voice to Elliott and accusing him of “posting on Facebook about minors.”

“You don’t post on Facebook about minors,” Baca said.

Later in the video, he insisted Elliott come outside and talk to him “like a man.”

Elliott yelled something from inside his home that couldn’t be understood from viewing the video.

“That’s OK,” Baca replied. “What are you going to do about it, little buddy? What are you going to do about it?”

During the confrontation, Elliott told Baca he would call the police.

Baca appeared unconcerned that the police were coming.

He continued knocking.

“Elliott, oh Elliott,” Baca said. “Come out. We’ve got to talk to you, Elliott.”

Acknowledging the gun again, Baca asked, “Are you going to shoot me?”

Later in the confrontation, Elliott asked what Baca and Garstka would do if he left his home.

“We’re going to have a nice conversation,” Baca replied.

He continued knocking. Elliott informed Baca that he was being recorded.

“That’s fine,” Baca said. Elliott yelled something else from inside his home that was inaudible on the video. Baca replied, “I’m not going to jail.”

Baca was right. When police arrived they didn’t arrest Baca and Garstka, and instead issued them a warning for criminal trespass.

“It is common practice for officers to issue criminal trespass warnings to persons on residential/business property when the property owner/representative wants someone to leave and not return,” police spokesperson Sgt. John Bender said on May 11. “In instances where there is no property damage and the issue is the unwanted presence of a person, the courts want a formal criminal trespass warning issued before an arrest if the person(s) returns to the property. The warning is good for a one year period.”

He said Monday that the case was still active and assigned to a criminal investigator.

Elliott posted about the case on the Oakhurst Facebook page on May 10, generating hundreds of comments on that post. Most were outraged by what occurred, while some took up for Baca and Garstka, saying Elliott had provoked young, impulsive men with false accusations made online. Elliott removed the post and the video, which he initially posted on YouTube, but forwarded a copy of the video to Decaturish.

The issue festered most of the week, with many people questioning why Elliott’s post had been removed and wondering if moderators had stifled an important discussion.

On May 13, Bender confirmed arrest warrants have been issued for Baca and Garstka

“On Wednesday, May 13, 2020 warrants were issued by the DeKalb County Magistrate Court for 18-year-old Elliot Baca of Decatur for simple assault and 17-year-old William Garstka of Decatur for the offense of party to a crime (simple assault),” Bender said.

When asked for an explanation of the new charges, Bender said, “Based upon the facts of the case that were presented to the judge, warrants for those charges were signed. Currently, they have not been arrested by the Decatur Police Department. The warrants are held by the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office.”

Keeping tabs

Baird, Elliott’s neighbor, referred to the controversy as “good old Oakhurst craziness.”

Police reports show that youth activity behind Oakhurst Pediatrics on West Hill Street has been an ongoing concern that escalated after city schools closed due to COVID-19. The activity reportedly involved the lacrosse team, but Decaturish hasn’t uncovered any evidence that Baca and Garstka were involved in any of those activities.

“All this stuff started around the time of the great coronavirus lockdown of early March,” Baird said. “Kids were out of school and don’t have anything to do, and I guess they thought they’d hang out here behind the building where Oakhurst Pediatrics is.”

Baird, who is white, called the cops as did the pediatricians who worked in the office nearby.

Pediatrician Jessica Doyle said the students were creating problems for her business.

“Before school ended [due to COVID-19], on days they didn’t have school, there’d be a car, kids clearly smoking pot in the parking lot. … They appeared to be and smelled to be smoking pot,” she said. “They weren’t destroying property. We said next time you’re here, we’re going to call the police and we found some of their pipes and stuff like that and threw those away. When school finished it started to be a lot more often. That group of kids that appeared to be from the Decatur lacrosse team were in the parking lot more and were throwing the lacrosse ball against our side of the building.”

The students allegedly broke a window, which records show was reported to the police.

Doyle said her office called the police at least three times and the police did nothing to stop the activity.

Baird also kept tabs on the students hanging out behind the pediatrician’s office. One night he approached them, took a picture of their license plate and a picture of them. The students sped off. This occurred approximately three weeks ago, Baird said.

But eventually, three students — including Baca and Garstka — returned and confronted him.

“They were bowing up like high school athletes and there were three of them,” Baird recalled.

After Baird threatened to call the cops, the students ran back to their car and returned carrying lacrosse sticks. Baca and Garstka were in that group, Baird said.

“My neighbors think they were threatening us with the sticks,” Baird said. “I won’t go that far. It could be perceived as intimidating. The cops came, de-escalated the situation, didn’t take their names, didn’t contact their parents … I thought that was the end of it.”

Baca’s father wasn’t aware of the incident. Garstka’s attorney said that his client had a lacrosse stick, but wasn’t threatening Baird or anyone else.

“The neighbor, the actual person they were calmly speaking to, didn’t feel threatened because they weren’t bowing up,” the attorney said. “They were holding lacrosse sticks. They were playing lacrosse and had their sticks in their hands. The person with whom the kids were speaking didn’t feel threatened because they weren’t threatening anybody.”

A few days before the confrontation with Elliott, a strange woman visited Elliott’s porch at 1 a.m. He concluded that she was a sex worker and allegedly claimed on social media she was affiliated with the activity occurring behind the pediatrician’s office.

A couple of days later, Baca and Garstka arrived on Elliott’s porch and initiated the confrontation that has roiled Oakhurst for days.

A youthful mistake or the epitome of privilege?

Garstka retained counsel and his attorney, Max Hirsh, contacted Decaturish before the publication of this article. Everything is not as it appeared in the video, he said.

