Four weeks ago, the downtown streets of Atlanta roiled in anger. Thousands marched to protest the death of yet another Black man at the hands of police 1,100 miles away in Minneapolis, many answering the social media post of a 19-year-old Atlanta woman who’d never organized anything before.
Amid a worldwide pandemic, many marchers wore masks and kept their distance. The masks covered their faces, but did not silence their voices. They chanted the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, pleaded for an end to the killing of Black Americans, and demanded policing change.
» COMPLETE COVERAGE: The Atlanta protests
One night became two and, during the first 48-hours, the passionate pleas and non-violent rallies were overshadowed by damaged storefronts and harsh confrontations between police and young people. An Atlanta police car burning against the red CNN letters downtown made worldwide news. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms imposed nightly curfews. Gov. Brian Kemp summoned the National Guard.
But the protesters — Black and white, Asian and Hispanic, young and old — returned to the streets again and again, chanting and listening to speeches. The marches stayed overwhelmingly peaceful. Bottoms lifted the curfews a week after they began.
The protests spread and their complexion reflected the diversity of metro Atlanta. People of all skin tones joined together in Decatur, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Roswell, Lawrenceville, Duluth, Athens, Woodstock, Cartersville, Brunswick and Savannah. The shooting death of Rayshard Brooks June 12 by a white Atlanta police officer only served to quicken the movement. More and more people took up the call to stop police brutality, end racism and make good on the promise of equality for Black Americans. Their voices shook Atlanta City Hall, suburban governments, small towns and, finally, the state Capitol.
Few could have predicted how far and wide the movement would spread, or how many lives it would touch. The tangible impacts across the region and around the state have come at such a speed and from so many directions as to leave veteran activists dizzy.
Atlanta’s police chief resigned. Officers were fired after allegations they used excessive force against demonstrators, including Spelman and Morehouse students who were yanked from their car and tased. Bottoms and others moved to overhaul the department and adopt long-sought reforms.
A crane operator under an order from a DeKalb County judge plucked away Decatur’s Confederate monument in the dead of night. Kennesaw leaders voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the city’s war memorial.
Prominent Georgia businesses donated millions of dollars toward racial justice. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan seeded a GoFundMe campaign for the Black community with $500,000 that has now raised more than $1.2 million.
And on Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp signed hate crimes legislation that hadn’t advanced for 16 years. Georgia had been one only four states without a hate crime law, and the Legislature acted after thousands marched on the state Capitol two weeks ago.
“I don’t think that you would see the changes that you are seeing happening at such rapid speeds under any other circumstances,” Bottoms told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview, crediting the protesters. “People are being heard. People are speaking their anger and their frustration and their hurt and pain. And, just as importantly, people are listening in a way that I have not ever experienced in my lifetime.”
Civil rights gains typically come slowly for Blacks, even when courts and legislation give reforms the force of law. Blacks in Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King Jr., boycotted the city’s bus system for 381 days before a court ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case and later the first black Supreme Court justice, often told people that “all deliberate speed…meant S-L-O-W,” as he watched the decades it took some school systems to integrate.
In Atlanta, activists have asked the city’s Black leadership for reforms to to end police brutality for nearly half a century, while demands to remove Confederate symbols in Georgia have met fierce resistance in recent years.
“I never expected anything like this to happen,” said Dre Propst, 51, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Atlanta and a longtime organizer. “I thought it would be probably later on when the younger generation would be at the front of the fight. I thought I wouldn’t see it.”
While the early anger over Floyd’s death focused on policing reforms, the movement is evolving into a broader examination of systemic inequality, white privilege, the ongoing wealth gap between Black and white America, and the health disparities Black Americans are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Atlanta, the protest movement has come at a cost. Riot-clad police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets squared off against young people, some armed with rocks, bottles and fireworks. More than 500 people were arrested in the early days of the marches. At least six officers were fired or disciplined for excessive force. And now many officers have been shaken by the charges filed against the two officers involved in Brooks’ shooting. One of them is charged with murder.
“The morale is probably the worst it has ever been,” said Vince Champion, the southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which represents about 1,200 Atlanta police officers. Bottoms “wanted to bow down to the rioters and possibly get rid of good cops.”
The mayor said she values the Atlanta police and recognizes their morale is suffering, but she added it is “is equally important that our officers be cognizant of the morale of the country right now.”
“Things are shifting in our country,” she said. “As a leader, it is my responsibility to take action when I think that something has not been done appropriately.”
From Atlanta to the suburbs
Before the protests began, the COVID-19 pandemic and joblessness had driven Georgians indoors, their eyes trained on laptops, cell phones and TVs. When video was released of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, being gunned down as three white men pursued him near Brunswick, it was hard to look away.
