Last summer’s protests spark increase in Black activism in Atlanta

From left, activists Qri Montague, Britt Jones-Chukura, Scotty Smart and Hannah Joy Gebresilassie pose for a portrait in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown community. In the past year, dozens of new, smaller alliances have emerged to fight against discrimination and intolerance alongside more established organizations. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
From left, activists Qri Montague, Britt Jones-Chukura, Scotty Smart and Hannah Joy Gebresilassie pose for a portrait in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown community. In the past year, dozens of new, smaller alliances have emerged to fight against discrimination and intolerance alongside more established organizations. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A year ago, Hannah Joy Gebresilassie watched on television as a sea of people took to the streets of Atlanta to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

What many in the country remember about the evening of May 29, 2020 is this: An initially peaceful demonstration morphed into chaos and destruction as storefronts were destroyed and police cars were set fire.

But Gebresilassie looked beyond the broken glass and smoldering cars and noticed something different — a more diverse and determined crowd than she had ever seen clamoring for equal rights.

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She felt inspired.

Soon, the 30-year-old Black woman — who had already started an organization, the Promote Positivity Movement, to push for social justice — found herself on the streets, demanding change. “I came out on May 30th. May 29 made me come out,” said Gebresilassie, a former television reporter. “And, since then, it has been nonstop.”

If May 29 energized Gebresilassie, the protest also served as a catalyst for others in Atlanta.

In the months since thousands of people answered the call to stand against police violence, particularly in the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there’s been a new awakening, spurred on by social media and a stark political divide.

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Activist and organizer Hannah Joy Gebresilassie is the founder of the Promote Positivity Movement and executive director and cofounder of Protect the Vote GA. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Activist and organizer Hannah Joy Gebresilassie is the founder of the Promote Positivity Movement and executive director and cofounder of Protect the Vote GA. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Activist and organizer Hannah Joy Gebresilassie is the founder of the Promote Positivity Movement and executive director and cofounder of Protect the Vote GA. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Dozens of new, smaller alliances — with names like the People’s Uprising, Justice for Georgia and Protect the Vote Ga. — have emerged to fight against discrimination and intolerance alongside more established organizations.

Last summer “brought a new wave of activism,” said 34-year-old Scotty Smart, a founder of a nonprofit that focuses on providing assistance and mentoring to youth in low-income areas. “It is a new energy and camaraderie.”

“Two different things”

Smart refers to the protests of 2020 as “Freedom Summer,” harkening back to a violent and deadly 1964 campaign in which volunteers and civil rights workers tried to register Black Mississippians to vote.

And, like Freedom Summer, efforts to fight against racial discrimination didn’t end here after the recent demonstrations stopped.

Last Monday, Gebresilassie was on her way to the Stone Mountain Authority Board Meeting to protest with the NAACP, which was demanding the removal of the giant carvings of Confederate leaders.

“I came out on May 30th. May 29 made me come out. And, since then, it has been nonstop."

- Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, activist and organizer

Unable to slow down for lunch, Gebresilassie stopped at a gas station to get a hot dog to eat in the car.

“I know it’s bad,” she said. “But I have to find time to eat when I can. This never stops.”

On Tuesday, she attended a rally marking the May 25th anniversary of Floyd’s death. In addition to her own brainchild, the Promote Positivity Movement, she lends her support to several local social justice causes.

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Activist Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, right, hold signs remembering George Floyd during a rally and march to Liberty Plaza outside of the Georgia State Capitol Building on May 25, 2021. Demonstrators paid tribute to George Floyd and other local people shot and killed in police-involved killings. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Activist Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, right, hold signs remembering George Floyd during a rally and march to Liberty Plaza outside of the Georgia State Capitol Building on May 25, 2021. Demonstrators paid tribute to George Floyd and other local people shot and killed in police-involved killings. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Activist Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, right, hold signs remembering George Floyd during a rally and march to Liberty Plaza outside of the Georgia State Capitol Building on May 25, 2021. Demonstrators paid tribute to George Floyd and other local people shot and killed in police-involved killings. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

She’s amazed by the ballooning number of groups forming. Though they may all unite behind the rallying cry “Black lives matter,” they are separate entities with common goals.

