When Tiffany Roberts caught wind of the language in Georgia House Bill 838, her mind shot back to 2017, the year of Charlottesville violence.
Roberts, a longtime Atlanta civil rights and criminal defense attorney who works for the Southern Center for Human Rights, was reminded of the wave of oft-called Blue Lives Matter legislation in states across the country that year, drafted in response to violence against police. Measures that would help protect law enforcement in a dangerous, often thankless line of work might sound agreeable, but Roberts recalled how Georgia’s version, which didn’t make it into law, seemed structured to increase penalties on protestors and dictate how they behave. And then, last month, 2020’s pandemic-postponed legislative session brought HB 838—a bill which proponents say would offer protection against “targeting” for police officers and other first responders, similar to hate crime laws—amidst a season of historic unrest and nationwide protests rallying against systemic racism and police brutality. Roberts and other civil rights activists encourage people to be more skeptical of what they feel is little more than a tool to punish protestors—and one that’s made it to Governor Brian Kemp’s desk.
“It seems that state legislatures take up this issue every time [police are] protecting the streets,” says Roberts. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It sort of goes hand-in-hand with people who say, ‘Well, these protests make police officers less safe,’ even though all the data suggests police may make protestors less safe, because [protestors are] the ones being shot with rubber bullets. They’re the ones being arrested and thrown to the ground.”
Atlanta police union president Jason Segura reads HB 838 differently. “It doesn’t silence anyone, except those breaking the law and threatening folks, police, and citizens alike. Peaceful protesters are welcome and encouraged,” Segura, head of International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ Atlanta chapter, wrote in an email. “Why are [the bill’s detractors] working so hard to allow violence to occur against police? Violence is bad no matter who the victim, and who the perpetrator.”
How did HB 838 legislation quickly—too hastily, some argue—come to be? A recap:
The bill, originally authored by Public Safety and Homeland Security Chairman Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, began innocuously enough, weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns in America. When filed in January, the bill’s intent was to subtract a single word from the title of the Office of Public Safety Officer Support. That’s an office within the state’s Department of Public Safety that helps police and fellow emergency personnel cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumas associated with public safety. Removing the “Officer” from its title, the logic went, would allow the office to provide support services and peer counseling to any entity with public safety personnel that requests it. Then came the February homicide of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, a global pandemic, and the killing of George Floyd.
In response to the fatal shooting of Arbery, a Black unarmed jogger whom three white men are charged with killing, lawmakers crafted the landmark hate crimes legislation HB 426 that included, for the first time in Georgia, protection and legal recognition of LGBTQ communities.
In late June, Senate Republicans tried to add language to HB 426’s protected classes that would have put police and other first responders under the same umbrella—an effort poisonous enough to nearly kill the bill entirely. So references to law enforcement were pulled out by Republicans and inserted as provisions into HB 838, as part of a deal with Democrats, with a goal of boosting protections for police and other first responders, per the authors. This drew the ire of groups like Roberts’ SCHR. She’s aware of similar laws in Kentucky and Louisiana, as two examples, and designated offenses in Georgia code and within certain municipalities designed to specifically protect educators and healthcare workers in hospitals. But nothing, until HB 838, that would make police and first responders a protected class under the law. She wondered why a charge like felony obstruction of law enforcement, with a typical five-year penalty in prison, wasn’t already severe enough for people convicted of violently confronting cops.
Most significantly, the HB 838 additions establish a new offense—“bias motivated intimidation” of police, firefighters, and paramedics—and allow first responders to bring a civil lawsuit against any person or group they feel has accused them of false misconduct. That latter part, as Georgia NAACP leaders insist, could deter people from filing legitimate claims against officers in the wrong. But one champion of the bill, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, has called it a necessary tool to honor “the vast majority of officers in this state [who] serve us honorably and selflessly” and to distinguish them from police who violate the public’s trust.
Segura, of the Atlanta police union, sees the bill as a safeguard, in a sense. “Nationally, police are under attack by organized groups,” Segura says. “These groups of individuals make threats directly to officers’ faces. They make threats to their families, saying, ‘I know where you live and where your daughter goes to school.’ These individuals follow police officers home, they post their addresses and phone numbers online. They call their family members, and their family members’ employers. If that happens to any American, they should absolutely be concerned, and in America they should be defended.”
Others see the bill as a muzzle for peaceful protestors and everyday citizens, in disguise.
“I don’t even know how to interpret some of [the bill’s] language,” says Mawuli Davis, a Decatur civil rights attorney and activist. “What constitutes ‘bias motivated intimidation’? I mean, is it I can’t yell at a police officer during a protest? If I see an officer doing something wrong during a course of his so-called duties, I can’t say something? Would they have attempted to prosecute the people who were recording and yelling at the [Minneapolis police] officers as they, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, laid with their knees on [Floyd’s] body in this way? It’s almost a violation of your First Amendment to even put something like this in writing.”
Despite pushback from civil rights groups and Democrats, HB 838 passed along party lines as the legislative session began to wind down June 23, barely squeaking through in the House. Three days later, with bipartisan support, Kemp signed the hate-crimes legislation, HB 426, into law during a Gold Dome ceremony that drew national headlines.
Noticeably absent from that event was Georgia’s chapter of the NAACP, which released a statement calling HB 838 “dangerous” in that it would “further create a toxic divide in our state.” Also absent was Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who has said she supports all law enforcement but feels “HB 838 is more dangerous to our community than HB 426 is good.” Meanwhile, State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, lashed out at the bill on Twitter, calling it a means of intimidating and punishing protestors. “We don’t need a bill of rights for the police,” Nguyen wrote, “especially not one that infringes on the rights of the people.”
Governor Kemp has until August 5 to sign HB 838 into law. Its effective date would come next July.
Segura says a scourge of violence in recent weeks that prompted the governor to declare a State of Emergency in Atlanta and deploy as many as 1,000 National Guard troops lends him faith that Kemp will approve the measure and not veto it. “It’s in the best interest of all citizens,” Segura says.
As is, the minimum punishment in Georgia for murdering a first responder is life in prison. The new law, as ACLU leaders told the AJC, would muddy the waters regarding how perpetrators in such cases are charged. HB 838 would set the maximum penalty for “bias motivated intimidation” resulting in the targeted death a cop at five years in prison and a fine of $5,000, max. A legal argument in Georgia called “rule of lenity,” as the ACLU asserted, would require prosecutors to seek charges that are most favorable to defendants, meaning suspected killers could face as little as a single year in prison, with murder charges off the table.
“They’re probably numerous reasons why [Kemp] might be on the fence” in regards to signing HB 838 into law, said Roberts. “We’re hoping to God that he’s on the fence.”
On Wednesday, two days after she announced she had tested positive for COVID-19, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order requiring those within Atlanta city limits to wear face coverings when in public to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Atlanta’s order comes after Savannah, Athens, and East Point all implemented similar ordinances and follows the lead of several cities and states where COVID-19 cases are spiking.
In short, the order is simple—if you’re over the age of 10, you need to wear a mask while you’re out in public spaces. But just like the shelter-in-place orders from earlier in the pandemic, there are exceptions and nuances. Let’s break it down.
When and where do I have to wear a face covering?
Officially, whenever you are “inside a commercial entity or other building or space open to the public.” This would include retail stores, grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, doctor’s offices, malls, museums, attractions, public transportation, etc. Pretty much, if it’s a public space with other people around, put on a face covering.
Outdoor public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible
When do I not need to wear a face covering?
In your own home or apartment
In your own car
While you are eating or drinking in public spaces (including restaurants, cafes, etc.)
While smoking in public spaces
Outside as long as you are able to maintain social distance (so a jog in your neighborhood is probably fine)
In a swimming pool
While voting, assisting a voter, acting as a poll watcher, or administering an election
While speaking for a broadcast or to an audience (such as a press conference or news live shot)
It’s fine to remove a mask temporarily when needed for certain services, such as security screenings, visiting a bank, a dentist or doctor’s examination, etc.
