By Willoughby Mariano
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Five nights in July play on in grainy online videos of thousands of bodies moving in the Atlanta heat. In the heart of the city called the nation’s black mecca, the Black Lives Matter movement shouted that it was all a myth.
The protests united as many as 10,000 at a time. Men and women stood with their fists raised on the downtown Connector, lit by headlights of cars they brought to a halt. After decades of black mayors, police chiefs, and judges, Atlanta remains like any American city, they said. Here, black lives still matter less than white ones, they said, and black lives that are poor, incarcerated, undocumented, gay, lesbian, and transgender matter even less.
These protests were no accident. The movement has been accused of being disorganized and disrespectful, and their protesters were called “unlovable little brats” by civil rights era leader, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young. He later apologized.
Some call them terrorists and thugs, and blame them for everything from riots to shooting deaths of police nationwide — accusations that intensified after protests against recent police shootings of black men in Charlotte, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla.
But amid this criticism, Atlanta activists have quietly built a broad and ambitious coalition. Since the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., organizers here have moved in a whirlwind of conference calls, meetings, training and conventions with hopes of moving beyond protest towards political and social reform.
This loose network of dozens of Atlanta groups, only one of which is a chapter of the national Black Lives Matter organization, has since proven it can push legislation through City Council and bring what were once fringe causes such as ending zero tolerance policing to the forefront of debate.
Now organizers believe the city that was famously dubbed “too busy to hate” during the Civil Rights era has lost its way. Blacks continue to be killed by police, are far more likely to be arrested for minor drug offenses, and are being pushed out of Atlanta by skyrocketing rents. July’s protests showed activists that it’s time to harness their power in an attempt to tear down the city’s century-old way of governing through black elites. And they plan to do it their way, demanding that leaders embrace the humanity of the ones left behind.
“Atlanta is historical. Atlanta is monumental. All eyes are on us,” said organizer Taiza Troutman, 23, a Georgia State University graduate student. “We love each other. We support each other. We’re going to dance in the streets.”
The phrase “black lives matter” was born in a 2013 Facebook post that its author calls a “love letter to black people.” Inside a cramped community center rec room south of Turner Field, Atlanta organizers invoked love to call the first meeting of #ATLisReady to order. Some 70 activists had signed in and introductions were running long.
There were mainstream Democrats, labor organizers, anti-colonialists, Socialists, queer liberation activists, and black nationalists, all tapping out tweets, trading phone numbers and giving hugs. Chairs were arranged in neat circles for small-group discussions, but attendance was higher than expected. Many sat on the floor.
“If I cut you off, it’s out of love,” an organizer said, balancing a laptop in her hands. “I want to hear about your organization. I want to hear about all organizations.”
ATLisReady launched only hours before the July protests over the police shooting deaths of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. Its organizers have no formal titles and no desire to incorporate as a nonprofit, and like many movement activists reject hierarchy and government approval.
Still, thousands marched under the #ATLisReady banner when the group had little more than a hashtag to its name. The informal coalition set strategy for two of the July marches, and recruited parade marshals, legal observers, bail bondsmen, lawyers and a jail support team to keep protesters safe.
Troutman, a commanding woman who reads policy research in her spare time, invited those at the #ATLisReady meeting to use this power to strengthen each other’s efforts.
“You’re here because you’re progressive and you want freedom,” she said, stopping for a friendly reminder to check what pronouns other activists preferred to use, a nod to the movement’s LGBTQ base.
It was #ATLisReady that forced a meeting with Mayor Kasim Reed at City Hall by marching through Buckhead’s most exclusive enclave to the governor’s mansion July 11. For a week afterwards, they holed up at the house of a white Grant Park supporter, hammering together a list of demands and negotiating with Reed’s staffers over an agenda and attendees, according to interviews and a recording they provided.
When the morning arrived, Reed ignored the ground rules and organizers stormed out in protest. Reed capped the talks with a press conference where he was flanked by Sir Maejor, an activist shunned by the movement over accusations of erratic behavior and homophobia. Reed and Sir Maejor declared the meeting a success.
A Reed spokesperson said he respects the activists and takes them seriously, however, the meeting confirmed the coalition’s worst suspicions.
“We know the Atlanta Way,” said organizer Avery Jackson, 21, creator of the #ATLisReady hashtag, drawing a laugh from those assembled in the rec room.
With his mop of hair and fingernails lacquered in white and pink, Jackson, a Morehouse College senior, had risen through the ranks of NAACP youth leadership defying its expectations of buttoned-down respectability.
As photos of Brown’s body lying on a Ferguson street began appearing online, he and other younger members of the NAACP pushed for immediate action, Jackson said in an interview. But its leadership, criticized for being top-down and male dominated, could not act decisively, he said. Jackson resigned.
“I recognized there was a new way to do what I wanted to do,” he said.
That new way freed activists from jockeying for approval from established civil rights groups, embracing gay, lesbian, queer and transgender people like Jackson who had often stood at their margins. Nine days after Brown’s death, Aurielle Lucier, 21 a charismatic spoken-word poet who identifies as queer, joined with friends under the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanYou to hold her first protest. Some 5,000 people attended.
