Atlanta Black Lives Matter activist and organizer Mary Hooks (center) speaks to the media on Nov. 24, 2014, outside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where she announced a peaceful rally at Underground Atlanta in response to developments in Ferguson, Mo., following a police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black man. (BRANT SANDERLIN / bsanderlin@ajc.com)
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

How Black Lives Matter has ‘changed the conversation’

Chances are you don’t know their names. The organizations they represent are so new they grew out of hashtags.

But in the cradle of the civil rights movement, this next generation of activists, operating under a mantle that began as #BlackLivesMatter, has captured the attention of not only everyday metro Atlantans, but civic and political leaders.

Across the country there are 27 chapters and counting of Black Lives Matter, and Atlanta’s is one of the newest.

“This is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement,” said Mary Hooks, 33, an organizer of the Atlanta BLM chapter. “We’re not sitting around and waiting for someone in a suit to come save us.”

This new generation of activist leaders is mostly young, frequently female and not necessarily straight. Their tactics are unapologetically in your face.

Hooks helped orchestrate a human blockade of the Downtown Connector in October 2014 to call attention to police brutality following the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Then, in January, activists impeded the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, saying the civil rights icon’s message had become diluted by corporate interests participating in the annual commemoration.

They also disrupted a carefully choreographed appearance by Hillary Clinton in October, interrupting her speech at Clark Atlanta University with repeated chants of “Black lives matter!” And neither Mayor Kasim Reed nor even U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat who’s himself a civil rights icon, could quiet them.

“They’ve changed the conversation,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Fort, 59, said Black Lives Matter in some ways “has had a greater impact than most politicians ever do.”

BLM’s successes, such as lobbying for body cameras on police officers — which almost every local agency will have adopted by 2016 — can’t be ignored, Fort said.

And there are clear signs the old guard has embraced the new.

Last week, for instance, Atlanta’s nascent Black Lives Matter chapter held its first meeting in the fellowship hall of Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, the city’s oldest predominantly African-American congregation. About 200 people attended.

Approval from the establishment, however, is not high on their agenda.

“We’re in a different climate, with a different movement and different tactics,” said Aurielle Marie Lucier, spokesperson for the Atlanta social justice organization #ItsBiggerThanYou. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you present yourself.”

A lot of work to be done 

Lucier, who just turned 21, has been on the front lines of the movement since the summer of 2014, when events in Ferguson unleashed a tide of anger and frustration from within the African-American community.

The metro area has seen its share of controversial police shootings since then, particularly in DeKalb County, where District Attorney Robert James is still pondering whether to bring charges against the officers who killed Kevin Davis, 44, in December 2014 and Afghanistan war veteran Anthony Hill, 27, last March.

Though protests followed both shootings, they were neither as sustained nor disruptive as those that took place in Ferguson and Baltimore.

“I think people are more set in their ways here,” said Dre Norman, an Illinois native and LGBT activist who is helping to build up the local BLM chapter. “We’ve got to keep people in the streets. Boycott Buckhead and Lenox (Square). There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Each needs the other

Norman, 47, qualifies as an elder in the new civil rights movement. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, helping his father register people to vote. And he said he is well aware of the doubts each generation has about the other.

“I hear some of the young people say, ‘It’s time for y’all to sit down, give us the torch,’” Norman said. “Then the older generation feels the younger generation is too radical.”

“We all need to be united,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to win.”

As the BLM movement matures, with no signs of fading, both factions seem to recognize they need each other.

“They have to be their own leaders,” said Bernard LaFayette, 75, a veteran civil rights activist who got his start in the Nashville sit-in campaign of 1960 as a staffer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

Now an Atlanta resident, LaFayette participates in a weekly conference call with about 40 Black Lives Matter organizers across the nation, and he praises their “courage and fearlessness.”

On the same side

LaFayette said he is careful not to try to lead those conversations, offering guidance “only when they ask me questions.”

“That tension is nothing new,” he said. “We had it in the ’60s between SNCC and the NAACP. SNCC didn’t support the march from Selma to Montgomery.”

He has suggested a need for better training among the young activists and said they need to begin fielding candidates for public office.

“There should be more collaboration between the generations,” LaFayette said. “There should be an agreement as to what changes need to be made.”

Hooks concurs, saying progressives can’t afford to “throw anyone under the bus.”

“We’re on the same side,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean Black Lives Matter activists will temper their rhetoric or tone down their tactics.

“We need a polarizing force in Atlanta, a group that will make people choose sides,” Hooks said.

“This is a huge fight, and we’re just getting started.”

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