Atlanta reporter recounts covering the first night of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death
By Raisa Habersham
I woke up early May 29 to see CNN reporter Omar Jimenez cuffed and arrested on live TV while covering the protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer.
The tears streamed down my face as the network replayed Omar’s encounter with law enforcement. That moment reminded me of the many times my mother begged me not to cover protests.
“I don’t want anything to happen to you,” she’d say.
As the footage played on seemed like a loop, I confided in my husband about what many Black journalists were dealing with while covering protests — well before the media uprisings in newsrooms across the nation. Not long after, I gathered myself and braced for the call — the one I knew my editor would make to me, asking if I’d cover a protest later that day.
I said yes. I’m always eager to cover a protest, it’s the language of the oppressed and essential to knowing what challenges communities are facing. I’d covered several Black Lives Matter protests before then, starting in 2016, when Atlanta had a five-day stretch of them in the wake of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths and reports a hanged Black man was found in Piedmont Park.
But on May 29, the spirit of my late grandmother, Theolanders J. Veal, ran through me. A 911 operator from Macon, Georgia, she was one of the few Black women working in her call center. She took her job seriously and had little tolerance for racism — to put it as politely as possible.
I felt her spirit watch over me as I packed my backpack — two laptops, two water bottles, plenty of snacks, a portable charger, masks to avoid COVID-19, extra iPhone charging cords, a sweatshirt in case it got cold and an umbrella. The protest was expected to be two hours long, but given what how protests turned in other cities, it was better to be safe than sorry.
By 3 p.m., I’d made it to Centennial Olympic Park where thousands of people gathered to march to the Georgia Capitol, for a brief sit-in. The trek led marchers along Marietta Street, where I spoke to a teary-eyed, native Atlantan, outside a nearby business about the protests. By the time we got to the capitol, I spoke with another protester, originally from New York, who said she’d been protesting since Eric Garner’s killing, which spawned a new statement in the movement: “I can’t breathe.” They were also George Floyd’s final words.
But that tidbit didn’t make the AJC’s digital file. Right as I was about to send an updated feed for our live blog, I got word that the now dispersed crowd was in front of the CNN Center. I ran that way and saw protesters face off with Atlanta police. With each passing minute, the crowd grew angrier, throwing water bottles and glass bottles at officers. At one point, a lieutenant announced the group was violating an ordinance by standing in the middle of the street and would be arrested if they didn’t move. On top of that, Atlanta police brought out their SWAT team.
It didn’t dawn on me that I would be in for a long night until the famous CNN Center sign was vandalized and soon after the actual building. In the background, a car blared Tupac songs as officers moved to stand in front of the building to prevent people from entering.
And while all this was going on, I was avoiding the text message from my mom asking if I was covering the protests. I didn’t want to worry her. I didn’t respond to her until about 2 a.m., when I finally got home.
In the middle of it all, I got a call from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ spokesman alerting me to a joint press conference with her and then Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields. As I ran to the presser, a mob of people ran my direction; I hid behind a light pole to protect myself from a potential stampede. It wasn’t until later when I realized tear gas was fired and eventually a police car was set on fire.
As I raced to the press conference, the scene throughout other parts of downtown Atlanta was serene. People were chilling at a hookah lounge, other were grabbing a bite to eat. Apart from me, one other person had on a mask. It was as if COVID-19 didn’t exist.
At the presser, there was a different reality: Vandalism ran rampant in downtown Atlanta and rumors of crowds heading to Buckhead to commit property damage. Mayor Bottoms was not pleased. I’d covered press conferences with the mayor before and have interviewed her on occasion. I’ve never seen her react the way she did to the scene she saw that night. The caring mother in her was visible, and she didn’t mince words: “Go home because I can’t protect you.” It was an emphatic display of emotion from an otherwise composed Atlanta mayor who’d spent the past months urging residents to stay safe amid COVID-19.
After the presser, a colleague was supposed to relieve me of my duties. I’d been out there for about six hours at that point and I’d contributed to other stories during the day. I’d essentially worked a 12-hour shift. He was to drive me to my car and I head home, except my car was stuck in the CNN parking deck where the bulk of the action remained.
We spend the night riding around Atlanta, observing the scene and gathering color for the live blog. In downtown Atlanta, we saw burned police cars, a vandalized College Football Hall of Fame building, and shattered glasses outside a nearby Starbucks and the McCormick and Schmidt’s. Perhaps, ironically, local businesses were unscathed near Centennial Olympic Park (at least that I saw). The outer edges of the park looked like a warzone you’d see in movies.
