George Floyd’s killing on 25 May has sparked weeks-long protests in the United States, with tens of thousands taking to the streets each day to demand an end to police violence and systemic racism. Police officers killed at least 1 098 people last year, according to collaborative research project Mapping Police Violence.
Despite only making up 13% of the population, 24% of those killed by the police in the US were black, according to Mapping Police Violence. And black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people, the project says. This routine police violence has triggered protests across the country over the years, which have resulted in police reforms such as more frequent use of police body cameras.
But reforms to policing institutions have not done enough to rein in police violence against African Americans and other minorities. In the wake of Floyd’s death, protesters all over the US are demanding that cities defund and disband police departments, and reallocate those funds to public health, schools, job-training programmes and other community safety initiatives.
Calls for the abolition of the police have reached the mainstream in the country. The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to disband the city’s police department and replace it with a community-led public safety system. Dozens of US cities, meanwhile, are considering drastically cutting their police budgets, while police officers are resigning across the country.
New Frame travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, which is commonly referred to as the “black mecca” of America, to discuss the weeks-long protests and the particularities of the movement against police brutality and racism in the hometown of late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Thousands congregate each day at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. Various marches are organised throughout the city, but the park acts as the protest nucleus for what activists are calling a spontaneous and leaderless movement.
“No matter where I go, I see people walking down the street with signs,” said Asia Parker, 29, the chair of the Georgia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “It’s been years since Mike Brown was killed and it’s been years since Trayvon Martin was killed. And I think between then and now more people are opening up to having conversations around racism and noticing when racism is happening around them.
“The protests are so organic and each protest has different people doing it,” added Parker. “There’s no leadership, which is a good thing. It means people are feeling it in their bones. They are waking up and just deciding to go out and protest.”
The thousands of protesters who took a knee at the Centennial park remained silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life. During the silence, several protesters sobbed uncontrollably.
United States National Guard officials blocked an intersection near Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. More than 30 US states activated about 32 000 National Guard members to supplement local police forces and more than 40 cities issued night-time curfews in an attempt to quell the unrest.
Parker and a colleague were arrested on the night of 2 June, just two minutes after the 9pm curfew, but it felt “targeted”. She added that the curfew, which was lifted on 6 June, was not applied evenly. “The curfew has only applied to people who are protesters or those who are believed to be protesters. It has criminalised the protests. It’s a direct attack on free speech.”
Parker, who has been involved with protests in Atlanta since 2014, said the police response to the current protests was “more brutal” than what she has witnessed in the past. “They never used this much tear gas before … and we’re in the middle of a respiratory pandemic.”
In response to the protests, US President Donald Trump posted a tweet saying that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Twitter flagged his tweet for its glorification of violence. One protester at the Atlanta demonstrations held a placard bearing a response to Trump’s tweet: “When you shoot, we loot,” it stated in black marker.
Trump has called the protesters “ugly anarchists” and “domestic terrorists”, and has announced his intention to designate Antifa – or anti-fascists – as a domestic terrorist organisation. Trump’s attempts to criminalise the far-left ideological movement consisting of a loose collective of individuals and groups has prompted analysts to warn that the president is setting the ground to quash political opposition to his administration.
After Floyd’s killing, angry protesters clashed with the police, burning police vehicles, vandalising buildings including CNN headquarters near the Centennial Olympic Park and moving on to vandalise and loot stores in Buckhead, an upscale residential and commercial area of the city.
In Minneapolis, where the fierce protests first emerged, protesters besieged the Third Police Precinct on the third day of rioting, causing police officers to flee the building, and proceeded to burn it down – an unprecedented moment in US history that analysts say has shown millions of Americans that defeating the police is possible.
Parker said the police switch tactics depending on whose camera is aimed at them. “You see them kneeling with the protesters if they see that CNN or someone else is there. But if it’s just us, people who are documenting the protests, they will shoot tear gas, pepper [spray] and rubber bullets. I’m about 5’2. I’m small. There were other girls about my size that were body slammed [by the police] for no apparent reason.”
On 30 May, now-fired Atlanta police officers chased a car with two black students inside it after the students tried to film an arrest the police were making following a protest. They broke a window and used a taser on the students before pulling them out of the car. The video of this incident has since gone viral.
