Op-Ed: How far is far enough?

A look into how recent gun violence in Atlanta has been politicized in an attempt to discredit and dispel the Black Lives Matter movement

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” — Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” 1852

A still image of the Wendy\’s on University Avenue where 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was killed by Atlanta police the night of June 12. The night after the shooting, the Wendy\’s was burned down during mass demonstrations in a re-ignited response to police brutality in the city and across the country. The area had been repurposed as a community center and officially titled the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center by community members. Following a shooting on July 4 that occurred at the nearby liquor store and took 8-year-old Secoriea Turner\’s life, Atlanta police moved to clear and reclaim the space. No arrests have been made in the investigation and it remains unclear as to whether or not the shooting involved any protesters. Community organizers and protesters released an official statement emphasizing they were not involved and that they were complying with police in their investigation of the shooting. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

ATLANTA — The United States is months deep into the coronavirus pandemic still with no meaningful resolution or practical solutions in its grasp. Simultaneously, since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, Black Lives Matter protests have been re-ignited and steadily sustained throughout the nation. Similarly, no justice or meaningful solutions have been offered in response to the movement. Breonna Taylor’s killers remain free in Louisville, Ky.; Black trans lives, dead and alive, still fail to receive proper acknowledgement; Georgia finally passed a hate crimes bill, but it’s been overshadowed by Republicans’ vain and blatant legislation to legally categorize police as a protected class; multiple cases of white aggression and threats of white aggression have transpired across the country, with little attention from the media; the police have failed to investigate multiple apparent lynchings, immediately deeming them to be suicides; the list goes on. 

Between our systems’ responses to the pandemic and its reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement, we are clearly seeing the unearthing of our nation’s general disregard for and active oppression, suppression, and depression of Black Americans. Although this is occurring in various ways, they are tethered to a single sorrowful truth we all need to face: it’s been happening forever and nearly everyone is complicit. And it’s beyond police brutality. It’s everywhere.

It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice;…
— Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, 1852

These moments of clarity, however shocking or dull they’ve become depending on who you are, cannot be lost. We need to see practical application of new solutions to help us fully realize them. This window of grace — the perfect storm of a revolution occurring perhaps not in spite of a pandemic, but because of it — cannot be missed. Yet, our leaders refuse to change and continue to fail to counter these truths with any real means of justice.

This is a lot to unpack, but let’s look only at recent events within the parameters of Atlanta, which has been a spectacle in national news as its mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, is being vetted for presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick.

This past weekend, the city saw an array of violence ensued in multiple parts of the city, with 28 people shot in less than 24 hours. On Sat., July 4, 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was shot and killed in south Atlanta while 14 were shot and injured on Edgewood Avenue. That same night, the Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters building was vandalized by people shooting fireworks into the building, leading to two employees receiving treatment for smoke inhalation with no serious injuries.

On Sun., July 5, Mayor Bottoms delivered another press conference, scolding the city’s demonstrators, particularly those who have continued to protest at the Wendy’s where 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was killed by then-Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe on June 12. Almost instantly, Bottoms placed the blame on protestors, claiming they were responsible for causing the violence, and described the general climate as a “random wild, wild west shoot-’em-up” with people shooting guns “because [they] can.” Around 11:30 a.m. on Mon., July 6, the Atlanta Police Department moved in to clear out what’s become known as the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center: the building’s new name since the Wendy’s has been transformed into a community center for people to grieve Brooks and other Black lives lost at the hands of police brutality. Meanwhile, in an Atlanta City Council meeting the same day, Councilmember Joyce Sheperd uttered the words “all lives matter” and “black on black crime” in the same sentence. Then, Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency and deployed 1,000 National Guard troops to three locations in Atlanta: the Capitol, the Georgia State Patrol headquarters, and the Governor’s Mansion. 

None of these places to which the National Guard was deployed saw shootings this past weekend, which is what the state of emergency was issued in response to. In regards to the July 4 shooting in south Atlanta, no activists or protestors have been linked to the shooting and the shooting didn’t even occur on the site of the RBPC. The shooting, as far as we know, was committed by armed civilians after Turner’s mother turned into the nearby liquor store across citizen-installed barricades, but no evidence has pointed to the shooting or its suspects being related to the protests at all. Moreover, the shooting on Edgewood Avenue the same night had nothing to do with protesters, either.

