We are three civilian medics who volunteered to administer aid at the World Without Cops protest on Sunday, May 31st, in Downtown Athens, Georgia. Each of us resides in Athens-Clarke County. The World Without Cops protest was in solidarity and support of the on-going police reform policies that are being developed in our city that forward mental health and social supports for community members.
We helped ensure that protestors were safe at the initial protest, which began at 5 p.m., and we continued to offer aid until the protest was dispersed by Athens Clarke-County Police Department and the National Guard via tear gas and rubber bullets around midnight.
During the first part of the protest we passed out masks, water bottles, and hand-sanitizer. Many community members took these and expressed their thanks. We were identified as medics by speakers at the protest by our bright yellow armbands. We wore backpacks, which held water, first-aid, food, and other sanitary supplies. Our backpacks contained no projectiles, weapons, or illegal materials.
After police apprehended an individual carrying a lighter that looked like a gun, medics checked to make sure no one was injured. To our knowledge, no injuries resulted from this situation. We acknowledge that a small group of protestors openly carrying arms joined the crowd. The appearance of these individuals is well-documented. As medics, we had never seen or met these individuals prior, and had no previous knowledge that they would attend. We affirm that all of these armed individuals left the area before sundown, and long before curfew was enacted.
Some peaceful, unarmed protestors decided to stay and occupy the intersection of Broad St. and College Ave. As medics, we decided it was our duty to stay as long as we could to offer care while community members still protested. As we recount what we witnessed together, we want to make it clear that police never spoke directly to protestors at any time. Any direction was given via drone.
Police Chief Cleveland Spruill Sr.’s summary of police action claimed:
“Officers noticed that most of the remaining group members did not appear to be from ACC and were primarily made up of many of the Boogaloo members.”
As witnesses of the entire protest, we denounce this statement as false. We are citizens who stood by our fellow community members. None of the identified individuals associated with the Boogaloo movement were at the protest by the time it was dark. We personally recognized many of the protesters as local community members and leaders here in Athens,
which is made up of four counties. We are not sure on what basis police profiled protestors as apparently not local.
Chief Spruill also claimed:
“Throughout the evening, officers also observed signs that these individuals were planning to engage in destruction and violence, likely targeted against government buildings and infrastructure against law enforcement officers defending them.”
According to our thorough observations, none of the remaining protestors were armed, and the protest was consistently peaceful. The backpacks we wore contained medical equipment. Each of us participated and witnessed de-escalation by protestors so that the tenor of the vigil remained focused on affirming Black life. Community members brought pizza and water for the protestors. When a protestor with young children asked us how to leave, volunteers escorted them to their vehicles.
Chief Spruill also claimed:
“It should be noted that ACCPD and Central Service had taken precautions before the start of the event to clear the area of all trash cans, bricks, bottles, and other items that could be used as projectiles. The bricks that we located after the incident were likely what was being carried in inside the backpacks that we noticed the group members carrying.”
There were loose bricks around the roots of trees at the intersection of Broad St. and College Ave., clearly indicating that clean up beforehand had not been thorough, if it occurred at all. Mikaela de-escalated by speaking to a protestor and then Alden removed any loose bricks into a nearby trash can, indicating that bins had either been replaced or not removed. Each of us witnessed other protestors consistently and successfully de-escalating. Alden checked inside a tent during the protest and saw no bricks. As indicated in footage posted after the protest, the police were able to move the tents easily without clearing them out. Before tear gas was deployed, no officer was close enough to visibly confirm where bricks were and were not.
Chief Spruill’s report also states:
“ACCPD began making notifications to the Broad Street crowd that they were unlawfully assembled and would need to immediately disperse and leave the area or face arrest. The specific message, which was delivered between six and fifteen (this seems to be a wide margin of discrepancy) different times, was as follows: ‘This is the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. You are currently in violation of Georgia Law (O.C.G.A. 16-11-33) prohibiting unlawful assembly. You are hereby being lawfully commanded to immediately withdraw from your unlawful assembly and disperse. If you do not withdraw and disperse, you may be arrested and criminally charged. There is potential that force may be used against you during arrest. Withdraw and disperse now.’”
The police report does not state that the announcement was given via drone, rather than an officer or spokesperson. No human voice issued these statements--they were given unintelligibly from above. The three of us were not able to hear any of the initial announcements. We only heard partial audio of the final announcements. Video footage shows protestors shouting, “We can’t hear you!” Rather than respond, officers stood silently behind the fence on North Campus, fully outfitted in riot gear. No attempt was made to clearly and audibly communicate with the group that remained.
When tear gas was deployed, medics attended to protestors and journalists who were affected by administering eye washes. Athenians, some of whom expressed pre-existing respiratory conditions, and others who were minors, suffered serious inflammation to their faces and airways, temporary blindness, and nausea. Community members were physically, emotionally, and psychologically distressed, and officers stood by watching as they cried and screamed out for help. While Chief Spruill hails this substance as an “industry standard,” its use on vulnerable individuals during a respiratory pandemic demonstrates a disturbing lack of situational awareness.
We moved together toward an aid station we had set up, offering aid and directing protestors to follow us to safety. Commissioner Tim Denson was at the aid station when we arrived, experiencing the effects of the tear gas. Medics offered to transport any remaining protestors we could find to their vehicles or homes.
After reading the ACCPD summary of the evening, being so disparate from what we witnessed first-hand, we felt a duty to go on record and inform the community of our experience. After trying our best to provide a valuable service to our community, our police and mayor claimed that we were dangerous and violent, insinuating that our backpacks of medical supplies were an invitation to attack unarmed civilians, and that the presence of safety precautions “to reduce the effectiveness of gas” were equated with weapons or projectiles. On behalf of ourselves and fellow medics, we refute this insinuation, the mischaracterizations of protestors, and the falsehoods that Chief Spruill’s statement disseminated to the public.
Carly Fabian, Mikaela Warner, Alden DiCamillo