Grant Park neighborhood condemns weaponry, tactics used to disperse protesters

Tactical vehicles in Grant Park during the weekend protest. (Photo courtesy Megan Gatewood)

The typically quiet corner of Atlanta and Cherokee avenues in Grant Park resembled a war zone during last weekend’s ongoing protests over racial injustice amplified by the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks on nearby University Avenue.

Video and photographs from the nights of June 13 and 14 show military-style equipment unexpectedly rolled into the neighborhood – known for its charming Victorian mansions, Craftsman bungalows, and as the home of Zoo Atlanta – along with heavily-armored law enforcement to disperse protesters outside the Atlanta Police Department’s small Zone 3 precinct.

A bean bag round recovered from Grant Park. (Photo courtesy Megan Gatewood)

Along with tactical vehicles, armored personnel carriers and jail buses, one of the pieces of equipment brought into the neighborhood was an LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), a crowd control device that can emit disorienting sounds strong enough to burst human eardrums. The Grant Park Neighborhood Association has drafted a resolution petitioning Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to order APD to stop using the LRAD in close proximity to residences.

While the LRAD wasn’t used at its maximum ear-splitting level, witnesses said law enforcement “pulsed” the sound canon in an apparent warning to protesters. Residents who live along Cherokee and Atlanta avenues said they were angered and horrified not only by the use of military-style weaponry in the neighborhood, but law enforcement’s “overreaction” and “escalation” of engagement with what they described as a peaceful protest.

Videos  show law enforcement – including APD, Georgia State Patrol, Fulton County Sheriff’s Department officers, and Capitol Police – in full riot gear as the sound of helicopters fill the air. Residents said police used tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and pepper spray to disperse protesters.

Protesters in Grant Park on Saturday night (Photo courtesy Sara Riney)

We reached out to APD for a statement on the use of force to disperse protesters in Grant Park and received no response.

Sarah Riney, who has called Grant Park home for 17 years, lives two blocks from the Zone 3 precinct, a converted home that backs up to the namesake park. She described the events that unfolded in the neighborhood as surreal and shocking.

“It was like what you’d see in a movie,” Riney said. “I worked on ‘The Walking Dead,’ and it reminded me of being on the set. The response to the protesters was overkill and it seemed to me the police escalated it.”

Riney said protesters began showing up at the precinct, which doesn’t actually serve Zone 6 Grant Park and is slated to move further south, on the evening of June 13 – the same night the Wendy’s restaurant on University Avenue where Rayshard Brooks was shot went up in flames.

“There were about 50 or 60 people there around 6 p.m, but then later in the evening, people started walking up from University Avenue, which is only about a mile-and-a-half away,” Riney said. “I wasn’t really worried, because the protest didn’t seem crazy or anything.”

A spent flashbang grenade recovered in Grant Park. (Photo courtesy Megan Gatewood)

Riney said she walked back down to the precinct near midnight and the crowd of protesters had swelled to 200 or more. So had the number of officers and the weaponry. Besides a few protesters getting up in the faces of officers lining the streets with shields, Riney said the scene wasn’t rowdy. But as she was leaving, she noticed some officers donning gas masks.

Just after midnight Riney was sitting on her front porch when she was startled by two “huge booms.”

“I don’t know if they were flashbang grenades or the tear gas, but suddenly everyone started running past my house and they were being followed by a line of cops in gas masks,” Riney said. “They used rubber bullets and beanbag rounds – we found them in the street. There were officers everywhere in people’s yards, shining flashlights. I was in shock. It seemed like an onslaught. And that weaponry they have – it’s military. It shouldn’t be in a residential neighborhood.”

Amy Long Howard, who lives four houses down from precinct, told a similar account of June 13’s events, but said police were back in force again on Sunday night, June 14.

“They used tear gas on Saturday and Sunday night,” Howard said. “You could smell it in the air into the morning and it burned your eyes.”

More tactical vehicles arrive. (Photo courtesy Megan Gatewood)

She said police appeared to escalate the situation again on Sunday, claiming protesters were throwing rocks and bricks at them. “We went over there and checked; there were no bricks or rocks.”

Howard said on Sunday there were about three officers for every protester and that was also the evening police “pulsed” the LRAD.

“As the mother of three young children, it was an unsettling feeling to have them asleep with all this going on outside. I’m very concerned about the use of the LRAD in the neighborhood.”

Another Grant Park resident, Tim Lawrence, also described the protests on Saturday night as pretty peaceful. He was also sitting on his front porch when he heard the two booms that Riney and Howard also heard.

“It was super concussive,” he said. “It made me jump. It might have been flashbang grenades or the tear gas. People started running and then the police were advancing with shields.”

Lawrence said he believed officers were also firing pepper spray pellets at protesters, possibly using what is known as a SALT gun. He also heard the LRAD in use.

“They didn’t fire it full on, but there was this loud, weird noise after the police warned protesters to disperse,” he said.

Georgia State Patrol officers walk through the streets of Grant Park with wooden batons. (Photo courtesy Megan Gatewood)

Megan Gatewood described the weekend’s events as “unjustified” and said she felt that police were unresponsive to concerns from the neighborhood, especially about being in residents’ yards.

“They said it was a ‘state of emergency’ and they could be in anyone’s yard,” Gatewood said. “Georgia State Patrol officers was marching down the street in formation carrying these wooden batons and had tons of zip-tie handcuffs on their belts. It was terrifying.”

Gatewood also said there was no evidence that protesters had been pelting officers with rocks or bricks.

Both Gatewood and Lawrence said demonstrations continued on the evening of June 17, but seemed disorganized. Gatewood said police basically stood on the sidewalk and seemed “disinterested.” That was the same night of a reported APD walkout in protest of murder and assault charges being filed against the two officers involved in the Rayshard Brooks shooting.

Police fill Atlanta Avenue on Saturday night, June 13. (Photo courtesy Sara Riney)