The call came into the Atlanta Police Department’s 911 center around 10:30 p.m. on June 12: A man had fallen asleep while parked in the drive-thru of the Wendy’s on University Avenue. Police roused Rayshard Brooks, the 27-year-old father of three young girls, and gave him a sobriety test, which he failed. Officer Garrett Rolfe tried to handcuff him. Brooks resisted, grabbed Rolfe’s Taser, and ran. Rolfe shot him twice in the back.
Roughly three miles away, at Centennial Olympic Park, protesters who’d spent weeks expressing their outrage over the death of George Floyd heard about the shooting of Brooks. By the end of the night, people started gathering at the Wendy’s. Twenty-four hours after Brooks died, as the crowd gained strength, at least one of the protesters set the Wendy’s on fire.
Over 23 days, the site of the fast-food restaurant became a rallying place, activist encampment, and ad hoc community resource center, providing tents and meals for the homeless and supplies to protesters and mourners. Nearby business owners, concerned about vandalism and looting, boarded up their windows and shut their doors. Hundreds of officers, exhausted from the nonstop protests downtown, watched over and clashed with protesters. Politicians paid visits and tried to broker a compromise.
I visited the Wendy’s several times in those weeks. On the first night, I found protesters linking arms and staring down police; they had shut down the exits on the nearby Downtown Connector and blocked southbound traffic. The occupation that followed included nearby residents, predominantly peaceful activists, and a smaller, violent faction that brought a tragic end to the effort. On the night of July 4, someone opened fire on a car turning around near the Wendy’s, killing eight-year-old Secoriea Turner, who was sitting in the back seat.
On one of my last visits—the night after Secoriea died—I parked on the other side of the Connector and made my way to the Wendy’s on foot. As soon as I reached the property, I was stopped by two occupiers, one armed with a rifle, and was told to leave. Protesters were forced out by police soon after, and within days, demolition crews razed the Wendy’s, leaving behind only a concrete slab.
In an attempt to better understand the many perspectives that collided at this site, I asked four people to share their recollections of what unfolded between the deaths of Rayshard Brooks and Secoriea Turner. The stories that follow—from a gas-station manager, a councilwoman, a protester, and a police officer—also express hope for what will happen going forward, both at the site itself and in a wounded city.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
LARRY: The gas-station manager
(not his real name)
Larry is the supervising manager of the BP next to the Wendy’s; he was interviewed at the store on July 15.
I manage two stores for the owner, this one and one a few miles away. When the owner opened this location a year ago, I told him I like that area. The people are very happy. I like all the customers, the people who live in the neighborhood. It’s a nice area. But now, it’s a very bad situation.
The night of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks, the cashier called and said there was an incident. Another manager was there, and he said people already had begun gathering. The day after the shooting, I came to work, and people were protesting. They had signs. They were chanting. I went home. That night, more people came, and the protest grew.
One of my employees that day said he didn’t feel safe, and he quit. He got scared. I was trying to get there. The [other employees working that shift] called me and said they wanted to leave. They had already locked the doors. I arrived and told them to go home. I stayed here all night. My cashier said to the police officer, Please help me get to my car a few miles away. They would not help.
After the fire, my regular customers were telling us, This is not from us. I don’t know where the people came from, but the customers are scared, saying they don’t want to come to the store. We still don’t have business. It used to get very busy in the store. Right now, no one wants to come over here.
The protesters were outside. We had shut down the store and they wanted to come inside to buy stuff. We decided to just give them free bottled water.
Everybody has a right to protest. But you can’t hurt somebody else. We’ve been in business over here for a year. When they broke our window, I said, Please don’t do it. We don’t have any fault. A lot of people didn’t listen.
My cashier called me and said they’re starting with gunshots, fighting outside. They called and said someone got hit, someone got killed. After [the death of eight-year-old Secoriea Turner], we got security. Two of my employees have left. I used to have five. It’s been hard to find people to fill the positions. After they hear the name of the street, they don’t show up.
It’s changed Atlanta. People are talking like Atlanta is not safe anymore. But this is not from us. In this community, you know everyone. I think many people came from other states or counties to protest.
The area is still good. I believe it’s going to be a couple more weeks, and then, it will be normal.
COUNCILWOMAN JOYCE SHEPERD: The politician
Sheperd represents Atlanta City Council district 12, which includes the stretch of University Avenue where Rayshard Brooks was killed and where protesters gathered, as well as several surrounding neighborhoods.
There wasn’t any reason for Mr. Brooks to have been killed. Looking at the videos, he wasn’t trying to be confrontational. He was doing everything the police asked. They could have said, Mr. Brooks, how far do you live from here? Can we call your family? You seem to be intoxicated. He didn’t do anything that should’ve caused them to be aggressive with him. He made a bad decision when he resisted as they put the handcuffs on. But again, I don’t believe it had to go to that point.
