ATLANTA — It was the morning after another night of protest and violence in downtown Atlanta, and here came the men from Morehouse College, from the Masonic lodge and Kappa Alpha Psi and other African American fraternities, to clean up what had been done. Isaac Robinson, 47, picked up a rock off the sidewalk.

“This will not be a projectile this evening,” he said, dropping it in a garbage bag.

Corey Shakelford, 50, picked up a piece of glass and looked around at the smashed storefronts and fresh graffiti and shook his head.

“Look at our home,” he said. “Look at our city.”

They stopped for a moment Sunday so they could absorb the full heartbreak of what their beloved city had become. Then they continued along Marietta Street, more than two dozen black men who felt all the rage that has set off nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd in police custody, and all the indignation expressed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D), who had stood the day before with rappers Killer Mike and T.I. and told those doing the damage: “We are better than this. . . . When you are burning down this city, you are burning down our community.”

Now Seth Gholston, 35, swept glass near Centennial Park. Robinson flipped upright an orange construction barrel. Shakelford picked up a discarded water bottle, and they all kept going, talking about what they were going to teach their children about the world that had brought all of this about.

“Now it’s every situation I have to warn them against,” Gholston said.

“It’s a different climate right now,” said Robinson.

“You know what my son said to me yesterday?” Shakelford said. “We were coming back from McDonald’s. He said, ‘Daddy, that George guy — what if that happened to me?’ Ten years old. I said, ‘Son, it won’t happen to you, because I’m giving you the lessons on how to be black in America.’ ”

“It’s another level of citizenship,” said Carey Gaines, 47.

They walked by a parking garage where graffiti read “F--- Killer Mike” and “F--- T.I.” and “KKKeisha” and “F--- 12,” an anti-police slogan.

“That’s agitation right there,” Robinson said.

“That hurts,” said Shakelford.

They pressed on, picking up milk bottles and more glass and a discarded “No Justice No Peace” sign as a woman driving by rolled down her window and yelled out “Thank you, guys!” and a man driving by yelled out: “That’s what I’m talking about! That’s it!”

“See? That’s Atlanta,” said Robinson, proud of the Atlanta he was a part of — the professional Atlanta, the prosperous one, the Atlanta that earned the title “the Black Mecca” as it became the center of black middle- and upper-class success and leadership in the United States.

“When everything else goes away, when you don’t get treated right in New York, when you don’t treated right in L.A., when you can’t get treated right in Detroit or Alabama, Atlanta has been here for us,” T.I. had said after the first night of unrest. “We can’t do this here. This is sacred.”

“Let’s walk this way and up,” Robinson said now.

They passed two security guards in front of bank with smashed-out windows.

“How you doing today, sir?” Robinson said.

“All right,” said the guard.

“You all keep it tight,” Robinson said.

They came upon the statue of Henry Grady, an influential editor and staunch segregationist who coined the phrase “the New South” after the Civil War, now sprayed with “KKK.”

“Look what they did to Grady,” Robinson said. “Well, at least that’s historically accurate.”

They moved on, past a smashed Starbucks, past more graffiti and past a cellphone repair shop and a State Farm insurance office and stopped to read the handwritten plea on a sheet of ripped-out notebook paper taped to the window: “We are black owned. State Farm too.”

“Man,” Gaines said.

They walked on, and when they saw another group of people cleaning up, Robinson called out to them: “We’ve already canvassed this area, but we haven’t gone that way! We haven’t gone north!” And they continued past a boarded-up coffee shop and smashed restaurants and stores.

“I got my first pair of shoes I ever purchased there,” Gaines said, pointing out one of them. “From my little summer job. They were real cheap. Smelled like diesel fuel, but I was so proud.”

They passed the Rialto theater, now boarded up and spray-painted with “F--- N.”

“We used to come here and watch Bruce Lee movies,” Gaines said.

They picked up some more water bottles, more glass and more signs, and now it was almost noon, and they gathered for a photo on the steps of a Georgia State University building, four rows of smiling men trying to keep their city together, and then Shakelford dismissed the group with a prayer for the evening to come.

“Lord, we ask you to watch over every house and bring peace to the family,” he said.


Five hours later, police helicopters were circling the blue sky above downtown Atlanta. National Guard officers in camouflage were standing in the bushes along Centennial Park, and soon hundreds of mostly young protesters began arriving, chanting “No justice, no Peace, no racist police!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and waving handwritten signs that read “Let’s change the world!” and “Love” and “We have every right to destroy what we built.”

Cars honked in support. The protesters chanted: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Someone knocked over an orange construction barrel, and after a few laps around the park they converged on the place that had been cleaned for them that morning, clustering on Marietta Street in front of a long row of police with riot helmets and shields.

“Keep it peaceful! Keep it peaceful!” a woman yelled as they pushed right up to the police line.

Toward the back, a young woman held up a sign that read, “This thug is getting her PhD.”

“I’ve been crying all week — I’ve got three brothers,” said Nettie Brown, 23, who was working on her PhD in biomedical engineering. “But we cannot destroy this city. We have to spread the love.”

At the front, a young man stared at the officers for a few minutes, trying to contain himself until he started yelling “F--- them! F--- them!” and a woman put her arm around him and led him to the back, and for a while, that’s how it went.

When a young woman started yelling “I’m so tired of it! I’m so tired of it!” another woman put her arm around her shoulders and led her to the back, saying to her: “They’re listening. They’re listening.”

When a young Latino man started crying and yelling “What’s the solution?!” his friend led him to the back, saying: “This is the first step. We’re taking the first step.”

When a young black man started yelling “F--- the police!” a 58-year-old black woman wearing a mask made her way to the front, saying “Let me in here” until she reached the young man and put her arm around him and said, “Do not engage, do not engage,” and the young man started to cry.

“Not all police are bad, you hear me?” she said, trying to calm him down. “You give them a chance. They are not your enemy. This is not about the police, baby. This is bigger than the police. We’ve been at this a long time, and I came down here for you, you hear me? I love you. I love you.”

He was quiet and crying, but after a few minutes he was yelling again, and now a priest wearing a wooden cross was holding up his arms in front of the crowd. Another young man was walking up and down the front lines yelling “Do not throw anything! Do not throw anything!” and as the sun began to go down, most of the protesters headed home, and the smell of marijuana came, and someone arrived with a speaker blasting “Fight the Power” and a young woman yelled “We built this s--- and we can destroy it!”

Someone lit one firecracker. Someone else lit another.

Someone hurled a water bottle at the police line.

Someone threw a bottle of milk, and someone tossed a roll of toilet paper, and as the 9 p.m. curfew arrived, the police fired tear gas, and the riot police arrived with batons, and the National Guard took up positions, and the protesters began scattering, and now here came police cars and military trucks, rolling down Marietta Street where the men from Morehouse College, from the Masonic lodge and Kappa Alpha Psi and other African American fraternities had cleaned and talked and prayed.