Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been reporting daily about the protests in Atlanta over racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans. In addition to the protests, the AJC has covered the response of law enforcement, damages to local businesses, how large gatherings could affect the spread of COVID-19, the city's protest history and reaction from civic and business leaders, among other topics. In this article, reporters spoke with black Atlantans who joined the protests or who support their efforts, asking them to explain how we got here.
Kaysey Clayton had been in Centennial Olympic Park all afternoon, kneeling, praying, chanting and marching.
As nightfall neared, and the atmosphere grew more chaotic, her sister began sending text messages telling her to leave. Clayton wasn’t ready.
“People were extremely angry,” said Clayton, 26, who works for a nonprofit in Atlanta. “I felt I needed to see the elevation of all of this, how did we get to a point where every cop car in the area is on fire?”
The crowd surged and Clayton and her friend began running, yelling to each other as they raced down the street away from the action. This, they agreed, was what trauma looked like.
Complete coverage: Atlanta protests
“The people who are protesting are not people who are outraged about one death,” Clayton said. “It is not just about police brutality, it is about the systems that reinforce notions that were held long before we were ever alive.”
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On Friday May 29, peaceful protests in Atlanta turned violent. The protests have continued, here and across the country.
The immediate trigger was George Floyd, an African American who died with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on his throat. It followed the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, killed in Brunswick by neighborhood vigilantes, and Breonna Taylor, killed in her Kentucky home by officers executing a no-knock warrant.
Most black Americans will not be killed by police or white vigilantes. But they carry the scars of racism that infiltrates everyday life, like pinpricks, much of it subtle, some of it mundane, all of it significant. It is that cumulative experience, stretched over generations, that many African Americans say also contributed to the latest uprisings.
The experience is exhausting, say African Americans.
Days before Floyd's killing, a white woman — known derisively in social media as "Karen," or a white woman who flaunts privilege — in New York City's Central Park called the police and claimed Christian Cooper, a black bird watcher, was threatening her after he asked her to put her dog on a leash.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently got a text message calling her the N-word for refusing to reopen the city quickly amid the coronavirus, while high school students in Carrollton and Decatur have been reprimanded for posting racist videos on social media. Alyssa Pointer, a black photographer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was detained by police at the protests this past week, despite showing her press credentials.
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“We are so focused on the flame that we miss the kindling,” said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of “White Rage.”
The inequality in daily life “is quiet like carbon dioxide and it is killing you but it’s not like you smell it, you just start to get weak,” Anderson added. “Black folks have been having the conversation for so long.”
Atlanta ‘supposed to be our haven’
Clayton, the Atlanta protester, had a “Karen” moment while visiting her family at her father’s home in a Cleveland suburb. She says her father donned a hoodie to go outside to adjust Christmas lights after a holiday party when a white woman pulled halfway into the driveway and screamed, “Who are you? Do you live here?”
“The fear that I had as his daughter, my white counterparts cannot even conceptualize,” Clayton said.
“It is not acceptable today to be outwardly racist,” she said, but to think “that the microagressions that happen without video don’t have an effect on people every single day is just disingenuous.”
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Most of the protesters who have taken to the streets in Atlanta are young. But many older African Americans support the marches and understand the outrage. They too are tired, more than half a century after then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission examining the race riots of 1967 concluded the U.S. was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The recent protests and violence must also be viewed in the context of the disproportionately high number of African American deaths from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the larger story of generations of black people that have endured without meaningful change, dating back to slavery and Jim Crow, said Nilaja Green, an Atlanta-based trauma specialist.
“Yes, slavery has ended, but the prison industrial complex houses five times more African Americans than whites,” Green said. “Yes, we can legally attend the same schools and vie for the same jobs, but the net worth of an African American family today falls several tiers below that of their white counterparts. Yes, we elected a Black president in 2008 and re-elected him in 2012, followed quickly by one who sends ambiguous messages about his standing on racial tensions in this country.”
Amisha Harding was out of town over Mother’s Day weekend when she got a frantic phone call from her son, Karis Johnson Jr. The 18-year-old Morehouse College honor student had just gotten into a fender bender with a white woman in a parking lot. The woman was going to call the police.
“I got sick to my stomach of them calling the police and me not being close enough,” said Harding. “I begged her not to call the police. I wasn’t willing to take that risk for my son unless I am there to catch the bullet for him.”
She says she ended up paying the woman $3,000 in cash for something insurance should have covered.
That is why she began attending Atlanta protests every day beginning last Sunday.
“I have been educating him on how to be black ever since the first time he asked if he could walk to the store by himself with his friends,” said Harding, 41, who has set up speakers for music and a healing wall for people to sign.
Hard, disturbing numbers accompany such stories. The median wealth of non-Hispanic white households was 10 times that of black households in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Over the decades, the unemployment rate among black Americans consistently has been about double that of whites. The black imprisonment rate has declined since 2006, but at the end of 2018 was nearly twice that of Hispanics and more than five times that of whites, according to Pew.
Atlanta, despite being celebrated as a “Black Mecca,” hasn’t escaped such numbers. The city’s jobless rates were 11.5% for black residents and 2.5% for white residents as recently as 2017, according to the Brookings Institution.