The memorial outside of the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center: a community space that community members built after Brooks was shot and killed by then-Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe on the night of June 12. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

Organizers and community members of the RBPC released an official statement on Mon., July 6, stating that, “We wish to make clear that no one from our group was involved in any way whatsoever in the shooting and that incident did not take place at the site of the memorial; it would be misinformation to state otherwise. We stress while this unfortunate death occurred near the memorial site, none of our activists, community members, or neighbors were involved in this shooting and we unequivocally denounce any affiliation or biased rhetoric that connects us with this heinous killing of a child.”

The statement went on to say that community organizers are cooperating fully with local authorities as they investigate the shooting, which actually says a lot when it comes to bridging the gap between opposing forces:  the police force that is being reckoned with for endless brutality against the Black community in America and the force of the movement that is doing the reckoning itself. The fact that community organizers cooperate with the same police force that’s responsible for the death of Rayshard Brooks and many others to bring justice to Turner’s death should speak volumes about the organizers’ intentions and ability to set aside differences to help amend the horrific crime committed near their site. However, their press release was not even mentioned in many local media reports and was glossed over during the mayor’s press conference and in the city’s decision to ultimately shut down the RBPC.

The fact remains that no arrests have been made in the shooting and nothing has directly linked activists to the shooting at all. However, there has been plenty of rhetoric, between the Crime Stoppers flyer that has been quick to identify the suspects as “black males” (sic) and Mayor Bottoms’ press conference in all its condescending and politicized glory, that does enough to shift blame onto protesters and discredit the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. Turner’s own father spoke to BLM protesters, stating, “You say Black Lives Matter, but you killed your own,”  without evidence that protesters were involved in the shooting. Whether that is a result of grief or mere assumption, it’s a terribly tragic framework. And, this misinformation will be replayed again and again in news recaps regarding the incident, thus burning an image in people’s minds of Black Lives Matter protesters killing innocent people.

Why the quick assumption that it was protesters who caused this “sudden violence”? How is this anything less than Mayor Bottoms standing alongside the APD politicizing already present violent conditions in a disenfranchised Black community? Why aren’t our leaders and the media addressing the fact that this violence isn’t sudden at all?

Massive shootings are not new to the city of Atlanta. Statistically, seven months into 2020, we are on par for the rate of shootings that occurred in 2019. To date, there have been 71 incidents of homicide/murder/unintentional deaths related to gun violence while there were 130 total in 2019. In 2018, the total number of incidents was 217. To extend our view to the entire state, in 2016, there had been 14 mass shootings in Georgia by October

Everyone agrees that Turner and others’ deaths were deeply tragic, unnecessary, and above all else, preventable. Activists are highly aware of this and the movement has come to represent and fight for long-term solutions that seek to decrease crime through the means of economic growth, healing, and opportunity to our country’s marginalized, criminalized, and impoverished communities. This is what #DefundPolice is all about: de-investing from an over-expensed militarized police force and reinvesting funds into community efforts that will provide resources to greater ensure that people do not need to resort to crime in order to survive.

Despite the hardships brought on by coronavirus, our state and federal governments’ utter failures to address it, and the empowered Black Lives Matter movement resounding unified cries for change, city leaders seem hellbent on applying the same type of solutions to our problems, which have at this point been proven totally ineffective. To put it simply, if they were effective, we wouldn’t be here. The evidence is bountiful, overwhelming, and obvious.

Among our systems’ tired solutions is the idea that increasing police presence and paying officers increased salaries will work to decrease crime and eliminate violence in our communities. There’s a deep-seated relationship between crime rates and heavy police presences that Mayor Bottoms and city leaders fail to recognize. Namely, the latter doesn’t prove to do anything to lessen the former. In Atlanta, we can see statistically that an expanded police force that’s given pay raises has done nothing to soften that blow. 

Painted demands on the asphalt at what became the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

Atlanta police officers were given raises in 2018 and 2019 with more than 2,000 sworn in officers, compared to 1,932 in 2015. (We understand, as it’s been explained by Mayor Bottoms, that the city wishes to continue to pay its police officers respectable salaries to boost morale and keep up with inflation, the cost of city living, etc.; but let’s save the discussion of the adverse effects of gentrification, Bottoms’ history of displacing Black families in Atlanta, the absence of an increased minimum wage despite hiked costs of living, the fact that the $2.13/hr rate still exists in the service industry in Georgia even though it’s directly linked to legalized slavery, and all that other nonsense for another article.)

While city officials have publicly condemned the July 4 shootings while pleading with protesters to stop — as if it was their fault — they’re failing to recognize that this is an ongoing problem that is simply being exposed in the shadows alongside a movement that’s attempting to dismantle white supremacy and America’s racist systems as we’ve come to know them. 

