The Korean-owned grocery store located in Atlanta’s Fair Street Bottom closed early in anticipation of trouble. And like storm clouds on the horizon trouble showed up as expected.
The garage-style steel door, typical of many small businesses in economically depressed communities around the nation, however, was not enough to stop the looters from breaking the lock and prying the door up just enough to crawl under and loot the establishment.
The wife of the owner pleaded with Atlanta Police who were clad in riot gear as they stood quietly by and watched.
No officer responded to her crying plead to stop the looters. The officers had more important orders: Don’t let the looters go into downtown; keep them in the Bottom.
The police finally dispersed the looters with tear gas after they tried to set fire to the building. The liquor store next to the 5 Star Grocery was protected from the looters. This contained riot wasn’t going to be fuel by alcohol.
The year the Fair Street Bottom exploded was 1992. It was spring. It was final exams time for the students attending the Atlanta University schools. But the students had more important issues on their minds.
The students were angry about the verdict a white jury handed down acquitting four Los Angeles Police officers who kicked and brutally beat motorist Rodney King with metal batons.
The verdict shocked the nation because the entire nation saw the actual beating by three of the officers as their supervisor watched on video shot by a witness who lived nearby. King suffered a skull fracture, broken bones and teeth and permanent brain damage.
The Justice Department later sued the officers for violating King’s civil rights.
The verdict was handed down on April 30, 1992. The verdict shocked the nation. Los Angeles erupted into five days of violence and looting.
The students in the Atlanta University Center which comprised of mostly of students from Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and Morris Brown College marched to City Hall with the battle cry: “No justice! No peace!” and demand a meeting with then-mayor Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African American mayor who was serving his third term at the time.
Twenty-six years ago, Fair Street Bottom was located in the heart of one of Atlanta’s notorious neighborhoods just east of the Atlanta University Center. It was called the Bottom because Fair Street running east to west from Northside Drive dips downwards before it levels off again as it passes Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.
The Bottom was in the heart of one of the city’s oldest public housing communities – John Hope Homes. With walking distance to the west near Spelman College was another housing project – University Homes.
Fenced in green lots now occupy the space with John Hope Homes once sat. They were torn down in the 1990s as part of the Atlanta Housing Authority’s massive plan to re-invent public housing. University Homes was torn down and re-built into a mixed-income housing complex.
Most of Atlanta missed the “Battle of Fair Street Bottom” unless they read or watch the news. The distance never spread beyond those few blocks south of downtown.
I don’t remember where the phone call came from, but we were informed that some of the marchers were causing damage as they were marching back to the campus. Unfortunate for the marchers some of the young men and high school students joined the march as they passed through John Hope Homes.
The police quickly limited the vandalism to a couple of buildings and a few parked cars. A MARTA bus full of black people going home from work was rocked which made no sense at all.
By the time, I got to the Atlanta University Center, the student organizers had lost control of the march. Those marches who had a taste of destruction downtown were hell-bent on continuing. The Korean-owned 5 Star Supermarket became the focus of the headless mob, as did a few park police cars that were either turned over or set on fire.
After a few hours, and quite a bit of tear gas, the Atlanta Police quelled the disturbance before nightfall. Students retreated back to their dorms and the young looters retreated back to their neighborhoods.
The resident leaders of the John Hope unfairly blamed the students for turning their neighborhood into a battle zone and leaving them without a grocery store. It wasn’t a Kroger, but it was better than what they had the morning after — nothing. The store never reopened and the liquor store soon closed for good also.
What baffled me for some time was why unlike in any other major black city did the students who were so angry took to the streets of Atlanta which were a long way physically and culturally from LA.
The answer was finally revealed to me some months later when I was told that California was a major recruiting target for the colleges in the AU Center.
There are no HBCUs in California, especially in Los Angeles. For many of these middle-class black students, this was there first predominantly black educational experience. They grew up witnessing and experiencing the harassment and mistreatment from a mostly racist corrupt Los Angeles Police Department.
I felt comfortable going to cover the disturbance in Fair Street Bottom because as a student at Clark College I had walked through the Bottom many times and bought food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and beer from that liquor store. I also worked at Clark for nine years after graduation.
But when you are covering a headless mob that is being chased by the police firing tear gas it because of a very scary situation. A situation where I am happy to not to have experienced again.