A week after boarding an armored van together outside the Governor’s Mansion, several members of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mayor Kasim Reed and his cabinet will meet Monday morning to further discuss a problem older than the city itself: the frayed relationship between African-Americans and the police.
Even after the stunning news Sunday that three Baton Rouge, La., police officers were killed and three wounded by a masked assailant, the meeting is still on, a Reed spokesperson said Sunday afternoon.
Atlanta and the rest of the nation have seen day after day of protests after police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. Even after five Dallas lawmen were massacred by a black man, the protests did not abate. After Atlanta protesters took their campaign through Buckhead, the city’s seat of immense wealth and political power, Reed and Atlanta Police Chief George Turner met with them in that armored van and agreed to Monday’s meeting.
“For many of the issues they’ve raised, I believe we have a strong record and are headed in the right direction,” Reed said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “But as I’ve said over the past two weeks, there are areas where we need to improve. I want to hear ideas from these young leaders about how we can do better.”
But how will they begin to bridge a chasm that has been lifetimes in the widening? And will two groups, Black Lives Matter members and the police, be able not only to hear each other, but take tentative steps forward together? Interviews with police officials and movement members suggest it may be a journey measured in generations.
“There should be a shift in the way (police) leadership runs its department,” said Tiffany Roberts, 36, criminal defense and civil rights attorney and Black Lives Matter Atlanta member. “It’s a power dynamic. It’s not a problem of one bad apple, but culture.”
Police, too, say the problem is one of culture, but several pointed outward rather than inward.
Ken Allen, a retired Atlanta police detective who now is a national representative for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said it is unclear to him exactly what the demonstrators want.
“I have no idea of what they are really asking for,” he said. “I have had conversations with black and white officers who have been involved in this part of it, and it seems to be the same thing: we don’t really know clearly what is being asked.”
Many groups, one banner
While the protesters demand an end to police killings and racial profiling, the prescription for how to achieve those goals is varied. To understand why the messages may seem mixed, it’s worth looking at the movement’s origins.
Black Lives Matter, often referred to as simply “BLM,” has become shorthand for all protesters. It began as a hashtag, created and popularized by three female social-justice activists who channeled their rage and dismay after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. The hashtag evolved into a national movement after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo.
But Black Lives Matter is not simply one organization with one or two leaders, even though some people have become more visible nationally, such as DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elize. One way to think of it is how the civil rights movement was structured, said Jill Cartwright, 20, a Spelman junior and a member of Rise Up Georgia. The SCLC, SNCC, CORE and the NAACP all sought racial equality, but not always in the same way.
Leadership under the larger BLM umbrella doesn’t fall to one person.
“Thinking that it has one leader is hyper-dangerous for the people who are most visible in the movement,” Cartwright said. “That’s when people start to target them.”
And while some of the groups are newer, such as Atlanta University Center Shut It Down, others such as Southerners on New Ground have been doing social justice work for decades and find a high-profile home in the BLM movement.
“We’ve been doing work, even when no one’s been shot, so you can’t expect us to dissolve our associations and unite under one organization,” said Roberts, the civil rights attorney, who now also provides legal services to Black Lives Matter members who’ve been arrested.
But they can be under one banner, Roberts said.
One thing they cannot be, said several activists, is proponents of violent action. Anyone may take part in a demonstration, they said, and it's especially hard to control people who show up just to provoke physical confrontations with police.
“If a person gets violent then [observers] try to blame it on us and try to say the movement is violent,” said Cartwright. “If they become violent they aren’t aligned with this movement. This movement is centered on black people, but you’re not saying other lives don’t matter. We’re saying black lives matter, too. And obviously police officers’ lives matter.”
‘Our critique of the American system’
Groups under that Black Lives Matter umbrella gathered throughout last week to draft action points to present at Monday’s meeting. Issues from affordable housing to razing vacant properties to homelessness have been mentioned as problems in need of redress. Through all of it, race is inextricable, they said.
Taiza Troutman, a Georgia State University alumna and one of the organizers of the Atlanta demonstrations, said her group is drafting a “concise” list of demands to submit to the mayor. She was among those who met with Reed during the Buckhead protest.
Among their goals, Troutman said, is getting the city to spend less on policing and more on schools, job placement, infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods, health programs and social services.
“You could invest directly into these communities — empower them — and you would see crime rates go down,” she said.
The demonstrators also want the city to eliminate its “Operation Whiplash” initiative, which boosts police patrols to stop gun violence in parts of Atlanta.
“It has resulted in over-policing,” she said, “and unfair arrests and jailing of low-income people.”
