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ATLANTA — Just hours after riots consumed several city blocks, leaving property defaced and destroyed, citizens of Atlanta were out in force starting to clean up the damage. That’s how it’s done in a city whose mascot is a phoenix.
Before the Saturday morning sun had even cleared the city’s skyline, volunteers with plastic bags, gloves, wagons and push brooms worked to clean up cascades of shattered glass, discarded water bottles, and forgotten signs of protest strewn across Atlanta’s streets, the remnants of a protest that transformed into a riot. Most of the surface damage will be clean by the end of the weekend. The scars underneath will last much longer.
Like in cities across the country, demonstrators gathered in Atlanta on Friday for a peaceful march to protest the death of George Floyd while in the custody of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin. And like in other cities, what began as a march in the afternoon transformed into a riot as the day wore on. Police cars were torched, windows were smashed, stores looted.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called up the National Guard shortly after midnight, and as of 7 a.m. Saturday, a contingent of the guard stood watch in front of the ruined facade of the College Football Hall of Fame and the nearby Omni Hotel. Clothes hangers that had held merchandise from the Hall’s ransacked souvenir shop lay scattered amidst the shards of glass on the sidewalks, along with everything from clothing tags to Hall-branded Gummi worms.
In a sharp contrast from the night before, neither the Guard nor the local police were on high alert early Saturday morning. Passersby, whose numbers grew as the morning went on, took photos and video of the scene, and cars on Marietta Street slowed down as glass crunched beneath their tires. There was less a sense of dread, more a feeling of resignation and sadness.
“Why you gotta bring this down here?” a woman standing at the intersection of Centennial Park and Marietta, the heart of Friday night’s protests, asked rhetorically. “People just got back to work, and now they can’t work.”
“If you love Atlanta,” read an electronic marquee billboard near CNN Center, “go home.”
A few more scenes from downtown Atlanta. pic.twitter.com/Fh50i2gbrV
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) May 30, 2020
A few steps away, in the greenspace of Centennial Park, the torched hulk of what had been an ice cream truck sat behind the ruins of a visitor’s center. Inside, past smashed windows and walls spray-painted with, “We will not stand by & watch people die,” a tourism video praising the virtues of Atlanta played on, silently.
Beyond that, the Waffle House on Andrew Young International Boulevard stood wide open, its windows gone, its shattered glass already swept up. One of the many viral tweets of Friday night showed protesters sparing that Waffle House; a later wave apparently didn’t get that message.
“We ate here every morning for breakfast,” said Paul Rizzo, an IT contractor from Boston who’d been working in Atlanta the past four weeks. “I’m so sorry this happened.” He embraced a waitress he recognized as she stood, stunned, looking at the damage.
Makeshift shrine outside the Waffle House on Andrew Young Int’l Boulevard pic.twitter.com/UphwP6TERL
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) May 30, 2020
Around the corner from them sat a small, flower-adorned memorial — a cardboard sign bearing the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and dozens of others. Just across the street, a handwritten sign reading “FIRST AID” was taped to the large Olympic rings that serve as a gateway into the park.
Graffiti was everywhere, on every surface. Some was glib: “Rioting = Pandemic Safe Sports,” read one message on the outside of the College Football Hall. Some was philosophical, quoting Martin Luther King: “A riot is the language of the UNHEARD” was written on a post in Centennial Park. And some was just inchoate, profane rage, directed at the police, the president, the universe.
“This,” read one tag on the Omni Hotel, “is democracy.”
It would be easy to look at all the devastation — the wreckage, the boards on the windows of fine restaurants, the looted storefronts, the rage implicit in the graffiti — and feel nothing but despair. But that wasn’t the mood on Saturday morning in Atlanta. No, the mood was something very different: resolve and determination.
An off-duty police officer, who declined to give his name, pushed a broom over the burnt stretch of pavement where a police car had gone up in flames the night before. He swept up shards of windshield and taillight fragments, and told his children to stay out of the street.
“I’ve been here 10 years,” he said. “I’m here to protect this city and take care of this city.”
Nearby, professional cleanup crews scrubbed the graffiti off the sign in front of CNN’s headquarters. A contractor broke out a retractable ruler, measuring the height and width of shattered doorways and windows. Volunteers collected discarded masks, water bottles and the occasional rock from the streets.
In an impassioned message to the city of Atlanta on Friday night, rapper Killer Mike laid out the state of the city as he saw it. “Atlanta is not perfect, but we’re a lot better than we ever were,” he said. “After it burns, will we be left with char, or will we rise like a phoenix from the ashes that Atlanta has always done? Will we use this as a moment to say, ‘We will not do what other cities have done, and we will use it to be better than we have ever been’?”
Saturday morning, many Atlantans seemed to take his challenge to heart. Many of the volunteers were children, out early on a Saturday morning but pitching in all the same.
Dayshell Crump and her son Derico were two of the growing number of volunteers who came of their own free will, their own sense of duty to their city. Dayshell had marched in the protest Friday night, but left before it turned violent.
“I didn’t want him here last night,” she said of her son. “But I wanted him here for the cleanup.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at email@example.com.
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