Who has to wear a mask? Anyone over the age of 10 who does not have a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask.
Does this apply to the entire metro area?
No, this order only applies within Atlanta city limits and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. However, much like the early shelter-in-place orders, the surrounding suburbs may adopt their own mask orders. East Point has already adopted such an order and Fairburn and Brookhaven have also passed orders. Decatur is set to vote on one Friday and Doraville and South Fulton are also considering them.
What constitutes a face covering?
Per the order, “a mask or cloth face covering over the nose and mouth.” This would include disposable masks, cloth masks, respirators, bandanas, scarves, neck gaiters, balaclavas, etc. Earlier this year, the CDC released this video on how to make an easy, no-sew covering.
Wait a minute. The state executive order signed by Governor Brian Kemp strongly encourages mask-wearing but doesn’t require it. I thought the cities weren’t allowed to issue contradicting orders? When Savannah enacted its mask mandate last week, many speculated that Kemp would block it, as the state executive order does say that cities and counties cannot issue any orders that supersede the state’s. So while Kemp can threaten legal action against cities who implement a mask mandate, he hasn’t yet indicated he will. During a Tuesday call with local officials, Kemp urged them avoid mandates, instead using social media or other tools to encourage mask-wearing, but didn’t threaten legal action, according to the AJC.WABE also reports that in that same meeting, Kemp said it was “fine” that local governments had different opinions on response to the pandemic. While Kemp has been reluctant to issue a statewide mask mandate, he did tour the state last weekend, encouraging Georgians to wear face masks. He also frequently urges mask-wearing on his Twitter account.
What happens if I don’t wear a mask?
The order doesn’t say. Generally, the purpose of orders like these are to further emphasize the importance of wearing masks in public, not to write a bunch of citations. In Athens, a violation can come with a $25 to $100 fine depending on how many times someone has been cited, and Commissioner Tim Denson said that the intent of the order was “not to be punitive,” but “to ensure that people are wearing masks,” according to the Athens Banner-Herald. In Savannah, there is a $500 fine for not wearing a mask. In East Point, the fine is $75.
Why now? The pandemic has been going on for four months now.
Cases are once again spiking not only here in Atlanta, but nationwide. Reported cases in metro Atlanta are now higher than they’ve ever been. And so far, it shows no signs of slowing. We know masks limit the amount of droplets—and therefore, the amount of virus—expelled, so widespread mask-wearing is likely to help slow transmission of the virus.
In her years of helping migrant families in Gainesville, the “Poultry Capital of the World,” Vanesa Sarazua has seen plenty of hardship—families huddled together in a small house, children without enough food—but nothing compares with the dire circumstances she is encountering in the wake of a surging pandemic. The state’s vulnerable populations are hit hard by the pandemic, and some of the highest rates of infection are occurring in Latinx communities.
Sarazua recalls how the coronavirus took hold in one Gainesville family, sickening the mother and each of four children one by one, over a period of two months. The youngest, a 7-year-old boy, developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a rare childhood disorder triggered by the coronavirus that causes persistent fever and damage to the heart and other organs. Nationally, Latinx children make up almost one-third of cases—more than any other race or ethnicity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Working through the nonprofit organization she founded in 2017, Hispanic Alliance Georgia, Sarazua gave the family rent assistance and food, as well as money for gas and parking so the mother could afford to travel back and forth to the hospital in Atlanta where the boy received treatment for two weeks. (He recovered.)
Another family hadn’t eaten for two days and had no electricity, Sarazua discovered. The grandmother, matriarch of the family, had been sick and unable to work. Her daughter had a toddler and was pregnant. Hispanic Alliance Georgia helped pay her rent and utilities and delivered an emergency food box, a project launched to help home-bound families as cases spiked in Hall County in April. A monthly drive-thru food distribution began in May, and it continues to attract hundreds of people.
“Our focus was on providing food and any relief we could for those families that were affected by COVID and didn’t have any other relief,” she says. “Families would call us and say, ‘We haven’t been working for a month.’” Immigrant families don’t qualify for federal stimulus funds or assistance if any family member lacks legal status.
Since COVID-19 emerged in Georgia in March, it has spread rapidly among those considered essential workers, including people who process chicken, work in restaurant kitchens, build homes, or provide other services. In Echols County, on the Georgia-Florida border, seasonal migrant workers travel in crowded buses, live in shared housing, and pick fruits and vegetables side by side. It has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 infection, with more than 4,700 infections per 100,000. (The county population is only 4,000, but because of outbreaks among migrant farm workers, it has more than 185 COVID-19 cases.)
Gwinnett County, the second most populous and most ethnically diverse county in the state, leads the state with more than 10,000 reported COVID-19 cases. While every part of the county has been affected, cases have been concentrated in the most densely populated areas, including Latinx communities in Norcross and Lilburn, where multiple families or generations of a single family live together, says Audrey Arona, CEO and district health director for Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale County Health Departments.
A graph of Gwinnett’s COVID-19 spread roughly mirrors the statewide trends, with a plateau in April, a dip in early May and a sharp rise in June. Contact tracing by the health department hasn’t detected superspreading events, such as a church gathering or funeral or celebration, says Arona. Transmission patterns also haven’t been linked to particular workplaces. “It’s more related to where people live in the county as opposed to where they work,” Arona says.
Overall, Latinx people make up 9 percent of the state’s population but one-third of its COVID-19 cases, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data for which ethnicity was reported. “When you look at Georgia and the epidemic overall, COVID-19 is taking advantage of multi-generational health disparities and health inequities,” says Jodie Guest, vice chair of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Black Georgians are also at disproportionately high risk of contracting COVID-19 and having more severe disease.
Guest created “pop-up” testing sites in the parking lot of a poultry plant in Hall County, offering tests to family members of poultry workers to support the state’s testing efforts. “When we take the testing to communities at risk, we reduce a barrier to testing and we get much higher rates of testing, which is what we want,” Guest says. “We also want to make sure our testing sites feel very safe.” The rate of positive tests at the Emory sites has ranged from 16 to 28 percent, she says; overall in Georgia, about 9 percent of COVID-19 tests are positive.
Supported by a $7.8 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative is partnering with the Georgia Department of Public Health on testing, contact tracing, a statewide prevalence survey, and other public health efforts.
Community testing began in earnest in Hall County in late March and early April. Internist Antonio Rios recalls an early testing event sponsored by the Good News Clinic, a free health clinic, and the Northeast Georgia Health System. About half of the 350 people tested positive—whether they had symptoms or not. That astonishing tally was followed by an even larger event. Of 1,000 people tested, about a third were positive for COVID-19. The poultry industry was a common link.
Still, Georgia’s poultry industry has been able to avoid the shutdowns that affected meatpacking plants around the country. On July 7, the CDC released a report on the impact of COVID-19 on meat and poultry plant workers. Through May 31, 509 of 16,500 workers in 14 Georgia poultry plants tested positive for COVID-19—or 3.1 percent. One died. In comparison, 24.5 percent of workers in South Dakota beef and pork plants tested positive. Iowa did not update its figures, but by the end of April, 18 percent of its meat and poultry workers had tested positive, according to the CDC.
For reasons that aren’t fully understood, Latinx workers are more likely to become sick, the CDC said. They represent 56 percent of the cases among meat and poultry plants in which race and ethnicity were known, even though they make up just 30 percent of the workers.
Poultry plants began checking employees for symptoms early on in the pandemic, and as the public health advice became clearer, the companies stepped up their prevention efforts, says Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. By the time the CDC came out with guidelines for meat and poultry processing facilities on April 26—and as cases were spiking in Hall County and elsewhere—preventive measures were already in place. Today, the plants follow sanitation protocols, require employees to wear masks, and place plastic sheeting or plexiglass barriers between work stations, he says.
