Atlanta in (trans)formation

Atlantans pack downtown streets in protest of recent police killings. Credit: Camille Pendley.

The city of Atlanta is turned up.

Since the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, people have flooded the streets in cities across the nation, demanding an end to state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies.

In Atlanta, protests have drawn upwards of 10,000 people on some nights, and have continued unabated since Thursday, July 7, 2016.

The demonstrations have taken every form short of all-out rioting. Massive marches begun in the early evening and led by identifiable organizers have given way to spontaneously moving crowds winding boisterously through downtown, midtown and uptown, splitting up and reuniting, dancing and standing off with police, and shutting down traffic on busy roads, and even the Interstate, for long hours and, at least once, literally all night.

The relatively unplanned and unkempt nature of these later marches has incurred derision from public figures—who have denounced protesters as youthful, disorganized, and lacking demands. But protesters have given concrete reasons for hitting the street to anyone who will listen. I heard a middle-aged woman yell that she joined the front lines on Friday night because, “I got two Black sons, 27 and 24. I’m not gon do no prayer circle. If somebody, God forbid, makes me join that motherhood, that sisterhood of mothers that lost their children, there will be hell to pay.”

And in a Wednesday morning blockade of an Interstate entry ramp, Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground, named specific problems for which she believes APD and the city should account.

“Mayor Kasim Reed wants to pretend that us even taking down the highway is the most major threat in the city right now,” Hooks said as helicopters whirred overhead and dozens of law enforcement officers swarmed the blocks around the demonstration.

“[He] needs to understand that the most violent, that the most threatening thing right now with regards to public safety, is currently in Districts 3 and 4, the West End, where Operation Whiplash has literally run roughshod in Black communities.” She was referring to a prong of the mayor’s “Summer Safety Plan” which recently funneled seventy-one extra police into low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods. Hooks also called on the Mayor to release video footage of APD’s encounter with Alexia Christian, a 26-year-old mother who police shot to death last year.

A police helicopter watches over an icon of corporate Atlanta. Credit: Camille Pendley.

In contrast to the its treatment of the protestors, the media has given Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta Police Department (APD) Chief George Turner glowing approval for their handling of the demonstrations. Rather than implementing sweeping arrests, riot squads, and militarized equipment, Turner initially kept his crew in their regular uniforms and made few arrests.

(Still, on the second night of protests, I was in a group that suddenly came face to face with a lone officer aiming a huge gun at us. Some of us scattered, but a few people stayed put and even moved toward him with their hands in the air, refusing to be threatened. He finally heeded shouts to “put the gun down!” throwing it in his idling car, and peeling away, nearly running over a young man.)

By Monday, Reed’s rhetoric––which had initially championed freedom of speech (unless it involved taking the Interstate, which he falsely claimed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., everyone’s assumed idol, would never do)––had changed. In a press conference, he floated the possibility of calling in the National Guard and instating a curfew.

That night, APD arrested more people in one go than it had in prior nights. Crowds convened not downtown, as they had before, but in Buckhead, a sort of city-unto-itself on the northside of Atlanta, home to the South’s wealthiest zip-code. The streets of Buckhead were not up for grabs in the same way as those downtown, and police deftly picked off protesters, even those wearing marshal vests. They arrested 15 people in all, including a 68-year-old man whose shoulder they dislocated in the process. Protesters responded by heading to the Governor’s mansion, where they staged a sit-in that won them a meeting with Reed and Turner.

While the National Guard has not made an appearance thus far, FBI agents were spotted at a demonstration on Wednesday. All in all, it seems that in response to this moment of unrest and possibility, Atlanta’s leaders are working to create optics of tolerance while quietly cracking down. This strategy lives on a well-worn page of a playbook from which Atlanta elite have governed for a long time.

As this moment of national crisis unfolds locally, there is potential in Atlanta to fundamentally alter that playbook.

Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, hinted at this potential in the most blistering critique leveled at protesters thus far.

“Those are some unlovable little brats out there,” Young reportedly told APD officers in a meeting on Sunday. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Young “worried that they will hurt Atlanta’s economic gains and ‘mess up the climate we have taken 50 years to build.’”


This climate, often referred to as “The Atlanta Way,” is one of economic growth that benefits a class of White and Black elites whose cooperation creates a veneer of racial progressivism.
Beneath that veneer is a city in which most Black people struggle to survive on poverty wages, with scant public services, under the surveillance and abuse of police employed to enforce this drastically unequal economic order.

The connection between policing and economic hierarchy isn’t always so obvious. But Young elucidated it when he expressed fear for Atlanta’s economy in a moment when thousands of people in the street were expressing fear about their ability to stay alive in the face of police violence.

The Atlanta Way has flourished in part thanks to a historically non-transparent governance structure that has privileged the city’s corporate leaders to govern alongside elected officials.

