ACLU of Georgia

‘Hold My Hand’: Pleas For Peace Drowned By Tear Gas

By Riley Bunch | Thomasville Times-Enterprise | June 2, 2020

ATLANTA — On Sunday night, under the glow of the Ferris wheel and with the lingering sting of tear gas in the air, Farees Kaleemah extended his hand to an Atlanta police officer.

“Just hold my hand,” he pleaded. “Hold my hand and walk with us, to show them you are with us.”

The two took a few paces together before a firework was thrown from the protesting side causing chaos to break out again. But the small show of unity didn’t go unnoticed, the video making its way through social media.

When protests broke out across the nation Kaleemah thought he would be one of the last people to stand with law enforcement. The day before, the 27-year-old said, he was in handcuffs for protesting inside Cumberland Mall.

“While I was in the back before they sent us to jail we were talking to the police,” he said. “And that’s when I had a change of heart.”

An officer encouraged Kaleemah to protest the death of George Floyd — a black man killed by police in Minneapolis — peacefully, he said. The officer told him that no one thought what happened to Floyd was right.

The next day, when Atlanta’s 9 p.m. curfew triggered police to throw tear gas in an attempt to get protesters to disperse, Kaleemah walked feet away from the front of the line.

“Yesterday when we were out there, I saw a lot of people angry. And I understand, I am not mad at the people who are angry. I’m mad too, I get it,” he said. “But I had to go to the front because when they started shooting tear gas I knew it was going to be like the first night again. I thought, ‘somebody has to get up there between the protesters and the police, or it’s going to get bad again.’”

Protests and riots have broken out across the country in response to the death of George Floyd — tensions already high from the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Georgia’s own Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year. Demonstrators across the country have been met with police brutality, President Donald Trump threatening a federal military response on Monday if the violence does not stop.

Trump declared himself the president of “law and order” as protesters outside the White House were hit with tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets. 

Like the entire nation, Atlanta’s ongoing protests have unraveled into pandemonium — many nights after the city’s curfew takes effect.

Friday ended with police cars engulfed in flames and stores downtown torn apart by protesters.

Six Atlanta police officers face various charges including aggravated assault after using “excessive force” on two black college students Saturday night after they dragged a young female —Taniyah Pilgrim, 20— from a car and tased her while another officer tased the young male —Messiah Young, 22 — who was still inside.

“We felt like we were going to die in that car,” Pilgrim said during a news conference Monday.

Released body camera footage show what Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called the “shocking” arrests of the Morehouse and Spelman students. On Tuesday when announcing the charges brought against the officers, Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr., called the victims “so innocent almost to the point of being naive.”

The two students were on their way to get something to eat that night, their lawyers said, when they were caught in traffic along Centennial Olympic Park.

On Monday, two working journalists were detained by law enforcement, despite showing credentials.

But what is now going on five days of protests didn’t start with violence.

On Friday afternoon in Centennial Olympic Park, 19-year-old activist Zoe Bambara — who organized the first peaceful protest that drew hundreds — had no idea that her effort would lead to flames and broken glass.

Bambara, who lives in East Point, in two days pulled together a demonstration promoted entirely as peaceful. While organizing, her worries were where the group could legally gather, to make sure everyone had a buddy to walk with and gathering donations for protesters transportation there.

“I have a voice,” she said before the march to the Capitol and back began. “And I plan on using it.”

Bambara said she wanted people to know a black woman started this protest and that Atlanta stands behind the protesters in Minneapolis and across the country. “We want to show the nation that we get together and we can protest, because everybody looks at us,” she said.

Not eight hours later, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in Fulton County and activated a first round of National Guard Troops. Twenty-four hours later, he upped the ante, calling on more guardsmen, bringing the total to 3,000. The Republican governor said law enforcement would ‘not back down’ to more violence.

In three days, the Atlanta Police Department reported just under 300 arrests — Saturday, the first day of curfew, accounting for more than half.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, was himself beaten so badly by white police officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that he suffered a broken skull on March 7, 1965 — what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis — who recently began treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer — asked protesters to fight for justice in a “peaceful, orderly, non-violent fashion,” in a statement Saturday.

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country:  I see you, and I hear you.  I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness,” he said. “ … Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way.  Organize.  Demonstrate.  Sit-in.  Stand-up.  Vote.  Be constructive, not destructive.  History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”

But the ACLU of Georgia said the state’s response to the protest goes far beyond what it should be for peaceful protesting and called the state’s curfew and deployment of National Guard troops a display of “militarization.”

“Georgians from all walks of life are engaged in exercising their First Amendment rights to protest and petition the government for redress of grievances, especially systemic police violence against Black Americans,” Executive Director Andrea Young, said in a statement. “The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in Minneapolis and Louisville, respectively, and the death of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of vigilantes emboldened by the police in Georgia have been condemned around the world.”

Kaleemah said the fight is far from over — he will continue to protest every day — but wants protesters to know their voices are their best weapons — not violence.

“Your voice is way more powerful than you could possibly imagine,” he said. “If you want to protest, protest the right way, because any other way, is going to get us killed.”

Protesters joining hands in chanting at a rally.

Farees Kaleemah, 27, and Atlanta Police Officer identified as K. Knapp, hold hands and try to deescalate the third day of protests in downtown Atlanta on May 31. Riley Bunch