Hundreds of protesters descended on the Georgia state capitol Monday to demand an end to systemic criminal justice failures including police brutality, voter suppression and to abolish the state’s citizen arrest law.
The demonstration came as state lawmakers returned to work after the current session was halted for three months amid concern about the spread of the coronavirus.
It also comes on the heels of a tumultuous period for the state, that includes long voting lines and voting deficiencies during the state’s primary election last week and the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief over the weekend, following the police shooting death of a black man, Rayshard Brooks, during a DUI stop.
The officer who fired the fatal shots on Friday has been fired.
Brooks’ death ‘amplified’ urgency for march
The rally, dubbed “March on Georgia,” was organized by the Georgia NAACP and planned before those events transpired.
Chapter president James Woodall said on NPR’s Morning Edition Monday the killing of Brooks during an encounter with police did not change the organization’s message, rather “it has only amplified its urgency.”
“What we are marching for today is to let the world know that we are done dying,” Woodall said to NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “We are done allowing this kind of experience to be had in our communities.”
Police were called after Brooks was found asleep in a car at a Wendy’s drive-through Friday night. Brooks admitted to officers he had been drinking and complied with a field sobriety test, which included a breathalyzer.
Body camera footage released by the Atlanta Police Department shows that after failing the test, a struggle broke out between Brooks and the officers trying to put handcuffs on him.
In the video, he appears to grab an officer’s stun gun and run away. The two officers give chase and one fires a stun gun at Brooks, who then points a stun gun back in the direction of the officers.
The now-former officer Garrett Rolfe then pulls his service weapon and fires.
As NPR reported, the Fulton County Medical Examiner confirmed on Sunday that Brooks died of gunshot wounds to his back. The report classified his death a homicide.
‘I don’t want to die because I’m a black man’
Inside the state capitol, a group of people locked arms in a large circle in the capitol’s rotunda Monday. It was the first day the state assembly was back after abruptly suspending its session in mid-March.
The legislature now has 11 business days before the end of the session, Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.
Earlier Monday, at the rally that began at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta before the half-mile trek to the Georgia State Capitol building, Woodall addressed protesters.
“What we have is too many leaders, elected officials who … talk when there are people marching in the streets, and the looting, and the protests, but say nothing when our bodies and our blood is draining in our streets,” Woodall said the crowd.
Many marchers were wearing face masks and holding signs that read “No Justice No Peace” and “Take His Keys Not His Life.”
The event was emceed by Jeezy, the Atlanta-based rapper whose hits include “Put On” and “Soul Survivor.” He encouraged the crowd to show up with “the same energy and the same enthusiasm” on Election Day in the fall.
“Black votes do matter. So don’t let them tell you different,” the rapper said.
Also speaking before the march was Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce.
Pierce, 44, is black and said he’s seen violence against other black men his entire life and it’s time to call attention to it.
He said he was there to call for justice for other African Americans who have died this year during interactions with police, including Brooks and George Floyd in Minneapolis, along with Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Taylor was killed in her home in March by police in Louisville executing a “no-knock” search warrant exchanged gun fire with her boyfriend. Arbery was killed in Glynn County, Ga., in February. One of the three men charged for his murder was a retired law enforcement officer.
“I was born a black man and I know one day I’ll die a black man,” Pierce said. “But I don’t want to die because I’m a black man.”
Hate crime bill and primary election fallout
One item that is still pending in this session is a hate crimes statue, that gained renewed attention after Arbery’s death while jogging through a Brunswick, Ga.-area neighborhood.
Georgia is one of four states in the country, along with Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming, that do not have hate crime laws and don’t require officials to collect data on hate crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We’re sick and tired of every week having a different hashtag for innocent black lives,” said the Rev. Jamal Bryant of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., during the rally. “We’re sick and tired that in Georgia, you can get killed just for jogging.”
Wade Cook, a black college student from Snellville, roughly 30 miles east of Atlanta, said he was taking part in the march because he was “sickened and disgusted” by the injustice he said is happening on a near daily basis across the country.
“That’s why I’m marching, because I have to be a part of this, because these are my people getting killed every day,” he said. “This is in my control and it’s in my control to stop it.”
Rally-goers also protested against the widespread problems across the state during last week’s primary, even though the state installed a new $104 million voting system.
As NPR reported, many voters were in line long after the polls closed and some locations were forced to extend voting by a couple of hours.
Wanda Mosely of the organization Black Votes Matter railed against the state’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during her remarks at the rally, including leading chants of “Do your job!”
Mosley also said Raffensperger failed to administer the state’s mail-in voting system and therefore forced voters to cast in-person ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You did not correctly oversee vote by mail,” Mosley said. “And in doing so, you put millions of us at jeopardy” for simply trying to exercise the “sacred right” of voting.