“The two boys in the video woke up to absurd libel and at the tender age of 17,” Hirsh said. “They made a life-changing decision of deciding to reason and approach the man. The video ensues.”

Hirsh said his client was more of a spectator than a participant.

“Of note though, the second of the two lacrosse players [Garstka] remains calm, staying on a public sidewalk throughout the entirety of the video, except for a few seconds to hand his teammate a phone,” Hirsh said. “Police officers are given specified training to help them curb their adrenaline rushes during intense situations. Yet with no training or adult life experience under his belt and with tempers flaring and adrenaline-pumping this young man shows calm beyond which his young age justifies.”

Hirsh notes that Elliott removed his posts on the Oakhurst Facebook page. He also accused Elliott of threatening the young men in a previous confrontation.

Bender, the spokesperson for the police department, said that allegation is being investigated.

“While conducting the investigation into the simple assault incident that occurred on May 10, 2020, one of the suspects made a statement indicating that during a previous incident, the victim behaved in a manner that implied he was in possession of a gun,” Bender said. “Investigators are conducting a follow-up investigation into the previous incident.”

Baca’s father, Eric Baca, spoke to Decaturish at length about what happened, and said, “I’m trying to do what I can to deescalate things.”

“Obviously my son’s reputation is of concern,” Eric Baca said. “This was very bad judgment on his part.”

Baca said he understands why people would be concerned about two young white men confronting a black man inside his own home. He said, “the household was raised without racism.” He said his son had friends of all races while attending City Schools of Decatur.

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“As the father, I can just tell you he was just pissed off there was some sort of posting about them hanging out,” Eric Baca said. “I can tell you with 110 percent certainty race had nothing to do with it. They were hanging out, doing dumb teenager things and they were pissed off an adult was watching them.”

He said he wanted people to know his family is taking this seriously.

“It’s a stressful time for everyone,” Eric Baca said. “We’re not disinterested. … We’re engaged and we wish to resolve this and the man [Elliott] has nothing to fear.”

Hirsh took a decidedly more litigious tone toward Elliott.

“Since the incident [Elliott] has removed his posts, likely advised by an attorney that his actions are tortious,” Hirsh said.

Robert Huey, a Decatur resident, said the claims that racism motivated the young men’s actions are inaccurate.

“First and foremost it is my opinion and the opinion of many people, that any racial motivators claimed by anybody is completely nonexistent,” Huey said. “The reason the kids are hanging out at that spot is it is close to one of their black friends. … They were riled up by someone they couldn’t see much less know the race of.”

Huey is quick to add that he’s not excusing what Baca and Garstka did.

“I’m not defending what the kids did at all. It was obviously a very ill-informed decision,” Huey said. “But I think lots of people were uneducated in what happened and wanted something to be true about racial relations, and wanted something to be upset about. It turned into this giant groupthink about how these kids are privileged and entitled, and anybody who knows those kids and knows those families, those are the last thing they are.”

People of color and their allies have a different interpretation of events.

Gwendolyn Cooper, who is black and lives in East Lake, said she was “very disturbed” by the video.

“They pulled up, you see them in their car, their nice car that pulled up, to walk onto this man’s porch,” Cooper said. “There was no hesitation. They got out as if you thought they lived there.”

But the real anger began when some members of the community stuck up for Baca and Garstka.

“There were people taking up for the behavior,” she said. “That’s what got us riled up. For people to make excuses for the kids, that’s what really pissed a lot of us off.”

To Cooper, the confrontation is entitlement illustrated.

“[The police] didn’t do anything because they’re privileged white kids,” Cooper said. “How do you get to go on someone’ s property and terrorize them and there’s video footage and there’s nothing done?”

Ginger Moff, a white woman who used to live in Decatur, said she moved out because her biracial grandson was bullied at Oakhurst Elementary because of his race. When she saw the video, it made her think that the kids who bullied her grandson were picking up that behavior from the people around them. But she conceded she couldn’t know for sure if race was what motivated the May 10 confrontation.

“I thought the video was very telling,” Moff said.

Mawuli Davis, noted local civil rights attorney and co-chair of Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, has worked for years to improve racial equity in the school system.

Davis sees the broader implications of what’s depicted in the video. People who dismiss race as a factor are ignoring America’s history of racial violence, he said.

“I think that it is naïve for us to talk about interactions between black people and white people and not consider the long history of race and the power dynamic that continues to exist,” Davis said. “The question is, would a group of black boys feel comfortable banging on the door of a grown adult white man and demanding that he come out, and would those black boys not be arrested immediately on-site?”

He said his sons wouldn’t do something like that. It would never cross their minds.

“They’d get blown away,” Davis said.

Davis said the community can move forward from this incident. But it’s going to require conversations that are difficult. It will take work.

“One of the great challenges is for white people in America and Decatur to address their whiteness and white privilege and that’s work. And people want to move forward without doing the work, and that’s the challenge,” Davis said.

Until people can honestly and openly confront the racial dynamics of what happened, moving forward from this incident will not be easy.

As for people who are concerned that the video will irreparably harm the young men depicted in it, Davis said they shouldn’t be concerned.

“At the end of the day, those young white men, they’ll end up faring better than the black boys that are honor roll students in America,” Davis said. “That’s the scary part of it. That video is not going to stop them. They’ll be fine. Hopefully, they’ll learn from it, if they think it through and if they have to engage in some restorative practices and really think about the message that is sent. The audacity for them to be able to feel they can do that, that reeks of white privilege.”

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