Yet that doesn’t help much if employees carpool to work and gather together after their shifts, especially if they lack personal protective equipment. The Georgia Poultry Federation and Georgia Emergency Management Agency distributed 150,000 masks to the community. A local task force spearheaded an awareness campaign, and many Hall County businesses now have stickers on their windows that say “No Mascara! No Servicio! No mask! No Service!”
“The community has been very responsive to the direction that is being given to them in terms of wearing masks,” says Rios, who is chief physician executive at the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.
Rios answers questions in live events on Facebook, sponsored by the Hispanic Alliance Georgia. COVID-19 has laid bare the deeper health issues facing vulnerable communities—untreated and undertreated hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments that make them more susceptible.
“I really, really hope at the end of COVID-19, whenever that may be, that a positive outcome will be that we have a national conversation about the health inequities, racism, and disparities we’ve got in our country,” says Guest. “That conversation must be broad. It has to include everyone who lives in the United States who suffers these inequities.”
As a child, I wanted to be a librarian. I imagined a safe, orderly life among books and card catalogs. Learning to read had been easy for me. In elementary school, I could barely add but I read compulsively. My grandmother shattered my dream by telling me that if I became a librarian, I would surely end up an old maid. My first career, preschool teacher, was just a bid for emancipation, something I could do to see the world. I thought I’d for sure end up in Morocco (I studied Arabic) or maybe Vietnam (I loved the food).
I taught for several years in the posh 16th arrondissement of Paris, where consular staff often sent their children to public school to learn the language. The American consul sent me fancy chocolates for Christmas. A famous chef invited me for lunch at his mother’s and served me guinea hen. I saw glimpses of a world beyond mine, and I wanted in.
How did I end up in Atlanta? My first husband, the German one, was a corporate lawyer from a military family. He took a job in New York, where I met my second husband, a rich kid from Pittsburgh working as a paralegal. While transitioning from Paris to Greenwich Village in the 1970s had been easy, transitioning a few years later from there to Atlanta, where the object of my affection was attending Emory Law School, nearly killed me.
Nothing had prepared me for a sprawling city with no clearly defined center. My husband had been issued an Emory guide to life in Atlanta, including where to eat pizza (Everybody’s), where to take the parents (Coach and Six), and the best neighborhood for vegetarian fare (Little Five Points). I read the few blurbs voraciously and thought, I can do better than that.
I roamed Atlanta with a mix of desperation and desire to figure out my new world. On foot at first, then by bus, and finally in a light blue 1977 Caprice Classic I kept for 20 years, I pursued new adventures, gobbling up every possible unfamiliar food. I discovered marshmallows, ranch dressing, and grits. I tried my first chicken wing. I fell in love with soul food at Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant, where I ate fried pork chops and chicken-liver omelets for breakfast.
In the early 1980s, I was teaching at the Alliance Française in Midtown, and my husband wrote hippie-ish articles for Common Cents, a weekly publication about saving money. One thing led to another, and we were asked to recommend restaurants under a shared byline. Eventually, a student of mine, a photographer at Atlanta magazine, introduced me to his managing editor. I’ve now been writing about restaurants for this magazine for almost 40 years.
I learned all there is to know about my profession the old-fashioned way—not by scrolling through other people’s opinions or watching celebrity chefs opine on television, but by hitting the pavement without a plan and with a broad appetite. Now, however, the wandering habits that have served me so well over the decades have come to a screeching and hopefully temporary halt. In this hiatus, I’ve had ample time to return to memories of the restaurant scene of Atlanta’s past.
The Atlanta I first got to know was far more small-town than it is now. Between Manuel’s Tavern, the Varsity, the Colonnade, Matthews Cafeteria, and the amazing Busy Bee (started in the 1940s and now heroically serving its fried chicken for curbside pick up), you can still get a sense of that old Atlanta. More than business acumen or an ambitious chef in the kitchen, a strong current of love between a stubborn restaurant and its clientele seems to be the deciding factor for a place that survives the decades—or, for that matter, a pandemic. La Grotta, which opened in 1978, for the first time ever subsisted for weeks by offering takeout orders of vitello tonnato and risotto di funghi. Its owners reopened the dining room in late May, but the takeout operation continues.
Even though I’m not currently eating at restaurants, I still keep track of what is happening in the community. I maintain my epic list of new restaurants, keeping tabs on recent openings such as Wonderkid (from the Bon Ton and King of Pops teams), Little Bear (from former pop-up star Jarrett Stieber), and the Companion (from chef Andy Gonzales of Steinbeck’s Ale House in Decatur), all of which have robust take-out programs. Wonderkid has pivoted to family suppers and cocktail kits for pickup or delivery, Stieber is doing playful, globe-trotting, multicourse dinners for two to go, and Gonzales hands out fried chicken through the windows of the Companion’s 90-year-old building on the Westside.
I now dream of the brutally hot spicy tofu soup and cheap kimbap I habitually ate at Yet Tuh on Buford Highway as I watch Korean dramas all day on Netflix. I yearn for a thin slice of sausage and onion pizza from Fellini’s, a cheeseburger taco from Taqueria del Sol, and a boozy session accompanied by chicken wings at Poor Hendrix. But I also remember how to live on chickpeas and rice the way I did when I had no money—and when Atlanta didn’t have such restaurants.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. —James Baldwin
Black people disappear in America. This fact is woven into the fabric of our country. Parents are separated from their children at slave auctions, never to be seen by them again. A loved one is here one day and turns up in the Jim Crow woods the next, dangling from trees under the cover of nightfall and inhumanity. I grew up with my father telling me stories of the 1964 Freedom Summer in which three activists—Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney, the sole African American in the group—went missing for 44 days after driving down a dark road in Neshoba County, Mississippi. My father, at the time a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality, assigned those men to that tragic mission and would have been in the car with them if not for a bout of bronchitis that had left him bedridden. The three men were lynched by a mob of Klansmen and police officers. Knowing my father could have been their fourth victim kept me up countless nights as a child.
The part of the story that most haunts my father, though, is that during all those weeks of looking for the three men, search parties discovered so many forgotten Black bodies in Mississippi ditches and swamps. “Nobody was even looking for them anymore,” my dad would say. The echoes of those silenced Black voices reverberate through my family’s bones.
Georgia, of course, has its own history of disappearing Black bodies. From 1877 to 1950, there were 589 lynchings in the state, according to the Equal Justice Initiative—the second most in America. These killings sometimes happened in front of audiences, white children watching with their parents, or with police cooperation. In 1946, a crime considered to be “the last mass lynching in America” was carried out an hour east of Atlanta in Walton County. Near Moore’s Ford Bridge, a mob of white men blocked the car of Roger Malcom, his pregnant wife, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, her brother, George Dorsey, and his wife, Mae Murray Dorsey. They were shot 60 times. No one was charged.
A little more than three decades later, at least 29 Black children and young adults went missing from 1979 to 1981 in what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Some of those bodies were discarded like trash. In the investigation’s early days, the police response was sluggish—nothing like the immediate mania that would have ensued if the bodies of white children had been discarded that way. Each child’s death further terrorized and traumatized Georgia’s Black community. In 1982, James Baldwin flew from Paris to Atlanta to write about the trial of Wayne Williams, the man believed to have been responsible for those murders. His reporting eventually became the 1985 book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, about America, race, and how a country allowed Black bodies to continue to disappear.
“Black death has never before elicited so much attention,” Baldwin wrote, noting that “this is not the first time such a devastation has occurred: It is the first time that Authority has been forced to recognize the devastation as crucial.”
Another three decades have gone by, and Black death continues. Authority, meanwhile, still has a hard time recognizing the truth of the devastation: Black bodies in America remain disposable.
Ahmaud Arbery left his house on February 23 to go for a run, as the 25-year-old former high school football star was known to do. In the middle of that run, he became one of those bodies. Ahmaud was in the middle-class Satilla Shores neighborhood, on a winding road under the cover of Spanish moss that hung from trees like history. It’s the type of road Black bodies disappear into.
