Georgia’s Governor withdraws emergency request to stop Atlanta’s mask mandate for COVID-19

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Tuesday withdrew his emergency request for a court to stop enforcement of Atlanta’s requirement that faces masks be worn in all public places, while mediation over the state’s legal effort to block the mandate proceeds.

Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city two weeks ago to stop enforcement of the local mandate, aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The governor argued that the city lacks the authority to override his order encouraging but not requiring face coverings.

In a statement, the Republican governor’s office said that the motion was withdrawn, “to continue productive, good faith negotiations with city officials and prepare for a future hearing on the merits of our legal position.”

Mayor Bottoms, a Democrat, has said that she would continue to defy the governor’s orders, but hoped that the two sides could find a solution.

Bottoms is one of a handful of Georgia mayors and other leaders who have enacted local mask orders in defiance of the governor.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures, has suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

As Southern U.S. states have seen a spurt of new cases, Georgia has had more than 170,000 coronavirus cases and over 3,500 known fatalities.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Second Georgia judge recuses herself before hearing on Atlanta’s face mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Two Georgia judges recused themselves Tuesday before a hearing on Governor Brian Kemp’s lawsuit seeking to stop Atlanta’s mayor from enforcing a requirement that people in the state’s largest city wear masks in public.

First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe recused herself about an hour before the hearing, but did not provide a reason in a one-page court filing except to describe it as a “voluntary recusal.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Ellerbe told court officials she had discussed the case with another judge prior to the hearing.

The second Fulton County Superior Court Judge, Shawn Ellen LaGrua, was then appointed, but also quickly recused herself.

In a two-page court filing, she wrote that she had once worked for Governor Kemp when he was Georgia’s secretary of state and did not want “any appearance of impropriety or bias.”

A spokesman for the court said a statement was expected later in the day. There was no immediate comment from the governor’s office or the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Earlier this month, Kemp barred local leaders from requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, several Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have defied the governor’s order and kept local mandates in place.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Bottoms and the Atlanta city council, arguing that local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

Tuesday’s hearing was on an emergency motion by the governor’s office to have the court lift Atlanta’s mask requirement while the lawsuit works its way through the court system.

Kemp has not filed lawsuits against the other cities with mask orders.

Americans are divided over the use of masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise in many parts of the country, including Georgia. The divide is largely along political lines, with conservatives more likely than liberals to call the rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

Georgia judge recuses herself at hearing over Atlanta’s face mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A Georgia judge recused herself on Tuesday about an hour before a hearing on Governor Brian Kemp’s lawsuit seeking to stop Atlanta’s mayor from enforcing a requirement that people in the state’s largest city wear masks in public.

In a one-page order, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe did not provide a reason for what was described as a “voluntary recusal.”

A spokesman for the court said a statement was expected later in the day. There was no immediate comment from the governor’s office or the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Earlier this month, Kemp barred local leaders from requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, several Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have defied the governor’s order and kept local mandates in place.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Bottoms and the Atlanta city council, arguing that local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

Tuesday’s hearing was on an emergency motion by the governor’s office to have the court lift Atlanta’s mask requirement while the lawsuit works its way through the court system.

The governor’s office has not yet filed lawsuits against the other mayors.

Americans are divided over the use of masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise in many parts of the country, including Georgia. The United States has more than 3.8 million recorded cases and more than 140,900 deaths in the pandemic.

The divide is largely along political lines, with conservatives more likely than liberals to call the rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

President Donald Trump told Fox News on Friday he did not believe in implementing a national mask mandate.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

Georgia judge to hear arguments over governor’s bid to stop Atlanta mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A Georgia judge is scheduled Tuesday to hear arguments in an emergency motion brought by Governor Brian Kemp to stop the city of Atlanta from enforcing a mandate that people wear masks in public to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

The motion, pending before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe, is the latest salvo in a clash between some Georgia mayors and Kemp over the issue of mask mandates, which the Republican governor opposes.

It asks the judge to halt Atlanta’s efforts while a lawsuit Kemp filed Thursday works its way through the courts.

Earlier this month, Kemp issued an order that bars local leaders from requiring people to wear masks, but a handful of Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have bucked the governor and continued to require them in public.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city council that argues local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

The governor’s office has not yet filed lawsuits against the other mayors.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures following the early stages of the U.S. outbreak, has suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

Bottoms has said she planned to defy Kemp’s order and enforce a mandatory mask ordinance.

