George on Georgia – RestraintA photo from the recent protests in Atlanta. Photo provided by Hannah Hill
Atlanta, GA — What we are seeing in Atlanta, and perhaps in other large cities in America … is restraint.
Here, in Atlanta, it is moderation by the Atlanta Police Department. It is also relative self-control by an enraged public.
I know it doesn’t look like it. I also think that’s deliberate. But I don’t know how long temperance lasts.
In the ears of Gov. Brian Kemp and our so-called president are the wails of authoritarian maniacs demanding that they stomp Antifa and any poor Black person with the temerity to question American justice. They want to see blood in the street. They want the right people to be hurt. And they are the electoral margin for Republicans.
Consider the chances that someone up the chain might be looking for an excuse to “impose order.” I don’t think Gov. Brian Kemp is dumb enough to sideline APD. I didn’t think he’d reopen Georgia restaurants, either.
The question is whether Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields are also worried about Kemp — or Donald Trump — trying to take over operations and send in the National Guard for an old-fashioned beatdown.
If they are, then what looks heavy-handed to us might actually be posturing. I believe APD may be trying to display fierceness, complete with tear gas — but with explicit orders against lethal force and limits on arrests — to forestall a state or federal response meant to be deliberately and pointlessly punitive.
I’ve been a community activist of one flavor or another for about 10 years. I’ve worked closely with police departments around metro Atlanta. I’ve also participated in inter-agency meetings between the 13 different police organizations that operate in Atlanta’s downtown area — capitol police, Homeland Security, Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, federal courthouse security and more.
I have since formed definite opinions about the quality and capabilities of police departments around here.
The Atlanta Police Department is, I would argue, the best trained and most experienced police department in the southern United States, particularly when managing large crowd events. The police chief, Erika Shields, is widely respected for progressive policing initiatives. When her department makes missteps — like the dumb arrest of the two college kids in the car Saturday night — she acts quickly.
We are debating how policing as a system should change, of course, but Shields and APD are likely to be at the leading edge of those changes as they come. Generally, Atlantans recognize this. In a protest on another day, the cops might get high-fives as marchers pound Peachtree Street.
This is the part where someone shouts “all cops are bastards” at me. Well, hell has layers.
When marchers started throwing rocks at the Zone 5 substation Saturday night, the first cops to roll up were Clayton County SWAT, with riot shotguns and rifles. Ten minutes later, what seemed like every state police patrol car in Georgia rolled down the hill and blocked the road four across and 50 deep.
Saturday night, in a moment when I had misplaced the protesters, I had a quick conversation with a National Guardsman standing watch in Centennial Park. He was from the 3rd Infantry Division’s guard component. Young guy. Rank E-4 specialist. 20-ish. Fit. White. Slight drawl. He was there with a sergeant, whom I assume was his team leader.
I was a soldier in my youth. I spent four years chasing infantrymen around as an Army journalist. So I did the soldier chit-chat. “Military police?” I asked. No. Infantry.
Infantrymen are great guys. They are not police officers.
A 20-year-old National Guard infantry rifleman has 14 weeks of basic and advanced combat training and meets all of 40 days a year for additional training. There are no deep questions of inherent bias or psychological suitability applied to serving in a mechanized infantry unit. Training in the escalation of force that applies in Kandahar would be absurd if applied on Centennial Park Drive.
There wasn’t another guardsman within 100 feet of them. Their squad had established a perimeter, straight out of ATP 3-21.8, the infantry platoon training manual. They were armed with M4 carbines. I did not ask them if they had been issued live ammunition, and do not expect to have been answered if I did.
Hell has layers. Those guys are Kent State waiting to happen.
Erika Shields knows that, cold. Gov. Brian Kemp and Donald Trump may not.
APD has operational control downtown, but the National Guard is on the street. APD is trained in restraint and has experience with mass protests. The other guys? Not so much.
So, we have glass-breaking protests moving through the city at night. Maybe a dozen or so are out there breaking things. Maybe another 50 or so in roving protest groups might — might — take things from a store with broken windows. They are surrounded by another thousand like me bearing witness almost as a spectator sport.
The window smashing is a target of opportunity, generally. It’s easy to do, and a precedent has been set — doing so is a mark of authenticity. But it’s a mark that has to be made immediately if it is to have any authority in the crowd because everyone is a stranger. People do not really know one another. At night, there are few relationships except what is built on the spot, with the exception of the street medicine teams.
The window-smashers are momentary leaders, for as long as the street sees them.
Note that they are not using their newfound, temporary authority to lead a charge into riot cops. When the cops push, people run away. They aren’t pushing back.
We are seeing protest fireworks. We are not seeing Molotov cocktails or small arms fire. Windows are being smashed by protesters. People aren’t. This is not Hong Kong or Lebanon or Paris with pitched battles of tens of thousands of people. In Atlanta, it’s a few thousand peaceful people during the day and a few hundred less peaceful people at night.
This is restraint.
Want Decaturish delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our free newsletter by clicking here.