Ahmaud’s body wasn’t lost or missing like the victims in the Atlanta Child Murders or the civil rights workers in Mississippi. But he was violently, needlessly erased nonetheless. He was buried under a shroud of misinformation, political nepotism, and the spoils of white privilege. The truth of Ahmaud Arbery’s execution was hidden for months.
On the night of Ahmaud’s murder, Glynn County police called his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and said her son had committed a burglary and was shot dead. For days, that was the only explanation she could get, but she refused to believe it. It wasn’t until an article in the Brunswick News revealed more details of his killing that she learned the names of her son’s killers: Gregory McMichael, 64, and his 34-year-old son, Travis. It’s also where she learned that Ahmaud had not been involved in a burglary. (In fact, there had there been no burglaries in the neighborhood in recent weeks.) “The lies started from the very beginning,” says Ahmaud’s aunt, Theawanza Brooks. “We knew immediately that when they said it was a burglary that it was a lie. That is not Ahmaud, and nobody could make me believe that is true.”
Ahmaud’s mother persisted. She visited the police department and called prominent people in town, never relenting in demanding answers. The more she and others learned about the investigation, the more they realized how badly it had been botched. It took more than a month, but her outrage made its way to Brunswick community leaders who, led by Mayor Cornell Harvey, demanded a meeting with District Attorney Jackie Johnson, which took place on April 13. (Johnson had immediately recused herself because Gregory McMichael had previously worked for her.) “The first thing we asked was why the Georgia Bureau of Investigations hadn’t been called in,” Harvey told me. “The chief of police said he didn’t know.”
Johnson had passed the case on to George Barnhill, the district attorney for the neighboring Waycross Judicial Circuit. When police approached Barnhill the day after the killing with evidence to arrest the McMichaels, he told them he already had determined the McMichaels were justified in killing Ahmaud. As Barnhill later would write in a three-page letter to police: “It appears Travis McMichael [and] Greg McMichael . . . were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause. . . . Given the fact Arbery initiated the fight, at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun [that Travis McMichael was holding], under Georgia law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.” Barnhill also ended up having to recuse himself, on April 3, because his son used to work with Gregory McMichael—but not before reiterating his stance that the McMichaels were innocent.
Then, on the morning of May 5, a video of the killing, filmed by a friend of the McMichaels, hit the internet like a plume of tear gas. The video lifted the shroud of invisibility from the case. It made it impossible for the world not to see Ahmaud.
The video had been shot by William Bryan Jr. from inside his truck as he followed the McMichaels in theirs. It shows Ahmaud jogging along a bend in the road toward the McMichaels’ stopped pickup, Travis standing alongside the cab with a shotgun and his father in the truck’s bed with a .357 Magnum. Ahmaud runs around the truck and is blocked from the camera’s view when the first shot rings out. Travis wrestles with Ahmaud, both men stumbling off screen. Another shot rings out. They stumble back into view, and there’s a third shot. As Ahmaud starts to run away, first his arms go limp. Then, three steps later, the rest of him follows, slumping to the ground.
“My whole body tensed up when I saw the video,” Brooks, his aunt, says. She watched it the day it leaked. “I didn’t know if I should be hurt or angry. I was just confused. The person in this car is just recording. How do you not have any emotion?”
“I can’t get it out of my head,” says Mayor Harvey. Like Brooks, he can hardly get the words out. He sounds haunted. “It was . . . terrible. There’s nothing I can say to make it right.”
The video and the ensuing national outrage prompted the GBI to intervene, and they arrested the McMichaels on murder charges two days after its release. Two weeks later, their friend Bryan, who shot the video, was arrested as an accomplice and also was charged with murder. At a preliminary hearing in May, GBI investigators revealed what the video didn’t: Bryan and the McMichaels had worked in tandem to hunt Ahmaud like game. The men used their two trucks to trap Ahmaud, refusing to let him escape. Before Bryan started filming, his truck even struck Ahmaud, according to testimony and forensic evidence.
According to a GBI agent who testified at the hearing, Travis McMichael stood over Ahmaud after shooting him and uttered the last two words the young Black man would ever hear:
As I write this, it has been more than three months since Ahmaud was killed and four weeks since the video of the murder was released. As you read this, even more time will have passed. And with each passing month, you might hear Ahmaud’s name and squint and snap your fingers to recall which dead Black person he is. Is that the healthcare worker gunned down while asleep in their home?No, that was Breonna Taylor, whom Louisville police shot eight times on March 13. Was that the gospel singer?No, that was Adrian Medearis, an unarmed Black man who was pulled over in Houston for a suspected DUI and killed when police say he reached for a taser during a scuffle. No, he’s not the one who died after an officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.That’s George Floyd, the Minnesota man who appeared in another viral video three weeks after Arbery’s was released, sparking protests that set the country on fire.
In Atlanta, the fire intensified on June 12, when, 18 days after police killed Floyd, Rayshard Brooks fell asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru in south Atlanta. Brooks ran from police who had roused and tried to arrest him for drunk driving—and who shot him in the back, killing him, too.
That’s another way Black bodies get erased; they disappear under a pile of corpses that grow by the day until they’re not people anymore. They’re political abstractions. They’re simply less than.
“Maud” is the nickname Ahmaud became known by in death; #IRunWithMaud trended on social media on his birthday, May 8, as mourners around the world ran or walked 2.23 miles to draw more attention to the circumstances surrounding his death. (The number alludes to the date of the killing, February 23.) It also was the name he went by back in high school, when he was celebrated in certain Brunswick circles as a gutsy linebacker. Despite being small for his position, just 160 pounds, Ahmaud was swift on his feet and efficient in taking out the competition.
But to his family, he is “Quez,” short for his middle name, Marquez.
“Anything that came out of his mouth was wise,” his aunt says. “He’d make everything plain. He didn’t speak a lot, but when he spoke, it was clever and optimistic. He just had his own style about things.”
Ahmaud continued working out in the years after high school and running whenever he could. He dreamed of opening up a karate dojo with his father, Marcus Arbery Sr.; of rapping with his cousins; of training to be an electrician like his uncles. He had enrolled in South Georgia Technical College to start his electrician training this fall.
He spent a lot of time at his aunt Carla’s house, where he’d stop over with his father between trips mowing lawns in Brunswick. “He always had a warm smile,” Carla Arbery says. “He was just so quiet, but he’d always say ‘yes ma’am’ and come back and ask to clean up after I cooked. I miss his smile.”
Carla Arbery has four sons, ages 16 to 27, who were all extremely close to Ahmaud. They’d ride go-karts or swim or freestyle together. Her sons are struggling to come to terms with what’s happening. “They feel like their brother is gone,” she says. “They’re just now starting to talk about it. I’m trying to hold it together because I want the boys to see my strength.”
When I talked to his aunt Brooks, Ahmaud’s mother had just been on an episode of Dr. Phil, which made Brooks’s 17-year-old son emotional. “He just keeps saying, Mom, we have to keep fighting for Quez.”
In the years after he was recognized for his speed on the football field, Ahmaud was recognized while jogging along Brunswick’s streets. He ran from his mother’s house near Satilla Shores to his father’s house in the central part of town to Carla’s house on the north side. Sometimes, he ran from his mother’s house to the College of Coastal Georgia, an 11-mile route. “People would tell me they just saw Quez running and asked if he wanted a ride, and he’d say no,” Carla recalls. “Everyone knew him for running.”
His life veered off course several times in the years after high school, sometimes because of his own actions and sometimes because that’s just what happens to people who look like him. In 2013, a year after he graduated, Ahmaud carried a gun onto the high school campus, for which he received probation. In 2017, he was charged with trying to steal a TV from a Walmart and later got probation for that, too.
The month before the Walmart incident, Ahmaud was sitting in his parked car at Brunswick’s Townsend Park when a cop approached him. The Guardian obtained video of the incident days after the video of his killing surfaced. It showed Ahmaud as he stepped out of his gold Camry, black sweatpants sagging below red gym shorts, a hooded coat lined with fur covering his bare torso.