After about an hour downtown, my colleague and I drove to Buckhead where hordes of people were already at Lenox Mall, hoping to vandalize the building. Atlanta police had already set up camp at the mall. So, protesters headed to other parts of the neighborhood. Vandals threw objects at the Target, shattering the glass; across the street at small strip mall, vandals damaged a glass window at a FedEx.
The damage didn’t end there. The Corner Bakery and the Maggiano’s Little Italy on Peachtree Road were vandalized and there were reports of a fire in the area. At one point, officers threw tear gas at protesters. The stench got in my eyes briefly, reminding me of the stories my dad told me and my brother about being a Marine.
As the night raged on, my colleague and I headed south to take me home. A warm bath, Popeyes and a massage were waiting on me. I finally texted my mom. It was 2 a.m. In the days covering COVID-19, things had been a blur. But that day, May 29, I’ll always remember.
Raisa Habersham is an Atlanta-based freelancer reporter, whose work has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Daily Beast. She is also AABJ’s Vice President of Print.
AJC, WSB reporters offer tips for covering protests
By Elisheva Wimberly
The recent killings of Black people at the hands of police officers have sparked protests nationwide, including in Atlanta, which garnered national attention following the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks. Recent peaceful protests gave way to rioters who burned, looted, and destroyed buildings around the city and two reporters — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Eric Stirgus and WSB reporter Matt Johnson— were in the middle of it during the first night of protests in May, days after George Floyd was killed after a white police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes. The two spoke to The Byline on how to cover protests, especially when they become high risk.
Stirgus said he saw the protest on WSB that evening and asked if his colleagues needed help.
“My original orders were to relieve another reporter but he didn’t want to leave, by the time I got there it was nightfall, a couple of minutes later I saw people throwing objects at police and breaking the glass to the CNN on Marietta Street,” Stirgus said. “Once nightfall hit, things had the potential to become violent.”
Johnson said the first night of protests was “unexpected.”
“About an hour or two before everything blew up there was a peaceful protest through downtown Atlanta. Then before we knew it the (Atlanta police) car caught on fire,” Johnson said. “Above all, we weren’t really prepared for a riot. We were psychologically not prepared, we had no security. Our job was still to paint the picture and to stay as composed as possible. It was probably one of the biggest challenges in my career.”
Peaceful protests aren’t always prone to turn violent. Critics criticized the media for showing profuse attention to the riots rather than the peaceful protest that occurred in Centennial Olympic Park earlier during the day. Johnson said reporters’ response to criticism shouldn’t ever censor their content.
“It’s such a complex issue. As a reporter, you’re caught in the middle of all the sides. You can’t get caught up in too much of the criticism. If you’re at a riot and you focus on only peaceful protest you can be accused of whitewashing a situation,” Johnson said. “When it first started you could see the distinction between the peaceful presentation at Centennial Park whereas across the street was the rioting and looting. You can give the proper perspective while giving accurate information of what is happening in front of you.”
Stirgus recommended reporters arrive at protests early and speak with organizers. “If you’re listening to what the main organizers have to say and you’re being observant you may see things that may interest you as a reporter.”
Stirgus also suggested keeping your smartphone with you as a trusty tool to help cover protests, wearing comfortable shoes, and bringing goggles in case you’re sprayed with tear gas “One of my coworkers brought a helmet with ‘Press’ written across the top,” he said.
Before Johnson steps close to a protest he’s covering, he makes sure his press badge is on him and visible.
“I’m always with a camera guy so I’m more identifiable than a print reporter. You want to have your press pass visible if your legitimacy is ever questioned,” he said. “You have to bring an open mind, perspective, and the ability to do your job in the scariest circumstances.”
Johnson made it clear journalists need to have situational awareness; understanding when a protest is about to take a turn is crucial for your safety. When things seem like they’re about to take a turn, Johnson said communicate with your news station.
“There have been journalists who have been shot at and physically assaulted, so don’t lose track of your safety,” he said.
But while focusing on your safety is crucial, Johnson said ensuring your caring for your mental health is equally important when covering ongoing protests.
“You can get flashbacks and feel like it’s still happening. When it’s over, just take a break,” Johnson said. “Take care of your mental health. You’re experiencing more than the average person is experiencing.”
By Elisheva Wimberly is a rising senior at Georgia State University.
