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What should have been a quick trip for a bite to eat became an ordeal for two HBCU students who were tasered and assaulted by Atlanta police on Saturday (May 30) night.
“I don’t want to die is what kept going through my mind,” Messiah Young, 22, told BET.com. “Every time I close my eyes, I’m literally remembering and being pulled back into the moment. I literally try to just erase it."
The case has resulted in six Atlanta police officers being charged with excessive force; five with aggravated assault and two being fired. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard made the announcement on Tuesday at a news conference. The officers who were fired have been identified as Investigator Ivory Streeter and Investigator Mark Gardner.
Young, a rising senior at Morehouse College and his girlfriend, 20-year old Taniyah Pilgrim, a fellow rising senior at companion school Spelman College, thought they had time to grab a meal before the city’s 9:00 p.m. curfew. Atlanta was reeling from demonstrations across the city against the death of George Floyd. Instead, the couple got caught in traffic. As they inched through downtown, Young spotted a friend and chatted with him. Police suddenly pulled the friend away and began beating him, Young told BET.com.
Operating on reflex, Young pulled out his cell phone and began recording. The friend is heard on body camera video pleading with police and telling them he didn’t do anything. Young says that’s when a police officer used a baton to smash the driver-side window of Pilgrim’s black Mazda while another yanked open the passenger door. Young is seen in the car with his hands on the steering wheel, which is something he was taught by his family. He says he was being compliant and yet the police, shouting, tugged both young people onto the street, tasering them while Pilgrim screamed and cried. Young’s lawyer claims one policeman also punched the young man multiple times in the back.
"My family is keeping me kind of insulated right now,” said Young, whose parents flew to Atlanta from their hometown of Chicago to be with him. “I’ve honestly had maybe four hours of sleep since this happened on Saturday. I’m interested in watching the video but my parents are keeping me sheltered.”
Young, who is studying business, suffered a chipped bone in his wrist, upper body injuries and 23 stitches in his arm from the encounter. He also spent a day in jail before the Georgia NAACP pushed authorities to drop charges of him fleeing from police and driving with a suspended license.
Young said he is in a lot of pain.
“My wrist, it’s almost all over my body, my ribs, chest, back -- there’s a lot of soreness, a lot of pain,” the young man said. “I literally feel my body aching so it’s kind of tough right now.”
Pilgrim, 20, who is studying psychology, was being evaluated by doctors at a local hospital on Tuesday, said her attorney, Chris Stewart.
"She's going for further medical testing because she was tasered multiple times and has injuries from being slammed directly onto the ground and we're still waiting to see the results," Stewart said.
"She's hanging in there," he added about Pilgrim. "They're both outstanding, tough kids and I think what has helped get them through this is their relationship. In a meeting, you'll find them sitting close. They support each other."
Pilgrim, who is originally from San Antonio, is staying with an aunt and uncle because her parents are in the U.S. military and stationed in Kuwait. Her family members did not respond to a request for an interview.
“She is a trooper and I commend her to the highest extent,” Young said. “I might have been dead if she wasn’t there. Mentally, she’s just kind of removed.”
Young’s father, Charles Young, said he and his wife are also still processing what happened.
“As far as how we feel about the incident, one was the health of our son and his girlfriend, that was the main priority for us,” said the elder Young, 48, who heads a nonprofit in Chicago.
Charles Young noted that even though most of the police involved in the incident are Black, issues with law enforcement cross racial lines.
“We embrace the love and the kind words that we’ve gotten from everyone,” he said. “I’m speaking specifically as a dad, there’s still a bit of anger, there’s knowing that this is par for the course, no matter the ethnicity. It’s the behavior that has not changed. In fact, if you look, it’s so much more pronounced now, and with the assistance of social media, you’re seeing so much more of it pop up.”
Atlanta officials have formally apologized to the couple. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced Sunday that Gardner, a 23-year veteran of the force, and Streeter, who has been with the department since 2003, were both terminated. Three more officers involved have been reassigned to desk duty until their role in the incident can be further investigated, the mayor said.
The status of that sixth officer was not yet clear Tuesday afternoon, a police department representative said.
Police Chief Erika Shields said she and the mayor decided to terminate the two after an exhaustive review of their body camera video.
“I apologize to both of the individuals,” Shields said. “How we behaved as an agency with these individuals was not acceptable and I know that we caused further fear to you in a space that’s already fearful for so many African Americans.”
Lawyer Mawuli Davis, who is representing Young, said he is pushing to have all officers involved disciplined through legal channels and that firing is not enough.
“We believe that the officers actions were illegal, they were excessive and unwarranted and they should be criminally prosecuted,” the lawyer told BET.com.
Pilgrim's lawyers also are looking to file a civil lawsuit in order to compel better behavior from law enforcement, attorney Justin Miller said.
The Georgia NAACP stepped in to have the charges against Young dropped without bail, state President James Woodall told BET.com. Woodall stepped in after receiving a middle-of-the-night email from Pilgrim’s parents, stationed overseas.
“I got an email and call from her dad,” Woodall said. “I served eight years in the U.S. Army and I know all too well what it feels like to be miles and miles from your loved ones when there’s a crisis.”
The organization also plans to push for further police reform throughout the state to pull back on the militarization of police departments, Woodall said.
The Georgia NAACP has also been integral in the advocacy of the case involving the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot dead on Feb. 23rd by a white man near Brunswick, Ga., while out running.
“We still have a long way to go and we’re not going to stop,” he said.
Messiah Young said that this situation fits in with the lessons his family has drummed into him for years. While the family lived in California, he heard regularly about the 1992 police beating of Rodney King and subsequent unrest that erupted throughout the country. His parents and sisters frequently engage in “the talk” about how Black men have to be overly careful with police and anticipate being targeted, he said.
Young said that on Saturday, he and Pilgrim actually had no intentions of protesting. The couple simply wanted to grab some food and spend the evening together.
“Our intentions weren’t even to be anywhere near a crowd -- we literally were just going to a place five minutes from where I live,” Young told BET.com.
Everything erupted after he began chatting with his friend, who was about to get in his car, he said.
Messiah Young struggled to find words to explain what he thought at that moment.
“It was honestly just chaos,” Young said.
“We weren’t even talking 10 seconds before he was tackled,” Young remembered. “It was just really traumatizing because this is my Morehouse brother, I see this man almost every day, and it was just shocking to see him pulled away. That’s what makes me so passionate about this because this is just an injustice.”
His father struggled to explain the night's events too. He’s surprised that instead of shutting down, his son has done the opposite, speaking with the district attorney’s office, meeting with the Morehouse administration and keeping busy. Charles Young said he hopes his son can be still at some point, and is wishing for the best for both young people.
“As a parent, you just can’t imagine this.”
BET has been covering every angle of George Floyd’s death in police custody, other social justice cases and the subsequent aftermath and protests. For our continuing coverage, click here.
Melanie Eversley is an independent journalist based in New York City has covered race and politics for USA Today and the Washington bureaus of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Detroit Free Press. She is a 2020 John Jay Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow.
AP Photo/John Bazemore