As Peaceful Occupy Atlanta Is Also Evicted, Pondering the Connection Between Racist Criminal Justice and Unfair Economics
Yes, it was 9 days before this happened, which was lost last night in the uproar over Oakland’s use of teargas on its own people. But this is from CBS News, not a leftist or progressive media organization:
Organizers had instructed participants to be peaceful if arrests came, and most were. Many gathered in the center of the park, locking arms, and sang “We Shall Overcome,” until police led them out, one-by-one to waiting buses. Some were dragged out while others left on foot, handcuffed with plastic ties.
Police included SWAT teams in riot gear, dozens of officers on motorcycles and several on horseback. By about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday the park was mostly cleared of protesters.
State Sen. Vincent Fort was among those arrested and had come to the park in support of the protesters in recent days. He said the police presence was “overkill.”
“He’s using all these resources … This is the most peaceful place in Georgia,” Fort said, referring to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “At the urging of the business community, he’s moving people out. Shame on him.”
There’s a lot to be said about this, probably much of it from people who are better at it than I am. Atlanta was the same protest that was called to task for not allowing John Lewis to jump stack and address the people, called to task for forgetting civil rights history. But we have all forgotten civil rights history, it seems. The mayor certainly has.
Kung Li at ColorLines wrote a wonderful history of race and Georgia’s 1% that should be read in its entirety. It’s a story of how black people were kept in line through vagrancy laws, how jail was used to return them to a state of slavery, how different groups assembled in different ways on the space where Occupy Atlanta was carted off by police last night.
The fears of Georgia’s lawmakers were well-founded. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) held its first conference at the Atlanta University Center Oct. 14-16 of that year, and resolved to take direct action to desegregate Atlanta’s lunch counters. Three days after the close of the conference, Atlanta students staged mass demonstrations and sit-ins at the Rich’s Department Store in downtown Five Points and other counters across the city. Two blocks south of Woodruff Park, where Occupiers will sleep tonight, black students trained in nonviolent direct action took an elevator up to Rich’s 6th floor Magnolia Room, or down to the Cockrel Grill in the basement, then sat down and waited to be served.
The police came and used the new trespassing law to arrest 51 people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. In pleading innocent that afternoon, King announced that he would “sit in jail 10 years if necessary” rather than post the $500 bond.
The next day, the sit-ins and pickets expanded to 16 other downtown eateries. Twenty-six more protesters were arrested, this time on loafing and disturbing the peace charges. They were sentenced to 20 days in the city prison farm. The students insisted on staying in jail; the mayor insisted that they be released. The mayor got his way, but the students won the day.
The laws passed then, to fight the sit-ins, are being used now. As are laws passed in 1996, used to clear space for the Olympics. And as white protesters were carted off last night singing “We Shall Overcome,” Li’s words deserve another reading:
But being anti-racist in this place—that is, in Woodruff Park, in Atlanta, in Georgia, in the South—is not mainly about getting more people of color to pitch a tent and sleep out there. Truth be told, I’m kind of OK with having mostly white people sleeping out there, because when the junta that runs downtown Atlanta decides it has had enough and people get carted off to jail, there’s no need to have more black or brown people in the Atlanta City Detention Center.
Being anti-racist is, if you are going to set up camp and take Five Points as your center point, acknowledging that the corporate forces at play around there are totally about race. This is true currently, and it is true historically—no surprise. When Occupy Wall Street declared, “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments,” that was old news here, friends. The plantation owners have always run Georgia’s government.
Though the occupations are following a common template—camping out in public space, using horizontal, consensus-based decision-making, nonviolent direct action—the fact that they are ABOUT public space means that each one has to contend with the history of that public space. It has to contend with the people and the systems of power in its location.
I’ve been impressed by the way Troy Davis has become a touchstone for many in this movement, not because I believe “his death was not in vain”—it absolutely was in vain, and every time the criminal justice system kills someone their death is in vain, because no matter how guilty they are, their death does not undo their crimes—but because it seems that finally some people are starting to understand the connections between a racist criminal justice system and a completely corrupt economic system.
And last night on the Oakland livestream, hearing the chants about Oscar Grant, I felt it again.
Renaming these occupations after these black men killed by police, by a racist criminal justice system, it’s a heavy burden. It asks young white kids to live up to a lot.
But they damn sure ought to try.