In his 2005 book “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism” Princeton professor Kevin Kruse described Atlanta’s power structure during the mid-20th century as an, “incredibly close-knit group of friends, neighbors, and business partners from the city’s posh Northside.”

Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech professor explained how this privileged friend-group governed the city in his book “Atlanta, Race, Class and Urban Expansion” (2001). “Almost all the important policy decisions that have guided the city over the past several decades have been made not by government itself but by small groups of men––sometimes just two men––in private meetings,” Keating wrote.

Young members of the Housing Justice League on the steps of City Hall. Credit: Anna Simonton

The integration of Atlanta Public Schools in 1961 offers a potent case study of how these men crafted an image of racial tolerance as a strategy to protect their own wealth. Kruse writes that Mayor Hartsfield commissioned a report on the economic losses that Little Rock, Arkansas suffered as a result of resisting desegregation, and warned Atlanta’s corporate leaders that they would lose millions if they did the same.

Together, they turned integration into a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign. They wined and dined reporters, escorted a handful of black students to and from school under heavy police protection, and ultimately won praise from national media and President John F. Kennedy. All of this did not translate, of course, to lasting security and equity in the newly integrated schools, but national scrutiny didn’t stay on Atlanta’s desegregation efforts over the long-term.

When Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, took office in 1974, the city’s pseudo-progressive White leadership was only slightly shaken. They had long collaborated with Black leaders to ensure just enough racial harmony to keep the gears of the economy moving. What discomfort Atlanta’s White elite did experience during Jackson’s first two terms (he would become mayor again in the early ‘90s), Andrew Young dispelled when he succeeded Jackson in 1982.

At the behest of Central Atlanta Progress, the city’s oldest business coalition, Young channeled public subsidies into a series of downtown redevelopment projects that ultimately failed to engender the economic growth the elites had envisioned, much less produce a return for the taxpayers who footed the bills. Outcomes aside, Young’s acquiescence to corporate interests bolstered the Atlanta Way. Three years into his term, Esquire magazine reported that “Andrew Young is doing for Atlanta what Reagan has done for America: he’s making rich White people feel good again.”

Atlanta’s mayors post-Young, including Kasim Reed, have largely followed suit. The result is a city that in 2015 was named in a Brookings Institute report as having the highest income inequality in the U.S. If that has changed at all in the past year, it is only because poor––and, increasingly, middle-income––people are being displaced at an alarming rate as gentrification remakes the city.

The morning after the Buckhead protest, a group called Housing Justice League held a press conference on the steps of City Hall to announce a renter’s state of emergency and released the findings of a study they conducted into the changing housing market. 72 percent of Atlanta’s neighborhoods are considered gentrified or gentrifying. 95 percent of apartments built since 2012 have been considered “luxury.” Since 2012, Atlanta has lost 5 percent of its affordable housing every year.

Speakers shared stories of living in cars and working minimum-wage jobs. Working “living-wage” jobs and still not being able to find housing they can afford. Paying sixty percent of their income in rent. Facing rising rents even in public housing.

Meanwhile, they noted, the city invests in projects like the Beltline, a bike path more than a decade in the making that has been so heavily hyped that the neighborhoods where the path has already been constructed are now the most desired among Atlanta’s wealthiest––and typically whitest––residents. These neighborhoods were historically black and working class, as are the neighborhoods where the path is slated for further construction. In the pre-Beltline neighborhoods, rampant speculation is already displacing people, as evidenced by posts like this one on the real estate website Zillow from July, 2015:

BELTLINE. BELTLINE. This Great Investment or starter home sits
on the Atlanta Beltline...Tenant occupied however the tenant will be evicted.

“Atlanta does have the money. We see all type of development all over this city,” said a fourth-generation Atlantan who identified herself as Zakiya B. “But the money is not coming to the people who truly need it and the people who truly deserve it.”

Avery Jackson, a Morehouse student who has been involved in organizing the recent protests attended the press conference shortly after wrapping up the sit-in at the Governor’s mansion.

“I came here to let y’all know that the folks who are hitting the streets, we definitely care about affordable housing,” he said. “We want people to know that we aren’t hitting the streets just because we want to deal with police, right? We understand that there are systemic intersections in how Black people and low-income folks are not prioritized in this city.”

If the mass mobilizations of the past week can be channeled into sustainable action, then there is perhaps an opportunity to do away with The Atlanta Way, and re-shape city governance to prioritize regular people, not just the elite. In an election year when a socialist came damn close to the Democratic presidential nomination, when there is speculation that Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort––whose politics are Bernie-esque––might join Atlanta’s 2017 mayoral race, and when tens of thousands of people are taking brazen action in a city where five hundred protesters is considered high turnout, that sort of fundamental change might actually be possible.