“Black Lives Matter is really just a cliché name at this point,” said Smart, a founder of the S.M.A.R.T. (Some Men Are Really Trying) Foundation. “Instead, there has emerged a coalition of Black activists who are using their voices to make changes. Just saying Black Lives Matter attempts to put all of us in the same box. But we are all different.”

Caption
Activist Scotty Smart is the founder of The S.M.A.R.T. Foundation. “Black Lives Matter is really just a cliché name at this point,” he says. “Instead, there has emerged a coalition of Black activists who are using their voices to make changes. Just saying Black Lives Matter attempts to put all of us in the same box. But we are all different.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Activist Scotty Smart is the founder of The S.M.A.R.T. Foundation. “Black Lives Matter is really just a cliché name at this point,” he says. “Instead, there has emerged a coalition of Black activists who are using their voices to make changes. Just saying Black Lives Matter attempts to put all of us in the same box. But we are all different.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Activist Scotty Smart is the founder of The S.M.A.R.T. Foundation. “Black Lives Matter is really just a cliché name at this point,” he says. “Instead, there has emerged a coalition of Black activists who are using their voices to make changes. Just saying Black Lives Matter attempts to put all of us in the same box. But we are all different.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Black Lives Matter organization, which defines itself as “a collective of liberators who believe in an inclusive and spacious movement,” now wields the loudest voice on American racial issues. While there’s a growing inclination today to link all progressive Black groups to the movement, that’s a misunderstanding.

Local activists say that there is no Atlanta chapter of the Black Lives Matter organization. A local BLM website seems inactive and calls and emails were not returned.

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, in Sanford, Fla., in 2012.

“Black Lives Matter is really just a cliché name at this point."

- Scotty Smart, a founder of the S.M.A.R.T.

Part of the mission of Black Lives Matter, according to its website, is to “ build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

Michael Julian Bond, a long-time Atlanta city councilman and the son of politician and civil rights activist Julian Bond, has been viewing the increased activism through the lens of the civil rights movement he grew up in.

While today’s generation can command a crowd of 5,000 with a tweet, he said, activists need to work to make sure their message is reaching those in power.

“It has evolved technologically by leaps and bounds,” Bond said. “What has not progressed in the same way is the ability for the demonstrators to access policymakers and decision-makers. Current activists own the streets, but they need to have people who can access the suites. Now, it is almost that they are missing that step.”

Last year, under the Black Lives Matter banner, several organizations staged protests to bring attention to the police killings of Floyd, Taylor and Atlanta’s Rayshard Brooks.

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To get a sense of how decentralized the protests were, consider this: Several people, some of whom don’t even know each other, take credit for organizing last summer’s events through different forms of social media outreach.

“Black Lives Matter is a concept,” said Atlanta author and activist Yonasda Lonewolf, who started a group called The Hip Hop 4 Foundation to do environmental and social justice work. “It is clear that the Black Lives Matter organization and saying Black lives matter are two different things.”

Among the emerging activists in Atlanta, there are no “identifiable leaders,” Qri Montague said, “but there are a host of “identifiable figures,” who are doing the dirty work — organizing rallies and mobilizing voters.

Caption
Activist and organizer Qri Montague is the vice chair of the People’s Uprising. Her organization, founded last year, specializes in community outreach like voter registration, neighborhood cleanups and COVID-19 education. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Activist and organizer Qri Montague is the vice chair of the People’s Uprising. Her organization, founded last year, specializes in community outreach like voter registration, neighborhood cleanups and COVID-19 education. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Activist and organizer Qri Montague is the vice chair of the People’s Uprising. Her organization, founded last year, specializes in community outreach like voter registration, neighborhood cleanups and COVID-19 education. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“The different grassroots organizations are trying to work together. It is a cohesive effort,” said Montague, 24.

Her organization, the People’s Uprising, was founded last year and specializes in community outreach like voter registration, neighborhood cleanups and COVID-19 education. But it also provides food and clothing to those in need.