After the officer took his license and stepped away for a few moments, Ahmaud asked for it back. “What the fuck did you come over here and fuck with me for?” Ahmaud said. The officer called for backup after Ahmaud got agitated, and the second cop swiftly pulled his Taser and ordered Ahmaud to get on the ground.
The first officer tried to defuse the situation and reminded Ahmaud the area is known for criminal activity. “Criminal activity?” Ahmaud said. “I’m in a fucking park.”
“Listen, man. I’m not here to mess with you, okay?” the officer said. “I’ve been cool with you the entire time.”
“I’m rapping in the park trying to ease my mind,” Ahmaud tried to explain, saying a moment later: “You’re aggravating my day. I’ve got one day off of work a week—one day. I’m trying to chill on my day off, bro.”
“I get wanting to chill,” the officer said. “But we get a lot of bad stuff that happens out here. We get gang and drug activity.”
“Is my name tied up in any of that?” Ahmaud asked.
“No,” the officer said before letting Ahmaud leave. “It is not.”
This is the life of a twentysomething Black man in America.
Of course, the McMichaels didn’t know about the misdemeanors or probation when they chased down Ahmaud on his jog. Gregory McMichael later would say that he only had a “gut feeling” Ahmaud had committed a crime. Gregory and his son didn’t know anything at all about Ahmaud. They only saw the Black skin that two rounds of buckshot tore into before Ahmaud fell to the ground, gasping.
Not long after the killing, Lindsay McMichael—Gregory’s daughter and Travis’s sister—posted a photo of Ahmaud’s blood-soaked body on Snapchat, for which she later apologized. She said, by way of explanation: “I’m a true-crime fan.”
It’s impossible to talk about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery without talking about its intersection with the uniquely terrifying time we are living in. On the surface, there shouldn’t be much of a connection between a Black man gunned down on the street and a global pandemic. Unlike humans, viruses don’t discriminate based on race. But a pandemic can exacerbate society’s underlying ills—and this one has overwhelmingly targeted Black people.
As it first began to spread across America, the pandemic actually helped obscure the crime committed against Ahmaud. It helped him further disappear. As his mother and the community tried to find answers, they also had to contend with the sudden complication of sheltering in place. And they had to push harder to discover the truth in a country that seemed under too much duress to care about one Black death in Georgia.
“As a community, we were shocked by coronavirus, just like the rest of the world,” says Reverend John D. Perry II, one of the Brunswick community leaders who’s been active in seeking justice for Ahmaud. His frustration grew as weeks were lost to the pandemic—weeks that could have been spent focusing on Ahmaud’s case. “After some time, we were able to come back and really ask questions as a city.”
The virus soon bore certain similarities to the injustice and inequity Black people have faced for centuries. Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts, and among a study sample of 305 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Georgia, a disproportionate 80 percent of them were Black. The disparity is the result of a host of systemic issues. If you’re Black, you’re more likely to be a low-wage “essential” front-line worker, more likely to be uninsured, and more likely to face educational, economic, and healthcare disadvantages that lead to conditions like diabetes and hypertension, which make the virus more lethal.
At the time the video of Ahmaud’s killing came out in early May, COVID-19 was just a few weeks shy of claiming its 100,000th life in the U.S. Georgia’s shelter-in-place order recently had ended, but there was still widespread wariness about gathering in public. That didn’t stop Travis “Slim” Riddle—a Brunswick native who was well-known in the community for being a rapper in the early 2000s—from doing what, at the time, was practically unthinkable: organizing a rally. Ahmaud’s family contacted him shortly before the video leaked, asking for his help in drawing more attention to the case, and so, he headed back to Brunswick from his home in Atlanta, calling on his friends and Facebook followers to join him in publicly seeking justice for Ahmaud. As soon as the video was released, Brunswick was in the national spotlight as small gatherings—organized by Riddle, along with the NAACP and the Atlanta chapter of the Black Panther Party—marched across the city, from the Satilla Shores neighborhood to downtown. The next weekend brought out bigger crowds. On May 16, there was a rally in front of the Glynn County courthouse, followed hours later by hundreds of activists marching. They made their demands known: the removal of Jackie Johnson from her position as District Attorney and the passage of hate-crime legislation. At the time of Ahmaud’s death, Georgia was one of only four states without a hate-crime law. The month after the video of his death surfaced, the Georgia legislature passed a hate-crime statute, which the governor signed into law on June 26.
“You weren’t worried about the coronavirus?” I asked Little.
His response was matter-of-fact: “Look, man. Some stuff is just more important than other stuff,” he said. “I’d rather fight the corona than have someone kill my son for no reason.”
The Brunswick protests—and the exponentially larger ones that followed across the country—further revealed the perilousness of Blackness in America. Black protesters are trying to survive two threats of execution: one by a disease of nature, the other by the disease of racism—each tearing through their communities. In Brunswick, I watched hundreds of people wearing masks and trying to socially distance in front of the courthouse before abandoning the CDC recommendations for safe gathering and locking arms in solidarity. Weeks later, I watched the news feeds of bigger and bigger protests across the country. In front of Barclays in Brooklyn. At the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. On the streets of Louisville. Across the Stone Arch bridge in Minneapolis. In the parking lot of the Wendy’s on Atlanta’s University Avenue, spilling over to the Downtown Connector and halting traffic for two hours. It was at once inspiring and frightening. How many of these people are going to end up in the emergency room, or worse?
In an ironic twist, the void and despair brought by the pandemic have accelerated protests across the country and propelled people to the streets. Black people now must work out a lethal calculus: We must weigh the odds of contracting a deadly virus against the opportunity of standing up to another terror that could continue ravaging us for generations.
I don’t know what makes a sacrifice worthwhile. I don’t know what threshold of progress is worth the risks taken. But I know that the world is changing, and, for the first time in my life, the freedom of equality feels tangible. Movements to defund the police, which weren’t even on the fringe of the national conversation when Ahmaud was killed, have taken hold across the nation. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, is disbanding its police force and setting up a new system for ensuring public safety. Cities including New York and Los Angeles are reallocating law-enforcement funds to social services including housing support and mental healthcare. Atlanta police chief Erika Shields resigned after one of her officers, Garrett Rolfe, killed Rayshard Brooks. At least eight Atlanta officers, believing that Rolfe had the right to kill, quit after Rolfe was charged with murder. Protesters are forcing the world to imagine an antiracist America, where neither cops nor vigilante civilians are allowed to fire their weapons with impunity. Where Ahmaud Arbery can run in peace.
Mere moments before he died, Ahmaud ventured into an unfinished eggshell-white home on Satilla Drive. The security footage will be shown ad nauseam until the trial is over, because nothing paints a picture of a Black man deserving to die like seeing him on a black-and-white surveillance video. The video will point to the fact that Ahmaud appears to be trespassing, which means he was a Black man who technically broke the law. Never mind that the security camera also captured instances when white children and a white couple ventured inside that house. Never mind that nothing was ever taken from that house. Never mind that the owner of that house himself said he figured Ahmaud was stopping by for water on his run.
But if you watch the video without being burdened by your own racial prejudices, you might see what I see: a young man looking at a future he thought he’d be alive to achieve.
When I first got my driver’s license, I used to drive to a nice neighborhood in a suburb just north of my mom’s house in Jackson, Mississippi. I used to just sit in the neighborhood and imagine my life in one of those homes that I thought were mansions. They were houses occupied by families I imagined were happier, with dreams I imagined I could achieve.
That’s what houses represent in America: happiness. They represent the culmination of dreams this country promises us are possible. For Black folks, houses are ownership. Wealth. Security. Things we’ve been denied either by government-mandated restrictions like redlining or similarly nefarious denials of loans or jobs. When I moved to Atlanta in 2014, my wife and I would go to open houses for homes we knew we could never afford. We’d walk around, critiquing the layout, imagining what the place would look like with a pool or a guest house. Then we’d drive to the other side of town and talk about our dreams.
