By Grayson Pynn
I’d like to preface by saying that the only things I am qualified to speak on are what I saw as a peaceful protester on Sunday night. I am not qualified to speak on the condition of my black comrades nor share thoughts of historical reference and similarity, quite plainly, because I’m white. That is not my history to reference. I arrived at the protest around 7:30 p.m. when there were still quite a few people attending. Upon arrival I noticed the Confederate monument in the middle of Broad Street had already been vandalized (nice). But the protesters were doing nothing aside from call and response chanting and listening very patiently to fellow protesters tell personal stories about their experiences and connections with police violence against black people. There were people disbursing free ice cream and water bottles to combat the heat, people handing out granola bars and snacks to the hungry, and even people giving face masks to those who needed them. I found some of my friends and asked if they needed anything, but everyone seemed well taken care of.
I saw my friend, Imani, busy as ever just organizing and keeping the conversation on the makeshift loudspeaker (a cone) flowing. At this point (approximately 8:45) there was a gathering of normal, blue-shirted cops gathered on College Avenue near Subway. There was a single squad car with its officer directing traffic on Jackson Street. The night was peaceful. There were no more of the armed "Boogaloo" members to be seen at this point. They had left shortly after their arrival.
A significant amount of time after 9 p.m., we heard (by word of mouth) that there was a curfew enacted at 9. Imani made an announcement to the crowd and asked what we wanted to do. She was met with a resounding “STAY”. We started setting up tents for people, mistakenly thinking we could wait out the cops all night peacefully. Then the National Guard began arriving around 10 p.m., in Humvees and a box truck marked with a red cross that parked near the Classic Center. From our vantage point we had little sight of the vehicles, but our leaders made sure we were aware. We had a safe word to alert the group to any unidentified threats, and we all started facing different directions. At some point during this hour, the blue shirts had blocked off the UGA entry through the Arch with a metal barricade. Many of our group protested this, but nobody reacted violently.
Someone shouted the safe word, and I turned around to see fully armored S.W.A.T officers creeping into the fields behind the Arch. They shuffled along almost like zombies, filling in positions along the perimeter and watching like ghostly buzzards. At this point I looked over to see a second squad car blocking Broad and Jackson but leaving the sidewalk open. Our leaders identified that sidewalk as the exit point should trouble occur.
Around this time came a slew of warnings and directions from fellow protesters and leaders. Some told us that if we get tear gassed, to not run blinded because the cops will pick us up. Instead we were to grab someone and have them help us towards the sidewalk where medics (wearing red cross armbands) would assist us. The medics made a demonstrative announcement on how to wash tear gas out of the eyes. They warned us not to use milk for the sake of allergies, but just to start at the tear duct of the eye and wash outward without touching our faces. The original point for the medic station was by Subway, but that changed as the police began to block off College. We looked up College to find a row of National Guard members standing at the top of the hill. We continued chanting, being as peaceful and passionate as possible.
Seeing the police’s advances we began to form a linked arm barrier of white people, myself included, around the remaining protesters. One of our leaders informed us that if we stayed, we had to be ready to be arrested. Most of us stayed. The group of cops that had been hanging around Subway began to advance and our barrier alerted the group. We chanted louder “No justice, no peace!” until the cops returned to their position. We celebrated thinking it was that easy to deter them. At some point after 11 p.m. they deployed drones above us and announced through the drones that we were now violating the curfew ordinance, and that we may be arrested with force. The announcement was not audible to some.
The hour passed slowly until 11:50 p.m., when our group had been reduced to about 100 or so people. From what I’ve heard retroactively, the cops, National Guard, and S.W.A.T. had reached 300-400 in number. Then two vehicles appeared in front of our group next to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store. I was on the side of the perimeter with my leaf blower facing east at that point. Our arms were linked loosely but firmly in a nervous and adrenaline-filled hold. From behind the two vehicles appeared at least 15 people dressed in camouflage with matching helmets and vests. I incorrectly assumed these were National Guard, not having a clear vantage point and seeing their closely related uniforms that were unlike the other S.W.A.T and police we had seen.
At midnight, a sound like firecrackers was heard and the first tear gas canister was fired. I grabbed my leaf blower and engaged the canister from a distance of 10 feet. The canister was in front of the group and the wind was blowing west, so there was no immediate threat to us. Most people stayed in formation. Then another canister fired and I rushed to that, as it was closer and more towards the east. A comrade with water bottles attempted to douse the canister but without encapsulating it, it was clear the method wasn’t working. The leaf blower ended up being minimally effective as well. Our group was diminishing and people started backing toward the Arch.
A young woman grabbed me and two or three others with her hands to her face, sobbing and exclaiming that her face burned. She was in excruciating pain. I didn’t know her but she seemed like a sister; we all were family at that point. She had taken a pretty heavy hit of tear gas without face protection. We dragged her back to the sidewalk where a medic was able to treat her, and then I went out to blow away the fumes of another tear gas canister that landed east, but laterally in the center line of our group. It was an immediate threat to those who were not yet like the woman I just escorted.
I foolishly stood still while blowing away the gas canister, and one of the camo cops pointed at me. The one next to them raised what looked like a massive rifle or a T-shirt cannon and fired instantly. There was no time to react, and I felt the rubber bullet pound my stomach like a 20-foot belly flop or a fan blade breaking off of its motor (both of which I’ve experienced). I was in shock, and the breath had been completely knocked out of me, but my survival instinct let me flee back to the sidewalk where I threw down my leaf blower and stumbled towards the ground. A medic saw me and rushed over, telling me to lay down and take my mask off. I repeatedly complained about the pain to which a voice told me to shut up. This was a good idea considering I had no breath left to speak. Then the medic frantically told me and the group surrounding me at that point that we had to move ASAP. I don’t know why we had to move, but I found the willpower to get up and start walking towards my car with my hands up, telling each cop I passed “I’m out” as if I was tagged in a game of paintball. Walking down the sidewalk east, I was joined by another protester and a person supporting them. I asked if they had gotten hit as well, and they responded with a solemn ‘yes’. Reaching my car, I asked if they needed a ride, which they did not, so I drove home, getting most of my breath back at that point.
Grayson Pynn is a 22-year-old native Athenian