“I take this very seriously and I will continue to do everything in my power to protect the people of Atlanta,” the mayor said on NBC News’ “Today” on Friday, and she added that the lawsuit is “a waste of taxpayer money.”

Bottoms, who has announced publicly that she and members of her family have tested positive for COVID-19, remains in quarantine at her home office. Judge Ellerbe’s hearing will be conducted by video conference later Tuesday morning.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

The world’s largest Confederate Monument faces renewed calls for removal

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, a nine-story-high bas-relief sculpture carved into a sprawling rock face northeast of Atlanta, is perhaps the South’s most audacious monument to its pro-slavery legacy still intact.

Despite long-standing demands for the removal of what many consider to be a shrine to racism, the giant depiction of three Confederate heroes on horseback still towers ominously over the Georgia countryside, protected by state law.

The monument – which reopens on Independence Day weekend after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close for weeks – has faced renewed calls for removal since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died during an arrest by a white police officer who pinned his neck to the ground with a knee.

The brutality of Floyd’s death, captured on cellphone video, triggered a national outcry against racial injustice, and revived a long-simmering battle between those demanding the removal of racist symbols from the public sphere, and those who believe the monuments honor Southern tradition and history.

“Here we are in Atlanta, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, and still we have the largest Confederate monument in the world,” said Gerald Griggs, a vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP civil rights group, which staged a march last week calling for the carving to be scraped from the mountainside. “It’s time for our state to get on the right side of history.”

The sheer scale of the monument makes its removal a daunting task to contemplate. Longer than a 100-yard American football field, it features the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, the president of the 11-state Confederacy, and two of its legendary military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, notched in a relief 400 feet above ground.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is an organization that staunchly defends Stone Mountain and other Confederate statues and emblems. Dedicated to teaching the “Southern Cause,” according to its website, it believes their removal is akin to purging American history.

The Southern or “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” holds that the war was fought over a heroic, but lost, effort to defend states’ rights to secede from the Union in the face of Northern aggression, rather than the preservation of slavery.

Martin O’Toole, an official of the Georgia chapter, said the monument is not a totem of racism at all. It’s history, plain and simple, he says.

“It’s three men on horses,” O’Toole said. “What’s racist about that?”

Maurice J. Hobson, an associate professor of African American Studies at Georgia State University, counters this, describing the Southern Cause as “a false history” that downplays slavery’s role in the Civil War.

He said the Confederate leaders were traitors to the United States who fought to hold on to a Southern economy that depended on slavery.

All three men featured on the monument, Davis, Lee and Jackson, were slave owners.

“The whole of Stone Mountain was erected to show what some white Georgians revered,” he said.

Stone Mountain has long held symbolism for white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan, a hate group that was formed by Confederate Army veterans and has a history of lynchings and terror against Black people, held its rebirth ceremony atop the mountain in 1915 with flaming crosses. Klansmen still hold occasional gatherings in the shadows of the edifice, albeit now met with protesters behind police tape. Many of those cross-burnings took place on or around July 4.

The monolithic monument was proposed more than a century ago and had numerous false starts over the years.

But with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, segregationist officials in the state pushed for the creation of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association in 1958 and purchased the park. The carving was completed in 1972.

“This debate has been going on for years, and we’re sensitive to it,” John Bankhead, a spokesman for the group, said. “We want to tell history as it is, not as some say it is.”

In the past, others have suggested putting more balance into the monument. There was a proposal to build a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta-based civil rights icon, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as well the King family, rejected the idea.

Even though that idea floundered, Hobson advocates adding more carvings to the rock face, including African American historical figures and leaders.

“It needs to be put in a context that forces a conversation, a serious conversation,” he said. “The easiest way to rectify it, is surround it.”

Griggs of the NAACP said that the civil rights group has consulted with stone masons who said it would cost about $300,000 to $400,000 to remove the towering images.

“Take it down,” he said. “Restore the mountain to its original condition.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Frank McGurty and Aurora Ellis)

Ex-Atlanta policeman charged in Brooks’ death freed from jail, official says

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – The former Atlanta police officer charged in last month’s death of Rayshard Brooks, which touched off days of anti-racism protests, has been released from jail on bail, an official said on Wednesday.

A Georgia County judge on Tuesday set bond for Garrett Rolfe, 27, at $500,000, and added numerous conditions, including that he wears an ankle monitor and obeys a curfew.