After we finally bought a place later that year—a recently built house in a suburb north of town, in a neighborhood that was adding new homes by the day—my wife would get together with some of the other women in the cul-de-sac and venture into the homes in progress. They’d go look at the layouts purely out of curiosity. Once, a buyer walked in on the group of women in his unfinished house. They all laughed about it. These makeshift open houses became a pastime until the neighborhood was complete.
Ahmaud stopped by an in-progress house on his run across town. He planned to be an electrician, and that eggshell–white house was at the point in its construction—the frame built, the studs exposed—when electrical wiring is installed. It offered a diagram, of sorts, to someone interested in the craft. A blueprint of its future.
I wonder if Ahmaud paused there to dream, to conjure up an image of himself installing wiring in homes like that eggshell–white house and maybe earning enough to have an eggshell–white house of his own. I wonder if he stood in that house imagining it full of cousins and aunts, his mom and dad.
I wonder if he left that house and continued on his run to his mother’s, eager to tell her about his future.
On the cover
Dr. Fahamu Pecou says of the painting he created for our August 2020 cover: “Ahmaud Arbery’s fateful last run has become an international rallying cry. Rather than his murder being a silencing act, Arbery’s death amplified the gross injustices towards Black people in American culture. His run has become a marathon. Not simply a pursuit of justice, but instead a revolution that will ultimately change laws and policing as we know it.”
In early June, we paused our daily coronavirus updates. However, we will continue to provide updates weekly. Here’s what you need to know right now.
• As of publication time, a total of 87,709 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Georgia. 2,849 people have died. 883,239 viral tests have been conducted, and 9.1 percent of those have been positive. A total of 11,500 of those tested were hospitalized at the time. [GA Dept. of Public Health]
• COVID-19 cases continue to surge statewide. Wednesday set a record of 2,946 new COVID-19 cases recorded, only to have that record smashed just 24 hours later with 3,472 new cases reported Thursday. And while deaths are not surging upward at the same accelerating rate, hospitalizations are on a steady upward trend, with 1,649 current patients reported on July 2. The AJC reports that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also noted on a conference call with city council that the virus continues to disproportionately impact Fulton County’s Black residents. According to the mayor, 45 percent of new Fulton cases have been in Atlanta, and 51 percent of those cases and 86 percent of the deaths have been among Black Atlantans. [AJC 1/AJC 2]
• Governor Brian Kemp signed a new executive order on Monday to extend the state’s public health emergency, which requires businesses to continue COVID-19 safety requirements through July 15 and gives Kemp the authority to issue more emergency restrictions through August 11. The elderly and those with underlying conditions, as well as residents of long-term care facilities, are instructed to shelter-in-place through July 15. [AJC]
• Governor Kemp has spent the past week on a fly-around tour all over the state, encouraging Georgians to wear masks, but has stood firm that he will not enact a mask statewide mask mandate. On Tuesday, Savannah’s Mayor Van Johnston signed an emergency order that requires people to wear face coverings when out in public in the city. The city is the first in Georgia to pass such a requirement, and many wondered if Kemp would try to block the order, as his statewide executive order prohibits cities and counties from implementing requirements that supersede the state’s. Kemp has not said yet one way or the other what he will do about Savannah’s bill, only saying, “I wouldn’t be able to speak about any state action, because I haven’t had time to really discuss the matter. But regardless of any legal action that may or may not happen, you shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing.” [AJC 1/AJC 2]
• U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited Gwinnett County on Thursday, where COVID-19 cases have been steadily rising since May. The county currently has more cases than any other in the state. Adams urged the public to wear masks, saying that “wearing a face covering or a mask is not a restriction of your freedom,” but according to the AJC, he “indicated he didn’t believe Kemp should implement a statewide mask mandate.” [AJC]
• However, experts at Emory are urging government leaders to implement mask mandates. During a Wednesday morning call, Emory Healthcare CEO Jonathan Lewin cited their own facilities as evidence that such mandates work: at first, Emory Healthcare encouraged its nonclinical workers to wear masks but didn’t require it—and COVID-19 cases spread as employees unknowingly transmitted the virus at work. “When we required masks, we saw our infection rates within our workforce plummet to near zero. That’s something that has scientifically has been shown around the country and the world,” Lewin said.
Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory epidemiologist and global health expert, said that the current surge in cases can be traced back to Memorial Day weekend and is likewise concerned about the Fourth of July holiday. “Going out with lots of people, in large gatherings, to watch the fireworks is not a good thing. I’m really concerned about this
holiday and what people do,” he said.
Both Del Rio and Lewin also underscored that wearing a mask supports the economy by preventing the spread of COVID-19. “I’ve been greatly troubled over the last few months where people say it’s either public health or economic recovery. That’s a false dichotomy. The more we can take care of public health, the more we’re keeping the economy in the right direction,” Lewin said. [Reporting by Atlanta contributor Michele Cohen Marill]
• As cases rise, there are some reports of longer lines at testing sites and delays in results, according to the AJC. While the state maintains there are still plenty of tests available statewide, Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest lab systems in the U.S., has said that it is experiencing “unprecedented” demand. Despite concerns, there are no statewide restrictions on who can get a test, unlike in the spring, and you do not have to be symptomatic to get tested. [AJC]
• A few prominent Atlantans have become ill with COVID-19—former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is currently hospitalized with the disease but is not on a respirator and is “resting comfortably,” according to a statement. Cain recently traveled to President Donald Trump’s June 20 campaign rally in Tulsa, where several campaign staffers tested positive for COVID-19, but a post on Cain’s website also said the 74-year-old could have contracted it from a recent visit to Arizona.
Former Democratic senate candidate Sarah Riggs Amico also posted a thread on Twitter this week about contracting COVID-19, describing how quickly her symptoms went from “mild and annoying” to the point where she could “barely stand.” She wrote, “While I’ve seen some improvement over the last two weeks, I’m far from well. I’m still coughing, exhausted & can’t taste anything (weirdest #COVID symptom), but I’m grateful my fever’s gone, body aches are improving & I’m quarantining at home.” She urged Georgians to wear masks. [CNN/Twitter]
• The Cobb County School District has pushed its opening date of August 3 back by two weeks to August 17. The superintendent says the delay is to give both parents, students, and teachers more time to prepare for the coming year. Fulton County Schools have also delayed their opening to August 17. [WSB-TV/AJC]
• Not that lighting fireworks has ever been a risk-free activity, but a word of warning as July 4th approaches—alcohol-based hand sanitizer is flammable. And if it has not fully dried and evaporated from your hands by the time you light a firework, well, that’s probably going to be bad news. Per the AJC, it can take 30 seconds for sanitizer to fully evaporate once applied. Experts advise washing hands with soap and water rather than using sanitizer before lighting fireworks or using a punk stick. [AJC]
• The Federal, Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere’s steakhouse in Midtown, has closed permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [Eater Atlanta]
• More restaurants have closed temporarily after employees tested positive for COVID-19, including Bread & Butterfly, Buttermilk Kitchen, and Grindhouse Killer Burgers. [Eater Atlanta]
• Zoo Atlanta is one of many local attractions that has re-opened with enhanced safety guidelines. Atlanta contributor Carly Cooper took her young children for a visit and found some of the new measures—such as the zoo’s one-way path and marked off spots for families to stand in front of exhibits—are better than before. Read her experience here.
It might seem overly ambitious to list a Cabbagetown loft with a galley kitchen and a single bedroom at $785,000—more than any other condo in the neighborhood has ever landed. But hear owner Brandon Sutton out.