I went to the Wendy’s literally the next day to do an assessment of what was going on. People there were protesting; they were hurt. I was hurt. I visited regularly until I went out of town over the Fourth of July weekend. There were people who were peaceful; there were people who were mad. I listened. I got into dialogues and debates. There were philosophical differences in terms of what the police should do.
When the police officers came, people saw the police as the enemy. They would say, Why you got all these white police officers out there? I talked to the police department and said, Don’t have white police officers in the front position at this point.
People would be in my face arguing and saying what they think needs to happen. I said, So, you live in the community? And they said, I’m from Washington, D.C. I’m from New York. I’m from Sandy Springs. I’m from College Park. So, you don’t live in the community? Well, we are part of this movement. The majority of people said they didn’t live in the community. When things are over, I thought, they are gonna be gone. And the real people of the community will be left with what happens out here.
I began to organize the residents of the neighborhoods that actually touched that Wendy’s. The first meeting was at a church down the street. The biggest factor that the neighborhood was concerned about were the streets being barricaded. There was this group of people who literally were stopping traffic. They were attacking cars, doing crazy stuff. It was ridiculous.
At night, it shifted. I wouldn’t go out there at night. There was a whole different element of people. A lot of people in the community thought that some of the people out there were actually infiltrators. And it got to a point where you could feel the energy between the two.
I met this woman out there they called Lady A, Ashley Brooks. She says she was Rayshard Brooks’s sister. Ms. Brooks was a leader. I talked with Ms. Brooks and her group of people, and she said how hurt she was over her brother being killed. She wanted to make the Wendy’s into a Peace Center. She had a cadre of young men out there who were basically saying that we’re here to protect this Wendy’s, and we’re not a negative element—we’re not that element [the one that was barricading the street]. We’re out here to make sure that there’s no more craziness.
I explained I was working with the mayor’s office to relay their concerns. We listened to them. And we talked about the fact that at some point you may have to leave here. This property is not yours to just take.
Wendy’s said one of the things they wanted to do was take care of the site. It had become a public safety problem. It was a liability. We came back [to the protesters] as a committee and let them know: At some point, [access to the Wendy’s] is gonna have to be cut off. They were adamant. They were saying, We’re not leaving. There were a couple of them out there with guns. Communication with Brooks and our group broke down on June 25.
The mayor’s office and the police were trying be sensitive; they didn’t want to get like Rambo and just move stuff out, because that would escalate things. I said, I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen at this point. Coming up to the Fourth of July weekend someone barricaded the street. Then, the Fourth of July night, Secoriea Turner got killed.
I was in shock. As soon as I got the call that night, I advised the mayor and police that the streets should be cleared. This has gone to the end. I’m through. I’m done. A young girl got killed out here. This changed all the dynamics. All bets are off. This is over.
“You can’t keep begging these people for humanity when they are literally paid to stop seeing yours.”
EVA DICKERSON: The activist
Dickerson is part of a collective of organizers called the People’s Response, a mutual aid network that was assisting Atlantans in the time of COVID-19. After the killing of George Floyd, the group transitioned its efforts from COVID response to protest response.
On Juneteenth, we went to the Wendy’s to pass out protest kits: PPE, helmets, gas masks, first-aid kits, phone numbers for jail support. We realized people were taking to the streets not knowing that they will be confronted with a fully militarized police force.
Once we were there [at Wendy’s], we learned protesters had occupied the space and turned it into an autonomous zone. We also have connections to and are inspired by the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle. We realized that instead of making our own occupation, we should just support [the protesters already occupying the Wendy’s]. So, from Juneteenth (June 19) to July 4, we brought resources, taught organizers and activists how to successfully do an occupation, and tried to get the message out that this site is now the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center.
People brought beauty to that space that otherwise would have sat as an ugly monument to anti-Blackness. These people were transforming a site of immense community harm and violence into something that would bring solutions and joy to not only that community but the community surrounding it, for a long time. In the world we were creating at the Wendy’s, there were people talking about what they want the Peace Center to look like and what communities they want to serve in. We wanted to outfit them to not only hold the space but to resist the space from possible demolition by APD. We had installed the garden. We were installing housing, showers. We were building out a system for responsibly disposing of waste. We were in the process of building a Peace Center in real time. It felt right at the cusp of it transforming into something that could be maintained for a long time. Then, tragedy struck.
[Someone in a group of occupiers unrelated to Dickerson’s group shot at the car carrying Secoriea Turner on the night of July 4, killing her. The following day, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered that the Wendy’s site be cleared of protesters, and APD officers removed them and the tribute they had built to Brooks.]
