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Finding connections even in a turbulent time

July 8, 2020 Atlanta: Specialist, O’Donnell was posted guard in front of the Georgia State Capitol building on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, after the Georgia National Guard were dispatched in response to last weekend’s surge of violence in Atlanta and the ransacking of the Georgia State Patrol’s headquarters, according to their commander. So far, they have not made any arrests and no Guardsmen have been injured. Riding in Humvees, the troops, who are armed will be out on duty again Thursday evening in keeping with the emergency declaration Gov. Brian Kemp issued following the shootings that left five dead in Atlanta, including an 8-year-old girl. Set to expire July 13, Kemp’s order empowers the Guardsmen to apprehend lawbreakers. The Guardsmen stood watch at the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta, the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead and the recently vandalized Department of Public Safety building in southeast Atlanta. The troops are seeking to free up police for other law enforcement duties, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden Jr., Georgia’s adjutant general. Citing security concerns, Carden declined to say precisely how many Guardsmen have been deployed, though Kemp’s order calls for up to 1,000. Kemp, a Republican, issued the emergency order after threatening late Sunday to “take action” to curb the unrest in Atlanta if Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms failed to do so. “Peaceful protests were hijacked by criminals with a dangerous, destructive agenda. Now, innocent Georgians are being targeted, shot, and left for dead,” Kemp said. “This lawlessness must be stopped and order restored in our capital city.” The mayor, who confirmed Monday she tested positive for the coronavirus, said she disagreed with Kemp's decision and at “no time” requested the help. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
July 8, 2020 Atlanta: Specialist, O’Donnell was posted guard in front of the Georgia State Capitol building on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, after the Georgia National Guard were dispatched in response to last weekend’s surge of violence in Atlanta and the ransacking of the Georgia State Patrol’s headquarters, according to their commander. So far, they have not made any arrests and no Guardsmen have been injured. Riding in Humvees, the troops, who are armed will be out on duty again Thursday evening in keeping with the emergency declaration Gov. Brian Kemp issued following the shootings that left five dead in Atlanta, including an 8-year-old girl. Set to expire July 13, Kemp’s order empowers the Guardsmen to apprehend lawbreakers. The Guardsmen stood watch at the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta, the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead and the recently vandalized Department of Public Safety building in southeast Atlanta. The troops are seeking to free up police for other law enforcement duties, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden Jr., Georgia’s adjutant general. Citing security concerns, Carden declined to say precisely how many Guardsmen have been deployed, though Kemp’s order calls for up to 1,000. Kemp, a Republican, issued the emergency order after threatening late Sunday to “take action” to curb the unrest in Atlanta if Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms failed to do so. “Peaceful protests were hijacked by criminals with a dangerous, destructive agenda. Now, innocent Georgians are being targeted, shot, and left for dead,” Kemp said. “This lawlessness must be stopped and order restored in our capital city.” The mayor, who confirmed Monday she tested positive for the coronavirus, said she disagreed with Kemp's decision and at “no time” requested the help. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The events leading up to June 4th – most searingly, the pre-curfew clearing of peaceful protesters engaging in lawful protest out of D.C.‘s Lafayette Square by a National Guard force and other elements for a presidential photo-op – led me to join a similar march in Atlanta that evening. It was a decision made not without trepidation. I, too, was outraged over George Floyd’s death at the hands of police action that was quite evidently unjustified and highly symbolic. I wanted to add my voice to the collective cry of “enough” and the demand for long past-due change to end systemic racism. But, the recent images of police in anti-riot gear advancing on horses and protesters abandoning COVID-19 physical-distancing precautions as they were fleeing tear gas made for a daunting prospect.

We local marchers – my guess, some three to four thousand strong -- ended up at an intersection adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park, a downtown Atlanta landmark. I had come not only as a protester, but also as one whose 37-year professional career has been devoted to improvement in population health and health care. During the COVID-19 period, my focus had turned to social connection. A burgeoning science has documented that rendering, receiving, and experiencing acts of relatedness serve not only to buttress individual health but also to bolster community resilience. How can we capitalize on the opening the pandemic has provided to promote such actions on a much-wider scale?

With this question, as it often does, mulling in the back of my mind, I happened upon Georgia National Guard personnel, armed and in battle fatigues, who were casually lined along a fence. It was about half-past 8 p.m., some 25 minutes after the time we in the crowd had been alerted that we would be receiving a cellphone ping reminder about the 9 p.m. curfew. I had yet to receive the ping and walked up to ask for an update about what to expect.

To my complete surprise, a 10-minute conversation ensued with one of these personnel, which in my mind has come to exemplify an instance of greater social connection pursued – and achieved -- in that moment. The person was Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden, the Adjutant General for the Georgia National Guard, who, it turns out, was in charge of the entire guard presence on-site throughout the city that evening. Upon introducing ourselves, Maj. Gen. Carden asked why I was there, which I respectfully conveyed in clear terms. He, in turn, respectfully acknowledged my right to be participating in the protest.

He then went on to relay how he had served for decades in the armed forces both domestically and abroad to protect this First Amendment right for all Americans, which he and his personnel were doing yet again here. He was hopeful that this evening would be the second in a row in which tear gas would not have to be used to disperse the crowd (after the curfew). He was also hopeful that soon he and his troops would be returning to what they had been doing to combat COVID-19 before the protests -- activities like delivering food on behalf of food banks and visiting nursing homes to assess and upgrade precautions for infection prevention throughout the state. Just prior to my departure for home, he showed me how he had spoken as much when interviewed for a New York Times story, which appeared earlier that same day. Gen. Carden also made similar remarks that were reported by the AJC.

Greater social connection is not a panacea, but it offers a basic building block for tackling pervasive ills that have befallen us. While not a substitute for mental and behavioral health care, it can mitigate the social isolation, relationship distress and loneliness that can induce service demand. Social connection can also build awareness of, and deterrence against, the adverse impacts that “solution aversion” can exert on partisan division. And, for this seminal moment in race relations, it can help to humanize – and build bridges between -- persons on different sides of the fence, be it race, ethnicity, or in this case, a public protest.

Gen. Carden and I have been in correspondence since, which I hope to continue, and it occurs to me that this is just the kind of act of relatedness for which we all need to be striving much more often these days – connection that is built between individuals within one’s tribe but also beyond one’s tribe, based on being assertive but receptive to the unexpected, and predicated on speaking but, more importantly, on listening.

My hope is that we as a people can individually and collectively find ways to achieve much more social connection in the days ahead.

Harris Allen, Ph.D., leads the Harris Allen Group, which he founded in 1998 to support performance improvements in health and healthcare.