The unit, in the historic Stacks lofts, includes the building’s 71-foot tower, which has become a symbol of the neighborhood and has been a fixture on the city’s skyline since it was built as the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in the 1880s. “It’s certainly unique in Atlanta,” Sutton says, “and I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find anything like it elsewhere.” Having lived in the so-called “tower loft” for 14 years, Sutton knows he’s got something one-of a-kind that oozes the history of Cabbagetown, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century mill village built alongside Oakland Cemetery. As well as witnessing decades of prosperous manufacturing, labor strikes, and post-World War II decline of the industry, the roughly 140-year-old red-brick walls survived a massive fire in 1999 and a tornado that slammed into the building in 2008.
Those red-brick walls are still there, exposed on every side of Sutton’s unit in the Stacks’s H Building. There, the entry opens up to the sleek galley kitchen, designed by Joel Kelly with maple cabinets, travertine countertops, and Miele appliances. The lone bedroom, with four original brick walls, offers passage to the lone bathroom, spa-like with a soaking tub, and more travertine and brick. But the living room delivers the real appeal to would-be buyers. Windows on three sides boast views south, toward Cabbagetown’s community of dollhouses; east, overlooking the rail depot at Hulsey Yard; and north, up toward Old Fourth Ward and parts of the downtown and Midtown skylines.
And then there’s the view upward from the living room, into the cavernous 71-foot tower. Two levels of thick, crisscrossed timber beams (once home to massive water tanks) crawl up the brick, still somewhat charred from the fire two decades ago, forming mammoth Tic-Tac-Toe boards. This is what Sutton has really put on the market: Not the tower itself, but its potential.
Sutton says a savvy buyer will see the promise in building up, which could boost the unit’s footprint by about 1,200 square feet and turn this single-floor, one-bedroom unit into a three-story dwelling outfitted with, perhaps, another bedroom and bathroom and a penthouse-level observatory. After all, at the top, the city is visible for a full 360 degrees, through enormous arched windows on all sides.
This isn’t the first time Sutton has put his place up for sale. In 2010, four years after he scored the condo for a cool $300,000 and some change, Sutton offered it for $589,000. “I put it on the market in the middle of the Great Recession, and I had plans to move out West and buy a sailboat and sail off into the sunset,” he says. “I knew it was outrageous, but I just put it out there.”
That effort didn’t pan out, and Sutton eventually started renting the space out to, among others, Hollywood professionals in town for movie and TV shoots. (He says actress Eiza González, who played a bank robber in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, was a delightful tenant.)
Just a few months ago, Sutton teased the idea of selling his condo yet again, publishing a post on Zillow’s “Make Me Move” platform that said he’d hand over the keys for $750,000. His phone began ringing almost immediately. He turned down two offers below his asking price.
Sutton officially listed the condo in April. He says he appreciates that putting the place on the market in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic guarantees a fickle process. “But I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life,” he says. “It’s time to move on—to make a bold move.” stacksloftstower.com
What’s the history of federal emergency management?
Until April 1, 1979, states hit by tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods often had to wait on Congress to pass ad hoc legislation or the president to pass an executive order to fund relief efforts. (The first was in 1803 after a fire extensively damaged a New Hampshire town.) Then, they had to work with dozens of federal agencies to shuttle supplies, fix roads, and repair the electric grid. After a series of high-profile disasters like Hurricane Camille, the second most-powerful recorded hurricane to hit the U.S., then President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a one-stop shop that would provide vital supplies, low-interest loans, and experts to states after disasters—and, after 9/11, terrorist attacks.
Can FEMA swoop in whenever it wants?
Only if a disaster—and the definition is relatively broad—occurs on federal property. Otherwise, a governor must request FEMA’s help. FEMA assesses the situation and makes a recommendation to the president. The president can declare an emergency and kickstart the process that provides financial aid, expertise, and relief supplies from its national network of warehouses, including one south of Atlanta that serves the surrounding region.
If we have FEMA, why do we also need a state emergency management agency?
There’s a common talking point in emergency management: The best emergency response is federally funded, state managed, and locally executed. Created in 1981, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency helps communities prepare for and respond to local disasters, like the April tornadoes that killed eight people. In Georgia, either the governor or mayors can declare emergencies.
GEMA has spent more than $110 million on orders of personal protective equipment to fight COVID-19.
How did the state-of-emergency process work for the COVID-19 pandemic?
On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a public-health emergency. The following day Governor Brian Kemp did the same and, by doing so, put GEMA in charge of the state’s response. The status gave Kemp the power to quarantine individuals (which he partially did on April 2, issuing a shelter-in-place directive), waive regulations such as limits on medication refills or out-of-state healthcare workers coming to Georgia, suspend restrictions on trucking to keep supply chains flowing, commandeer the National Guard to aid hospitals and testing facilities, and charge GEMA with acquiring and distributing medical supplies such as tests, ventilators, and personal protective equipment, both from national stockpiles and other sources such as companies and colleges. By late April, for example, GEMA had distributed more than 2.2 million N95 masks, 3.6 million surgical masks, 129 ventilators, and 24,635 test kits during the pandemic. At the same time, although testing officially had been opened to anyone with symptoms and the state had nearly doubled its number of tests per capita in two weeks, Georgia still ranked 37th among states for completed tests per 1,000 people.
Artists in other cities had just started to use outdoor spaces, such as drive-in movie theaters, to host drive-in concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic. After Keith Urban hosted a drive-in show in May for medical workers in Tennessee, Variety reported Live Nation’s plans to produce a series of concerts in the parking lots of its amphitheaters this summer. Leeks and Parks, who were previously behind 2 Chainz’s Pink Trap House and other marketing successes in the city, saw an opportunity in Atlanta and launched the Parking Lot Concert series.
Taking place at the Murphy Park Fairgrounds in Southwest Atlanta, the venue has space for 300 parked cars, and attendees can tune their radios to a specific station to listen to the live performance in front of them. Leeks and Parks said all four of the shows they’ve hosted so far with Atlanta-based artists—Schooly, Travis Porter, Young Dro, and Peewee Longway—have reached capacity. This weekend, they’ll host a July 4th show, “Home of the Brave: Atown Bash,” that features Crime Mob, Fabo, Kilo Ali, Pastor Troy, Dem Franchize Boyz, and more.
But despite the executive order, most of Atlanta’s concert venues are still deciding when and how they will reopen. While restaurants have relied on social media to update patrons on reopening plans, the profiles of many of Atlanta’s most prominent music venues have remained largely silent, save for posting black squares to support the Black Lives Matter movement and announcing streamed events. Most have not publicly commented on when fans will be able to attend live shows again.
When contacted for this story, Live Nation, the company that books most of the concerts at the Coca-Cola Roxy, the Buckhead Theatre and the Tabernacle, directed Atlanta to its list of concert updates in lieu of a statement. At the time of publication, there were no concerts scheduled until August 8, when Desi Banks is set to perform at Buckhead Theatre. Zero Mile, the company that books shows at Terminal West, Variety Playhouse, and the Georgia Theatre in Athens, also declined to comment on future reopening plans. All of the summer events on the company’s website are postponed or cancelled. Decatur staple Eddie’s Attic did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Fox Theatre said the venue hasn’t set a date to reopen yet, but it won’t be in July.
While the executive order is “a welcome step forward from the previous mandated closure,” Josh Antenucci, senior partner at Rival Entertainment, the company that operates Center Stage, the Loft, and Vinyl, says that social distancing guidelines still make it difficult for venues to reopen. “Until the distancing requirement is relaxed, there’s no practical and safe way to resume a business rooted in the practice of gathering people.” As such, Center Stage will remain closed, too.
Reopening venues is just one step in bringing back live performances. “It’s not just that the venues are closed,” Antenucci says. “In order for artists to ramp back up, they need to have a comfort level in their ability to do so safely and that all of the venues that they play will do so safely.”
Part of that equation—being able to host a show without fear of getting sued. A June article in Billboard examined the liability of venues and promoters in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak at one of their events. “I would have a very hard time telling my client that if you comply with what the government has said as to reopening, that you’re in the clear,” Kinsella Weitzman, Iser Kump & Aldisert partner, told the publication. “This is something that will be adjudicated with a lot of hindsight bias. It’s so difficult to predict what a court will say a year and a half from now.”