“We saw a real execution. It was like cowboy movies where people are going out to the hangings,” said Ralph Green, 74, a white, retired bus driver and mechanic from East Atlanta Village.
Then video of George Floyd’s killing was released. Within days, Green was standing on a street corner holding a foam board declaring: “Not Too Old to Stand Up for Change BLM.” A Twitter post about it snagged nearly 600,000 likes.
“It’s the least I can do for my Black neighbors,” Green said. His four daughters and neighbors have since joined him in the street corner protests, which now take place twice a week.
Others — young and old — describe similar awakenings in neighborhoods and towns across metro Atlanta.
Grace Pierce, 17, a moderator for the three-week-old Black Lives Matter Facebook page in Woodstock, had watched videos of the killings online and wanted to do something to help, but wasn’t certain where to turn in a city that is nearly 80% white. She joined a small group of protesters her mother noticed while jogging in downtown Woodstock, and has since helped organize protests that have included up to 300 people, she said.
“I feel like Woodstock is an example of what small towns can do,” said Pierce, who is white and a graduate of Cherokee High School. “If you want to see a change, change what is going on locally so it can change nationally.”
The protesters’ outrage was echoed in a public statement by Woodstock’s white police chief Calvin Moss, who joined other suburban Atlanta law enforcement leaders in condemning the Minneapolis officers involved in Floyd’s killing.
“They failed Mr. Floyd and the very citizens they swore they’d defend, and they dishonored a profession that so many have given their lives to protect,” Moss said.
Isaiah Hall, 19, who is Black, draws strength from the support of Pierce and other white demonstrators who gather on a grassy patch along Main Street. He often feels too tired to protest after an eight hour shift building pools, but goes anyway.
“The fact that other people care about our lives is definitely beautiful,” Hall said. “They are the reason I come out here every day. It makes it easier. It’s inspiring.”
Whites join the movement
Some of last month’s protests echo prior movements. As with the Civil Rights movement, youth once again are leading the way. As with the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and Atlanta’s #ATLIsReady protests in 2016, social media and messaging apps are bringing together like-minded strangers by the thousands to take to the streets.
But aspects look unlike what this current generation of activists has seen before. People who never showed interest in politics are joining in, and white people are reaching out as never before. The 2016 protests that blocked the Downtown Connector and pushed Mayor Kasim Reed to engage in policy discussions with demonstrators lasted about two weeks. This current wave of protests is ongoing.
More protests are happening in cities and towns where few Black people live, observers note. This is no coincidence, said Emory University historian Carol Anderson, an expert on the roles of race, justice and equality in domestic and international policy. More people are more willing to consider the toll policing has taken on Black lives amid a pandemic, widespread unemployment and deep political divisions, she said.
White Americans are also suffering, Anderson said. Mom-and-pop businesses are losing out on federal emergency loans to large corporations. Essential workers are returning to their workplaces without adequate protections against COVID-19. It can take more than a month to get unemployment benefits. And while they’re stuck in their homes during the pandemic, they’re watching videos of the killings of Arbery and Floyd.
“The kind of disproportionate violence people are facing in all areas of their lives — that is what’s driving this moment. That’s what causing people to re-think America,” Anderson said. “And we could be amazing.”
Break from the past
A striking feature of the Atlanta protests is that they have spread and grown without an organized leadership structure. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was tightly controlled by a handful of regional and national organizations, led by charismatic men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy.
Those planning to protest segregation or become involved in sit-ins trained in non-violence and were told what to wear and how to behave in the face of police crackdowns.
In Atlanta, 60 years later, leaders have sprung up overnight, armed with idealism, confidence and the means to connect with others through social media.
Zoe Bambara had never organized protests before she joined with strangers on social media to launch the #ATLforUs demonstration, which would bring thousands of people to Centennial Olympic Park on May 29.
Since then, the 19-year-old has reconnected with the legacy of her maternal grandmother Toni Cade Bambara, a Black intellectual whose letters and other papers are kept in the archives of Spelman College. She has met Bernice King and helped organize other protests and a concert featuring Atlanta hip hop artist Raury. A law firm is asking her for advice on how to stand up for Black lives. Bambara said she wakes up every morning excited to work. She is filing paperwork to start a nonprofit and aims to open community centers to provide services for the needy.
“I was in bed one day, talking to my cousin and I said, ‘This is what I want to do in life’,” Bambara said. “I want to help people.”
The next chapter
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter users continue posting about upcoming rallies daily, and organizers have sustained interest in them longer than social movements in recent years.
Black people who have been skeptical of the move to reform criminal justice are starting to follow it closely. Mary-Pat Hector, 22, was an organizer in one of the Atlanta 2016 protests and has marched for years against the treatment of Black Lives Matter activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This used to confuse her football fan father, she said. But now that there are no live sports for him to watch he’s following current events closely.