One of the officers, Willie Sauls, was involved in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Jamarion Robinson, a former football player and biology student, in Atlanta in 2016. US Marshals and Atlanta police officers shot him 59 times and to this day, not one of the officers involved in the shooting has been charged.
The Atlanta protests, along with those across the country, had subsided into mostly peaceful marches and nonviolent protests. But on the night of Friday 12 June, after weeks of protests in Atlanta against police brutality, 27-year-old father Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by the police at a fast-food drive-through.
His killing sparked a renewed intensity to protests as demonstrators shut down a highway and set fire to the Wendy’s restaurant at which Brooks was killed. Police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades at the protesters and arrested dozens of people.
In Seattle, days-long clashes between protesters and the police resulted in officers abandoning their East Precinct building and protesters taking over, cordoning off several city blocks and declaring the area the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, a self-defined “cop-free” zone.
Protesters saw the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church at which Martin Luther King Jr served as a senior pastor until his assassination as a significant site outside which to hold up signs from their car saying “Abolish police”, “Stop killing black and brown people” and “ACAB”, an acronym for “all cops are bastards”.
Onlookers often express solidarity with protesters. One black woman who was held up in traffic burst into tears and said “thank you, thank you” repeatedly to protesters as they passed by.
Angela Harris from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organisation once led by King Jr, told New Frame that white children recently ridiculed her grandchildren for being black. “My grandchildren are seven and eight years old and they were devastated after this,” she said. “Racism is not going to change unless we stand up and do what we’re doing now and change it for ourselves.”
Moving away from police and prison
According to Tea Troutman, a geographer and activist with The People’s Response Atlanta, the “broader fight” against police violence in Atlanta, Georgia, is focused on the “total dismantling of the police state”.
“We call on the city of Atlanta and our local county to divest from policing and prison infrastructure and invest in social and healthcare services, among other programmes, that directly benefit the people. Black people in our community are the most vulnerable to police brutality,” they added.
“They are often experiencing co-occurring social disadvantages, whether it’s undereducation, lack of job skills, lack of housing security, low wages, or lack of health insurance or healthcare access … They are forced into situations that are deemed criminal when these situations could be nonexistent if their social needs were met.”
“One of the first things you learn about in school is US history,” says 28-year-old Asha Crawford. “You see only one chapter that talks about black people and the civil rights movement, and about the revolutionaries who tried to struggle out of oppression and poverty. And now it’s 2020 and it’s still happening. That doesn’t make sense.
“We should not be going through the same things that our ancestors went through 300-plus years ago. We shouldn’t still be feeling like we could die just because of the colour of our skin.
“People need to understand why we’re out here. It’s not just to loot or destroy Atlanta. We love our city. But we have to be respected … Let me go out and get any house I want in any neighborhood without you looking at my skin colour and determining whether I’m valuable or not.”
TJ Gibbs, 29, grew up in Mississippi and attended an all-white school, where the white students commonly insulted him with racial slurs. “My mom also went to an all-white school. She was the first to integrate her school in Mississippi. Imagine how hard that was.
“My uncle was Michael Donald, one of the last black men to be lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in 1981,” said Gibbs. “It’s disgusting and horrible that this violence is still happening. We need to make a change, especially for my uncle’s life because he never got the chance. That’s why I’m out here. I have to stand up for his story and legacy.”
Gibbs told New Frame that if he had to describe what it’s like to be black in America, he would use one word: fear.
“We need more laws that stop the police from doing unjustified things,” Joshua, 16, who didn’t want his full name published, told New Frame. They can’t just get off with murder by saying they felt like their life was threatened even when black people didn’t do anything wrong. Reforms are not going to be enough. But at least it’s a start and a step in the right direction.”
“When you’re black in America, you have to constantly be aware of how you look and how you project yourself in front of certain people, especially the cops, because you never know how they might perceive you,” said Joshua.
“Everybody says racism is over. But it’s never ended,” said 26-year-old Kai, who didn’t want her full name published. “Around the world, everybody is protesting and it’s going to get someone’s attention. It’s good to see people of all colours out here protesting and trying to bring about change. People are starting to pay attention.
“It’s honestly scary to be black in America,” added Kai. “I’m an educator and someone who cares for young black kids. And we all have to learn how to be black in America. We have to learn how to talk to certain people and how to speak to the police just to be safe.”