“There is no mistaking the fact that this [pandemic] is devastating for the live events industry,” Rival Enertainment’s Antenucci says. “It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that in order to operate in the new norm is going to be more expensive than in the past.” He noted that the “economic shift” will inevitably mean concerts will cost more for patrons and venues. Promoters and artists will also face an increased financial burden.
As traditional live music venues hold off on re-opening, the pivot to hosting concerts in parking lots allows artists who have been cut off from touring—a main source of revenue for musicians—to get on stage and connect with fans in a time of increased isolation. Still, some of these concerts have garnered critiques.
In a video shared on Twitter from Travis Porter’s Parking Lot Concert concert in June, a crowd of people are seen standing in front of the lot’s parked cars, as women twerk on car hoods to the rap group’s strip club anthem, “Bring it Back.” (Ahead of the Travis Porter concert, fans were able to purchase access to a “front row twerk section” for $15.) As with the Skooly listening party in May, few people in the video from the Travis Porter show are wearing masks.
And with cases surging in Georgia, some are concerned that these concerts, like dining inside restaurants or packing bars, are another example of the city’s recklessness during the pandemic.
Street Execs’ Leeks and Parks say they provide free masks to everyone who enters the parking lot. They also offer an option for attendees to order food from participating vendors and have it delivered to their car. On their website, they encourage people to stay in their cars during the concerts and to wear a mask in the event that they leave their vehicle.
Leeks said they plan to continue the series throughout the summer, hosting one concert every Saturday and eventually expanding into other genres outside of hip-hop.
“I’m not really worried about what’s going on indoors until I see the temperature of the American people [change],” he said. “I think parking lot and outside car concerts are here to stay.”
Kawan “KP The Great” Prather’s multi-hyphenated career in the music business all started with him simply asking questions. The Vine City native and founding member of the Dungeon Family’s P.A. became a well of industry knowledge for his group’s in-house production team, a then unknown trio calling themselves Organized Noize.
That same curiosity and interpersonal savvy led to LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid appointing Prather to the hit factory as its vice president of A&R in 1996, further allowing him to launch his own imprint, Ghet-O-Vision, which launched the careers of both T.I. and YoungBloodZ. Foregoing a college education at nearby Clark Atlanta University, the Tri-Cities High School grad ascended to various senior level roles at Columbia Records, Sony Urban, Def Jam, and Atlantic Records. Prather took home a Grammy in 2015 for his contributions on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and has spent the last five years as head of music for Pharrell’s company i am OTHER. Now based in Los Angeles, Prather recently hopped on the phone to chat about his storied career in the music business, making protest music, and other ventures to come.
How did your journey go from recording artist to successful music executive? Right after P.A. shot our debut video, “Lifeline,” for the CB4 soundtrack, I found out a bunch of stuff I just didn’t understand or didn’t make sense to me, and my questions were always behind the curtain. [Producer and former TLC manager] Pebbles would always tell me I talked like a manager sometimes, but I just wanted to understand so a manager wouldn’t tell me something I didn’t get. She told me I was doing another job people get paid to do at the record company [and] explained to me what an A&R was. I had a conversation with L.A. Reid; he [said] the same thing and offered me a job at LaFace doing it. On tour, I was meeting artists, producers, and directing them back to L.A. and Pebbles. L.A. started giving me a commission when he used my ideas or introductions. It started from there and got to a point I was the happenstance leader of our group. It started becoming a point where A&R was taking up more time. I’d be on the road on the bus in the backseat taking conference calls about OutKast and Usher as we’re going to do a show. I just had to make a decision. If I wanted to be great, I had to focus on one.
As more Black executives publicly share their experiences across industries, what’s been your experience at major record labels? There’s never been a place we’re fully accepted. We’re almost always an experiment. People value our actions, but not necessarily our thoughts, so they don’t think we think things through. They think “freestyle” means it doesn’t require thought when it’s based on all of our different experiences that we have muscle memory about. The first time I went up to a Sony boardroom and sat at the head end of the table, this executive introduced me and my credentials. He patted me on the head right before he introduced me and sat down. I slapped his hand loudly. He snatched his hand back, apologized, and tried to explain himself; I told him it felt like disrespect. When we came back in, I patted him on his head. From that moment on, we never had an issue.
What we have to do is communicate properly because there are cultural differences, but it’s on you to say what you will and won’t accept in that culture. It takes a strong sense of self to maintain that under all circumstances. The one time you let it slide, it becomes acceptable. A lot of time, you have to explain culture in our business because it’s a big part of our value and economic system.
How does it feel witnessing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” becoming among the definitive protest anthems of this generation? I was grateful to be able to have any part in that. It’s a joint effort: Pharrell started it, then me and my contribution, Kendrick put his perspective on it, and Sounwave added some production to it. But it shows people from different places working together on the same accord. All of us have a perspective, but we don’t have all the points. There’ll always be adversity, but if what we did can fuel inspiration and inspire somebody to do something to stand up for themselves, then I’m grateful to be able to be part of something that matters this much to people and connects.
What are your thoughts on activism and protests in and out of Atlanta? It inspires me because Atlanta is a city built on Black forward movement. I watched my son, who just turned 23, out there protesting on his birthday. The thread is still there; we understand that we’re not in the place where we need to be, but we continue to push and accelerate that push. There’s a different style of protests now because the younger generation is over it; it doesn’t make sense to them. They have enough information now to say something is stupid or wrong, and that’s inspiring. The music we made, whether it be Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” or Kendrick’s “Alright,” has helped to put the thought out there that there’s more we could be doing because this is our culture. I’m excited. Atlanta put that in me; “Alright” is Atlanta-influenced as well, so Atlanta influences everything in that way. We were influenced by Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy, and Hosea Wiliams: a bunch of different styles, but they were all Black, authentic, and for the people. I want to have a part in that legacy so that my kids can walk out and feel confident that they have a shot.
How does the social climate translate to your work as the head of music for i am OTHER? What Pharrell has, which I think a lot of people don’t, is a childlike honesty. I’m probably more outwardly militant, but his Blackness is very real. He is a student of people and culture; he pays attention to others. In the studio, I learned from him to pinpoint those moments that are authentic; that’s where the songs are. As a producer, he’s a sponge. He brings things back in a way that you weren’t thinking about. We just came from Virginia, where he was able to convince the governor of Virginia to make Juneteenth a state holiday. We’re all in this place where we’re just trying to use our influence and know-how to do what these kids are doing. At i am OTHER, we’re about cultural enhancement on top of music and art. We’re fully engaged and moving. It’s about being somewhere but not always letting everybody know where that is. What we do is not as flashy and can seem a little silent.
You recently curated Spotify’s official Father’s Day playlist. How did you get involved with that project? I make playlists a lot. There was a moment I realized the music I was listening to really wasn’t encouraging, so it made me think about the ‘you are what you eat’ theory but with music. A friend of mine at Spotify asked me if I would be down to curate a Father’s Day playlist. Most of my friends are fathers, even the ones that are in the music business, and we have conversations about this stuff. I thought I could put a playlist together based on these conversations we have that end up being songs or in songs. I started going through my memory of what lines do it for me like Andre 3000’s verse on Outkast’s “Return of the G.” It’s gems in these songs from fathers with morals. It made it that much more fun because I know the people, so I knew that the source of information is coming from a true place. The gems would resonate not just with fathers, but men looking for the information. And I got to put a song from my 23-year-old son on there as well. It’s a payoff for me.
What’s next for you? Prior to the shutdown, I started [doing] music supervision for film and TV. One is a TV show with Tracy Oliver on Amazon; another is a documentary on the Godfather of Harlem based on the ‘60s and revolution music. We’re doing a lot: co-writing a TV show with a friend. I moved out to Los Angeles to widen the scope a year-and-a-half ago. I’m in college right now. [laughs]