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Atlanta residents struggle to heal amid pain and power of protests

“The pepper spray is terrible; it hurts. But I was glad I was there. I wouldn’t take any part of it back," said 17-year-old Jordan Sims.
Image: Atlanta Protest Held In Response To Police Custody Death Of Minneapolis Man George Floyd
People protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd outside the CNN Center on May 29, 2020 in Atlanta.Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

ATLANTA — Before a crowd of protesters created chaos in this city that embodies African American achievement, Dan and Traci Sims had a double dose of anxiety: Their hometown was under siege and their teenage son would be smack in the middle of it.

Concerned, they drove to the Centennial Olympic Park, where Jordan, 17, had gone Friday to participate in the volatile demonstration against the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis last week.

“We allowed him to go down there on his own after we had a great talk the night before,” Dan Sims, the associate superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, said. “I was really impressed that he wanted to go. But the fatherly instincts kicked in and we decided to go down there.”

When they arrived, they tried to reach Jordan on his cellphone with no success. On the seventh attempt, Jordan answered ... not long after he had been pepper-sprayed in the face.

Jordan Sims, 17, right, with Zion Strickland, 17, was so inspired by the protest that he started an advocacy group for teenagers.Courtesy Jordan Sims

“I was on the front line,” Jordan told NBC News. “The police officers got agitated and started pushing us back. And it turned into chaos and someone pulled out the pepper spray and got me.

“The pepper spray is terrible, it hurts,” he continued. ”But I was glad I was there. I wouldn’t take any part of it back. I wanted to show I care and send the message that we’re sick and tired of being treated as we are. We want to be treated better. We should be treated better.”

The father had a message for his son. “Once he regained his vision,” Dan Sims said, “I looked at him and told him: ‘Welcome to the struggle.’ I regret he had to endure that pain. But at the end of the day, it was something gratifying.”

By the time the Sims returned home, their instincts, unfortunately, proved correct. A group of bad actors had initiated disorder in the city, which provided the backdrop for several scenes of “Wakanda,” the mythical African city — where all is black and beautiful — in the blockbuster film “Black Panther.”

The city known as a black Mecca was showing a side of itself that it did not want exposed. Knives and bottles were thrown at police officers, police cars were set on fire, buildings were damaged. It was an ugly display, like many across the country, but one not expected in the place with the motto: “The city too busy to hate.”

A firework explodes near a police line during a protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Atlanta.Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

For sure, Atlanta has blossomed from being the birthplace of the civil rights movement and the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an Olympic city and a revered haven of progression in the Deep South. It is layered with an abundance of highly educated black professionals, executives and political leaders, entrepreneurs and entertainment stalwarts.

The rapper T.I., a native, said during a press conference last week: “Atlanta is the place where. . . people like me. . . and others who come from our culture rise up from the wreckage of the struggle that we all experience just by being born a certain color in this country. Atlanta is a place where we set an example of prosperity.

“When you don’t get treated right in New York, when you can’t get treated right in L.A., when you can’t get treated right in Detroit, when you don’t get treated right in St. Louis, when you don’t get treated right in Alabama, Atlanta has been here for us,” he said.

“We can’t do this here. This is Wakanda. It’s sacred. It must be protected.”

The rapper, entrepreneur and activist Killer Mike agreed, fighting back tears. “This city’s cut different,” he said during the same press conference. “Atlanta’s not perfect, but we’re a lot better than we ever were, and a lot better than cities are. ... We have to be better than this moment. If we lose Atlanta, what else do we got?”

“It is your duty to not burn your own house down for anger with an enemy,” he added. “After it burns, will we be left with char or will we rise like a phoenix out of the ashes like Atlanta has always done? Will we use this as a moment to say we will not do what other cities have done and use it to be better than we have been?”

His emotions were similar to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’, who initially seemed stunned by the eruption and then infuriated.

" I called my son and I said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'I cannot protect you, and black boys shouldn't be out today.'" —Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

“This is not us,” Bottoms said during an impassioned plea not seen during her reign as the leader of the city. In her fury, she let loose in a fashion that told of her down-home Atlanta roots during a press conference as the ruckus happened Friday night.

"I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old,” she started, her voice stern as it rose. “And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. And when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do, I called my son and I said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'I cannot protect you, and black boys shouldn't be out today.'"

She paused.

"...I wear this each and every day, and I pray over my children, each and every day," she said.

Her anger building, she later said: “If you want change in America, go and register to vote! Show up at the polls on June 9. Do it in November. That is the change we need in this country. You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country.”

Police officers are seen during a protest over the Minneapolis death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 29, 2020 in Atlanta.Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

There was no way to quantify the impact of Bottoms’ and others’ admonishments, including that from filmmaker Tyler Perry, but Atlanta went the rest of the weekend with continued protests but little of the disturbing unrest of Friday.

Indeed, residents rose early to clean up the tarnished area downtown around the CNN Center.

“That was Atlanta, helping to restore order,” Joseph Hill, a diversity and inclusion consultant who participated in the cleanup, said. “It hurt me to see the damage that was done. But it heartened me that people came together to begin the process of putting it back together. I saw two young brothers cleaning up and that made me park my car to help them. Seeing them moved me.

“Atlanta is not perfect. There are income inequalities we have to fix. But this is a unique city in that the black political structure is strong and entrenched. Black entrepreneurship is stronger than anywhere else. The entertainment industry is strong. Great, historically black colleges are here. So, to see Friday happen, it didn’t feel right for what Atlanta is.”

Bottoms is all about Atlanta. Born and raised in the city, she served as a judge and seems to have a unique connection with the masses. Killer Mike said Bottoms “acted like a black momma” when she emphatically insisted that rowdy protesters must “go home.”

She has been lauded nationally for her strategic leadership and been mentioned as a potential vice presidential choice for the apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Jordan, the teen who was pepper-sprayed, supports Bottoms’ position on protecting Atlanta and said he has been inspired by his experience in his town.

“I’m Malcolm X more than I am Martin Luther King,” he said. “I studied their philosophies. But I don’t agree with tearing down our own. Atlanta is a chocolate city. I saw a picture of a statue at the Civil Rights Museum (defaced). That’s not helping anyone.”

To help, he has created an organization called Teenagers Looking For Change, which he said will “100 percent peacefully march” in Atlanta this week.

“It’s time for action,” Jordan said. “It’s time for change.”