How to become a freelance journalist: A Q&A with Atlanta-based reporter Jewel Wicker
By Greer Wilson
With many journalists losing jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic or looking for a new start following the racial inequity fallout in mainstream newsrooms, some may be considering freelance reporting. And as newsrooms begin adapting to their work-from-home policies due to COVID-19, many publications and outlets are looking for freelance writers to help with the steady news cycle.
But making that move can be difficult if you’re accustomed to the hustle and bustle of daily news reporting.
Jewel Wicker, an Atlanta entertainment and culture writer, made the transition to freelance reporting in 2017, after a year with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s features team. Wicker, whose byline has appeared in Atlanta Magazine, Billboard and Creative Loafing, spoke with The Byline on her freelance career and provided tips on what others can do to have a smooth transition out of the newsroom and into freelance reporting.
How did you get your start and what was the first publication you wrote for?
Jewel Wicker: As a freelancer, I got my start three years ago this month. The first publication I wrote for was Creative Loafing. One of the things that I did when I first went to freelancing was reaching out to the publications here in Atlanta that I had previously worked for. When I was in college, I wrote a freelance article for Creative Loafing. Right after I graduated college, I interned with Atlanta Magazine, and I worked on staff with the AJC before going freelance. So I reached back out to Atlanta Magazine and Creative Loafing to let them know that I was now a freelancer, and I could write entertainment and culture if they were looking for someone to do so. I had a column for a year with Creative Loafing for about once a week and also did some work with Atlanta Magazine. About three months into going freelance, I had taken a class on how to pitch and I co-pitched Billboard. I started writing for them, and that was the beginning of writing for a national publication.
For someone starting out, what would you recommend for them to develop a writing routine?
JW: For me it differs. I found that if I schedule off time on my calendar to write that’s more effective because sometimes I get flogged down with interviews. If I have a story coming up, I’ll put a few hours on my calendar to write a draft. On the day I need to write, I schedule it and it will show the writing block for this story. So, I know not to schedule interviews or any other tasks during that time. A lot of times, I write better when I first get up or start doing other tasks and get into the groove. I might struggle to get into the writing grooves later in the day. But sometimes I wake up in the morning and can’t find the words. Sometimes I don’t write until nighttime. It really just depends.
What advice would you give on making pitches?
JW: So, one of the things I did when I first started freelancing, I realized I wasn’t that good at pitching because I was used to being a staff reporter. So, co-pitching wasn’t something I had to do. I took a class on how to pitch as a freelance reporter. I highly recommend it if you can find an online class that caters to pitching as a freelance reporter. I understand that can be cost-prohibitive; the alternative suggestion is searching pitching as a journalist or similar keywords on Twitter. A lot of sample pitches will come up. (There are) a lot of writers and editors for major publications who make Twitter threads, and post on social media sharing the best way to format a pitch, the information that could be in a pitch, and how much reporting that should be in a pitch. They just give a lot of the best tips and tricks as well as some things you don’t do. That’s a free and easy way to get a look at the best practices from the leading editors and reporters in the industry.
Do publications have their writing styles? Would you advise people to practice their writing styles before pitching?
JW: I would say practice for pitching, but I would also say it’s really important to read what that publication writes about. You could pitch the same story to different publications, but the angle and the tone might slightly change based on who you are pitching to. So I would say, if you’re going to pitch a publication, be very well versed in the type of writing and reporting they do. That’s going to help formulate the pitch to them and that increases your chances of getting your pitch accepted. Publications can tell if you don’t read them because your pitch is far beyond their scope.
How would you advise freelancers starting out on how to protect themselves from stories being stolen if rejected?
JW: Unfortunately, that is a risk that a lot of freelancers fear. I always advocate for not sending complete stories. Send just enough information to give the publication confidence that you are the perfect person for this story.
How would a freelancer try to pitch to publications if there is a job board?
JW: One of the newsletters I follow is @studyhallxyz. They publish a weekly job board for full-time positions, fellowships and grants but also for freelance submissions. They scour the internet because a lot of editors will tweet and say “I’m looking for this topic, this is what I’m paying, please email me at this email address to pitch me.” They will combine all of those pitches and put them all in one place so you don’t have to follow all of these editors to see. I highly recommend following them. I think I pay $10 to $11 a month (to subscribe to the newsletter). But as a person of color, if that is cost-prohibitive to you, I believe you can get access to the job board for as little as $1 a month.
Greer Wilson is a recent Spelman College graduate.
This issue of The Byline was edited by Raisa Habersham.