As soon as my dad and I arrived at the Atlanta Black Lives Matter protest, a car exploded ten feet away.
A half hour before, we’d watched protesters stand off with a small army of police hunkered down in the CNN center on a live-stream. They stood in front of a line of armed cops in riot gear with broken bottles and rocks; their eyes were shining as they unleashed utter fucking rage.
I remember thinking that we’re all ready to die for this. And then I wondered if that would change anything.
During the protest, cries of pain rang out in the night as the gas spewed out of the darkness in silvery clouds. Rubber bullets fired out of the plumes, hitting legs, chests, faces.
We poured into the streets in a wrathful current, and then pulled back, violence at our heels as bullets chased us. Cheers erupted as people, battered as they were, pushed toward the line of men with helmets and guns and badges. We screamed, on the front lines, “our lives matter.” We screamed “stop killing us.”
The cops waited for us to get close enough before firing off another round of bullets and gas.
On May 25th, another black man was murdered on camera. His name was George Floyd, and he had a daughter; his name was George Floyd, and his life mattered; his name was George Floyd, and a Minneapolis cop kneeled on his neck while he screamed that he couldn’t breathe.
Derek Chauvin, the officer responsible, has been charged with murder. The three other cops involved with the arrest have been fired. But this story of execution, lethal force, and racial targeting has been told before.
America’s history of police brutality against black people is long and egregious. The Washington Post reports that black Americans are “2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.”
Despite being a minority within America’s population demographics, we make up 24% of fatal police shootings. From slave catchers to Jim Crow to modern police forces, the institutions of law enforcement are a reflection of America’s darker history.
Black Lives Matter is a movement that sprung from the need to dismantle a system that perpetuates violence toward this community. In 2014, the words of Eric Garner inspired marches and protests nationally; a man murdered within police custody, his last words were “I can’t breathe.”
Now, six years later, America’s racism is still choking us.
The right to live, to breathe, is why black people march now. Atlanta’s protests are no different, though they did quickly become some of the most outright violent, political dissent the city has seen in decades. Friday night made history in Atlanta. And through every second of it, I was terrified.
I picked up my camera and pointed it into chaos, stood against a line of armored police with nothing but the shirt on my back to protect me. I walked into an escalating demonstration not because I was a “violent thug,” an uneducated black, an angry, senseless rioter; I stood with a crowd of screaming protesters because I was afraid that if I didn’t, I was allowing America to sign my death certificate.
I was afraid of dying that night, I was afraid of dying the next day, I was afraid of dying the day before that. I was, and am, constantly afraid of being the next casualty of racism people will explain away. Being black in America is existing with a noose around your neck; people tell you it isn’t there until you drop dead.
Protesting is a sacrifice made by people who walk into the streets knowing they may not come back. This isn’t new to the black community; we’ve always given our lives and bodies to make the world better for the people that come after us. Cops shot into the crowds of our nonviolent protests in the ‘60s; they didn’t use rubber bullets. There are entire sites, landmarks, and statues dedicated to martyred civil rights leaders and innocent black bystanders. I think America is so used to seeing us die for our activism that people no longer blink at the prospect of it.
Remember the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, wherein officers fired into a crowd of 200 unarmed black students during a civil rights protest; remember the slaughter in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919, in which countless black men, women, and children were massacred because a small group of black sharecroppers had gathered to discuss unionization; remember the execution of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose only crime was defending his grandfather and mother from militant brutality during a peaceful march in Marion, Alabama.
Even when we were peaceful and unarmed in our resistance, we were massacred. This is something I want white allies and BLM critics alike to remember.
I’ve seen videos of kneeling, unarmed protesters being thrown to the ground by cops; I’ve read reports of children being maced by Seattle Police; I’ve watched in horror as police target, torment, and brutalize innocent black people as we fight for our lives.
