Sometime between Michael Brown’s murder and a grand jury’s failure to indict his killer, young people of color in Atlanta shut down the interstate. I had heard about the plan the day before and found out where they were going to get on the highway hours before the action
I biked down Auburn Avenue, slowing only to cross the perilous tracks of the new 100 million dollar streetcar––built to attract already upwardly-mobile millennials, according to the mayor , not to remedy the findings of a 2013 study showing that Atlanta ranks lowest in the nation for economic mobility – in large part due to its piss-poor public transit (though it’s hard to see how a two-mile loop between the Martin Luther King Center and Centennial Olympic Park will woo “the best and the brightest,” unless that turn of phrase is synonymous with “tourists,” or a word I only recently learned: conventioneers).
I arrived unscathed and locked my bike to a traffic sign by the on-ramp to I-75/85 at Piedmont and John Portman Boulevard. Protest marshals wearing bright orange vests were already in the middle of the highway, waving through cars that had, as planned, slowed traffic to a stop so people could walk onto the roadway safely.
A crowd had congregated for a banner drop from an overpass a few hundred feet from the ramp. With traffic at a standstill, about thirty people made their way down to the asphalt of the I-75/85 Connector, spread out a banner that read “Black Lives Matter,” and settled in for half an hour of victorious dancing and chanting before dispersing in order to avoid arrest.
I snapped photos and jotted notes that I would later turn into a report for Atlanta Progressive News. I was glad to have a job to do, afraid that otherwise I would be at a loss for the simplest things. Where to put my body. Where to focus my gaze. How to use my voice.
Part of it was taking space. The experience can be rare, but I had it before––both in the context of political action and spontaneous fun. When a group of people take over a space for something other than its prescribed use, vistas of possibility suddenly crack open. It becomes gleamingly apparent that no laws of nature ordain that an interstate is only for cars, or the steps of a bank are not a dance floor, or public buildings that we pay for cannot be our living rooms.
These rules are made by people, and people can unmake them.
This blockade was different than any experience I had of taking space because, this time, Black and Brown people owned the space, proclaiming their humanity and uncompromising power, challenging the cops to do something about it, running the show on their own, exhilarating terms. Some in tears, some stone-faced, some with hands up (don’t shoot), some with fists up, they shouted Assata Shakur’s words in call and response:
We have a duty to fight for our freedom. We have a duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
I felt I was witnessing the birth of something new out of something 400 years old. As those who locked arms across four asphalt lanes embodied the legacy of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they also pushed beyond those proffered paradigms to center historically marginalized voices and implicate not only racism itself, but also the systems that create and perpetuate racism.
Their banners declared that Black queer and trans lives matter. Black women’s lives matter. Undocumented lives matter. And the presence of these lives on the highway, blocking the flow of commerce, signaled a determination to understand and brazenly target the systemic, economic roots of racial injustice.
Yoehzer Yeeftakh, an organizer of #ItsBiggerThanYou, a campaign which has played a big role in mobilizing the movement in Atlanta, later wrote about his reasons for blocking the interstate:
“Many Black men and women are born into an environment that, in many ways, denies their right to exist. Everywhere they go, they're told that they're not good enough. They make less money than their white peers, they get approved for fewer loans, and they are accepted into fewer prestigious academic programs. […] They must work harder than anyone else to just get a foothold. And, at any moment, that foothold could be removed. At any moment, their brother, uncle, or son could be killed by a gun owner toting his weapon in the name of self-protection. Then they have to deal with the fact that this gunman may not be held accountable for murder.”
Since the blockade, I’ve been on the sidelines of Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter movement as much as I can be. I’ve offered my support mostly as a reporter and, where it’s appropriate, as a White body in the streets marching in solidarity with my Black and Brown peers.
I haven’t been to every action, and I haven’t been on the inside of the close-knit groups planning them. I haven’t lived most of the conditions that make this movement necessary. My observations are an attempt to document, from my limited perspective, some of what’s unfolding in my home city, as well as to explore the emergent politics of Atlanta's small part in a movement that’s sweeping the nation.
Black lives matter at Walmart (November 28, 2014)
I arrived at the Walmart on Memorial Drive just as police were confiscating a pair of drumsticks. It was Black Friday, about a month after the interstate blockade, and a small crowd of protesters had stormed the big box retailer, attempting to stage a die-in, as so many were doing all over the country.
Police quickly ejected them from the store and relegated them to a median in the parking lot. The group continued to holler and drum and wave signs that condemned low wages and police murder on rectangles of poster board until one officer took the drumsticks away and threatened to arrest everyone.
I joined the crowd as it moved out of the officer’s sight to the bottom of a sloped entrance to the parking lot. Each time they had the light, people marched back and forth through the driveway’s crosswalk shouting “Walmart is a crime scene!”
The chant was a reference to the case of John Crawford III, shot dead in an Ohio Walmart by a police officer who saw him holding a toy BB gun with its barrel pointed toward the floor. It was also a reference to the crime of poverty wages, which has brought labor activists to Walmart stores every Black Friday for the past few years.