Also high on the list: explanations for a number of fatal police shootings, and sensitivity training for police “so they’re not clutching their guns” when they stop people of color, Cartwright said.
Protesters say this list doesn’t mean their goals are scattered; rather, they are interconnected. The problems they are seeking to highlight — poverty, unemployment and disenfranchisement — are the very ones that police face every day. Addressing law enforcement culture must happen in tandem with addressing larger ills, they say.
“It’s not just policing that’s an issue right now. That’s not the center of the conversation,” said Avery Jackson, 21, a Morehouse senior and an organizer of the Buckhead protest last week. “People don’t want to hear our critique of the American system. They just think we want to yell and scream about this one issue.”
‘They’re doing it for the attention’
That approach confounds observers like Allen, of the police union, and Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who wonder what the groups’ goals are.
“I think they’re doing it for attention,” said Sills in Eatonton. “I don’t think they know what the outcome will be. What are they saying? They’re saying, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I’m not going through the clichés, but all lives matter.”
Sills said it’s not “legitimate” for cops to single out or profile African-Americans, but “(t)he number of vehicle stops or the encounters you have are going to be dictated by the demographics you have.
“I know that there are racists,” Sills said. “But I don’t know of any officer who works for me, or anybody I ever worked with in my career, who wanted to hurt somebody who wasn’t trying to hurt them.”
Police today are often forced to respond to thorny dilemmas stemming from government cutbacks and societal woes, including people with mental health issues, said Doraville Police Chief John King, who has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience.
“Law enforcement today is not so much crime-fighter — you are a social worker with a gun,” said King, who started in 1985 as a patrol officer in Atlanta, where he once provided security for Coretta Scott King. “So you are out there trying to solve very complex problems.”
Such problems make recruiting new police officers difficult, said King, who polices a diverse, immigrant-rich city northeast of Atlanta.
Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, who has 35 years of law enforcement experience, echoed King’s comments about the difficulty of policing.
“Law enforcement is on the front line and it has to deal with a lot of bigger society issues, such as substance abuse and mental health issues and a lack of educational opportunities, unemployment, single-parent homes,” said Grogan, the incoming president of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “All those kinds of issues somehow or another get woven into what we have to do in our jobs.”
Police officers, Grogan added, can be unfairly painted with a broad brush when one of their own crosses the line.
“We cringe when another police officer does something outside the law,” he said. “And we want them to be held accountable.”
It’s the issue of accountability that has animated activists.
Because so many of the African-American deaths were videotaped, as with Eric Garner in New York City and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, many activists were hopeful that evidence alone would result in prosecutions of the officers involved. In case after case, from Tamir Rice to Freddie Gray, officers haven’t been convicted.
Tayah Powell, a student at Towers High School who took part in the march that shut down the Connector, said police shootings are a result of fear, not reason, and Philando Castile is a prime example.
“Everything we’ve been training our black men to do, (Castile) did,” Powell said. “And he still died.”
‘Without change, it’s an exhibition’
So, how will a two-hour meeting with Reed change things? President Barack Obama held a similar meeting last week with mayors, lieutenant governors, activists, attorneys and thought leaders from around the country.
Some activists wonder whether a partnership between law enforcement and the community is truly possible. Years of community policing have made a difference in some cities, such as Dallas, but not every department takes such an approach. Activists are asking for training, and that might be one place where there’s room to work.
Chief King of the Doraville police said there is no state requirement on diversity training. That’s up to each individual department, he said.
“That is another one of those where it falls on the responsibility of the chief,” he said. “It has to become part of the culture of your department.”
Ken Vance, executive director of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, said state law requires officers to undergo annual firearm and deadly force training, but not for bias.
Yet Ravenell DuPree, 31, another protester with Black Lives Matter, said any path forward has to be a partnership.
“In the end, our direct goal is to show the public (that) law enforcement officers will and can be held accountable and give the people a little more trust,” DuPree said. “The important thing is being able to listen. In order to do that we’re going to have to work with law enforcement. The whole movement isn’t anti-law enforcement officers.”
King advocated a different approach: “You really want to change law enforcement? You become police officers and you change the culture of the department from the inside.”
After the meeting and after protests die down — which several organizers vowed would not happen — what if nothing changes, not in a few weeks, or even months? Will the movement’s main success be sound and fury but no legislative or institutional impact? Will focusing attention on the deaths be enough?
“Drawing attention to an issue without change, it’s just an exhibition,” said Cartwright of AUC Shut It Down. “That doesn’t help black mothers who’ve lost their children to state violence.”
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Staff writers Christian Boone, Rhonda Cook, Ernie Suggs and Chris Bowling contributed to this article.