After Georgia Tech Police-Perpetrated Shooting of Non-Binary Student, Atlanta Police Crack Down on Student Dissent

(Photo: FsHH; Edited: LW / TO)(Photo: FsHH; Edited: LW / TO)

When Georgia Tech Police Officer Tyler Beck fatally shot 21-year-old computer engineering student Scout Schultz through the heart on September 16, Schultz was holding a multitool containing a small knife that was not displayed. It was the very same tool friends of Schultz say they saw Schultz use in weeks prior to scrape off white supremacist Identity Evropa propaganda posted around campus.

Schultz, who was president of Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance and who identified as non-binary (neither male nor female), was in the grip of a mental health crisis, and had left three suicide notes in their dorm before calling the police themself in the run-up to the shooting.

While the shooting initially received some attention in the media, the tragedy’s ripple effects have continued to shake friends and family in the following weeks. Dallas Punja, a former partner and close friend of Schultz who also identified as non-binary, took their own life after describing feeling emotionally triggered by police sirens and lights in the wake of their friend’s murder.

Punja told a friend shortly before their suicide that they feared potential criminal charges after Georgia Tech officers hunted down and arrested students and activists for their alleged roles in a protest that erupted two days after Schultz’s shooting, in which a cop car was burned. “I’m not strong enough to be arrested,” they had said.

Even as this repression has unfolded across Atlanta-area colleges, right-wing groups like the Georgia Tech Marksman Club and the neo-fascist Identity Evropa have exploited the tragedy to build support for campus police — all while Georgia Tech president G.P. Peterson has peddled fear about “outside agitators” intent on “inciting violence” on campus.

Vigil Sparks Campus Revolt

According to students, when campus administrators were making plans for a candlelight vigil to honor Schultz, friends of Schultz approached the administrators and were told they’d be given a chance to eulogize Schultz during the event. That changed when they arrived for the vigil September 18. Only two people — both campus administrators — would speak during an event that lasted a mere 20 minutes. Schultz’s friends felt insulted.

“They announced that the vigil was over and people stayed, and someone stood up and shouted, ‘This is not OK,'” said Spencer, a friend of Schultz and organizer with All Out ATL who attends Georgia State University (GSU). (Spencer asked for their last name to be withheld due to the atmosphere of police repression against area students.)

From there, between 50 and 100 students and protesters donned masks and marched toward the Tech police headquarters, where multiple clashes between students and police ensued. Spencer said they witnessed a number of officers slamming students to the ground “seemingly at random.” Two officers were injured and a police squad car was set ablaze that night.

Vincent Castillenti, Jacob Wilson and Cassandra Monden were arrested during the clashes, and charged with multiple felony and misdemeanor counts including aggravated assault against a police officer, interference with government property and inciting to riot.

Monden and Wilson, both students, now face the possibility of suspension and expulsion from Georgia Tech and GSU, respectively.

Moreover, Wilson and Castillenti have since been charged with harsh new penalties under Georgia’s Back the Badge Act, which imposes mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of aggravated assault against a police officer. Some state legislators have criticized the new law for specifically targeting protesters.

Stevenson Hudson, a founder of the cop-watching organization African American Equality Committee that also works to feed the homeless, was arrested a little while after clashes broke out at the September 18 protest. Hudson was charged with a misdemeanor for carrying a weapon in a school safety zone, despite having a license for his firearm.

“I saw the video. I don’t think [Schultz] should have gotten shot. … There’s ways that you can calm down a situation rather than be escalated. [Schultz] did not deserve to die in that moment,” Hudson said about why he came out that night. “Every person has a right to protest.”

Witch Hunt for Campus Activists

The Georgia Tech Police Department (GTPD), accompanied by Atlanta and GSU police, have tracked down three more students, all Black, in the months following the protest in a move legal analysts have called “unusual.” Using information collected via the social media monitoring platforms LiveSafe and Leedir, police arrested Julian Pennington on September 27 on a charge of inciting a riot, a misdemeanor. Two days later, police pulled another GSU student, who prefers to remain anonymous, out of class and made an arrest on the same charge. Then, on October 2, Georgia Tech student Kirby Jackson was arrested, police allege, in connection to the September 18 protest, a little more than a week after she criticized GTPD in an interview with Yahoo! News.

The investigation into the September 18 protest remains ongoing, according to university officials.

“We believe this is a clear case of Georgia Tech Police attempting to cover up the shooting of a student armed with only a closed multitool by repressing those who spoke out against it,” said All Out ATL Organizer Ben Walters.

University spokesperson Lance Wallace said the arrests were not about repression, however. “Evidence was used to identify the individuals arrested on misdemeanor obstruction charges and indicated that they took physical actions in an attempt to encourage violence and prevent officers from making arrests at the scene. No one is being targeted because they protested,” he told Truthout in an emailed statement.

