Dispatches from government reporter Johnny Edwards

The upside of an angry mob

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

While helping cover the civil unrest Sunday at Cherry Tree Crossing housing project, I thought I should position myself amid the crowd of people yelling at deputies and hurling rocks and bottles at patrol cars. I'd just arrived and wasn't quite sure what all the ruckus was over. The people milling around a package store on the opposite side of 15th Street weren’t giving me much, and I figured those confronting police would have more to say.

About 100 people had amassed at a chain-link fence fronting the road, which deputies were standing along in a line. Most of the people were behind the fence on the housing project side, pushing against it and occasionally throwing things. Some in the crowd had spilled over to the street side, pointing fingers at deputies and screaming accusations at them.

I crossed 15th Street, approaching the fence with the deputies’ backs to me. I asked the officers near a gap in the fence, a little ways up from the thick part of the crowd, if I could go through. They said yes, one giving me a look that said, “Are you nuts?”

I went in and made my way into the horde. Things went fine at first. People seemed eager to talk, relating what they believed happened earlier between Justin Elmore and the Richmond County Sheriff’s deputies who shot him.

As I made my way toward the crowded area of the fence I saw what looked like a photo that would sum up the scene – a close view of residents berating police officers. I remembered that fellow reporter Michelle Guffey, on the other side of 15th Street, had a camera.

I went out through the gap in the fence and called to her. She joined me and we went back in, me showing her the spot where I thought we could take a good picture.

That’s where it all went wrong.

People looking toward the deputies started turning around and facing us. I heard sarcastic things yelled about news reporters. A man with a furious expression came toward us from the direction of the fence. There was me, broad-shouldered and 6-feet, 2-inches tall, and Michelle, who’s 5 feet, 4 inches. Who did this man who reeked of alcohol choose to confront? Michelle, of course.

He got close to her face and yelled something about the news media never paying people like him any attention.

“You wanna’ talk to me?” he screamed. “You wanna’ hear what I got to say?”

I got between him and Michelle, forcefully telling him that hearing what he had to say was our reason for being there.

At this point, with a circle forming around us, a sinking feeling came over me that I'd felt once before. When I was in Iraq in 2003, I rode with a Marine artillery unit to a camp in a field on the outskirts of Baghdad, where cannons were aimed into the city. On a road off in the distance I saw a line of civilians walking in front of a building with Saddam Hussein’s portrait on a wall. I thought that would make a great picture too, so I left the Marines, walked about 200 yards, then crouched down on the side of the road and started snapping away. Some of the men took notice and stopped walking, their eyes fixed on me. A group of them started moving in my direction, one man with a hand behind his back. I thought of how far away the Marines were and realized I’d made a huge mistake, that I'd lost control of the situation, that I'd gone too far and was about to be swallowed and devoured by a news story. In that case, though, it turned out all those men wanted to do was tell me in scant English how happy they were that Saddam was out of power.

The situation at Cherry Tree Crossing wasn’t turning out so well. Someone slapped my notebook out of my hand, brushing my cheek with the blow.

“Naw, naw, naw,” I heard men yelling, admonishing whoever had done that.

Then several men and women rushed to our side, forming a shield around us. They put arms around us and led us back to the gap in the fence. When we got there a deputy brisked Michelle away.

I asked one of the men who’d walked us out if he wanted to talk, and he did. An eyewitness to the shooting approached and gave me her account.

I can’t stop thinking of how easily that foray could have turned out much, much worse. People were drinking. And as we found out a little later when shots rang out from within the housing project, people had guns too.

To those who led us out, whoever you are, thank you.

    • Syndicate content
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Austin Rhodes
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Austin Rhodes 12/16/08 - 09:22 am
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Johnny...geez man...that

Johnny...geez man...that wasn't the Garden Club down there. Thank goodness there were rational folks in the midst of the mob...discretion is the better part of valor... AR

xqwbv2
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xqwbv2 12/16/08 - 10:37 am
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Good God. So people start

Good God. So people start venting at the very news media who are paying attention to them now. I can understand venting about it but when people are trying to get your side of the story, it's pretty darn stupid in my book. Thank God for those who helped y'all out of there.

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 12/16/08 - 01:40 pm
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Yes, I agree. But like I

Yes, I agree. But like I said, it seemed like such a good idea at the time. Speaking of garden clubs, you should listen to Faith and Values Reporter Kelly Jasper talk to those people. I sit next to her, and she's constantly being chewed out by them. They're an intense bunch, though I don't think they're at the point of hurling rocks and bottles yet.

Kelly Jasper
86
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Kelly Jasper 12/16/08 - 01:43 pm
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Sad, but true. (I can't

Sad, but true. (I can't help but think I've only been spared from rocks and bottles because those interviews were done by phone.)

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 12/16/08 - 05:58 pm
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Johnny, Tom Grant contends

Johnny, Tom Grant contends that Augusta can not be compared to the projects and section 8 problems in Memphis. I disagree. What do people reading this blog think? Please take time to read this very informative news article: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/memphis-crime

Austin Rhodes
2917
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Austin Rhodes 12/17/08 - 10:10 am
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Johnny...please don't refer

Johnny...please don't refer to the stolen vehicle as "Elmore's SUV" any more. Thanks!

16
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Channing 100Proof 12/17/08 - 02:27 pm
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The sad part is that you may

The sad part is that you may be right.

Email: channing100proof@gmail.com

16
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Channing 100Proof 12/17/08 - 02:30 pm
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Cudos to you for trying to

Cudos to you for trying to help out a coworker and keep a bad situation from getting worse. People have a right to be angry but they need to focus that anger in the right direction.