Rolfe left Gwinnett County Jail at 12:27 a.m. EDT (0337 GMT) on Wednesday, according to county Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shannon Volkodav.

Representatives for the jail, police, Rolfe and Brooks’ family were not immediately available for comment.

The white policeman is charged with felony murder and 10 other offenses in the shooting of Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, at a Wendy’s parking lot in south Atlanta.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick said she would allow Rolfe to be freed from jail while awaiting trial because she did not believe the former officer was a danger to the community or a flight risk.

Brooks’ June 12 death exacerbated tensions in the United States over police brutality and racism stoked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

Surveillance and cellphone video of the Atlanta shooting was widely viewed on social media, triggering sometimes-violent demonstrations and the burning of the fast-food restaurant.

At Tuesday’s hearing, before the judge gave her decision, Brooks’ widow Tomika Miller asked the court to deny bond, saying she would not feel safe with the former officer free.

“I say ‘no’ because mentally, I’m not able to handle it. I don’t feel safe with him out there,” she said.

Rolfe’s attorneys have said they intend to present strong evidence asserting he was legally justified in using deadly force because he was acting in self-defense. Rolfe was fired from the police and had been held at the Gwinnett County jail.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bernadette Baum)

Woman arrested over torching of Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks died

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A woman accused of setting fire to the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant in Atlanta where police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of arson, authorities said.

Natalie White, 29, was taken into custody by Fulton County sheriff’s deputies on the same day that Brooks, a Black man who was slain by a white officer, was buried following a funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

White’s arrest was announced by the sheriff’s office on Twitter. The county jail telephone line said White had been booked on two counts of first-degree arson. The identity of her attorney could not immediately be ascertained.

Brooks, 27, repeatedly referred to a “Natalie White” as his girlfriend in discussions with police who were questioning him before he was killed, according to video footage from an officer’s body camera. But his relationship to the woman arrested has not been independently verified.

Brooks’ death on June 12 heightened tensions over police brutality and racial bias in U.S. law enforcement that have raged since the killing of George Floyd in police custody with a knee to his neck in Minneapolis in late May.

The chain of events leading to Brooks’ death began when Wendy’s employees called police to report he had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through lane.

According to prosecutors’ account, what began as a cordial encounter with police deteriorated into a physical struggle, with Brooks grabbing one of the officers’ Tasers and running across the parking lot as he was shot from behind.

The Wendy’s outlet was burned to the ground during protests that ensued that night and into the next morning. The blaze is under investigation by Atlanta fire authorities.

The officer who shot Brooks was fired and has been charged with murder. A second officer was placed on administrative duty and charged with assault.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jane Wardell)

Atlanta officer says not ‘state’s witness’ in Rayshard Brooks case, contradicting prosecutor

By Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Devin Brosnan, one of the two Atlanta police officers charged in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, has not agreed to be a witness for the prosecution, his lawyer said on Thursday, contradicting an assertion by the lead prosecutor on the case.

Brosnan turned himself into authorities on Thursday. His lawyer said he would soon be out of custody in an hour or so after processing paperwork.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard had told a news conference on Wednesday that Brosnan had turned “state witness”, agreeing to help prosecute Garrett Rolfe, the other officer charged in the killing of Brooks on June 12.

Rolfe, who shot Brooks in the back with his gun, was charged with felony murder and 10 other charges. Brosnan, who did not discharge his weapon, faces a handful of lesser charges, including aggravated assault and violation of his oath.

The death of Brooks – the latest in a long line of African Americans whose fatal encounters with law enforcement have been documented on video – further heightened U.S. social tensions at a time of national soul searching over police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system.

Howard had highlighted Brosnan’s cooperation as “something remarkable”, adding that the officer had “now become a state’s witness. He has decided to testify on behalf of the state in this case.”

Don Samuel, Brosnan’s lawyer, said that was not true.

While his client had told Howard’s office “everything” during a lengthy interview and would cooperate with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s probe, he had not agreed to be “state’s witness,” the lawyer said.

“Officer Brosnan has not agreed to testify. He has not agreed to plead guilty,” Samuel said in an emailed statement, adding that he “has not agreed to be a ‘state’s witness'”.

Brooks’ killing came amid a storm of protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who perished after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with second-degree murder. Three other Minneapolis policemen were charged with aiding and abetting.

The police encounter with Brooks started out calmly after he was found sleeping in his car at a Wendy’s restaurant drive-through lane in Atlanta. Rolfe and Brosnan administered a sobriety test, after which the situation escalated.

