[In May and June of 2020, a time of pandemic isolation, economic collapse, and intense partisan rivalry, videos of Minneapolis cops lynching George Floyd — a Black man with his hands cuffed behind his back — sparked nationwide mass protests against widespread police brutality and systemic racism in America. ]
"Something is happening, but you don't know what it is. Do you Mr. Jones?"
In the '60s the words from the Dylan song captured a reality as massive social movements inspired and born from the southern freedom movement and the struggle for Black Liberation challenged every aspec of traditional americal life. In the song, Mr. Jones was not only bewildered but frankly hostile to the change. Today after participating in many of the demonstrations here in Atlanta I may be bewidered, but I am also more excited then I have been in decades. I have been struggling with how to put this down "on paper." The only thing I could figure is to make this somewhat like a field report. So here it is.
The demonstrations, which began shortly after the murder/lynching, of George Floyd, are unprecedented in Atlanta, not only in size but in duration. Most people know there was an informal agreement in the '60s that among established civil rights groups they would limit demonstrations in Atlanta. In 1972 Hosea Williams organized a campaign against Rich's department store. The largest demonstrations never exceeded 1500 or so. After agent orange was elected president and issued his ban on Muslims, over 6000 people demonstrated at the airport and then disappeared. The first Women's march had over 60,000 and then disappeared. Even during the Ferguson actions there were several mobilizations but did not evolve into a real movement.
Shortly after George Floyd was murdered a demonstration was called for in downtown Atlanta. I don't know who or how the demo was organized. I know the conventional wisdom is to point to social media. I know there are a few organizations, the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, and Black Lives Matter, but I don't have any sense of how these organizations function.
So I went to the demonstration. I remember saying, well if there are only 10 or 20 people I will just go home. As I was driving the city streets of Atlanta I began to notice groups of people walking towards Centenial Park with homemade signs. When I arrived there was also a massive gathering of people milling around at the same time a march several blocks long taking over the streets and marching towards the state capitol. Oh by the way, there was no permit for this march in the streets. At the end, people congregated at Centennial Park near CNN.
As many people drifted away there was no organized rally. A determined and younger core remained. There was no serious confrontation with the police for several hours. The police formed a line blocking the street in front of CNN. After a few hours the police moved about 20 vehicles to block the protest. So you had a police line in front and phalanx of vehicles in the rear. Protestors were hemmed in front and back. After several hours it appeared to me that local rebel youth had had enough and began to retaliate against police terror. It began with attaking the police vehicles and went from there.
In the following days all kinds of people condemned the "violence," they talked about how rioters and looters were "hijacking" the protests. Many who should know better were blaming the violence on "outside agitators." Well somebody forgot to tell the people in the streets. Day after day thousands would gather at Centennial Park and other locations and demand an end to police terror and in support of Black Lives Matter. I can't overemphasize the unique character of these demonstrations. Not only were they massive at Centennial Park, but there were simultaneous demonstrations happenning around the city, at another park, Piedmont and even in front of the governors mansion, forcing the closing of the street with over 400 people taking over the street.
So now we are around 15 days into daily demonstrations and while during the week the numbers have diminished, the weekends continue to bring out thousands.
I think most people are aware that there has been a huge participation from white youth in these demonstrations. I would guess on an average that 40% of the participants have been white, particularly white youth. For those who remember the old days of the '60s you might expect these youth to bring a message of peace and love ... NAH. One of my memories is of a group of youth (I mean late teens or early twenties) Black and white with signs and chants of "fuck racist cops" No flowers in barrels. While militant and defiant, these demonstrations are also joyous. At one of the demonstrations downtown there was either a high school or college marching band with a full horn sections. They were rocking.
There are times when the effect of a social movement gains influence beyond the participants. Here are a couple of examples.
Bruce, you ask if we are at a "tipping point." I am thru speculating on the future. Many people are asking "Whats next?" I have no idea. My background is that of an organizer. I tend to think that organizations provide a way to involve new people. I have also come to learn the importance of leadership and for lack of a better word the politics of the organizations that are developed.
That said, I remember when the Oakland Panthers began they started by filming and observing the Oakland police. What about organizing "Observe and Protect" units in different cities. As I write this, it occurs to me that I don't want to suggest anything that would pull away from actions in the streets. We have all seen the power of these videos, what would happen if it became organized and cops were followed and videoed? Also it seems that there may be a call for a March On Washington. In the past I have not been a huge advocate for national mobilizations but I think this is worth considering.
You asked about my fears. I guess I have two major concerns. The fact that in America there is such a widespread denial that there is a social base for fascism it blinds us to the danger of the right. The fact that we have already had over 400 years of fascism concentrated tn the south is worth considering. They don't give up. How do we remain on the offensive. I would say among liberals and progressives the desire for "unity" obscures the fact that there is a significant section of society that are our sworn enemy.
My other concern is that the will be an effort to channel all this anger into electoral campaigns and retreat from the streets. I only have one question. Even if your desire is sincere reforms, look how these demonstrations have changed the political landscape. No amount of canvassing, no amount of registering voters could have brought us to this point. The most important power we have is to create public opinion and that will happen thru staying in the streets.
Any way I really appreciated your letter. It spurred me to actually write.
Copyright © Josh Gould, 2020
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