Email: channing100proof@gmail.com

Stoone08
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Stoone08 12/17/08 - 02:44 pm
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Exactly! I'm so glad there

Exactly! I'm so glad there were people there that didn't get you all mixed up with the source of the residents anger...Who knew that government reporter would have to deal with this kind of raucous outside of civil meetings?!

jheglerjr
0
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jheglerjr 12/19/08 - 04:49 pm
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I just thank God that you

I just thank God that you two got out safe. Keep up the good reporting.

ponytailfnp
21
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ponytailfnp 12/18/08 - 12:12 am
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I lived in downtown Memphis

I lived in downtown Memphis in the Medical Center area from 1980 - 1986 and then the surrounding "suburb" from 1986 until 1995 but continued to commute to the downtown hospital to work. I feel so blessed to have the choice to live someplace safer for my children to grow up, but I see the same narcisistic attitude developing here that I experienced there. Trust me, we must do EVERYTHING possible to stop that because Memphis is not a fit place to live now and even though all of my husband's family still live in the "suburbs" we don't visit there. They come here to see us and tell us how bad it is there. WE have to elect GOOD people into commission positions that will not pander to this attitude of rewarding bad behavior. As for the Journalists, God bless you in your efforts to keep us informed of both sides of the story, but watch your 6. Another journalist that I enjoy reading is still covering Iraq and Afghanastan and his name is Micheal Yon. You might have run into him in Iraq and if not, you might enjoy reading his stories.

pofwe
5
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pofwe 12/18/08 - 09:01 am
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If my fate was to survice in

If my fate was to survice in Cherry Tree Crossing or the likes thereof ... I'd be [filtered word] too, ... with myself. But those that refuse to blame themselves ... must blame others. It is the nature of the beast, ... you know?

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 12/18/08 - 02:00 pm
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Hello person from Memphis.

Hello person from Memphis. Did you know of this importnt work? Please tell me your opinion of it. I want to hear it because you are from Memphis: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/memphis-crime Sincerely, Butch Palmer email butch@hongkongaugustaga.org

ponytailfnp
21
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ponytailfnp 12/18/08 - 09:48 pm
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Butch, This is the most

Butch, This is the most courageous piece of journalism I have ever seen concerning the racial politics and crime in Memphis. I can tell you that 100% of it is true and accurate and very CONSERVATIVELY written. My father and my husbands family grew up in North Memphis and in 1980, I went to the Hollywood Clinic to get my free birth control pills while I was in College. Now I would Never consider driving in any of those areas even in the daytime. I moved to the southeast "tail" of Memphis after my divorce to a VERY ELITE neighborhood 1989 and within 3 - 4 years I again felt very unsafe because of exactly what was described in this story.... the community was flooded with section 8 subsidized renters/ owners and the crime followed IMMEDIATELY. As we (Augusta) are in the process of destroying the homes next to MCG, we need to pay careful attention to the expanding crime rate as well. I know that is not pleasant to hear nor is it pleasant to say, but to see the large elephant in the dining room and not mention it makes a fool out of everyone in the room that can plainly see it and needs to discuss how to safely get the elephant out of the house.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 12/19/08 - 12:03 am
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Hello Memphis, Would you

Hello Memphis, Would you pleae circulate the Atlantic article and give your testomoney. Let our mayor know that it is vald and that we have the making of the same "flow" of crime here because of section 8. MayorDeke@augustaga.gov MayorPro-Tem_Beard@augustaga.gov

Austin Rhodes
2917
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Austin Rhodes 12/19/08 - 01:01 pm
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I must correct an earlier

I must correct an earlier statement. Elmore's car was NOT in fact stolen, it was his. The officers at the scene were never under the impression they were dealing with a stolen car, just weapons and drugs. I got some incorrect information the night the episode occurred. AR

ponytailfnp
21
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ponytailfnp 12/19/08 - 01:52 pm
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checking the responses while

checking the responses while at work so can't write a lengthy letter to the politicians, but will do so this weekend. I think that if we can examine how other cities are "revitalizing" their downtown areas and waterfronts, we need to also examine how crime sprees developed and in other cities see if we can be "the first" to not let it happen here and let others learn from our doing something "right" That would be a first now wouldn't it

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 12/19/08 - 07:48 pm
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Hello Memphis, Thank you for

Hello Memphis, Thank you for responding. "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has" Margaret Mead Please connet with our down town group at www.hongkongaugustaga.org Butch Palmer 706 399 4580

Partlycloudy420
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Partlycloudy420 12/25/08 - 01:55 pm
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Johnny, Please be careful

Johnny, Please be careful out there! Things can get out of control very quickly when dealing with an angry mob which is usually armed with handguns and intoxicated on alcohol, anger and adrenaline. You are a very good reporter and I know you are dedicated to your profession and want to get the story at (almost) any cost. But you gotta use common sense and tread very carefully when dealing with these thugs. I seriously doubt Kirby would want you to make a potentially fatal boneheaded move again. And congrats on moving to the local govt. beat. While Sylvia Cooper will be greatly missed, you are very passionate and talented enough to make your own legacy with The Chronicle.

Johnny Edwards
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Johnny Edwards 12/26/08 - 04:09 am
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Thanks for the kind words.

Thanks for the kind words. You're right about needing to be careful. Things were really heated that night. This past Monday, I was on hand for the march through Cherry Tree Crossing led by the New Black Panthers Party's Augusta chapter. I was there, along with photographer Rainier Ehrhardt and reporter Adam Folk. I felt no antagonism from anyone involved in the march. They're just upset about the shooting and they want someone to listen to them.

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