Previously released video of the Brooks appeared to show Brooks grabbing one of the officer’s Taser stun guns and turning and pointing it at Rolfe before being shot. Howard said Thursday that investigators concluded Rolfe knew by then that the Taser had already been fired twice and thus was rendered harmless.

One of the bullets from Rolfe’s gun hit a white Chevy Trailblazer at the Wendy’s, threatening the life of the three passengers inside, according to Howard and the charging documents against the two officers.

One of the car’s passengers, Michael Perkins, told a media briefing on Thursday that he had taken cover in the back seat as the struggle between the officers and Brooks escalated. He said he “smelt gunsmoke” but was unaware the car had taken a bullet until later.

“I almost was killed myself. I feel troubled about it but I’m glad the family is getting the justice it deserves.”

Samuel described the decision to charge his client as “irrational” and politically-motivated. He said Brosnan’s conduct on the night of the shooting was “exemplary” and a “textbook example” of how an officer should approach a situation involving someone inebriated, as Brooks was that night.

While Brosnan did not fire his gun, Howard charged him with aggravated assault for allegedly standing on Brooks’ body after he was shot and for violating his oath of office by not rendering medical aid immediately after he went down.

Samuel said Brosnan, despite suffering a concussion during a tussle with Brooks, rushed to provide medical aid.

(reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Family of Rayshard Brooks demands justice after Atlanta police fatally shoot him in the back

(Reuters) – The family of Rayshard Brooks, a black man whose death reignited protests in Atlanta over the weekend, on Monday said they were “heartbroken” and “tired” of the racial injustice that they said led to Brooks’ death at the hands of Atlanta police.

An autopsy conducted on Sunday showed that Brooks, 27, died from blood loss and organ injuries caused by two gunshot wounds to his back, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office said in a statement, ruling his death a homicide.

“We’re tired and we are frustrated. Most importantly we’re heartbroken, so we need justice for Rayshard Brooks,” his cousin, Tiara Brooks, said at a news conference.

“The trust that we have in the police force is broken. The only way to heal some of these wounds is through a conviction and a drastic change in the police department,” she added.

Brooks’ fatal encounter with the police came after police responded to a call that he had fallen asleep in his car in a Wendy’s restaurant drive-through lane.

Caught on video, the encounter seemed friendly at first but when an officer moved to arrest him, Brooks struggled with him and another officer at the scene before breaking away across the parking lot with what appears to be a police Taser in his hand.

A video from the restaurant’s cameras shows Brooks turning as he runs and possibly aiming the Taser at the pursuing officers, both white, before one of them fires his gun and Brooks falls.

Prosecutors will decide by midweek whether to bring charges, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said on Sunday.

Several members of Rayshard Brooks’ family attended the news conference in tears, and spoke of him as a warm family man who loved to take his daughter skating. One man left the room during the briefing in hysterics, shouting, “Somebody took my cousin!”

Atlanta’s police chief, Erika Shields, resigned over the shooting. The officer suspected of killing Brooks was fired, and the other officer involved in the incident was put on administrative leave.

Brooks’ death reignited protests in Atlanta after days of worldwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality prompted by the death of George Floyd, an African American, when a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25.

Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, implored the public to protest peacefully in her husband’s name.

“We want to keep his name positive,” she said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Gabriella Borter and Nathan Layne; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Mail bomb suspect in court on Monday as CNN reports fresh package

Cesar Altieri Sayoc appears in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. in this August 31, 2005 handout booking photo obtained by Reuters October 26, 2018. Hennepin County SheriffÕs Office/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A suspicious package addressed to CNN was intercepted in Atlanta, the network announced on Monday, as a man accused of mailing bombs to the network and some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s leading critics was due to make his first appearance before a federal judge in Miami on Monday.

The package addressed to the news network was intercepted at an Atlanta post office, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker said in a post on Twitter.

Zucker said there was no imminent danger and that since Wednesday all mail to CNN has been screened at offsite facilities. The Time Warner Center in New York, where CNN’s New York operation is located, was evacuated on Wednesday after a suspicious package turned up there.

Cesar Sayoc, a former male stripper and part-time pizza deliveryman, was arrested on Friday on suspicion of mailing at least 14 pipe bombs to CNN, a range of prominent Democrats, and other frequent targets of Trump’s scorn, including former President Barack Obama. Sayoc was due to appear in court in Miami later on Monday.

(Writing by Rich McKay; editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)