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In Atlanta, hundreds pay respect to Rayshard Brooks

A man wearing an “I Can't Breathe” shirt pays his respects to Rayshard Brooks during a public viewing Monday at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Brooks’s death sparked protests in Atlanta and around the country. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)
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ATLANTA — Anger ebbed into grief on Monday as hundreds of mourners visited a historic church here to pay their respects to Rayshard Brooks, the latest black man to become a household name after dying at the hands of police.

Brooks’s death became the latest flash point in a national movement against police brutality and racism. Hundreds trickled through Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday to see the man who galvanized them into action lying in repose.

“Seeing his body will satisfy my soul because our souls are all connected, and I hope to get some peace of mind,” said LaToya Spikes, who was the first in line to enter the church. She has spent many restless nights thinking about Brooks’s death. “All I see is his face and hear his name; it’s been very uneasy.”

Brooks, 27, was fatally shot by a white police officer after a DUI stop at an Atlanta Wendy’s on June 12. The hearse carrying Brooks bore his name and photo on its windows with a message that he was “Killed in Atlanta, Georgia 2020” over the image of a police badge.

Inside the church, Brooks lay in a gold coffin, wearing a white suit with a gold tie, gold pocket square, and glasses and shoes encrusted in gold.

Upbeat music played on the speakers as his relatives and loved ones sat in the front row of the pews and near the altar. Brooks’s widow, Tomika Miller, wore a wide-brimmed white hat and dress with golden flowers on the back and a photo of her and her late husband printed on the front.

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Spikes, a 40-year-old Atlanta native who now lives 20 miles south in Fayetteville, Ga., said rising activism against police brutality in recent years exposed deep racial divisions in American society that could no longer be ignored. Wary of protests that could turn violent, she took her 12-year-old daughter Morgan to the Wendy’s, which was burned down and has turned into a memorial for Brooks, and to the viewing. Spikes wanted her daughter to see history unfold.

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Some people endured periodic downpours on a stormy day to view Brooks’s body, entering the church dripping wet. Across the street, vendors sold Black Lives Matter shirts and passersby signed a seven-foot-tall sympathy card made of poster board.

Denise St. John, a black Atlanta resident, entered and left the church with her fist raised. She thought about her six brothers — including one who she said was beaten by police who confused him for a robbery suspect — and her 30-year-old son, who works as a Lyft driver in Philadelphia.

While discussing the Brooks case, St. John’s son told her that he once woke up from a nap in a parking lot in between late-night Lyft rides, surrounded by five police officers. The stop ended peacefully, but her son said he feared for his life as he told officers in advance when he would be reaching into his pockets and glove compartment to retrieve his license and registration.

African Americans should not have to worry about routine police interactions turning deadly, St. John said.

“I felt angry that Rayshard resisted, but then again, he probably was worried about being in the cuffs,” St. John said. “Look what happened at George Floyd. He was in cuffs, and he still died. I felt Rayshard was fighting for his life.”

Brooks was fatally shot after police responded to a report that he was asleep behind the wheel at the Wendy’s drive-through. Brooks initially cooperated with police, but a scuffle broke out when officers attempted to handcuff him.

Brooks broke free and grabbed an officer’s Taser. Video of the incident shows Brooks pointing the Taser toward officers while running away; shots are then heard. Brooks died of two gunshot wounds to the back, according to authorities.

In the days that followed Brooks’s death, the Atlanta police chief resigned, a person set the Wendy’s ablaze, and thousands marched on the streets.

Former officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with murder and other offenses last week. Devin Brosnan, the other responding officer, has been charged with aggravated assault and other counts.

Brosnan on Monday told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was surprised at the decision to charge him but was willing to cooperate and maintained he did nothing wrong. He admitted to putting his foot on Brooks after he was shot but said he had no ill intentions.

“It’s totally just an instinctual thing for my own safety,” he told the newspaper. “When I realized I was safe, that’s when I take it off. In no way, shape or form was I trying to hurt this man.”

Lawyers for Rolfe and Brosnan defended the actions of their clients, who they said were justified in their response to a volatile situation. Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. said Brooks did not pose an immediate threat.

A private funeral for Brooks is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the church’s senior pastor and a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, is set to deliver the eulogy.

“Rayshard Brooks wasn’t just running from the police,” Warnock will say, according to an advance excerpt provided by the church. “He was running from a system that makes slaves out of people. A system that doesn’t give ordinary people who’ve made mistakes a second chance, a real shot at redemption.”

Jerome and Machelle Pittman came to the viewing to “show love” for Brooks’s family after joining their first-ever protests in response to his death.

“Any time it’s a killing of a black man, it just makes us feel like it’s our family member,” said Machelle Pittman, 52. “We are hurt. We feel helpless. Protesting is the only way we know to help ourselves.”