For Michael Brown. For Eric Garner. Against the entire pathetic form of survival that the police defend: For two weeks, demonstrations across the country blocked highways, bridges, tunnels, and roadways. Many organizing groups, formal and informal, emerged in Atlanta to bring this struggle to the largest city in the South. The Atlanta-Ferguson Solidarity Committee is one such group. We called for a demonstration and occupation of Woodruff Park to occur on December 6th. This call was primarily an attempt to introduce a new tactic in the struggle which would broaden both the terrain and the scope of the social movement that has thus far taken several different forms – from the the rally and speak-out, to the die-in, to the blockades, street fighting, and rioting. Each of these events, but also all of the organizational work behind them, presented a unique opportunity for us to find each other, to act adequately to the situation, or else to allow our struggle to collapse back into the same depressing politics that Ferguson seemed to break.
We want to thank everyone who turned out to the demonstration. We all enjoyed our time together, but we have to admit our failure to achieve our stated goal of occupation. We have composed the following reflections on recent events in Atlanta as an attempt to highlight the fault lines and (im)possibilities contained within the struggles and upheavals in the context of black and brown anti-police activity across the country. We extend this analysis as an effort toward the development of a collective intelligence which makes us all equipped to carry these moments further. The way forward, whether this movement has already reached its peak or not, is certainly a matter of how we get organized to live and struggle together.
Two nights ago, around 150 people – many of color and many white – showed up to Woodruff Park at 7PM. We gathered on the sidewalk outside of the park facing Peachtree Street. Many held signs, and much of the first hour and a half was filled with intense and meaningful conversation. We shared chili, listened to young men freestyle about Eric Garner, Amerikkka, and the police, and began to find out where each other stood. While some participants arrived with the intention of staying overnight, most came planning only to stay until the 11PM cutoff declared by Mayor Kasim Reed, citing jobs, school, scholarships, or fear of arrest. Notably, no camping preparations were visible, although some said they had supplies elsewhere.
Around 8:30PM, the group decided to march through downtown Atlanta. Blocking streets and intersections, the march went through the corporate business district, populated that night by middle-class concert-goers, ferris wheel riders, and Alabama fans out for the SEC championship, and maintained a high energy accompanied by the lowest police presence of Ferguson-inspired actions in Atlanta thus far. Despite efforts made by some to go to the plaza of Five Points Marta Station – presumably with the intent to start an occupation there – the crowd returned to the park around 9pm, where a speak-out began.
The speak out revealed the complexity and heterogeneity of people, desires, and intentions present. While a white woman spoke about the racial unity that made the movement so beautiful, an older black man from L.A. spoke about how we needed to get strapped in order to shoot back at the police. When a black woman affirmed the need for black people to police their own communities, another woman of color spoke in favor of self-protection but against policing. And when a few participants – both black and white – started chanting “How do we fix the system? Buy black! Buy black!,” a young black man exclaimed that racism is maintained through capitalism itself, and a woman of color pointed out that “people don’t buy from Walmart because they want to, but because they have five dollars in their pockets.” The complicities and differences that crossed this space, as in many other spaces created in Atlanta over the past two weeks, flew in the face of lines drawn along race and identity. Similar tensions played out on November 25th, when some protesters — both black and white — blocked the interstate, threw rocks at police, and damaged property; while others — both black and white — physically prevented some participants from doing anything but “marching peacefully.”
After the speak out, some people repeated the call to “do something” and advocated for another march. The decision to march a second time was created by several overlapping, sometimes conflicting, desires. Some wanted to increase “visibility” of the struggle, others wanted to block more roads and disrupt businesses, and still others may have had goals of which we are unaware. Here we saw what has been an underlying tension in the movement for months: the separation between the democratic struggle for recognition and policy change and the illegal struggle against the conditions of daily life. Where some have pushed for increased visibility, reforms and inclusions, others have simply gotten organized to block everything, to bring this horrifying society to a halt, and to continually innovate bolder forms of fighting together.
During the second march, the most conflictual moment of the night played out as a demonstrator was nearly run over by a civilian driver. That car was then quickly surrounded by people who eventually had to kick and hit it in order to get it to stop. When the group returned to the park for the second time – now at about seventy people – several different individuals encouraged the crowd to begin setting up for an occupation (via the ‘mic check,’ a tactic learned from the Occupy movement three years ago), either at Woodruff Park or at the Five Points Marta Station. These calls went largely unanswered, other than by an announcement that Mayor Reed had stated that the park would be closed at 11PM and protestors would be removed at that time. Some people decided to utilize the time remaining to organize for future actions, stating that “we can’t let this die out.” A plan emerged for a die-in at Phipps Plaza this upcoming Saturday and others suggested weekly meet ups at the park. A few minutes before eleven, around thirty people took the streets to the Marta station and were quickly confronted by a small number of Marta police who failed to disperse them. The crowd was immediately antagonistic and the officers backed down. With relatively no police presence, the remaining participants shared food, conversation, and debate before slowly trickling away as it became apparent that there were neither the numbers nor the supplies necessary to sustain an occupation.
The unfortunate end of any struggle which contains within it the possibility of changing everything – of reuniting every person with their own power, of collective liberation – will be a massive return to normalcy. We are beginning to see the coverage from Ferguson shift toward a focus on the difficulty of getting “back to normal” and away from how people there can establish greater autonomy in their lives. The apex upon which the future of this struggle hinges emerged in a few sentences traded between participants toward the end of the night: some voices called out “when can we meet next?” and other voices called back “what can we do together, with the people that are here now?” Although we look forward to future actions in which more people can meet one another, we worry that the repetition of what is now becoming the most popular tactic of the struggle – the die-in – will fail to carry the struggle far enough to actually displace the power relations which make racialized policing possible. The intelligence located in the highway blockades has been the shared perception that power operates through the daily lives of real people, on the way we are shuttled around by the economy, in the functioning and flows of cities themselves. We worry that this intelligence is lost, partially to our own fears, and partially to the reappearance of “message driven protests” – as if the goal was to end this movement as quickly as possible by identifying what terms or reforms could make everyone go back home. We have watched the blockades move from highways to boulevards to smaller streets and then to sidewalks. The next step, we are guessing, is for them to end completely. On December 6th, it seemed that many people were not only materially unprepared to take and hold space, but were also certain that the police would come and break up the occupation violently. We have learned the slogan “Choke the system! Breathe together!”, but we seem unable, at this moment, to do either.
And to risk harshness for the sake of brevity: it’s not exactly a surprise that the number of people out in force has shrunk immensely as the chants have turned from “hands up, don’t shoot” to “buy black” and calls for better representation — as if the political electorate, the mayor, and the police weren’t already black in this city; as if the goal of this struggle was to keep us as passive consumers invested in a broken political system. We do not believe that the truths that these events grew out of have simply disappeared, just as the truths that created Occupy did not disappear. We still know that alone “I can’t breathe” but together we can. What remains to be done is not critique or condemnation — we only have to decide how we will live together with this shared perception that we are stronger together, that we can shut it all down if we give ourselves the means to live in the disruption. And then to actually do it.