ATL Raise Up is part of the national low-wage worker movement that’s fighting for 15 dollars an hour and union rights, primarily for fast food workers. In Atlanta, home health workers and airport workers are also part of the campaign. But this year, it wasn’t only ATL Raise Up and its labor allies outside the Walmart. People from the Black Lives Matter movement were there in equal number. Together, their messages melded into the clearest articulation of the relationship between economic and racial injustice I’d seen from the movement thus far.
I talked to Mary Hooks, an organizer for Southerners On New Ground (SONG).
“We see hyper-policing at the same time that we see people underemployed and underpaid,” she told me. “We have state-sanctioned violence at the same time that we have the state refusing to expand the minimum wage so that people can be able to feed their babies. That creates a level of tension in communities. These are the circumstances and conditions that bred the Ferguson uprising, and they are happening in Atlanta and in cities and towns and rural communities all over the United States.”
Marquise Banks came to the rally with ATL Raise Up. As a Black man in his early 20s and a yard hand making six dollars an hour (less than the federal minimum wage) he agreed that police violence and economic injustice are both facets of institutionalized racism.
“I’m tired of getting the least of things,” Banks said. “I’m tired of being oppressed.”
Black lives built the mall
A few days before Christmas, eight people laid down in the middle of an intersection near Lenox Square mall, an upscale shopping center in one of Atlanta’s wealthiest zip codes. They bound themselves together in a circle by long tubes of black PVC that covered their arms and bore the names of people of color killed by police.
Nearby, three people held poles to make a ten-foot “tripod” where one person could sit in the crux. The purpose, like the PVC pipes, was to make it harder for police to make arrests and clear the area, effecting a longer shutdown. It also literally elevated Nelini Stamp, a woman of color and co-founder of Rise Up Georgia.
More protesters shielded those in the street from traffic. Several people stood in each crosswalk, holding huge black banners emblazoned with yellow spray painted letters that spelled Eric Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”
In early December, a New York Grand Jury chose not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who killed Eric Garner with a choke hold maneuver the New York Police Department banned in the early 90s. In a statement, Rise Up explained the connections between their action, its proximity to Lenox Mall, and the very real relationship between racist violence and wealth disparity:
“Georgia’s brutal history of slavery reminds us that our state’s wealth was built on the backs of black men, women, and children, and despite the progress that has been made, it is this very history that continues to devalue Black and Brown bodies. The plantations of the past have been replaced by big corporations, who squeeze wages out of workers and use their wealth to dominate the political system. Black Codes and Jim Crow laws have been replaced by the War on Drugs and quality-of-life policing, which continue to criminalize our communities and fill our prisons with people of color.”
Shoppers trying to get to Louis Vitton and Anthropologie had a full ninety minutes to sit in their cars and reflect on this, as police cut through PVC and wrested Stamp down from the tripod, eventually arresting her along with a dozen others.
When Black and White were invented.
In the days leading up to Christmas, Black Lives Matter actions all over the country took aim at the ever-grinding gears of the economy. In some places the actions were framed solely as a tactic, a means to an end: make enough of a ruckus that those in power have no choice but to meet our demands to end racist policing. But in other places, like Atlanta, organizers elucidated a somewhat deeper argument: Disrupting the current economy is disrupting racism. The two go hand in hand. Back at home, I dug around my parents’ house for my copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I remembered having changed my view of racism’s function in this country.
Zinn explains that for a few decades in the 17th century, Black slaves and White indentured servants were close to, though not completely, equals. They toiled together as an underclass, serving the planters, and above them, the colonial and British aristocracy. They lived in close quarters, spent what little leisure time they had together, and, on occasion, rebelled or ran away together.
Such acts of defiance prompted the passage of Slave Codes––laws that sought to divide Black slaves and White indentured servants by banning intermarriage, punishing whites who ran away with Blacks more harshly than Whites who ran away with other Whites, and changing what it meant to be a slave. Whereas the first generation of African slaves who arrived in Virginia in 1619 had the potential to eventually buy their freedom or be freed by their master, Slave Codes enslaved subsequent generations for life and penalized masters who would free them.
The colonies also adopted laws that offered a slight leg-up to poor Whites –– extra corn, money, or small parcels of land –– but not to poor Blacks.
That these laws were introduced in response to multiracial economic protest is telling of the laws' purpose: by dividing these groups against one another, the ruling class preserved its own interests. This legally manufactured racial division helped channel the work of a multi-racial labor pool into the wealth of a homogeneously white elite, paving the way for the economy we know today. And although the racism cultivated by those early laws now appears as its own social problem, independent of the economy, it continues to undergird American capitalism today.
This goes a long way to explain why poor Whites vote against their economic interests with boring predictability or why my grandfather put a lot of time and energy into helping form an all-White private school to thwart integration in Selma, Alabama even though he ultimately (thankfully) couldn’t afford to send his own kids there. In his mind, his racial status as a White man superseded his class status as a pig farmer.
But economic and racial injustice aren’t what pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Michael Brown, and it was Michael Brown’s murder that catalyzed this movement. So where does a homicidal White police officer fit into this framework of racism as a tool to maintain unjust labor relationships?
