By Joe Johnson
A day of peaceful protest in Athens on Sunday came to a tumultuous end early Monday morning when police, backed by Georgia National Guard soldiers, fired tear gas to disperse about 100 protesters who remained at the University of Georgia's arched entrance downtown on East Broad Street.
The group was the remnants of a Black Lives Matters protest that was organized in the wake of police in Minneapolis killing an unarmed black man who was in custody for a forgery investigation.
George Floyd’s death sparked protests and riots in cities across the country.
In Athens, one group of protesters gathered at UGA’s Arch at 5 p.m., while another group formed at the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse on East Washington Street before marching to the UGA Arch and join with the first group.
A large group of people gathered around the memorial to Athens Confederate Civil War dead, where officials like Mayor Kelly Girtz and county Commissioner Mariah Parker addressed the crowd. People in the crowd were of all races and ages, and they held signs and chanted such slogans as “Black Lives Matters and “I Can’t Breathe,” the dying words of Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer choked him to death by kneeling on the man’s neck while Floyd was in custody and on the ground.
The crowd began to disperse on their own by 7 p.m. but at 9:45 p.m. county officials announced it had declared a local emergency and, citing "circumstances have arisen which raise concern about the need to guard against other persons inciting violence and lawlessness which would threaten public safety and private property..."
The county also announced it had imposed a 9 p.m. curfew in an announcement that was not publicly disseminated until about 9:45 p.m. and restricted access to downtown.
With some protestors remaining in the College Square area, a police drone hovering overhead and played a recorded order for the protestors to disperse or face possible forcible arrest and criminal charges.
While some protesters left the scene, many remained and formed a square in the roadway, prior to National Guard and police personnel advanced on them and fired tear gas canisters.
The police and Girtz did not respond by Monday afternoon to Classic City News’ request for an explanation for the need to deploy tear gas, a tactic that was used by police in Atlanta and other major cities where there was actual rioting and looting.
The only attempts at looting that Classic City News observed were far from downtown, at Academy Sports and Georgia Dawg Pawn & Jewelry, both located on Atlanta Highway.
The pawn shop’s windows were broken, but the owner said the would-be burglars were unable to get inside.
At Academy Sports, police responded to a report that a large crowd was trying to break into the store.
“Officers were dispatched from the protest area and captured suspects that had fled the scene in vehicles. A Georgia State Patrol helicopter was in the area when the crime was reported and assisted in locating the suspect vehicles," according to a Monday afternoon police media release.
The release noted that no officers or suspects were injured in the incident.