Angry protesters shut down the Feb. 15 Smyrna City Council meeting over the promotion of the police officer who killed an unarmed black man last March. Mayor Max Bacon tried to conduct the routine business of the council while protesters who had packed the council chambers in support of Nicholas Thomas heckled and chanted. A few minutes before 7 p.m., less than half an hour after the meeting began, many of the protesters stood up and advanced toward the mayor and council, shouting and chanting. The mayor and council exited the room, leaving the council chambers to protesters, police, the press.
The evening started with over 100 people rallying on the steps of Smyrna’s City Hall on King Street. A coalition of organizations including Black Lives Matter Atlanta and the Cobb County SCLC had gathered to protest the promotion of Kenneth Owens from sergeant to lieutenant.
Speakers at the rally included Thomas’ parents, Huey and Felicia Thomas. Huey Thomas said that he and other family members were not allowed to stand in the hallway when the grand jury was deliberating about the shooting of his son. He also charged that the police had deleted the video taken at the tire store showing what happened during the shooting. Felicia Thomas said “It’s a shame that police officers kill our kids, and they get rewarded.”
At 6 p.m. the speakers ended the rally, and protesters entered Smyrna City Hall and packed the small foyer of the council chambers, an hour before the public was allowed to enter the meeting room. After chants of “Black Lives Matter,” and “Justice for Nicholas Thomas,” a few people in the crowd taunted and tried to get reactions from the police officers stationed at the security entrance to the chambers. One officer told them that decisions on promotions were “above my pay grade.”
When the doors opened, and those entering the council meeting were being processed through security, people from the crowd continued to shout. One person yelled “We’re not here to make you comfortable!”
Max Bacon, the mayor, who also presides over City Council meetings, attempted to conduct the routine business of the meeting while shouts and chants continued to erupt from the crowd. He said “I am a patient man. We have an agenda we go by tonight… A lot of you may be here because you think we may or may not vote on something tonight that you are interested in. But our published agenda does not include any promotional approvals at all, by the council.”
He proceeded to the first item of the agenda, which was an Arbor Day proclamation. A voice in the crowd loudly and clearly called out “Fire Officer Kenneth Owens now.” As the Arbor Day proclamation continued, the person repeated the call to fire Owens.
A presentation on Black History Month began, and someone shouted “This is not a TV show.” When four women in African dress began singing, the crowd began murmuring. When the performance ended a mix of applause and shouting broke out.
The next item of regular business was a zoning request from Habitat for Humanity. The crowd was momentarily quiet. The Habitat representative made it through four minutes of his presentation, when voices began shouting out. “What about Nicholas Thomas?” “End police brutality.”
Then the crowd broke into the chant “No more business as usual! No more business as usual!”
Most of the crowd stood and began advancing toward the city council members and the mayor. The police formed a line at the rail separating the council from the crowd, while the city council and mayor rapidly left the chambers, shutting the meeting down.
Protesters continued to talk in the meeting room, while police stood at the rail. The crowd finally began leaving the building.
Patricia Scott, when asked why she had attended the protest, said “Black lives matter, that’s what’s bringing me here. Justice for mothers, and fathers … my son was killed in 2003, arrested without incident, died in police custody in Cobb County jail … I’m here for Nick, because they did him wrong also.”
Scott said that her son was taken to the hospital after his arrest, that she was told he was in good medical condition, and was laughing and joking with staff. She said that she could not make contact with her son after he was transferred to the jail, and that he died in custody a few days later.
According to a statement issued by the Smyrna police department, in March of 2015 Smyrna and Cobb County police officers arrived at Nicholas Thomas’s workplace, Goodyear Tires, on Cumberland Parkway, to serve an arrest warrant. Thomas was pulling a customer’s white Maserati around the building, when he saw police, and drove around the building twice. The police statement asserts that he began driving toward officers, and that Sergeant Kenneth Owens fired a single shot into the vehicle, killing Thomas.
In July a Cobb grand jury determined that Owens acted properly, and refused to issue an indictment. In February the Smyrna Police Department promoted him to Lieutenant.
Mayor Bacon could not be reached for comment, but his staff made the following statement available:
The elected officials of the City of Smyrna meet in regular session on the first and the third Mondays of each month to address matters of policy and to make decisions in support of the business of the citizens of Smyrna. This evening’s meeting, a regularly scheduled meeting, is governed by a published and public agenda which – by nature of the responsibilities of those who hold public office – lists items that require public examination and vote. Internal staff-level promotions, including those within public safety, are not at the discretion of Mayor and Council and do not appear on Council agenda.