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Social justice and the Super Bowl: Two fatal police shootings of black men in Atlanta raise questions

America's most-watched sporting event should put a larger spotlight on recent police shootings in the host city, one attorney said.

As two families in Atlanta mourn the deaths of their sons — young black men believed to be unarmed when they were killed in separate police shootings this month — tens of thousands of football fans are converging on the city for festivities ahead of the Super Bowl.

The jarring juxtaposition isn't lost on the loved ones of Jimmy Atchison, an aspiring musician who will be laid to rest Thursday and whose death last week has stirred questions over the use of lethal force.

A week before Atchison was killed, 18-year-old D'ettrick Griffin died in another officer-involved shooting.

Tammie Featherstone, Atchison's aunt, said the police had put the case "on the back burner because of the Super Bowl" — which a spokesman for the department disputed, saying the shooting was still being investigated.

The family's attorney, Tanya Miller, said the backdrop of the nation's most-watched sporting event should magnify rather than distract from Atchison's killing and the need for a larger dialogue about community policing.

"It shouldn't be forgotten that the shooting happened just before the Super Bowl, at a time when people have been seeing football as a symbol of protest in light of Colin Kaepernick bringing attention to police brutality and injustice," Miller said.

The city of Atlanta is in an especially precarious position, activists say, given its history as the cradle of the civil rights movement in America and for decades lauded as the "Black Mecca of the South."

While the city has hosted the Super Bowl twice before, most recently in 2000, this latest championship comes at a fraught time for the league: The NFL, team owners and the players' union are at odds over how to deal with protesting players, particularly after President Donald Trump last year blasted the movement spawned by Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to highlight racial inequality and oppression.

In the months leading up to the Super Bowl, some black artists and musicians — including ones who would normally be a sure bet to headline the game's highly anticipated halftime show — refused any potential offers to perform.

Rapper and Atlanta native T.I. said on BET last summer that there remains a "violation of constitutional rights being implemented to minority players who choose to have a peaceful, silent protest."

The halftime entertainment for Sunday's game will be led by Maroon 5, and joined by Atlanta-based rapper Big Boi and Houston rapper Travis Scott, both of whom are black.

The show itself remains under wraps, although Super Bowl performances in the past have been politically charged, with Beyoncé in 2016 singing and dancing as a nod to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panthers and a call to action for black women and activists.

Scott's involvement this year has come under heavy criticism from the Rev. Al Sharpton and others, but the rapper said he would only perform if the NFL agreed to help donate $500,000 to a criminal justice reform group headed by activist Van Jones.

Another black Atlanta-based rapper and producer, Jermaine Dupri, who is hosting a five-night concert before the Super Bowl, told The Associated Press he wants people affected by police-involved deaths to be heard.

"I met with the families and parents who have been killed and murdered by police officers here," Dupri said. "I plan on having them come to my Super Bowl Live event and speak to the crowd, and tell their story about police brutality in the city and let people understand that I'm supporting them as much as possible."

On the day before the game, a coalition of civil rights groups also plans to rally a few miles to the north of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the game will be played, to highlight how the state of Georgia is still struggling with issues beyond policing that stem from the Jim Crow era and the legacy of slavery.

"The entirety of the system does not bend toward justice for all," said Richard Rose, the president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP.

The branch has called for a meeting with the city and police department over Atchison's shooting.

Local police and federal agents were serving a warrant on Atchison, 21, for armed robbery, tracking him to an apartment complex on the morning of Jan. 22, reported NBC affiliate WXIA.

He led police on a chase through the building, an FBI spokesman said, and jumped out of a window and down a couple of floors before going into another apartment building "where the suspect was shot."

Image: Jimmy Atchison, 21, of Atlanta was killed in a police-involved shooting on Jan. 22, 2019.
Jimmy Atchison, 21, of Atlanta was killed in a police-involved shooting on Jan. 22, 2019.Courtesy of the Atchison Family

Miller said the family is awaiting an autopsy report, but they believe he may have been shot once in the face.

They also contend he was first hiding in a closet unarmed, and was not confrontational when he ran away.

A spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department, Carlos Campos, said in an email that the officer involved in the shooting was acting as part of a federal task force, and referred questions about whether Atchison was armed to the FBI. An agency spokesman declined to comment, citing the open investigation.

Campos said the officer involved has been relieved of his duty, "and will no longer be working in his role as a police officer at least until the results of the investigation are known." The officer has not been identified.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields also spoke with the local NAACP about her commitment to transparency as the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation continue their review, Campos said.

"During their conversation, Chief Shields expressed her sympathies to the Atchison family for their profound loss," Campos said.

Miller, however, said the circumstances surrounding the initial warrant remain murky, and the family has yet to get a complete picture of why a task force was needed to serve him and why an officer ultimately pulled the trigger.

"We want to know why he died and what happened," Featherstone said. "We would like to know why he was shot if he was unarmed. We just want justice."

The death of Atchison, a father of two young children, follows the fatal shooting in southwest Atlanta of Griffin, who authorities say was trying to steal a car at a gas station that actually belonged to an off-duty officer.

The officer opened fire multiple times as Griffin drove away, state police said. The case was turned over to the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, although state police said there was no evidence that Griffin was armed, reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rose, of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, said the latest shootings shouldn't be overshadowed by the Super Bowl. While he wants no part of the game because of the way black players have been treated, the event does lend itself for people to protest and to being seen, he added — particularly for those players and musical artists who will have the eyes of the nation on them.

"This is an opportunity to speak out against injustice," Rose said.