Britt Jones-Chukura, Monteria Robinson and Johnny Ross founded Justice for Georgia last September to advocate for families that are dealing with civil and social issues directly related to police brutality. At one point, Jones-Chukura, 28, demonstrated for 224 straight days. She had picked up the torch from Gebresilassie, who had gone 35 straight days before catching COVID-19.

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Just this February, Gebresilassie, Jones-Chukura and Crystal Greer started Protect the Vote Ga., which is dedicated to voter mobilization, education and registration. They also protested for 31 days outside the Georgia State Capitol building during the last legislative session, which saw lawmakers pass a bill that many believe is meant to stifle the Black vote.

“I just wanted to create a space where I could do community work year-round,” Gebresilassie said. “I am more aware today, more driven to create change and more involved than I have ever been. You can’t unsee what you saw in the summer of 2020.”

“We all play a part”

At a recent photoshoot, Smart, Gebresilassie and Jones-Chukura acted more like giddy teenagers than serious activists in the streets every day, battling police and politicians.

When it was time for Jones-Chukura to pose for her portrait, Montague shouted: “Is there a reason you don’t have on earrings?”

Caption
Activist and organizer Britt Jones-Chukura is the cofounder of Justice for Georgia and the director of operations for Protect the Vote GA. At one point, Jones-Chukura demonstrated for 224 straight days to advocate for families that are dealing with civil and social issues directly related to police brutality. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Activist and organizer Britt Jones-Chukura is the cofounder of Justice for Georgia and the director of operations for Protect the Vote GA. At one point, Jones-Chukura demonstrated for 224 straight days to advocate for families that are dealing with civil and social issues directly related to police brutality. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Activist and organizer Britt Jones-Chukura is the cofounder of Justice for Georgia and the director of operations for Protect the Vote GA. At one point, Jones-Chukura demonstrated for 224 straight days to advocate for families that are dealing with civil and social issues directly related to police brutality. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

She took off hers to put on her friend, who couldn’t stop laughing.

“This is us,” Gebresilassie said about the relaxed atmosphere. “We usually see each other at protests and we are serious and in work mode. We all have our own lanes. We all play a part in this revolution.”

After last year’s protests, Loneswolf was appointed to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ police accountability committee, which made a host of recommendations to the outgoing mayor.

“There have been changes. Quite a bit, but that doesn’t mean that the city or Georgia doesn’t still have a police brutality problem,” Lonewolf said. “Because immediately after George Floyd, we ended up dealing with Rayshard Brooks.”

Caption
Yonasda Lonewolf speaks the name of Breonna Taylor during a rally at Cleopas Park in Septemer 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Yonasda Lonewolf speaks the name of Breonna Taylor during a rally at Cleopas Park in Septemer 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Yonasda Lonewolf speaks the name of Breonna Taylor during a rally at Cleopas Park in Septemer 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Brooks was shot and killed by a member of the Atlanta Police Department last June, sparking another round of protests and riots. Earlier this month, Garrett Rolfe, the officer charged in Brooks’ killing, was reinstated by the city’s Civil Service Board. The board said it ruled only on whether the city followed proper protocol, not whether Rolfe’s behavior was criminal.

Still, Lonewolf said, “That was a slap in the face. We still have a long way to go. And, even though (Donald) Trump is not president anymore, we are still dealing with the residue of what he did.”

Across town, rallies have been held for people whose names are not well known, like Jimmy Atchison, an armed robbery suspect who fled to a friend’s apartment, where he was shot and killed by an officer in 2019. Witnesses said Atchison, who had allegedly stolen a cellphone at gunpoint, was unarmed, and no guns were recovered in the apartment. And Jabril Robinson, a 23-year-old shot and killed by Clayton County police in 2016. Police said Robinson ran from officers who were responding to a domestic dispute and aimed a gun at them.

Lonewolf started another group, Revolutionary Healing, to organize day retreats that teach people “how to find peace in the midst of chaos.”

Montague, too, is working to help people keep perspective.

On Memorial Day, she is planning on having a community cookout in honor of Floyd. Then, in June, she’s planning a celebration of Juneteenth and the progress that the Black community has made. When the celebration is over, she said, they’ll be back at it, working for change.

“This is allowing us to take a breath and breathe,” Montague said, “and be thankful for where we have come.”

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