On Saturday night, a horde of Atlanta police officers descended onto a car with two black students inside—Taniyah Pilgrim, a 20-year-old student at Spelman College, and 22-year-old Messiah Young of Morehouse College. The cops broke their windows; they slashed the vehicle’s tires; they tased the two students before yanking them from the car.
As the officers attempted to break into the vehicle, Young said to them “I’m not dying today.” It may have been a prayer more than a statement. He was later beaten in the backseat of a cruiser before being taken to a hospital.
This story is a part of an endless headline, a years-long obituary, an open, angry wound. Black bodies have always been the casualty of America’s comfort and privilege, of its hate and silence; this is a trauma publicly picked apart by America on screen and over coffee, one plastered across media platforms on which people make arguments for excessive force, for lethal force, for murder.
From the perspective of Black America, this nation has been on fire for a very, very long time. It’s just that no one seemed to care until Target burned down. Now politicians and friendly neighborhood activists alike are condemning the looting, riots, and violent protests driving demonstrations across the country without any context regarding how these actions have historically paved the way for human rights in America. Plus, as a community, we deserve our anger; we deserve to tear apart cities and infrastructures that let cops tear through our bodies.
“Allies,” political leaders, and public figures only want activism that’s non-threatening, compliant, and done on their terms—but this type of activism is simply being complicit in one’s own suppression.
With all eyes on elected officials nationwide, there’s a disingenuous effort from political leadership to protect free speech and BLM, while also dictating the terms of protest. Some state and police leadership have taken the opportunity to perform solidarity, only to order a volley of bullets and mace and gas to tear through the crowd after their photo op.
As protests in Atlanta have become increasingly more radical and outraged, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms released this public statement in response to the looting and violent protests that broke out Friday night.
Here, Bottoms is speaking as a black woman, a black mother, with rage; she’s speaking as Atlanta’s mayor, a cultural black mecca with a rich history of civil disobedience; she’s speaking as a woman who loves her community and her city and may be struggling with how to save them both. As much as I can take issue with her selective cherry-picking of civil rights activism and Martin Luther King’s legacy, what position are we really putting Mayor Bottoms in? How can she advocate for the dismantlement of the system that has given her the ability to create change from the inside?
That aside, I’d still say Atlanta is upholding the legacy of Reverend King just fine. In a now-famous quote King once said:
“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met…”
King recognized that civil unrest and violent dissent were products of being bound by white supremacy. He didn’t want to demonize looters and riots, but instead build infrastructure that empowered the black community socially, politically, and financially.
While violent protests may force people to listen, they also get black people killed in the process. King wasn’t preaching peace so that you could feel better about your passive stance on activism; he was protecting black lives. So stop using his words to silence dissent. King isn’t the cartoon caricature you learned about in elementary school; he didn’t exist for you to excuse your own complacency, or tell black people they should “tone down” their activism.
For the white and non-black people posting prose championing peaceful demonstration: you can’t dress up privilege and tell me it’s poetry. Your passive racism isn’t made excusable by feigning profundity, nor does misrepresenting quotes taken out of context to gatekeep civil disobedience. Don’t try to whitesplain “what Martin Luther King meant” to his son.
While it’s great to champion peace, we cannot be at peace with the systems of disenfranchisement that are killing us. They aren’t going to stop because we ask nicely. If this is hard to grasp, perhaps it’s because they aren’t killing you.
When we built hashtags and digital spaces for Black Lives Matter, they were trivialized and mocked; when Colin Kapernick took a knee, white Americans told him to shut up and take the bench; when a political uprising became black, the media called it a race war. All the while, black men, women, and, yes, children were being murdered by police.
So yes, the CNN Center was damaged and tagged because, for many people, it’s a symbol of authority; cars were set on fire, property was looted and vandalized, and broken glass littered the streets of Atlanta for days. But if we riot, burn, and shatter, it’s because America has been looting black bodies for centuries. We are tired of being the collateral for our own peaceful resistance. The greatest achievements in history were birthed in fire.
Don’t forget that just because black activism is kindling the flame.
By Erin Davis