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White allies to the front! Get on the line!”
Devin-Barrington Ward stood in the middle of the right lane of southbound I-75/85 at dusk last Saturday night with a bullhorn in hand, and he was not playing. “If you are not going to put your body on the line for black lives, go home! Make up for the sins of your ancestors!”
I smirked. I admit it. It was absurd to hear. Looking at him, I think he thought it was a bit nuts too. But we’re all a little crazy now. Standing in the middle of the Downtown Connector in Atlanta, Georgia, a highway that usually carries about 300,000 cars a day, is also patently absurd.
“That shit Devin said was really was fucked up and ridiculous,” said Rev. Kim Jackson, an episcopal priest in Atlanta serving as a protest chaplain. “But the fact that they didn’t gas the shit out of those white kids, or come at them with batons and rubber bullets, well, it does seem to reinforce the whole point that white folk are treated better.”
This idea of a “white shield” is gaining currency among activists, who want to demonstrate that police are more deferential than violent when facing white people. So far, police seem to be confirming that thesis.
Few things freak out Georgia’s powers-that-be more than disrupting the connector. The urban planning of the connector is legendarily terrible (and came at the cost of black neighborhoods in Atlanta). It is the fifth-most congested corridor in America. A snarl on the connector affects traffic patterns for 50 miles in every direction.
The connector is Atlanta’s neck. Demonstrators knelt on it for two hours.
The night before, a traffic cop had killed Rayshard Brooks in the drive-thru of a Wendy’s just east of the highway. After a struggle, Officer Garrett Rolfe shot Brooks in the back three times after Brooks ran from a DUI arrest with a cop’s Taser in his hand.
Rolfe was fired and the police chief resigned and it didn’t matter. With the city and the country in an uproar over disparate use of force, an Atlanta cop who almost certainly had been staring at Black Lives Matter protests for two weeks shot a black man in the back. It made a farce of the de-escalation and the return to relative calm over the previous week. It pulled the pin on a grenade. It beggared restraint.
The police killing of Rayshard Brooks made a farce of the de-escalation and the return to relative calm over the previous week.
About 100 young white people stood in front of a line of cars, arms locked, waiting for police to arrest them. On the northbound side, state troopers had a small armada of police cars ready to charge. Traffic backed up for miles in both directions. And in the middle of this standoff lay a quarter-mile of empty road like a street party, a placid bubble where people skateboarded and rode bicycles.
“White allyship means showing up even when I’m exhausted. Because as exhausted as I feel, it doesn’t come close to what my Black brothers and sisters must feel right now,” said Hannah Hill, a manager at the affordable housing startup PadSplit who is also an Episcopal priest and frequent protest chaplain. “It means that when I do show up, for the first time in my life, I have to realize I’m not in charge. I have to recognize that I don’t know what’s right for these Black protesters. Instead, I step back — or to the front of the line if asked — and allow them to direct me. To cede my own power and cultural supremacy to those leaders around me. It’s supporting their cause and their pain — it’s not about me.”
It’s not the first time people have taken over a highway here. A handful of protesters briefly shut down the connector in 2014 as the city erupted in grief over the police shooting death of Michael Brown. The next day, I watched more state troopers than one would think it possible to summon carefully prevent about 10,000 protesters from repeating the move. Demonstrators instead merrily led cops up and down Atlanta’s downtown streets late into the night, though without the smashed windows and graffiti of the last two weeks. Georgia’s conservative legislators subsequently tried and failed to make blocking a highway in protest a felony offense.
Saturday night, hundreds of people spilled onto the highway after hours of street protest in front of the Wendy’s. Protest chaplains had walked back demonstrators who tried to take the overpass earlier in the day, largely because there weren’t enough people to do it safely, Jackson said.