“When I organized that protest I was really making a commitment to my community. That commitment extends beyond protests you see on the evening news,” said Lucier, who grew up in metro Atlanta memorizing the poems of Langston Hughes. “It means we research legislation and work tirelessly to convict police officers who perpetuate violence on behalf of the state.”
A year later, Lucier joined movement leaders from across the nation to meet with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In this environment, new alliances form at a breakneck pace. Dre Propst, 48, a big-shouldered man with a gentle drawl, grew up in Chicago as factory closures plunged its black middle-class into poverty. He got his start in Atlanta organizing eight years ago, registering voters at gay clubs for the Democrats. Three months after meeting Mary Hooks, co-director of LGBTQ advocacy group Southerners On New Ground, they founded Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter chapter.
Its first meeting in December 2015 drew a standing-room only crowd. Since then, its organizers have stepped beyond protests with a candidates forum, business initiatives, and a book club that met with civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis to discuss his autobiography.
They also give comfort to those who feel powerless because of their race. Propst takes late night calls from crying family members of police shooting victims and listens when black youth say that police frisk them in the park.
”We’re tired of marching, singing ‘We shall overcome’,” Propst said. Among the movement’s most radical demands is to replace the police department with social services, which Reed flatly rejected.
On a Friday evening at downtown’s Woodruff Park, Propst hugged attendees as Imani, a fellow organizer, arranged tea candles on a folding table into the shape of a heart. About 70 people gathered with Black Lives Matter Atlanta to honor the lives of women and transgender victims of violence, including a cousin of Baton Rouge police shooting victim Alton Sterling.
“We are in a war we don’t want to be in,” the cousin said through tears. “But we are definitely in a war.”
It was the first event Imani had organized, and the 23-year old hesitated as she read through a long list of victims. But the domestic violence survivor sprang forward when a white curiosity seeker baited mourners and called the movement racist. Imani shouted into the man’s face, her eyes barely reaching his nose: “This is not for you.”
She later said she was proud to intervene. “It’s a labor of love – not only to end overt violence, but to create safe spaces, healing spaces, where we can experience our full humanity.”
“I’m not going to be afraid of a man,” she added.
On a Monday afternoon, Haroun Wakil, 36, took a break from sweeping the front porch of his Bankhead bungalow to point out that the streets were quiet. The abandoned apartment complex next door was still crumbling, jobs remained scarce, and bad police officers continued to harass residents, he said, but kids were in school and troublemakers were gone.
Police credit their initiatives, but activists say it’s because of Street Groomers, Wakil’s group of avowed gang members, whose mission fits on the front of his T-shirt: “We patrol the community to keep it safe and clean.”
At 6-foot-10, at least 350 pounds, and wearing a Muslim prayer cap, Wakil is easy for neighborhood kids to spot from blocks away. Some of them call him ‘big brother.’ They behave, he said, because he tells them he loves them.
“The young brothers say, ‘I love you, Haroun’,” Wakil said. “Black lives gotta matter to us before they matter to anyone else.”
Conditions in Bankhead and other poor neighborhoods are proof to activists that the black elite ignore the black poor. Gangs, or “street tribes,” as Wakil calls them, are the ones who care for people like him. When he was living in an abandoned building, a gang, not a nonprofit, found him and took him in, he said.
Black Lives Matter’s Khalid Kamau, an organizer in his 30s who grew up among southwest Atlanta’s black professionals, saw this divide during visits to a Bankhead health clinic his mother ran.
“The city too busy to hate is also too busy to care about people that they’ve left behind,” said Kamau, a Democratic Party campaign worker who was a national convention delegate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
The idea can be a tough sell in a city where civil rights legends ushered in four decades of black political control. Whatever their shortcomings, key leaders such as the city’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson bucked the elite and paid dearly for it, said Georgia State University’s Maurice J. Hobson, an expert on black politics in Atlanta after the Civil Rights movement.
“There are some instances where you’ve had a black political establishment and the perception that black lives didn’t matter. But there are other places in history where black politicians were out there, too,” Hobson said.
A new generation expects more. They believe that black leaders can uphold white supremacy when they run police agencies that are far more likely to kill blacks than whites, or schools that fail to educate poor black students. Such ideas are built on years of scholarship arguing that systems can discriminate unintentionally.
“It’s hard to tell grandma that she shouldn’t vote for a black man. It’s hard to fight against white supremacy when it has a black face,” said Asia Parks, 25, a John Marshall Law School student and organizer for Rise Up GA, a nonprofit founded after of Ferguson to push for racial and economic justice.
“Black people are like, no, that’s my guy. He’s our cousin. He’s a family friend,” said Rise Up GA’s Olamide Shabazz, 28, a nightclub promoter who left the NAACP after Ferguson.
Atlanta’s place in civil rights history may give organizers an advantage. Black politicians can’t be seen to ignore racial disparities, and there are plenty to point out: Studies show most of Atlanta’s black children live in high poverty neighborhoods; black unemployment is far higher than that of whites; black incomes lag far behind; and blacks in Fulton County are 7.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession.
