By Gabe Campbell
On May 31, 2020, I arrived downtown at approximately 7 p.m. with my 20-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. After seeing our friend’s live feed go down after his camera battery died, we decided to come and film from the outskirts. We parked a few blocks from the downtown area, and as we made our way, we saw protesters leaving. At that point, my son showed me a picture taken downtown of men who looked like “boogaloos” armed with guns. We also noticed a group of white men and one white woman walking toward town, one man in a Hawaiian shirt, a sign that they might be part of that group.
We decided to film them and follow them to downtown. Once downtown we saw there were people at the Confederate monument on Broad Street. We stuck to the outskirts and began to film. I’d estimate there were maybe 150-200 people at this point. For about an hour, there were chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “No Justice, No Peace.” People held up signs and encouraged passing traffic to beep. At one point, one of the young women leading the crowd approached the armed men. She announced “They’re with us.” At that point the men held up Black Lives Matter signs. I did try to give a head’s up to a few people that they were likely not who they said they were.
I witnessed a white man, masked with glasses, dressed all in black, run up to the monument, spray paint Black Lives Matter on it, and then run off. He crossed the road toward campus, threw his can into the bushes and ran off through the campus. After this several other white kids started to tag the monument. After a while there was a discussion about blocking the street/marching through town. While this happened one of the white guys, red head, big beard, Hawaiian shirt, jumped onto the monument and yelled “Fuck the police.” Someone handed him a megaphone and he yelled it a couple more times but was basically ignored. As people started to organize to march, he and his friends left the area. We marched with a group of maybe a hundred people through the downtown area. The police were present, and watched us march. They were at the intersection of East Clayton Street and College Avenue (three or four officers and two cars. There were about six sheriff guys outside a town building. Two more officers and a car at E. Clayton and Jackson. And then another car with an officer blocking the road once we turned off Thomas onto College. They never engaged with us, and in fact, were laughing. Some of the protesters were bringing water to the sheriff deputies, and one hugged someone she knew. At no point, did they seem like a threat. At this point, I was thinking it was going to be fine. The ACCPD wasn’t acting any different than I’d seen at any other protest. Again a few people yelled “Fuck the police” but everyone shushed them pretty quickly. Once back at the Arch, we sat in the road to block traffic. The police began to redirect traffic. There was no one antagonizing or yelling at the police. We sat in silence in remembrance. There were some chants of “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” From what I observed leadership was two young African-American femme people. They were leading the chants, directing people, giving instructions, and keeping everyone calm. They were competent and organized. A group of white people were acting in supporting roles, handing out water and food. This was all around 8:30. I was standing near a group who had radios when I heard them get a call that the National Guard was on its way. They were on 316 and 45 minutes out. They asked us to make a call to social media for tents, more white bodies, and cell phone power banks (I will be buying at least one after this experience). I was updating to Facebook this whole time and my call-out was at 9:12.
My friend joined and looking back on Facebook, she messaged me at 9:45 that she was walking by the (College Avenue) police station toward us. This is important because the official narrative is that they declared the curfew before this time. She walked past cops to get to us and no one stopped her from coming into the area. Right before she joined us, we saw armored Humvees going the wrong way down East Clayton. A few moments later, around ten cops put up barricades at the arch. A few people challenged them and they said it was private property and we weren’t allowed on it. I shouted “Why are you trying to trap us?” which a few other people picked up. They refused to answer. We were clearly being blocked into a square area. No cops approached us about curfew. Nothing. We sat down, and someone taught us what to do if we got tear gassed. Water was being handed out. Sharpies were passed around so we could write the lawyers numbers on our arms. People were asked to put their names and numbers down if they were willing to get arrested. But again, NO VIOLENCE. If anyone yelled things at the cops, they were asked to stop. We didn’t want to give them any reason to come at us. We learned we had indeed been blocked in and the organizers gave us an escape route if we had to run (that route ended up being blocked off). We were encouraged to leave only with someone else. To never be alone. Around 11:12, we could see more police presence on College. We quickly assembled there and linked arms chanting, “No Justice No Peace.“ I was in the back and couldn’t see but they apparently retreated and there was a cheer. We began to notice police in riot gear hiding in the shadows and trees/bushes on the campus. Around 11:15 or 11:30, the National Guard soldiers started to line with shields. More police joined the shadows with batons which they slapped in their hands. I yelled to the police “Other cops are laying down their arms and joining us. Please join us. We are the ones who need to be protected. We’re your community!” No response of course. Others started to encourage them to join us. Someone said “Be the change.” We linked arms trying to form a big square but there weren’t enough people to block E. Broad, which tells you how small our numbers were at this time. A mechanical voice was heard but it was too faint to make out the words. It was only later I found out it was a drone. I’m guessing this happened at 11:45. We were all yelling “We can’t hear you!”
When we realized we couldn’t cover that much ground, we started to move in tighter. Those of us facing the UGA Arch were yelling “Please don’t hurt us. We’re not doing anything wrong. Why do you have those shields when we’re the ones who are going to be hurt.” Once again the voice came and this time we could hear “A curfew has been enacted. Disperse now or force may be used against you and you will be arrested. I decided I needed to get out because of my minor child. I told the organizers why we were leaving and they were like “Yes get out. Do you have a group?” Just as I said yes and turned back to my teen who was already in the back with my friend, they launched the first two canisters into the crowd. We started to run and my son stopped once to film. We were given maybe five minutes between the second warning and the tear gassing. Not nearly enough time to leave. We had one route out which was heavily guarded by both ACCPD and the National Guard. I yelled out at every cop I saw “I hope you’re ashamed of what you did to your own people tonight. We love this town and we’d never destroy it. We were peaceful and you attacked us!” My daughter was walking, crying with her hands up. We ran into one of the young women who joined the protest later and was deescalating people. She was sobbing, and we stopped so I could hug her. She said a SWAT team was trying to push them into the tear gas. She has been in Atlanta the night before and said it was nothing like this. She was very shaken up. We had to walk all the way down past the Classic Center to get out. At one point, the young woman, who was African-American, stopped to ask an ACCPD officer about getting to cars parked downtown. She was calm and polite. He was calm and polite. But a National Guard soldier moved to flank her so we all stepped up to surround her. They were clearly trying to intimidate us. I want to be very clear about a few things:
Beyond the tagging of the Confederate monument, I witnessed no destruction nor did I hear anyone saying they wanted to destroy or loot. There were some young people who were justifiably angry at the police but they didn’t do anything but occasionally yell “Fuck the police.”
I did not see a firecracker being thrown until after the tear gas hit the crowd. From my vantage they fired without provocation.
The men with guns left very early on and were not present when the National Guard moved in.
We were not told about the curfew until the drone started to threaten us.