Police had also used force once earlier that day, when protesters had surrounded a police SUV trying to pull out of the parking lot of a liquor store across the street from the Wendy’s. Black bloc demonstrators started throwing bottles of water — and urine — at the cops. After someone hit a cop with a thrown skateboard, police let loose with ordinance — tear gas and a flash-bang grenade.
As with the highway stunt, the crowd bellowing “Fuck 12” (local slang for cops) was multiracial, though most of the parking lot projectiles came from white rioters from the black bloc. Black activists are wrestling with how to incorporate white help to address racism. It’s clear that discrimination cannot be solved without — as Chris Rock put it — nicer white people. An end to white supremacy requires white people to stop imposing it. On the other hand, black activists loathe the idea of surrendering their agency to white people in pursuit of racial equity, because it can be misused.
Black activists are wrestling with how to incorporate white help to address racism.
Just as police started to clear the protest from the highway, vandals set the Wendy’s on fire. I walked over as it started, to see a skinny young white guy wearing black bloc anonymizing gear gingerly step through a broken plate glass window of the restaurant to the gas station parking lot next door.
He was immediately confronted by four rugged young black men, all pissed off — at him.
“You don’t fucking live around here,” one man said to him, inches from his face. The black bloc guy looked petrified. “They are going to blame us for that.” The group milled around a bit, unsure if they wanted to let him walk, feed him to the cops, or just beat him like a rug.
Then a fire truck and a sheriff’s vehicle rolled up behind them. People — black and white — knelt in the street to block their path. The neighborhood guys walked away; the white guy ran into the street. One of the men looked down onto a silly little patch of lawn carved out of the parking lot concrete, picked up an apple-sized rock, and hurled it at the driver’s side window of the patrol car.
It’s one thing if someone from out of town does damage. Another if the locals do it. It’s one thing if a white person commits an act of arson in the name of black lives. Another if a black person does it. Which may actually be the point of all of this.
Slowly, amid a hail of rocks, the crowd backed the fire truck and the police car up University Avenue. Cellphone dead, I left before things got worse.
Police have a $10,000 reward for tips leading to the arrest of someone caught on camera torching the Wendy’s. The picture is of someone who looks like a white woman. Jackson, the reverend, said she saw the entire event, and that a multiracial group started the fire, including the young man I had seen.
As I walked the half-mile back to my car, I passed by a police major helping coordinate the SWAT team prepping out of sight. He and I are acquainted from my time working on homelessness and mental illness for the downtown business district. Out of sight of the crowds, after a long night, I walked up to him and unloaded.
“They think the chief resigning is going to change anything? That’s the worst thing that could have happened,” I half screamed. “Who’s going to be the interim? Someone who doesn’t have enough institutional authority to change anything. Where the fuck is the mayor! Of all the shitty timing for something like this to happen. Your guy just torched two weeks of protests. Things were starting to calm down, and we were starting to talk about reforms. What the fuck are we supposed to do now?”
“Well,” he said, “the leaders will have to come together, settle on a list of demands, and meet with the mayor.”
All that day, as I listened to people, it was clear that a dozen people were trying to lead. Richard Rose, the head of Atlanta’s NAACP, addressed the crowd and gave a press conference, and was shouted down by the street. A branch of Black Hebrew Israelites — a Southern Poverty Law Center-certified hate group — had a loudspeaker-fueled diatribe going through most of the day. Mary Hooks from Black Lives Matter competed with people from the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, from Southerners on New Ground, from city agencies, from local nonprofits and from groups I had never heard of. Leadership in the street meant having a bullhorn and a stepladder.
“Man, there is no leader,” I replied. “All of this is organic. It’s just happening. There is no one to negotiate with, because anyone who claimed to have the authority to speak for the street would be lying and everyone knows it.”
His eyebrow arched. “So, it’s just looting and rioting” he said.
“Well, I’ll give you rioting,” I replied. “No one is going to steal anything around here.”
“It’s probably a good thing that you’re leaving then,” he said. “We’re about to gas the shit out it.”