Protestors gather at Confederate monument in downtown Athens during a protest June 2.

Protestors gather at Confederate monument in downtown Athens during a protest June 2.

The majority of Athens-Clarke County residents have expressed outrage at the use of force used against protesters on Sunday night.

The demonstrations remained peaceful until around 11:50 p.m., when a drone flew over the crowd threatening arrest of the remaining protesters for “unlawful assembly.” This came after a 9 p.m. curfew was set, though people weren’t notified until around 9:45 p.m.

Just over 150 protesters were dispersed as the Athens-Clarke County Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber bullets around midnight. According to an official memo from ACCPD Chief Cleveland Spruill Jr. sent to Assistant County Manager Deborah Lonon, 19 citizens were arrested that evening.     

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz remained silent on the issue until late Monday evening, although attending the protest in solidarity on Sunday. In a video released by the Mayor, Girtz explained how “very strong intelligence” of dangerous elements downtown had led ACCPD to use force against the protesters, urging the necessity for safety.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

“While I have some understanding from my academic work about the nature of the police and criminal justice system broadly, I'm not an expert in tactical deployment of resources by police departments,” Girtz said. “The chief made the decision to use tear gas as a non-lethal ability to disperse the last few folks who were there downtown.”

He continued, responding to some of the backlash local government received on behalf of this decision.

“I'm looking forward to all the real work and dedication that we're going to give to making sure that we have a better police department and a better criminal justice system broadly than we do right now,” Girtz said. “We need your assistance and your engagement to make that happen. So, I look forward to all working together in the days and weeks ahead.”

There was only one incidence of vandalism that occurred during this time frame — a monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers was spray painted with George Floyd’s name among other slogans. Following statements made at a virtual Mayor and Commission meeting on Tuesday night, potential plans to move the monument are underway.

“I’m directing the county attorney's office tonight to develop the most effective plan or movement of the Confederate Memorial on Broad Street,” Girtz said. “I've rented a crane before … That's easy to do. I think it's time we do that.”

Protesters have been gathering at the monument every day since Sunday, and will continue to do so until Saturday, when another larger protest is being organized by local activist organization, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. This location has historically attracted protests and other displays of activism — right across from the University of Georgia arch and in the middle of a busy downtown street, conversations regarding the monument’s removal have gone on for years.

But this is the first time the Mayor and Commission have acted on these recommendations. While applauding local protesters, District 7 Commissioner Russel Edwards stated his concerns regarding the monument.

“I support the mayor that that monument has got to come down immediately, and I appreciate the legal team looking at it,” Edwards said. “But quite honestly, that monument poses an extreme threat to the stability of this community… I want a crane out there tomorrow or the next day.”

Other commissioners voiced similar support. District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker, who helped in part to organize the protest on Sunday, publicly recognized the “harm” done by local law enforcement to protesters. Parker also mentioned her proposed 10-year-plan to replace half of ACCPD officers with mental health and crisis intervention professionals.

“I think due to the current political and cultural climate and unrest, the preservations and protection of the Confederate memorial currently sitting there between Broad and College is in jeopardy and cannot be ensured,” said District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson. “We should have it removed immediately and placed in storage until an appropriate place and time is found.”

In April 2019, Georgia Senate Bill 77 took effect placing extra protections on Confederate monuments. In addition to making vandalism or mutilation of historic monuments illegal, this law also prevents removal, relocation, concealment, alteration of publicly or privately-owned monuments , “unless such person or entity was authorized to take such action by the public entity owning such monument.”

The bill passed with additional specific references to monuments dedicated to “the military service of any past or present military personnel of this state … or the Confederate States of America or the several states thereof.”

Protester's gather at the memorial to Confederate war dead in downtown Athens on June 2.

Protester's gather at the memorial to Confederate war dead in downtown Athens on June 2.