“It’s a disgrace when you come to an understanding that these things are happening in Atlanta,” said Xochitl Bervera, 42, a polished activist who founded Atlanta’s Racial Justice Action Center nearly two years before Ferguson. She and members of the Solutions Not Punishment Coalition successfully pushed for the City Council to launch a pilot pre-arrest diversion program to send certain offenders to social services instead of jail. Three weeks after the July marches, Councilman Kwanza Hall proposed to strike down ordinances tied to broken windows policing, a popular law enforcement approach which researchers now believe discriminates against minorities.
The Coalition’s March 2016 report on police mistreatment of transgender people helped pressure the Atlanta Citizens Review Board to appoint a transgender board member, although advocates believe city leaders remain unwilling to solve the problem.
Just a few years ago, such initiatives were unpopular among the city’s black middle class, who saw them as enabling people who give them a bad name, said Tiffany Williams Roberts, 35, who pushed for reforms years before the movement launched.
“We felt all alone. We felt like we were outcasts,” said Williams Roberts, deputy director of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics at Georgia State University’s law school. She is now part of an informal network of professionals who volunteer legal work and conduct trainings. Veterans from Occupy Wall Street and other movements raise money for the Georgia Civil Disobedience Fund to bail out protesters.
“We are leaps and bounds beyond where we were even a year ago,” said Williams Roberts.
When protesters marched recently through a McDonald’s restaurant, workers shouted “black lives matter.” Riders stopped MARTA police who tried to halt a train teach-in. And organizers wonder what role they played in Keith Gammage’s upset victory in this summer’s race for Fulton County Solicitor General. He became their favorite at an Atlanta Black Lives Matter forum where he argued for restorative justice.
Gammage said there is no way to determine their impact, but his message has growing appeal.
“I consider myself more of the people’s choice,” he said.
Kamau noted that Reed won his first term by only a few hundred votes.
“We can pick the next mayor,” he said.
For all of its visibility, this rapidly changing coalition remains baffling to outsiders. When an officer at a recent protest for prisoner rights asked who was in charge, three dozen marchers replied: “All of us.”
Anyone can join and everyone leads. Activists see themselves as facilitators and educators. They tell protesters what might happen if they curse at police or block the Downtown Connector, but don’t order them to stop.
This stands in stark contrast to the Civil Rights movement, where leaders booted volunteers who might fight back if attacked and directed what they said and did. Some local groups rejected hierarchy, but national ones embraced it, said civil rights leader Bernard Lafayette, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“We recognized we needed organizational and institutional force,” Lafayette said. “It’s one thing to have protests. It’s another thing to have a movement.”
These days, it’s hard for established groups to figure out who to call to pitch in. A Georgia and Atlanta NAACP attempt to help local teens Silent Majority on one of the July protests got turned on its head when they couldn’t identify the teens, organizers said. The NAACP made arrangements anyway, but when it advertised the protest under its name, Silent Majority sent angry tweets, said member Daniel Scurry, 19, a lanky Morehouse sophomore who plans to become a lawyer.
“We thought they were trying to steal our idea,” Scurry said. When he arrived at the protest two hours early, hundreds were already there. Some 10,000 people took to the streets that day.
“It was beautiful,” said Gerald Griggs, a Georgia NAACP committee chair. “Everyone is trying to coalesce around the same idea: to reduce violence.”
But it is exhausting. To the movement, making black lives matter means fighting for all oppressed people, which compels them to find common ground with a host of different initiatives, strategies and ideologies. And almost every day, there is a protest, vigil, conference call, meeting, or emergency. Two attorneys rushed to Fulton County Jail after Street Groomers’ Wakil was arrested on a felony warrant tied to the July protests.
He was released on a signature bond, but jail staff failed to give him his epilepsy medication, Wakil said, and he was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital with seizures.
Wakil was still sleepy-eyed was he greeted worried friends outside the courthouse for a protest over Deravis Caine Rogers, an unarmed black man shot and killed by Atlanta police in June. Activists camped outside the Fulton County courthouse because a grand jury was scheduled to hear the case.
Wakil’s lawyers sat him behind a sound system, tucked away from potential trouble.
“See how they got me kidnapped up here?” Wakil joked.
A DJ booth, radio station tent, tables of meals for the homeless, and a makeshift shrine to victims of police violence had sprouted up on the sidewalk, and as the sky darkened, the crowd swelled to some 200 people. There were prayers for the dead, speeches for the living, and drummers in dashikis, their hands and sticks skipping through intricate rhythms. Straight-backed members of the Nation of Islam guarded the perimeter while legal observers in yellow T-shirts moved their hips to a funky beat.
Brother’s gonna work it out, the speakers crooned.
The courthouse sidewalk was a dance floor. Propst bobbed with his phone in one hand and a protest sign in the other. Jackson swayed holding a brindle puppy in his arms. There were people in t-shirts that said “I Love Black People;” men in Muslim prayer caps; men in suits and ties; women in sundresses, cargo shorts, natural hair, purple hair and lip gloss.
Hooks of Black Lives Matter took a megaphone and called out: “We don’t need police. We don’t need cages. We just need each other.”