In 1974, Atlanta became the first major southern city to elect an African-American mayor, and every mayor since then has been African American. Despite this, Atlanta has the worst income inequality of any city in the US and has been ranked the fourth-fastest gentrifying city in the country.
“We always frame Atlanta as a ‘black city’,” said Parker. “So when people in Atlanta speak out against police brutality and killings by APD [the Atlanta Police Department], we’re told to be quiet because this is a black city and we’re shaming black leadership.
“We’re in this weird position being the ‘heart of the civil rights movement’ and the heart of black economic prosperity, which isn’t true because black people are at the bottom of these economic disparities and that gap is only growing,” she said. “In Atlanta, we’re trying to fight white supremacy, but the people who are upholding the white supremacy are black. We have black neighbourhoods being brutalised by black police officers.”
‘I’m here today to get justice for every unarmed man and woman who has been killed by police,” said 25-year-old Nina Simone. “They need to defund the police and educate people on the importance of black lives so that we can all just come together and love each other.
“I live in a predominantly white/Asian community and even though I make the same income as them, I still get looked at crazy by my neighbours. Why should I be treated less than others? Why should my skin colour be such a big deal?”
The mass protests are occurring alongside the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced tens of millions out of their jobs and caused what the International Monetary Fund in April called the “worst recession since the Great Depression”. According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), black people made up 23% of all Covid-19 deaths as of 3 June.
“Covid-19 was the fire that was put underneath an already boiling pot,” Troutman said. “In a way, we’re dealing with multiple pandemics at the same time, both as a collective society due to Covid-19, while black, brown, indigenous and queer folks have constantly had to deal with something that feels like a pandemic.
“We’re living in a time when people really feel like they don’t have much to lose. And we’re willing to lose the little we have in order to get larger systemic societal change,” they added.
Georgia was the first US state to reopen, despite the CDC warning that opening states up too quickly could result in a dramatic uptick of Covid-19 cases.
“When we see a state that’s willing to prematurely reopen our economy to save the interests of the wealthy and at the same time we see an uptick of public murders of black people, while reports continue to come out about black people dying from Covid-19 more so than any other group, you get a collective outcry that says all this needs to full stop for our very survival,” said Troutman.
“They fail to take care of the people in the same way they are taking care of the economy,” they said. “And I think these protests cut across all of these issues and bring it all to light.”
The protests in Atlanta often involve marches through the BeltLine, a $4.8 billion megaproject that will ultimately connect 45 neighbourhoods to a 22-mile loop of trails, parks and an eventual streetcar – all of which follow abandoned railroad tracks.
The BeltLine is a major driver of gentrification in the city. The trails are lined with craft breweries, restaurants and luxury apartments. It is triggering sharp increases in residential property values in surrounding low-income and largely black communities, some of which have seen median sale prices jump by 68% from 2011 to 2015. The city’s black population has shrunk steadily over the past two decades because of gentrification, while the white population has continued to increase.
Another reason for taking the protests through wealthier neighbourhoods and into the BeltLine is that the police will not fire tear gas or rubber bullets in upscale neighbourhoods, temporarily protecting protesters from the police violence they experience in other areas of the city.
“Now that these places are desirable they’re over-policed,” said Troutman. “The BeltLine itself has brought out special task forces responsible only for making sure that area is safe.”
“So often what comes is speculative land grabs, then they build the trail, and then the houses become too expensive so new people come in to occupy them and the previous residents are pushed out,” they added. “The police come in to make sure the new people are safe and there’s no restitution for the way that cycle was done.”
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black child who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The child was tortured, beaten and shot. His body was discovered three days later in the Tallahatchie River.
Despite Emmett’s disfigured and mutilated remains, his mother demanded an open-casket funeral so the world could see what racists had done to her son. The two white assailants went on trial in a segregated courthouse and the all-white jury issued a verdict of “not guilty” after less than an hour of deliberations.
Emmett’s murder became a rallying cry and acted as a major catalyst for the civil rights movement, which eventually brought an end to segregation in the US in 1964.
“The police violence just needs to stop and everyone needs to get on the same page,” said 27-year-old Devon Harris. “It doesn’t need to escalate to this point. The protests make me feel hopeful that things will change. They’ve spread all throughout the states, so hopefully it will make a difference.”