WASHINGTON – Once demonstrators realized the Georgia National Guard was there to protect them and facilitate a peaceful protest, violence diminished in downtown Atlanta last week, said Staff Sgt. David Knicely.
“People were extremely receptive once we kind of explained it is our obligation to defend the Constitution,” Knicely said, “and the Constitution allows for the freedom of civility, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to protest.”
Knicely and other members of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team were called to augment law enforcement in downtown Atlanta beginning May 29 after rioters looted and damaged several businesses. He spent every night last week standing near the fence of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
About 100 Soldiers of the Georgia Army National Guard set up a security cordon along the entrance to the park. One of their jobs was to scan the crowd and look for suspicious activity.
“Some people were there to detract from the message by inciting violence,” Knicely said. For instance, one Guard member noticed a protester was selling Tasers out of her backpack. Knicely’s team reported it to police who “pulled the backpack of Tasers out of the crowd,” he said.
Knicely said he talked with about 50 people along the fence, one-on-one.
“They’d be on the fence line, so I would just walk up and approach them and say, ‘What are your thoughts on this? ... Why are you out here?’”
At first, some of his encounters weren’t very civil, he said. The first night, some crowds turned hostile. Rioters were throwing rocks and bricks at the police and National Guard. But as time went on, many realized the National Guard was there to protect them and keep order, Knicely said.
“I just try to relate to them. As if it’s me standing on the other side of the fence line,” he said about the protesters.
At the beginning of last week, he estimated about 90% of protesters were hostile, but now it has flip-flopped. Most of the protesters are willing to come up to members of the Guard and talk.
By the end of last week, he said some of the protesters were offering Soldiers water and snacks.
The first few nights of curfew, tear gas had to be used by police to disperse the crowds. Beginning Wednesday, though, the crowd dispersed peacefully at 9 p.m.
“They’re coming up and being a lot more receptive to us,” Knicely said. “Now they’re saying, ‘Hey these guys aren’t our enemy. They’re here to help protect us.’ The leaders of the group are starting to preach that to the crowd.”
Knicely was born in Cobb County, just a few minutes outside Atlanta, and he has always considered the city his home. He remembers visiting Centennial Olympic Park as a boy for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Knicely served as a police officer for about a year and a half in Smyrna, about 16 miles from Atlanta.
He went full-time with the National Guard as the readiness noncommissioned officer for C Company, 3rd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Georgia Army National Guard.
Both his grandfathers fought in World War II, one in the Army and the other in the Navy. His brother is an active-duty Army staff sergeant stationed in Hawaii.
Knicely returned last March from a deployment in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. His unit has been activated now for about six weeks in the fight against COVID-19.
“This has been a unique experience, for sure,” he said.
When called May 29 to help with the civil disturbance, he was surprised. “This kind of activation is something,” he said. “I never dreamed I would be a part of it.
“I’m going to be telling my kids and grandkids about this. We’re literally being a part of history right now and we’re watching it unfold.”