What we are seeing is perhaps what Frederick Douglass was referring to in his monumental “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech: major juxtapositions of our government’s responses to Black lives and to white lives, confederate monuments, and property.

And where to begin with all of this? We saw the June 13 shooting in Edgewood neighborhood in which an unidentified shooter aimed his rifle into a crowd of about 40 people who were filming a music video and took the lives of two young Black men, 17-year-old Semaj Jones and 25-year-old Christopher Weaver. This was the same night the Wendy’s where Brooks was killed was burned down during a massive demonstration at University and Pryor. The shooting was barely covered by the news when it occurred; it was just a blip on the screen. Meanwhile, local media chose to show the same reels of Wendy\’s burning, overly sensationalizing and demonizing a community’s response to yet another life slain at the hands of police.

As far as the police go, the APD was tight-lipped about the investigation into the Edgewood shooting with the media and the immediate community, while virtually everyone in the city learned the identity of arson suspect Natalie White as her image circulated heavily in local news cycles alongside burning images of the Wendy’s lit up in flames. A $10,000 reward was offered for the apprehension of White for burning a building, while a mere $2,000 was offered for any information leading to the identification of the Edgewood shooter who killed two innocent people. Additionally, community organizers have reason to believe the shooter was white.

Where was the state of emergency or Mayor Bottoms’ press conference then? Or are Black lives only deemed innocent until a certain age? Where was this decisive action any of the other times our city saw senseless acts of gun violence, including those that stole children’s lives before Turner? Why now, when there’s a movement burgeoning in our streets that threatens the very existence of these oppressive systems?

Oh, it seems I may have answered my own question.

The cop watch house on Mayson Avenue in the Edgewood neighborhood in Atlanta. A white board was placed up in memoriam of victims Semaj Jones, 17, and Christopher Weaver, 25, who were killed in a drive-by shooting on June 13. Police have yet to identify the shooter or update the community or media. Photography: Aja Arnold, 2020.

Further, it’s not a lack of police that is the problem in regards to the Edgewood shooting. Police are actually extremely present in the historically Black neighborhood — and there’s even a neighborhood cop watch house there to, well, police the police. When we spoke with folks at the cop watch house after the recent drive-by shooting occurred, they explained to us that what happened on June 13 and the police’s response to it was nothing new. They also told us that police frequent the neighborhood often looking for ways to ticket, charge, and harass the community, whether that be trolling the street running license plates looking for expired registrations or tags; breaking into vehicles to impound them, claiming they’re “abandoned”; and failing to thoroughly investigate any violent instances such as last month’s drive-by shooting, citing their failure to provide more information due to a “pending investigation.”

Mayor Bottoms reprimanded Black folx for carrying weapons in the area surrounding University and Pryor, even though it is perfectly legal under Georgia’s open carry laws and white people carry weapons around this state all the time. However, when white people do, it’s a second amendment right and their wishes to protect themselves and their property are viewed as extremely valid. In the case of the protesters, we received word from our sources that protestors were armed to protect themselves from white aggression, which is a substantial threat against organizers given the climate across the country and the mere fact that we live in Georgia. Over the holiday weekend, people received word from credible sources — including a printed flyer that instructed whites to “shoot a black on site,” adding that “they ravage, they loot, they rob” — that there were plans of white aggression brewing.

Organizers are aware of this and are extremely smart and cautious of what the next moves are within the movement. Instead of listening to them and treating them like adults with respect, Bottoms took to them like rebellious children who don’t know what the hell they want. Although she did say the city would continue to support peaceful demonstrations moving forward, and in fact encouraged it, the damage she caused to the movement as a whole by connecting them to a violent shooting without any strong evidence — essentially passing the buck of Atlanta\’s already existent issues with gun violence onto the movement itself rather than onto the police where it belongs — further impedes the cause for justice and systemic change that our country requires.

In her press conference on Sunday, she directed protesters to “take a history lesson” on how to “effectuate change,” again citing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and said if they didn’t have time to “read a book” then they should go watch Selma. Telling Black people to “go read a book” is one example of coded language that “operates by appealing to deep-seated stereotypes of groups that are perceived as threatening.” All from a Black woman who has been on the receiving end of police discrimination in her home growing up. However, Bottoms here has chosen to politicize gun violence and pander to her national audience with a greater agenda to dispel and discredit a flourishing movement as she has assimilated herself into the machine of the oppressors. 

How about other cases of irony, as Douglass might have suggested? Let’s look at a few quick examples, blow by blow, just from the past several months.