“I go downstairs and he’s watching CNN, and it’s because he has nothing else to do but focus on this,” Hector said.
People in the corporate world are asking Hector how they can help or telling her how they are reexamining their workplace decisions in response to recent events. On June 7, she spotted a cousin at a march she organized who had never expressed interest in her work before.
“She said I’m proud of you and I want to get involved,” Hector said.
“For me, that’s when I realized it was different. People I knew who never cared about the movement and never saw the value in it — now see the value in it,” Hector said.
Defunding police agencies is now a topic of discussion on cable news networks, something that was unimaginable to activists just a few months ago.
“A lot of people didn’t want to come anywhere near those conversations about police,” said Tiffany Williams Roberts, a criminal and civil rights attorney who has spent more than a decade pushing for police reform.
Hundreds of people waited past midnight to speak about police reform during discussions over Atlanta’s budget last week. The debate over reallocating police funding while plans take shape for a major overhaul of the department has revealed broader support for the concept, said Danielle Wiggins, a California Institute of Technology historian and an expert the history of Atlanta’s criminal justice. Such ideas are taking hold because so many other efforts have failed to stop police killings, Wiggins said.
“If it means shifting away funding from policing to social services, it is something that can definitely happen relatively soon,” Wiggins said.
It’s too early to tell where the social movement that the protests have unleashed will go, or what more it will ultimately achieve. Bottoms and reformers are far apart on key issues, including how best to hold police accountable.
But there is widespread agreement that the protests have become more than a footnote in the region’s history.
Mayor Bottoms said everything about the last month of protests feels different to her.
“This is more than a moment,” she said. “It really is truly a movement.”
AJC staff writers Shaddi Abusaid, Greg Bluestein, Helena Oliviero, Scott Trubey, Kevin Whaley and David Wickert contributed to this report.
People of the movement
Jonathan Lykes looked out over Piedmont Avenue in Midtown at a line of protesters so long he couldn’t see its end.
The June 7 protest, a march for Black and transgender lives, started with a few hundred people at the 12th Street gate at Piedmont Park. But its ranks swelled as demonstrators winded past the meadow and onto several Midtown streets. Motorists honked and people on balconies clapped.
Lykes, one of the organizers, said the group wants to see some of the city’s police funding shifted to neighborhood programs. Lykes said the march was in protest not only of white supremacy but to bring attention to injustice against transgender people.
Transphobia and homophobia, Lykes said, exist within the broader Black Lives Matter movement, and need to be stamped out. Lykes also worried about the movement sustaining its momentum. Not every protest will be able to draw large crowds, he said, and organizers were working on new techniques of peaceful, civil disobedience.
“We’re trying to sustain this for a long period of time, move to strategic civil disobedience as Martin Luther King taught us,” Lykes said.
At 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, the historic hub of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community, the demonstrators took a knee and sang, “Ancestors watching, I know they’re watching. Ancestors watching, I know, I know.”
— Scott Trubey
In Avondale Estates, hundreds of people lined a main thoroughfare holding homemade signs with messages condemning racism, injustice and police brutality. A steady stream of motorists on North Avondale Road honked and waved in support.
Avondale Estates area residents Elizabeth and Mark Hammontree, both 25, wanted to show solidarity in their local community. Hammontree, who is about to start law school after teaching high school English for four years, was thinking about his students.
“My black students grow up to be in the constant threat of racist violence and racial profiling,” said Hammontree, who is white. “The time has come to act and to demand real change.”
— Helena Oliviero
Dre Propst stood in the shade of a thin line of trees outside Gwinnett Place Mall and told the crowd of about 2,000 in front of him that he was “tired of my people dying.”
“My heart is broken,” said Propst, 51, a co-organizer of the march.
It was June 7, the tenth day protests swept across metro Atlanta. Volunteer leaders instructed marchers to extend their arms and maintain their distance so they could prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. Then they set out past car lots and office parks down Satellite Boulevard to a nearby Gwinnett police precinct. Law enforcement helicopters and drones hovered above.
The crowd was white, Black, Asian and Hispanic. Marchers carried signs calling for racial justice written in English, Spanish and Korean. As they marched, police blocked off the streets. Demonstrators said some officers handed out water.
At the precinct, demonstrators took a knee. Leaders called for holding law enforcement accountable for killing black and brown residents. They demanded county leaders divest portions of police budgets and transfer those dollars into health care, education and housing.
The rally was meant to be peaceful, Propst said.
“This is a community of love and peace,” he said. “We want to show the people of the nation Gwinnett County is a community of love and peace.”
— Scott Trubey
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