The day they demolished it, cops were laughing and smirking as they were destroying an altar. I keep praying and hoping that APD will tap into their humanity and their compassion. I’m sitting here, crying. Who destroys an altar? The same people who busted into an old woman’s home and killed her. The same people who destroy homeless encampments across the city. The same people who terrorize trans sex workers. You can’t keep begging these people for humanity when they are literally paid to stop seeing yours.
The misperception that really hurt me was when someone on my Facebook page wrote: “Why would you burn down the Wendy’s? It’s creating jobs in this community.” It’s this idea that the people who are at the bottom of our society—and who intentionally are at the bottom of our society, it’s not by mistake—should just be okay with being at the bottom. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. People are losing their housing at record rates. And you’re worried about a Wendy’s because it creates minimum-wage jobs?
What remains brilliant and critical about this moment is that these protests fall within a legacy in Atlanta of resistance. And I’m not talking about “Atlanta has an all-Black City Council” or “Atlanta is a Black Mecca.” Atlanta has been a city that is rooted in Black resistance. Trap music is resistance—it’s a form of protest. Atlanta is known for its protests. Atlanta is known for being a vanguard of the South, which means that we as people who are in the streets right now have the responsibility to continue the momentum of this moment and take the energy from the streets and plug it into a broad, activated political base.
SGT. C.J. MURPHY: The police officer
Sgt. Murphy works in APD’s civil disturbance unit, which is trained to respond to protests and civil unrest.
We had been working protests throughout the city, working 12- to 14-hour days since Friday (June 5) at Centennial Olympic Park and Marietta Street. We were exhausted. We had been standing on the front line for hours. We witnessed one of our officers get run over by an ATV. To understand all the mental stress that we were going through, you have to take into account everything that happened that week.
The night Wendy’s caught fire (June 13), we got the call. And it was very chaotic at first. We were deployed to the highway, because protesters had climbed up onto I-75. And then from the highway, we went to the Wendy’s.
A lot of my guys were hurting not only physically but mentally. We felt terrible for our city. We felt terrible for the people that we swear an oath to protect. As someone from Atlanta and especially as a Black officer, I’m here to help my community move forward—we’re Black before we’re blue. There were so many mixed emotions.
When people are screaming at you, there is only so much communication
that you can do. For safety reasons, when we’re on the front line, it’s best for us to keep our focus on the crowd. We’re always looking, watching if there’s something being thrown at us. There could be fireworks to make us think it could be gunshots. When someone is like, Why are you doing this? How can you be Black and wear that uniform? Why aren’t you over here with us?, I will say, Well, do you want to have a conversation? And if they reply yes, I would take a position where I was able to talk, and a lot of my guys would surround me so I could take my helmet off for a moment.
Why do I do this? I do it because I love my city. A lot of times, people think being a police officer is just a job. It’s not. It’s a calling. I have a degree. I have a business background. I could leave if I really wanted to. It’s not about money or power. It’s about making a difference—and when we’re able to have those conversations, that’s when you can see the difference.
When people started to throw things at us, the ones that we had talked to started to protect us. They started kicking the fireworks away from us. There was one particular male who was just livid, screaming at me, and protesters stepped in front, like No, no, not her. That’s because we had that conversation.
After the first night at Wendy’s, when we got back to where we were stationed at, it was bad. The officers were losing it. We wanted to be able to do what we were taught to do. We want to be able to help. But we just felt helpless, like there was nothing that we could do to help calm the city or to express how we felt. Some citizens actually stopped and started speaking to us, and I think they could see the frustration in our face. And that gave me a little glimpse of hope.
I started receiving text messages and phone calls from all over the country from people I know, whether from my different roles at APD or just on a personal level. Just checking and making sure, are you all right? We appreciate the things that you do. And we need that. The officers right now need a morale boost, because they’re tired.
Honestly, I feel responsible for everything. I feel responsible when my officers are sad. I feel responsible when crime happens and I’m not there. We want to be the superheroes, these gatekeepers of the city. So, when I got the text message that a child had been shot [near the Wendy’s protest], I was livid. I wanted to suit up. I texted my lieutenant and said, Can I go? Let’s go. But we’ve got to be smart—because if you react with a large amount of force and with innocent people around, bad things can happen. So, the powers that be had to make a decision on how to go in and get the people that were armed and causing the trouble out of the area.
I had attended some training at the King Center and met one of the Black Lives Matter leaders, and I developed a rapport with her. She’s a photographer. I was out there on the front lines at Wendy’s. She came over to me, shook my hand, and said, Hey, are you okay? I said, Yes, you okay? And everybody stopped and looked at us, because they knew who she was. You can see who I am because of my uniform. With that exchange, we understood where and what role we played, but we still respected each other’s opinions and feelings. We want to be that change.
This article appears in our September 2020 issue.