Customers at the Wendy’s on University Avenue in southwest Atlanta last Friday night got an unexpected side with their burgers; they witnessed an arrest gone awry that led to police shooting 27 year old Rayshard Brooks. But that incident was just the beginning of a terrible weekend. People protesting the event gathered the next evening on the interstate adjacent to the Wendy’s temporarily shutting down the I-75 in both directions. Then the Wendy’s was torched and burned to the ground adding new meaning to the idea of a flame-grilled burger. Forget asking where’s the beef. We need to know what’s the beef for these current events.
This sad chain of events began around 10:30 p.m. Friday night. Atlanta police received a call from a Wendy’s employee reporting a customer had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through lane. The vehicle was blocking traffic and causing customers to have to drive around him to get to the pickup window. Actually, I’m surprised that police had to be called. Weren’t those people in the drive through line behind Brooks hangry? Certainly one of them had to think about getting out of their vehicle and knocking on the window to rouse the weary fast food patron.
Responding to the call from Wendy’s, Officer Devin Bronsan showed up at the scene. After interacting with Brooks, he called for backup. Officer Garret Rolfe, a six year police veteran, subsequently joined Bronsan. Video released by the police show the officers talking with Brooks for 27 minutes before trying to arrest him after he failed a field sobriety test. While Brooks cooperated with the sobriety test, he balked at being handcuffed and tried to bolt. A struggle ensued in which Brooks punched Officer Rolfe; in a shocking development (pun intended), he also wrestled a Taser from one of the officers.
Breaking free, Brooks took off running. As he hoofed it, he turned and pointed the Taser at the pursuing police officer. In reaction, Officer Rolfe pulled his gun and fired at Brooks right there in the Wendy’s parking lot. Brooks suffered two gunshot wounds to his back because of course he was running away from the officer attempting to arrest him. The injured Brooks was taken to the hospital where he was later pronounced dead after undergoing surgery.
Medically, Brooks’ death resulted from blood loss and organ injuries from two gunshot wounds. In the big picture, though, his death resulted from some poor decisions made by all involved. Mr. Brooks should never have been behind the wheel of a car while inebriated. To compound the problem, he resisted arrest and punched a police officer; hitting someone is not nice whether or not they are a LEO. Finally Brooks grabbed one of the officer’s Tasers and aimed it at Officer Rolfe. After having punched and wrestled a Taser from an officer, the police could reasonably have assumed Brooks meant them harm. Um, more harm that is.
Now comes the poor decision making on the part of the police. A Taser, while it can deliver a painful blast, isn’t considered a lethal weapon. So why respond with pulling a lethal weapon and taking shots at the Taser holder? The officer was in a parking lot. He could have dashed behind a car or taken evasive action to avoid a Taser hit. But, he only had a split second to make a decision. And the decision he made resulted in Brooks’ death, a result many claim was from an unjustified use of deadly force.
According to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, this death was a homicide from gunshot wounds to the back. Officer Rolfe was fired within 24 hours of the shooting and is facing felony murder charges. His fellow responding officer has been placed on administrative leave and is facing aggravated assault and other charges. Doesn’t look like a good outcome for anyone, does it? But wait! There’s more!
Brooks’ death was met with outrage and protests. So, not only was Wendy’s the place to be Friday night (or not), it was the place to be the following night as well. Only folks weren’t there for a burger or to snooze in the drive-through lane. They wanted to express their concern about police brutality. Unfortunately, that expression was not limited to shouting, waving placards, and crying. Protesters wanted to do more, so they swarmed onto the adjacent interstate via the University Avenue exit and shut down I-75 in both directions for a few hours. I grew up in Atlanta, so I know how horrible traffic can be there any time of day or night. And that’s before protesters appear to impede traffic.
The demonstrators locked arms on the interstate and faced off with the police. A CNN crew covering the scene was attacked by protesters. Not only was the news crew on the scene, they were in it. Police used tear gas to break up the demonstration. Some protesters were arrested on the scene prior to one lane on the interstate re-opening; by midnight, 36 protesters had been arrested.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er Wendy’s, disgruntled protesters turned violent late Saturday night. They broke the windows of the fast food restaurant and threw fireworks inside setting it ablaze. Yeah! That’ll teach Wendy’s to have a drive-through open in the evening that someone might fall asleep sitting in.
Although firefighters were summoned, it took them over an hour to get to the scene because of the swarm of protesters, an estimated 1,000 or so. In the meantime, the blaze grew. Police had to clear a path for the firefighters using tear gas. The fire burned until Sunday morning reducing Wendy’s to rubble and any meat stored therein to charred hockey pucks.
The Wendy’s fire will go down in history as another sad time for Georgia’s state capital, fondly known as Hotlanta. The fast food blaze may not be as famous as General Sherman’s burning of the city, but it does have an air of mystery. Videos from the scene show an unidentified masked light-skinned woman in a black baseball cap (team not identified–Go Braves??) somehow connected to the flames. A $10,000 reward has been offered by the Atlanta P.D. for information about the fire. That amount will allow the recipient to buy a lot of burgers if he is brave enough to venture to a Wendy’s that is still standing.
The events which unfolded at and around Wendy’s over the weekend can be described as hot and cold. They are a hot and juicy story for the media. But their consequences are a frosty (the adjective not the Wendy’s treat) relationship between the police and black citizens. Legitimate beefs have been raised by protesters, but taking out the fast food establishment which was merely the scene of the crime doesn’t solve the problem. Maybe everyone should take a breath and calmly discuss how to move forward over a delicious Wendy’s burger with a side of tolerance.
Does being engaged in a protest give a protester carte blanche to destroy property and interfere with the activities of others? How can the use of excessive force by the police be curtailed or at least diminished? Is timing everything, i.e., would the response to Brooks’ shooting have been so intense if it had not come on the heels of the death of George Floyd?