The nationwide protest movement over the death of George Floyd and other black people came to Dunwoody on June 2.

At City Hall and police headquarters, a Dunwoody High School graduate led a demonstration that drew Mayor Lynn Deutsch and dozens of others, amid discussions of racist incidents past and present in the city. Another protest was scheduled for 5-6 p.m. in Dunwoody Village, arranged by a resident of the Mill Glen subdivision and intended to be family-focused.

Protesters outside Dunwoody City Hall on June 2. (John Ruch)

Lydia Wells said she organized the City Hall event and an earlier demonstration in Peachtree Corners because it’s “important to show people how to peacefully protest” and to help ensure that Floyd “didn’t die in vain.” A congregant at Dunwoody’s First Baptist Church Atlanta and founder of a nonprofit called God’s Eyes Initiative intended to help homeless people, she said the protest matches her Christian values: “I believe if you love God, you love black lives.”

Heather Sabel-Sowers, who took to Nextdoor to call for the Dunwoody Village protest, said she wanted an event her children and other families could join as part of the democratic process to seek reforms of historic racism. Her protest was scheduled to be held at the intersection of Mount Vernon and Chamblee-Dunwoody roads.

“I think like a lot of people with children, there’s been a lot of hard conversation we’ve had to have,” she said. “Honestly, we’re having to talk to them about injustice, racism and, in fact, murder by police officers. And it’s just really hard.”

Protest organizer Lydia Wells holds up a sign to passing traffic. The back reads, “Pray for our country while we fight for our right. #BlackLivesMatter.” (John Ruch)

While George Floyd’s death has been the trigger for nationwide protesters, the local protesters also cited two other recent homicide cases where black people died. One was the March killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, who was shot by officers during a no-knock search warrant entry on her home. The other was the February shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, an unarmed jogger who was confronted by two armed white residents who claimed he acted suspiciously.

(Below is video of Wells explaining the City Hall protest.)

YouTube video

City Hall protest

The City Hall protest at 4800 Ashford-Dunwoody Road in Perimeter Center began in the morning and was scheduled to end at 5 p.m. At around 11 a.m., it had about two dozen protesters, with more participants regularly joining and leaving. They lined the sidewalk and held signs bearing such slogans as, “Black Lives Matter.” Some were Dunwoody locals; others came from such nearby cities as Sandy Springs and Johns Creek. Many passing drivers honked in apparent support.

Ben Van Riper, a Sandy Springs resident, said he attended because he believes white people like himself have a responsibility to do so. He said racism is behind many police killings and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 pandemic deaths on minority communities.

Sandy Springs resident Ben Van Riper was among the protesters. (John Ruch)

“Police constantly kill people like George Floyd because of racism,” he said. “…Every single person working to rid [racism] from the world is a benefit.”

At one point, Mayor Deutsch made an appearance, clad in a Wonder Woman face mask and joining protesters in waving to one passing vehicle whose driver honked in support.

Deutsch said the protest was “for Dunwoody residents and others an opportunity to show their concerns and share their paths in a socially distanced and responsible way.”

Asked her thoughts about Floyd’s video-recorded death, for which a police officer is now charged with murder and manslaughter, Deutsch paused more than 10 seconds. “There are simply — there really aren’t words to sum up … my feelings about the incident itself,” she said.

Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch, left, speaks with protester and Dunwoody resident Tanis Singleton. (John Ruch)

At the June 1 City Council meeting and in a recent email to constituents, Deutsch noted that the city recently passed a non-discrimination ordinance — which was focused on adding protections for LGBTQ people — and urged the state to adopt a hate-crimes law. And the city will consider other ways to discuss or address discrimination, she said in her email.

After some protesters described anecdotes about racism in Dunwoody, Deutsch said, “There’s always more work to be done. … I do think there’s more awareness and I’m going to work on increasing the awareness.” She added, “We’re a very diverse community. Diversity enhances our community.”

Police Chief Billy Grogan issued a statement later in the day that he said was written while the protest was happening outside his headquarters. He said he was “sickened” by Floyd’s death and that the conduct of the Minnesota officers involved was “unacceptable,” referring to it as a “tragic death” without referring to murder or manslaughter charges.

A Dunwoody Police officer speaks with a protester. (John Ruch)

“I also believe in the right of peaceful protesters to stand up against injustice,” Grogan wrote. “As I write these words, a peaceful protest is happening in front of the Dunwoody Police Department. Officers from our department have interacted with the organizers and protesters to let them know we stand with them against police brutality and racism in any form.” He also said he “applaud[s] the peaceful protesters standing outside our department today” but condemns rioters and looters elsewhere.

Racist incidents

Wells, who lives in the Tucker/Doraville area, and her mother Tanis Singleton, who lives in the Dunwoody North neighborhood, both described racist incidents with local schools, police, neighbors and real estate agents over the years, while saying there have been some improvements.

“It’s been a long journey here in Dunwoody,” said Singleton, whose family moved there from the Baltimore area in 1996. “People still call the police on people of color walking through the neighborhood.”

Protesters line the sidewalk and wave at honking drivers. (John Ruch)

“I know a lot of Dunwoody residents are a little prejudiced,” said Wells, adding that her previous work as a sports coordinator at Dunwoody United Methodist Church was the sort of contact that helped to improve understanding.

Singleton and Wells said the racism was especially bad in local public schools, especially Vanderlyn Elementary, to the point that Wells was home-schooled and graduated through online learning. Singleton described such situations as her son being made to stand in a hallway on the pretext that his backpack smelled and Wells told to talk to black counselor because he was “black like you.”

Wells said she had earlier concerns about and problems with local police officers. “Growing up, I believe that the Dunwoody Police Department was very different… I believe they did have problem officers that did treat people differently,” she said.

Mayor Deutsch joins protesters in waving to passing motorists. (John Ruch)

She said that when she was 17, someone called the police on her for looking “suspicious” when she was playing guitar in Murphey Candler Park in neighboring Brookhaven. Officers searched her and her car, she said, described herself as “terrified” and scared to drive afterward. It was her first interaction with police officers, she said.

Wells said she believes DPD has changed. Earlier this year, she organized an event at the Spruill Center for the Arts called “Removing Barriers,” where officers from Dunwoody, Brookhaven and Chamblee answered questions about such topics as what do if a person believes they were racially profiled by police.

“We are so proud of DPD for being on the right side of history,” said Wells. “I think the lack of knowledge creates fear… We’re all about educating people about their rights.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.