Thousands gathered Friday evening in downtown Atlanta for the NAACP “March for Justice,” in response to the fatal shootings earlier this week of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota by police officers.
The protesters began the march at 6 p.m. at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Centennial Olympic Park. They spanned city blocks, stopping traffic. Some rush-hour drivers who got caught in the march rolled down their car windows and raised their fists in solidarity.
“If at this point, if you’re not angry, it’s because you’re not paying attention,” said marcher Sauncera Gibs, over the chants of “black lives matter” from the protesters.
James Dorsey was there marching with his wife and his sister. He says they were active in the Civil Rights Movement.
“We’re just glad to see the young people waking up,” he said. “You know, it seems like they slept for a while.”
His sister, Hattie Dorsey, said, “There was a generation skip.”
“Equal rights, it’s not something that’s going to be automatic, especially to a certain population,” she said. “We don’t need black men dying needlessly, and so this is why we’re marching, is just to join in with all the other voices.”
The deaths of Philando Castile on Wednesday and Alton Sterling on Tuesday have resulted in similar marches and protests across the country. Thursday night, a protest in Dallas ended with a sniper attack against police officers that killed five officers and wounded nine others, including two civilians.
Pastor Caron Jones, who walked with parishioners from Rejoice in the Word Church in Lawrenceville, said they were motivated to come both by police killings and by the police who were killed in Dallas on Thursday night.
“We’re looking for change,” she said. “We’re looking for unity. Unity with the cops, unity with society, unity with the White House, unity with the Democrats, with the Republicans. That’s what we’re after, we’re after unity.”
The march wove past the CNN Center and around Centennial Olympic Park, as some stuck cars honked in support. At one point, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made an appearance, urging protesters to keep it peaceful. Rapper T.I. was also in the crowd.
Eric Fisher was there with his wife and two kids, ages 10 and 5. He said it was his first time coming to a protest.
“I mean, you almost become numb to the shootings, but the Minnesota shooting took me to heart a lot,” he said, “because I listened to his mother about how she spoke to him about complying, and it’s pretty much the same thing my mom told me growing up.”
Fisher said it hit home hard for him to hear that Castile had been taught the same things his mother told him and that he has taught his kids “because there’s really nothing else we can do.”
“We’re living in a crazy time, a dangerous time with our black boys right now,” said Gavin Brown, who was selling T-shirts that were a play on the popular poster phrase: Keep Calm and Carry On. His shirts said, “I can’t keep calm, I have a black son.”
“I had a lot of moms come up and was like, ‘We really appreciate this,’” he said.
Many protesters held up hand-drawn signs and chanted “no justice, no peace.” After circling downtown several times, the group, sweating from marching and the afternoon heat, momentarily packed together around a stage in Centennial Olympic Park where leaders from the local NAACP spoke. A young man on the stage holding a sign was told by the crowd to put it away because the sign made provocative statements and the march was nonviolent.
At a press conference earlier Friday, Atlanta Police Chief George Turner had said the force had plans to change tactics as it patrolled protests and marches that night and potentially into the weekend. The police were hands off in the early part of the march, blocking some streets to traffic, but barely visible for long stretches.
Later in the night, the crowd dwindled to several hundred, many of whom headed onto a highway ramp leading to the Downtown Connector. There, a line of police stopped them – officers in uniforms, not SWAT gear, with dozens of police cars backed up behind them.
The standoff lasted until after midnight, but it stayed peaceful.
Alecia Hudson, who said she had been communicating with the officers, was on the ramp.
“They are very much for the peaceful protest,” she said. “Not all cops are bad. And we understand that. We just really and truly wanted to do a movement so people understand what we’re feeling and where we’re coming from.”
It appears there were just a handful of arrests from the march.
Other rallies are planned in Atlanta on Saturday and Sunday.
Molly Samuel contributed to this report.