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Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, just over 1,100 miles away; Atlanta, Georgia found itself armed with a profound spotlight. While the rest of the nation watched on in general astonishment as flames rose in front of the CNN Center, the events that transpired on May 25 was a general confirmation of what most Black residents of the city and its surrounding areas already knew.
This confirmation would only be further underscored when those at home watched live as four Atlanta Police Department officers employed excessive force in a confrontation with two college students, using stun guns on 22-year-old Messiah Young and 20-year-old Teniyah Pilgrim as they attempted to leave a protest after a 9 p.m. curfew went into effect. The facade was cracking.
While Montgomery, Alabama is known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement; Atlanta, Georgia rightfully earned the title as the cradle with the city being ground zero for initiatives between the 1940s and 1970s that pushed for voting rights, fair access to public facilities, and access to educational opportunities for African Americans.
It is the birthplace and home to notable figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former ambassador Andrew Young, and Congressmen John Lewis.
It is the origin of pivotal organizations such as the the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
It houses the AUC, which lays claim to the historically Black schools of Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University.
It has long served as a mecca for Black business owners with the historic “Sweet” Auburn Avenue once hosting some of the country’s most reputable Black-owned businesses.
In the 21st century, Atlanta continues to hold its title as a retreat for Black professionals and entertainers, breeding some of the most important names in music and giving rise to some of our favorite Black entrepreneurs.
Its mayor is Black. Its district attorney is Black. Its city council president is Black. Its police force, like the city, is over 50 percent Black.
Eighteen days after Floyd’s death, it would also become the city where Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot while fleeing police, becoming a new addition to a daunting list of names of Black men and women brutalized or killed by the APD. When the Wendy’s restaurant where Brooks was killed went up in flames the following night, it became all too clear just what kind of frustration had long been pent up within Atlanta’s Black communities, leading to such an unprecedented response of anger and subsequent rioting.
At protests throughout the city, you’d be hard pressed not to encounter someone with a war wound, whether physical or emotional, of tense encounters with the police in their neighborhoods. From horror stories of unjust raids by the now-disbanded APD Red Dogs to horrendous accounts of brutalization in traffic stops carried out by officers out of their jurisdiction. Further adding to the fire? Dissatisfaction with city officials met with calls for a complete overhaul. Such demands were met in some part with the resignation of police chief Erika Shields, who stepped down less than 24 hours after Brooks’ death. But, community activists see it as one start to actionable change that reverberates throughout Atlanta.
“We’ve already been deemed as the Black mecca. We pioneer a lot of things, this is the land of lingo. We control a large portion of what people are influenced by,” said activist Seven K3ys, who was present at the protests at the CNN Center and has made a point to be on the frontlines of protesting everyday since. “Seeing that Atlanta is not standing for something like that, we can pioneer the country into the next era of power and authority. It should start with Atlanta.”
In a city that has seen over 30 days of consecutive protesting, K3ys’ sentiments echo the reality that many community leaders acknowledge: There is plenty of opportunity for Atlanta to restore the glory that once made it a hotbed for social justice, but there’s still much work to be done and proper infrastructure to establish.
Following the confirmation of charges being brought up against former officers Garret Rolfe and Devin Brosnan for Brooks’ June 12 death, the Atlanta Police Department experienced a publicized shortage of officers. While a spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Police officers declared that officers stopped answering calls mid-shift in a form of protest, APD officials chalked it up to a higher-than-normal volume callouts from police officers in the Zone 3 and Zone 6 precincts with the Zone 6 police radio going completely silent the evening of June 17.
All the while, a faction of protestors seized the opportunity to police their own community, putting the theory to the test by establishing an autonomous zone at the Wendy’s where Brooks lost his life. Vehicles passing by could witness an elaborate set of traffic barricades that prevented cars from entering the Wendy’s parking lot in an act that served to preserve Brooks’ memory while also sending a message to get city officials’ attention.
But, such a plan quickly turned tragic with the shooting death of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, who was killed when the driver of the vehicle she was in attempted to enter the parking lot before being confronted by the group of armed individuals.
“At some point, someone in the group opened fire on the vehicle striking it multiple times, striking the child who was inside,” said Interim Chief Rodney Bryant at a press conference.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately condemned the shooting, acknowledging the peaceful protests that continue to take place on a daily basis in the city while — to much backlash — declaring that communities must focus on internal reform before directing their energy toward law enforcement.
“Police reform is a big part of it, but we’ve also got to reform our own communities,” stated Bottoms.
Such a tragic incident also highlights many leaders’ sentiments of the lack of any tangible action in Atlanta since protests began.
“We didn’t do anything meaningful,” said cannabis entrepreneur and prominent community activist Sabrina Peterson. “We need to follow the cities that had monuments removed — that actually made change. We’ve made noise, but we haven’t made change. While we were protesting, a law was passed to protect police officers.”
The law that she’s referring to is a hate crimes bill that had long waded in the state senate. It gained particular steam following the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia after the unarmed Black man was chased down by a white father and son, and fatally shot while he was on a routine jog. But, its passage was a bittersweet moment for many as it classified police officers as a protected group under the new law.
“The police chief stepped down, but we followed that up with killing an 8-year-old girl?” questions Peterson who recalls visiting that same autonomous zone weeks before Turner’s life was taken. “Atlanta needs an organized movement. There needs to be a centralized agenda. There needs to be a centralized movement. Atlanta needs to organize, strategize, and then execute.”
Peterson’s advice is not too far removed from initiatives that are beginning to take root in the city, as the newly formed The People’s Uprising task force — launched by District 3 Councilman Antonio Brown — called on a diverse group community leaders, elected officials, attorneys, and influencers to piece together tangible and actionable solutions.
“The task force will be responsive and proactive on issues of economic inequality, public safety reform, education reform, criminal justice reform, and civic engagement,” Brown told REVOLT. “A people’s movement focused on policy and action-based programmatic initiatives to dismantle systemic oppression that evoke uprisings.”
For K3ys’, who is also a member of the newly minted task force, The People’s Uprising is a chance for a new generation of leaders to usher in unprecedented change that is inclusive of all fights and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We watched a man get tortured,” he said about Floyd’s killing. “Now, it’s a humanity thing. If there was a lot more going on in the world, I don’t think it would have raised as big of a flag that it raised. We have to lift up all of the community — all of humanity. We have a platform and we can build and show the rest of the nation that there’s nothing wrong with forming up and getting together, even with differing opinions. We’re diverse. We’re well thought out. We’re well organized.”