But area organizers say the arrests, in addition to being unusually aggressive, are also racialized: Five of the seven people arrested allegedly in connection with the September 18 protest are Black. Not only has GTPD released surveillance photos disproportionately targeting people of color, they say, but the police departments have worked together to harass Black students, pulling them out of class to interrogate and threaten them with disciplinary action if they don’t cooperate.

“It’s been mostly targeted against Black students, and it appears to be a direct attempt to silence those who initially spoke out against the murder and sweep it all under the rug,” Spencer says.

Hudson was similarly upset to hear of the additional arrests.

“When I heard about it though, I wanted everybody to go back down there and protest again because I’m like ‘You can’t arrest somebody while they’re in class,'” Hudson said.

“Alt-Right” Exploits Unrest

Spencer detailed another protest that took place on September 22, shortly after the vigil and campus revolt. After Tech students announced plans for an upcoming sit-in at a building that houses the campus counseling center to draw attention to the need for more mental health support services, administrators shut down the building and encouraged instructors to cancel class, claiming in an email to faculty that anti-fascist groups were planning a riot. Undeterred, students gathered outside the closed building and held a speak-out as police helicopters hovered overhead and undercover police blended in with a larger surrounding crowd of spectators and hecklers, according to activists who were there.

Since Schultz’s death, administrators and others have stoked fear about “outside” radical actors. Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson addressed the student body after the vigil and protest, writing in a statement that, “We believe many of them were not part of our Georgia Tech community, but rather outside agitators intent on disrupting the event.” The rhetoric was used to justify a mass deployment of alerts and emails to faculty and students in the days that followed, according to activists. Similarly, the school’s social media threads have proliferated with posts about antifa, they say.

Seizing on this opportunity, right-wing groups like Georgia Tech Marksman Club, which Spencer called a potential front for Identity Evropa, posted stickers on the Georgia Tech campus, including the night after Shultz’s shooting and the vigil. The group also organized an “I Love GTPD” event and fundraiser on campus. Identity Evropa piled on, posting stickers and posters around campus, using the unrest as an opportunity to recruit.

“So this is the public mood. There was chalk messages all over campus that said ‘I heart GTPD,’ … and I think a lot people who supported the rebellion felt scared to come out … because there’s this kind of atmosphere of intimidation on the campus,” Spencer says. “There was an attempt by the administration and the police department … to make it seem like the shooting was inevitable and the right consequence of what happened, and that there was nothing that could have been done to change it, which I think is absolutely disgusting for someone having a mental health crisis.”

Civil Suit Pending

Tech Officer Tyler Beck remains on paid leave as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) investigates his decision to shoot Schultz. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard will decide whether criminal charges are warranted, based on the GBI’s findings. Beck, a rookie officer, had not completed any crisis intervention training specifically designed to help police handle individuals that are in the middle of a mental health-related episode.

A lawyer for the Schultz family, L. Chris Stewart, told Truthout that he met with university officials and attorneys to attempt to resolve the case out of court. Stewart said Tech officials declined to honor the family’s requests, which included an engineering scholarship for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual students in Schultz’s name; a plaque honoring Schultz at the counseling center; and mandatory crisis intervention training and Tasers for all Tech officers.

“We have reviewed your suggestion that we mediate on Monday, October 2, 2017. We cannot enter into a mediation; we need additional information, such as that contained in the GBI’s investigation, before we can determine next steps,” wrote Pat McKenna, Georgia Tech’s associate vice president for legal affairs and risk management, in an email to the Schultz family and their attorney shortly after the meeting. “Regarding the investigation that your firm has done, we hope that the information you have obtained, including the video that you have, will be turned over to the GBI, if that has not already taken place. We appreciate the family’s interest in seeing that the issues raised by Scout’s death are addressed in a peaceful and constructive manner.”

Stewart called the university’s response a bit beside the point.

“It’s disappointing because it wasn’t even about what the GBI is going to say. We’ve all seen the video. It was about, can we be an example across the country of how to resolve things, even if you disagree, peacefully,” Stewart told Truthout. “But as is the case a lot, they’d rather fight about it to try and protect either their image or their finances.”

Stewart said Schultz’s family is still waiting to review the investigative file from the GBI to file a civil suit against the university.

Meanwhile, students and activists are waiting to see if more arrests are still to come.

Supporters of Schultz and other activists pushing to limit cops’ activity on college campuses say the administration and police’s goal is to chill dissent not only at Georgia Tech, but to send a message to other police accountability activists organizing on campuses across the nation. The fate of these Atlanta students and organizers could become a litmus test for how far university authorities are willing to go under the Trump administration to quell police-related activism on campuses.

“We as people have to find a way to hold the police accountable … to actually change the laws against the police so that they can be held accountable for their actions,” Hudson said.