“This is supposed to be our haven for black people, it doesn’t feel that way,” said Isabella Jackson, a 21-year-old Spelman College junior who has been going to the protests with her Morehouse College boyfriend.
Jackson looked in horror the night of May 30, when classmates 20-year-old Spelman student Taniyah Pilgrim and her boyfriend, Morehouse student Messiah Young, 22, were violently tased and arrested by the Atlanta Police Department.
This was supposed to be a haven that her family built. Jackson is the oldest granddaughter of Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, who helped build Atlanta’s black middle class.
“Older people may be accustomed in injustice, or they may be more compliant. Not on purpose, but out of fear,” Jackson said. “People my age say they don’t mind this country burning down. We are not patriotic right now, until at least we get a new president.”
Isaiah Horne-Friar, a 23-year-old Atlanta middle school teacher and 2019 Morehouse graduate, feels the same way. He marched on Friday.
He says when he was 16 years old, he and three other black teenagers drove over to Henry County to check out a thrift store and a new hot dog joint when a white man tried to run them off the road. The group confronted the man. Police were called. Horne-Friar and his friends were detained and forced to the curb as police searched their bodies and car for drugs and weapons. The police didn’t find anything and let them go, he says. But the trauma lingered.
“The protests are the results of people of color trusting in a system that wasn’t meant to protect us in the first place,” Horne-Friar said. “We tired.”
Jourdan Hamilton, a 34-year-old solutions engineer, is beyond tired. He had grown numb to the fact that police kill black people, simply because it has happened so much. And in the digital age, with so many police encounters captured on video, like the Floyd killing, it is more difficult to escape.
He says Arbery’s death transported him back to 2004, when a childhood friend died after a sheriff’s deputy in Rockdale County pulled his friend over and shot 15 bullets into his car. The deputy said he thought Hamilton’s friend was armed.
But Hamilton also has experienced low-level trauma. He recalled how his father would warn him on road trips to be sure to gas up and not stop in certain counties. Or how when he first entered the job market in 2008, he had long dreadlocks and decided not to cut his hair. Years later when he was up for another job, he says, he learned he had lost out on it when the company owner questioned whether he wanted a black man with dreadlocks meeting clients.
“Preparing for survival in American society puts black people at that low simmer and intuitively, we know we are the only people who have to live like that,” said Hamilton. “It doesn’t mean you won’t be happy or celebrate the joys or enjoy your life but you have that in the back of your head.”
For black Americans, having a nice home, a good education or a solid career doesn’t insulate you from racism.
Ayo Gathing, a 39-year-old psychiatrist, said that before a recent video conference about Medicaid, a white colleague said, “They should be glad that we saved them from the huts of Africa and gave them health insurance.” She responded, “Have you been to Africa? Do you know the kind of structures they live in?”
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The man said he was joking. Gathing said it is common to be told she needs to relax when she confronts those kinds of comments.
‘This stuff is personal’
Some African Americans say they have been reminded about racial inequality as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the U.S. Several studies have shown black communities have been harder hit.
Stress, limited access to healthcare and crowded living conditions have made black people more susceptible to the virus. The statistics became real for Tene Traylor when her parents were diagnosed. After four emotionally exhausting weeks, her parents recovered.
Then she was hit with the news headlines — Arbery, Taylor, Cooper and Floyd. She saw herself and her family in all of them and in all of the people who flowed into the streets in protest.
“I saw a moment of solidarity in terms of what they were feeling,” said Traylor, 40. “This stuff is personal.”
As a fund advisor for the nonprofit Kendeda Fund, Traylor sees the impact systemic racism has on philanthropy. Only 2% of philanthropic dollars in Atlanta go to social justice, she said, and rarely to black-led organizations.
In decades of demonstrations, African Americans are “not just resisting violence of the black body, but resisting marginalization,” argues Jabari Asim, a professor at Emerson College and the author of the forthcoming, “Stop and Frisk: American Poems.”
Asim’s 2018 book of essays, “We Can’t Breathe,” explored black trauma in the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York City police in 2014 for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner’s famous declaration of “I can’t breathe” was painfully echoed by Floyd. African American history could be plotted by “various points of violence and black people’s response to it,” he said.
“Don’t assume that black people are not so angry that they are not willing to destroy property,” Asim said. “And it is not always the result of spontaneous rage.”
He is unsure how the most recent acts of civil unrest will change America. White liberals have traditionally supported black protests dating back to the NAACP’s 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade in response to widespread lynching. Support continued through the civil rights movement up until now.
“In each instance, liberal white people responded with horror, shame, and resolve. Then most of them return to their bubble,” said Asim, noting that after the 1917 march, Congress failed to pass an anti-lynching bill. “I am gonna go out on the limb and say that will happen again.”
Matt Holmes, a 41-year-old black attorney, has not attended the protests. But over the past week he has spent hours talking with a multiracial group of friends as they sit in a socially distanced circle in his Atlanta driveway. He knows the conversations must reach beyond like-minded friends for there to be change.
“The consensus among all of us was a frustration with our inability to progress even incrementally from the last time. Even more frustrating is the idea that we are regressing, that these things are happening more frequently,” said Holmes. “At some point, it feels like you are ramming your head against the wall.”