After the interstate blockade, but before the Walmart and Lenox Mall actions, I went to the offices of Project South. Headquartered in an unassuming, brick building on Atlanta’s poorer southside, Project South does a million amazing things to foster and support southern freedom movements.
It was the second weekly class of Emancipation Autumn 2014, part of a program called Universidad Sin Fronteras (University Without Walls) that takes place in six cities in the mainland U.S. and in Puerto Rico. That night, the course was titled: State Militarized Violence. The presenter was Jared Story from Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ), which formed in Chattanooga after the 1983 death of Wadie Suttles.
Suttles, a black man, was arrested for sleeping in his car and later died from brain trauma in the Chattanooga city jail. Suttles’ daughter co-founded CCJ and has probed every law enforcement agency involved in the case for decades, trying to find answers that might lead to justice for her father.
Story explained that police forces as we know them today evolved out of volunteer militias that formed to catch runaway slaves and servants––a practice that began in the Portuguese colonies of Barbados and was adopted by English colonists in North America.
When slavery was abolished, Story said, chain gangs took its place as a source of free labor, and the slave patrols formalized into local police outfits that were now responsible not only for enforcing bondage, but using the law to place people in bondage.
From there, the presentation touched on many points in the evolution of police into a militarized force. Story argued that some police operations which have come to seem routine, like stop-and-frisk, originated, or were perfected, as counter-insurgency tactics used by the U.S. military in campaigns overseas.
A man sitting next to me paused from doodling tanks and snipers to point out that the police continue to function as enforcers of an unjust economic system. Where slavery and chain gangs were once sources of free labor, he said, today millions of Black and Brown people are in prisons where they do everything from package coffee to build office furniture for 12 cents an hour.
Other people shared personal stories, like a young woman who remembered being constantly searched by police in middle and high school.
“They made us feel like the perpetrators...Being bothered by the police seemed normal. When I visited white schools, I came to see how different that was,” she told us.
In light of everything we had talked about, her point about the normalization of racist policing made perfect sense. In the wake of Ferguson there’s been so much talk of holding police accountable, making sure they do their jobs right.
But in the context of the history of race, capital and policing, it appears that in targeting people of color, the police are doing their job. And that’s the problem.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I assembled with some Black Lives Matter folks at Woodruff Park, where police had busted up Occupy Atlanta three years before. Now smooth jazz is piped into the park from hidden speakers, and employees of something called Ambassador Force ride around on Segways, chiding anyone who gives food to members of the area’s populous homeless community.
We were right along the annual MLK Parade route, at least 100 of us, with puppets, banners, and signs. The parade began, and as contingents representing various unions and social justice groups filed past, we readied ourselves.
After the youth brigade and before the corporate sponsors, someone gave a signal and we flooded the street, cutting off the sponsors from the rest of the march. There, and at three other points along the route, all 100 of us sat down in the road to listen to Queen K, a fixture in Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Each time, she read the same block of text from a sheet of plain printer paper. With her fierce tone, Queen K’s reading was simultaneously incantation and indictment:
On this holiday we want to ensure we uplift Martin Luther King’s legacy the way in which he intended it before he was assassinated. We will not allow those that actively subject us to an oppressive lifestyle to lead the parade or be in the parade. We hold true to our ancestors and their fight and will ensure that their legacy is upheld to accurate truth and light. Martin Luther King Day will be a day to not only honor the man, but all those who gave their lives for our advancement.
We marched down Auburn Avenue, through Martin Luther King’s neighborhood, where Black-owned businesses once thrived. The interstate carved it up in the 1950s. Decades of political disinvestment left it poor and struggling. Now, new businesses are cropping up in the old storefronts, but they aren’t owned by people likely to go to a meeting at the nearby SCLC headquarters or frequent the nightclub where Billie Holliday used to play –– which now hosts twerk contests on Sunday nights. Auburn Avenue’s comeback, if you can call it that, is pioneered by white entrepreneurs who call food, “nosh.”
At the end of the parade route a stage was set and a vetted lineup of speakers were in the middle of a program. A few hundred feet from where Martin Luther King’s body lay entombed, a new generation of leaders stole the mic.
“There are thousands of people in the streets today to lift up [King’s] name...We need you every day,” preached Aurielle Lucier, a twenty-year old poet who organized the 5,000-person march on CNN headquarters right after Michael Brown was killed.
“We are shot down every day. We are strung up by our necks every day. It is not about lifting up Martin Luther King on this day, it is about lifting up Martin Luther King every time the call rings out. Every time it’s time for freedom to ring, we have a job to do… What side are you on? What are you willing to sacrifice to save our children from the auction blocks again?”
As official parade organizers hung back, unsure of what to do with the radicals on their stage, three young speakers gave fiery, impromptu speeches reclaiming Martin Luther King Day for Black women, Black queers, and for Martin Luther King himself –– who warned of the “triple-prong sickness” of “racism, excessive materialism, and militarism.” Martin Luther King, who died supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Martin Luther King, whose vision was of a deep, systemic change that would cut to the interrelated roots of our sicknesses. That vision has been hushed by history books –– but its cry is heard anew in the many voices of the Black Lives Matter movement.