Derico Crump, 9, left, and Dayshell Crump, 30, clean the streets of downtown Atlanta in the aftermath of a demonstration against police violence on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Volunteers clean up Atlanta after night of protests
02:22 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: In a series of essays called The Distance, Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans living through the pandemic. Email if you have a story idea.

Atlanta CNN  — 

I took a walk on Saturday, from the King Center to Centennial Olympic Park and back, three miles in the heat of the day through a wounded city in a wounded country at the end of a week of death and fire.

Thomas Lake

On Auburn Avenue I heard the call of a dove and saw yellow roses blooming in the memorial garden of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just across Peachtree Street I met the Stewart family, three black Americans from the city’s western suburbs. Mia Stewart had watched the video of a police officer pressing a knee on the neck of George Floyd. She’d heard Floyd call out to his deceased mother. She thought all four officers should have been arrested immediately, and if they had been, she thought the riots might have been prevented. But the Stewarts were not here to protest. They carried brooms to clean up the wreckage.

“We can’t continue this,” Steven Stewart said, gesturing toward the park where someone set fire to the visitor center on Friday night. “Because the message just gets lost.”

Down Broad Street, in front of the ransacked Smoothie King, a diverse crowd of a dozen people picked up broken glass. The shards clanked together, making a musical sound. A circular saw whined, cutting plywood to fit the empty window frames. Around the corner at the edge of the park, perhaps 30 people surrounded a preacher who called for the power of God.

“A movement of justice and a movement of righteousness,” he said. The others raised their hands and began to sing.

People clean up broken glass and debris outside McCormick & Schmick's restaurant in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, May 30. The building was vandalized during Friday night's protests over the death of George Floyd.

Five days had passed since the killing, four days since the officers were fired, three days since the looting began, two days since the police station burned, one day since the unrest reached my hometown, and I was still trying to classify the people in the streets. Many clearly believed that this was a matter of life and death — that they could save lives by getting their message across.

There were peaceful protesters, of course, and local residents in each city furious about unjust treatment at the hands of law enforcement. There were others, too: agents of chaos seizing an opportunity to push a nation toward anarchy, or discredit the protests, or just see how it felt to throw an explosive at the police.

Smashed exterior windows at CNN Center in Atlanta on May 30.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said on Saturday morning that everyone arrested the night before had been from out of state. (He later retracted that claim after a local news outlet found that nearly all of those arrested lived in Minneapolis or the surrounding metro area.) Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey tweeted, “We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors…” An Atlanta TV reporter said Friday night that many protesters seemed disoriented, as if they had no idea how to get around Atlanta.

But here on the corner was Eva Harris, who said she’d lived in Atlanta for six years, and her rage was personal, because she had three sons and three grandsons and she feared for their lives.

“I’m not going to be on the news asking for peace,” she said as a crowd gathered around her. “Now it’s time to burn this s— down.”

“When we was kneeling, they didn’t hear us.”

“They hear us now.”

Eva Harris speaks to a crowd of people during a protest in downtown Atlanta on Saturday, May 30.

I walked back down Auburn Avenue, sweating behind my mask, returning to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. His words about justice and nonviolence were everywhere: inscribed on the ground, written on the wall, even beneath the rolling waters of the reflecting pool. Near the eternal flame, three women and four children sat in the shade. They were visiting family here in Atlanta. They’d arrived on Friday from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, just outside the Twin Cities.

Janice Taylor and Cheryl Kendle told me they knew many people on the south side of Minneapolis, in and around the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed, and now those people couldn’t buy diapers or milk or get a bus ride because of the burning and the looting.

“It’s just unfair to those who ain’t did nothing,” Kendle said. “Like us.”

Minnesota resident Cheryl Kendle at the King Center in Atlanta on May 30. Kendle lives in a town adjacent to Minneapolis.

For some Americans, injustice followed injustice. Even as Floyd struggled for his last breath, the pandemic was striking racial minorities at a disproportionately high rate. And some of those people had to live in neighborhoods that were ravaged by others in this week’s unrest. In the pool behind me, water rolled down over King’s famous words:





As I write this, dusk is approaching. The pandemic is still raging. Tonight in America they will gather again. Some will wear masks; some will not. Some will have good intentions; some will not. All these people will press in together, shadowed by an invisible killer that has already taken more than 100,000 Americans. The people will call for justice. The virus will not hear.

Protesters sit on a pillar at the entrance of Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta on May 30.

This column has been updated to include Mayor Carter’s retraction of his statement that all those arrested in St. Paul had been from out of state.