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Atlanta journalist threatened with pistol, beaten during Rayshard Brooks protests

June 20, 2020

Freelance writer George Chidi was beaten by several unknown assailants and threatened by an armed man while covering protests that erupted in Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood over the fatal June 12 police shooting of Rayshard Brooks.

Chidi is a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution whose work has appeared more recently in The Intercept and the Atlanta hyperlocal news site Decaturish. While reporting at the scene of a June 20, 2020 protest at the Wendy’s restaurant where Brooks was shot dead, Chidi said he was confronted by an armed man who threatened to shoot him after Chidi refused to turn over his phone. When Chidi tried to walk away from the man, he said, he was surrounded by other assailants who punched him repeatedly on his face and head.

Brooks was killed three weeks after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody had touched off unrest in cities across the United States. The day after his death, protestors gathered at the Wendy’s restaurant, which was closed. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the restaurant caught fire when protestors broke windows and threw fireworks into the building. Over the next week, protestors, some of them armed, continued to gather in the Wendy’s parking lot and on nearby University Avenue.

Chidi was reporting at the protest site on the night of June 20 when he heard multiple gunshots off in the distance at about 10 p.m, he said. Chidi told the Tracker he could not see the source of the initial shots, but he saw armed individuals in the parking lot assuming defensive firing positions. He said he heard someone else in the parking lot closer to him fire additional shots. At that point, the crowd of about 500 began to clear out, he said.

The crowd dwindled to about 50, Chidi said, and most of those who remained were carrying firearms — including AR-15 semiautomatic rifles.

Chidi stayed at the scene and approached a group of armed men near the Wendy’s who were “gingerly disarming someone they didn’t know.” What had begun a week earlier, as a vigil for 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, “had transformed into something more militant,” he wrote in an article for The Intercept.

As he came close to them, a woman with the group accused Chidi of working with the unknown shooter who had fired into the protestors, according to Chidi. Chidi said he had spoken with the woman earlier in the evening and identified himself as a journalist. When she later confronted him, he said, she and others in the group accused him of using his smartphone to take pictures of them.

“I hadn’t captured their images and I wasn’t going to hand over my cell phone,” Chidi told the Tracker. “[Even] if they were the cops I would have said no.”

Chidi said that after he refused to hand over his phone, one of the men in the group put his hand on a shoulder holster holding a pistol. The armed man said he would kill Chidi and began counting down from 10, according to the journalist. When the countdown reached five, Chidi started to walk away, telling the group, “I’m out, good luck, guys,” the journalist told the Tracker. Before he could get away, he said, some of the men formed a semi-circle around him and began punching him in the head. Eventually, Chidi said, he was able to escape, and he later sought medical attention for lacerations and bruising on his face. A cut above his right eye was deep enough that it needed to be glued shut, Chidi said.

Chidi told the Tracker that he has continued covering protests in Atlanta since the June 20 attack, but that he was considering seeking mental health treatment. “I’m a fairly cool guy under duress,” he said. “But I’ve had trouble sleeping.”

Chidi said he did not report the attack to the Atlanta Police Department, out of concern that it might compromise relationships with his reporting sources. “It conveys the appearance that I am working with police against street protesters,” he said. He did, however, send his Intercept article to the police department public relations staff “to make sure they would see the story.”

The Atlanta Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on Chidi’s report.

Chidi said he felt that the assailants targeted him because he is a journalist. He identified himself as an opinion writer who has regularly spoken out on criminal justice issues and other civic affairs in on-air segments for Fox 5 Atlanta and in his George on Georgia column

for Decaturish. Although he writes opinion pieces, Chidi said he has worked to keep his objective, and he has not joined in with protestors at demonstrations.

“I was not a direct participant, at least not in anything I was writing about,” Chidi said. “But I make no secret about my biases.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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