Yesterday, I attended the #ATLForUs protest in downtown Atlanta with my daughter. I got home, posted some pics from the event, and praised the organizers on Twitter and Instagram. An hour later I began watching a livestream of the standoff between police and protesters. Things went south. I thought about taking my posts down, worried that they weren’t timely or respectful anymore, worried that they were tonedeaf to conflict that immediately followed. Here’s why I haven’t.
I learned about the event from my daughter, who’d seen it shared on Instagram hashtagged under #ATLForUs. Both of us felt like we needed to express frustration at the most recent string of racist news events (Arbery, Taylor, Cooper, Floyd, Henderson). I did some light research on one of the organizers, Zoe Bambara, and thought the event could be a useful display of people power.
I’m proud of good organizing; it’s difficult to do well. I was impressed with the four or five #ATLForUs women who spoke from the stage before the march. The path for the march was safely planned. The marchers chanted, held signs, and shared an hour of somber and vocal community as they marched from Centennial Park to the Capitol. After spending some time at the Capitol with all the protesters, we went home. The only remaining component of the event was a march back to the park. I don’t know what happened in the 90 minutes between when we left and the standoff began across the street from the park. As far as I understood as a peaceful protester, the event ended at the park. Though it was probably attended by a subset of the planned event, the standoff and the violence that occurred after it was not part of the scheduled #ATLForUs march.
Some other thoughts after thinking a lot about the event today:
On property destruction:
Personally, I don’t subscribe to violence. I don’t want people harming my property, and I draw the line at harming the property of others (including the property of the state). However, I understand and feel the anger in our country. It’s not new. I didn’t begin when we started seeing videos posted on the web six years ago. It’s been a blatant, violent, state-sponsored racist system that we’re living in. I don’t support property destruction, but I’m a white man; I’ve never had much of a concern of what might happen to me at a traffic stop, or walking across the street, or bird-watching. I’ve never had to worry that my kids would be profiled. It’s not only my opinion that matters about whether property gets destroyed or under what conditions it should. I hesitate to criticize the actions of the group of people that remained after the formal protest. I wasn’t there, and it sounds like it was a mess. I’ve spent all day looking at news and social media posts asserting that outside agitators (on the right and the left) might be infiltrating protests in order to forward their own agendas, so I can’t say what should or shouldn’t have happened because I wasn’t there. I do know this: people are furious with the police killing people of color. There are often no peaceful, productive avenues for the venting of that anger.
On community building and speaking with your presence:
The event I attended was a productive opportunity to express frustration. It builds community to share chants, signs, and take up the road over a cause that’s important to you. Someone may say: “What good did that march do? It didn’t change anything.” I would disagree. It showed that hundreds of people were willing to put their bodies in the same space under the common banner of renouncing police brutality. I’ve learned several times in the past that just showing up for an event like that has symbolic and emotional power. I was proud to be an Atlantan yesterday, sharing the road with my neighbors and sending the message that black lives matter. Black lives matter is an important rhetorical reminder in this country, especially when so many events are threatening to convince us that black lives don’t matter.
On white privilege:
I am apprehensive about publishing any writing on this subject because I know that I’m living my life from a position of privilege. I’m just one white guy who went to a protest. It wasn’t my first and it won’t be last, but I’m aware that my participation in collective action around racial injustice is (and should be) carefully navigated. I shouldn’t lead, and I shouldn’t push. I should show up and listen. I should be aware of the countless times in the past that the collective actions of disempowered people have been usurped and colonized by do-gooder white liberals who have savior complexes. I don’t want to fall into that trap. At the same time, I’m aware that carrying white privilege in this country comes with a responsibility that can’t be ignored. I’ve tried to live my life as a parent and an educator who is aware of systemic racism and willing to challenge it. I’m not a hero, and I certainly wasn’t feeling like one when I showed up to the protest yesterday. However, a reversal of systemic racism and the dethroning of the white power structure can’t come about without a certain amount of white resistance. So, I’m showing up to teaching, to writing, to parenting, and to protesting to signal, even if in small ways, that the current system needs to give way to a more equitable and healthy one.
As we’ve all heard since Trump’s election four years ago: it’s a marathon not a sprint. What happened in Atlanta last night was regrettable, but it was a link in a chain that reaches far back into history: to slavery, to the evil of white supremacy, to a classist and racist criminal justice system, to mass incarceration, and to state-sanctioned violence against the poor and communities of color. Can we expect that a bunch of protesters will somehow solve all of that with a kind, peaceful, turning of the other cheek that also inspires productive change? Can we nullify a protest movement that gets chaotic because people are angry? I don’t think we can.