A day after protests over the death of George Floyd turned violent in Atlanta, marchers brought their protests to Gwinnett County.
Gwinnett County police and sheriff’s deputies responded to protests “in and around” the Sugarloaf Mills area in unincorporated Lawrenceville Saturday afternoon. The mall, which had been operating on reduced hours because of the COVID-19 pandemic, closed early because of the protests.
"We are thankful that our community could come together tonight to express their feelings and concerns in a peaceful manner," police said in a statement. "Citizens can expect an increased police presence throughout the county tonight."
The Mall of Georgia, which is owned by the same company that owns Sugarloaf Mills, also closed early because of the situation at its sister mall.
"The police department understands that many people are feeling heightened emotions and wish to express themselves," Cpl. Collin Flynn said in a statement. "We welcome people in Gwinnett County to peacefully protest and express their beliefs and frustrations. The situation at Sugarloaf Mills Mall is fluid and officers are dealing rapidly changing encounters with the groups of people that have assembled."
Police said the protesters began gathering at Sugarloaf Mills at about 4:30 p.m. and that many of the people who gathered there were protesting peacefully. Gwinnett police worked with sheriff's deputies, Lawrenceville police, mall security and Gwinnett firefighters to handle the situation.
"Crowds of protesters swelled to several hundred and Gwinnett Police responded to maintain the safety of both the protesters and citizens in the area," police said in a statement.
"While the majority of the protesters were peaceful and law abiding, four individuals were arrested and transported to the Gwinnett County Jail ... Two police cars were damaged, but no damage was reported to private businesses. No injuries to officers or civilians were reported."
Two videos from the encounter surfaced on Twitter Saturday night with the posters claiming it showed a Gwinnett police officer punching a white protester who was lying on the ground. A Gwinnett County police spokesman confirmed the video’s authenticity.
“Yes, this was from today,” the police department’s public information officer said in response to a Daily Post inquiry about the authenticity of the first video. “This was a GCPD officer.”
It is not clear what prompted the interaction between the man and the officer. The second video that emerged showed the man and the officer were involved in a struggle, before the punch was thrown, as the officer tried to get the man on the ground. A second man could also be seen being arrested in the second video.
"The police department takes all uses of force seriously and thoroughly investigates each one," Flynn said. "Once the situation has concluded we will address any force used and an investigation will be completed with transparent results to the public. We want to thank the citizens that have assembled peacefully and we expect everyone to follow the laws and ordinances of Gwinnett County while they express themselves during this time."
Protests over the death of George Floyd began earlier this week in Minneapolis, where Floyd died after an encounter with police. One police officer has been arrested and faces charges in connection with Floyd’s death.
Protests spread to other cities across the country, including Atlanta, later in the week.
There had been chatter on Twitter on Saturday afternoon about plans to protest at Sugarloaf Mills, with some people encouraging participants to cover their faces and avoid talking to media so they could not be identified later by law enforcement.
Shortly before 8:30 p.m., Gwinnett police issued a warning to protesters, through Twitter, to not attempt to march onto Interstate 85, which runs next to Sugarloaf Mills.
“GCPD respects our citizen’s right to protest,” police said in the warning. “The safety of all involved is our primary concern. We will not tolerate protesters getting on or attempting to block traffic on the interstate. If protesters proceed onto the interstate they will be arrested.”
Rumors began to circulate around 9:30 p.m. that the protesters were trying to move to the Lawrenceville Square. Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington said city officials had heard about the rumors.
"We are aware and are addressing it," Warbington said.
Late Saturday night, Warbington confirmed a group of people had gathered "in various places in and around the historic square this evening." Lawrenceville police were backed up by Gwinnett law enforcement as well as police from other cities in the county in monitoring the situation.
The group eventually dispersed without incident, according to the city manager.
"At no time were any businesses or citizens in any danger," Warbington said.
Gwinnett Solicitor General Brian Whiteside warned protesters to not engage in criminal activity as nightfall fell on the county.
"The Gwinnett County Solicitor General’s Office supports all individuals who are peacefully expressing their First Amendment right.," Whiteside's office said in a statement. "We highly encourage citizens to refrain from engaging in any criminal activity. We are aware that tensions are high in our community, but criminal activity will not be tolerated.
"The Gwinnett County Solicitor General’s Office will prosecute all individuals who engage in violence, retail crime, and cause property damage while protesting. Those who engage in violence, retail crime, and cause property damage while protesting will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Instead of creating chaos and destruction, we must come together as a community to show our strength during these uncertain times."
Go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com for updates.