  • Our state’s laws protect the defamation or removal of confederate statues — which serve as reminders of the white supremacist ideals that not only our country was built on, but that our state clings onto and preserves — while our city’s police were ordered to clear out a peace center that was built following the police killing of an innocent, unarmed Black man. As the Wendy’s has been stigmatized and seemingly singled out by Mayor Bottoms, the media, and the APD, ascribing words like “lawlessness” and “dangerous,” one community member shared publicly on social media what the Wendy’s actually became: “a peace center that will give the community what the state cannot and will not provide. We fed people, we built housing and showers, a garden was built. The peace center is an experiment of abolition and a labor of pure love.”
  • Gov. Kemp claims he deployed the National Guard to “protect Georgians” while failing to properly address the imminent threat of the virus in our communities. He revoked the chance for small businesses to apply for unemployment insurance by enforcing a far-too-soon state reopening in April, forcing Georgians to choose between paying their rent and their physical wellness while putting others’ lives at risk.
  • Our state cut millions upon millions of dollars in this year’s fiscal budget to public health and educational systems while police departmental budgets saw an increase, including a gang task force. After signing the state’s $26 billion budget, Kemp’s office stated in an official press release: “We must stand with law enforcement now – just like they stood with us during our most difficult days. In this budget, we have included resources to expand the GBI Gang Task Force, fund a 50-person trooper school, and support personal services and operating expenses for motor carrier officers in the Ports Corridor. These public safety dollars will pay huge dividends as we emerge from this healthcare and economic crisis. We will keep our neighborhoods, communities, and families safe and secure.”
  • Bottoms claims that “we didn’t have any massive sick-outs” this past weekend, however, there were reports of APD intentionally not patrolling certain areas. In fact, reports from Atlanta police scanners on the night of July 4 revealed that police did not actually answer the call for the shooting at University Avenue promptly, stating it was “suspicious.”
  • According to one of our sources and local organizers, there was a drive-by shooting in DeKalb County the weekend of June 26. It’s nowhere in the news.

I’m choosing to stop here in the interest of self-preservation. There are surely more examples outside the scope of this piece.

The recent occurrences in Atlanta illuminate a much bigger problem; they are symptomatic of a system that’s deeply corroded by racism, white supremacy, injustice, and hypocrisy. No amount of band-aids in the form of police reform, short moments of clarity, or emotionally charged press conferences is going to undo that. 

Mayor Bottoms stated in Sunday’s press conference, “I wanna see the same anger and outrage on behalf of Secoriea and all the other people and children who are getting shot in our streets. It’s a lot of change that has to happen across this country, and police reform is a big part of it. But we also have got to reform our own communities.”

This message could be turned around right back to her: the city deserves to see as much leadership and action in the investigations of gun violence that have claimed innumerous Black lives in this city as it has seen in our systems\’ defense of white lives and property. No matter how they try to spin it or frame it, it all still equals defund the police and reinvest those funds into better systems of health care, education, mental health services, and community.

Street art on the side of the Wendy\’s building on University Avenue, which had become known as the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center. Graffiti nearby on the ground said, Rest easy, Rayshard; we got it from here. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

While the movement appears to have been focused on police brutality, we are learning that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many should know by now that innocent lives are lost not only at the hands of police. Innocent lives are lost as a result of what Dr. Carol Anderson refers to as “bureaucratic violence”: systemic oppression in the forms of voter suppression, redlining, eminent domain, barriers to health care, and all other legislative acts that have been taken to deny and deprive Black Americans and other marginalized groups (I see you, Latinx, indigenous peoples, LGBTQI+, the disabled, presently and formerly incarcerated, mentally ill, addicts and alcoholics, rape survivors, all of you) of any chance of growing prosperity and opportunity. Unless, you know, they work hard enough to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, or whatever.

More will be revealed in the shooting that claimed Turner’s life in the coming days and whoever is responsible should be brought to justice; that’s what the movement itself stands for. However, when considering individual crimes in the midst of grand societal upheaval, it doesn’t ultimately matter who shot who or why; it\’s bigger than black and white. What matters is the multitude of precipitating factors that led to the incident and those factors are what’s being starkly revealed to us all, en masse. It’s time that we begin to understand that it’s not the individuals, it’s the system that they are in. And nothing less of a complete paradigm shift is going to create what’s needed to prevent these crimes: spaces that allow for healing, growth, and opportunity within disproportionately affected communities.

Just like the one the APD removed yesterday.

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