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Jul 8, 20

Front Liners to the Front: A Report on the George Floyd Uprising in Atlanta

A retrospective on the ongoing revolt in so-called Atlanta, Georgia that has exploded in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. 

It is necessary to describe, with intimate knowledge, the collapse of respectability politics, the unraveling of compulsory nonviolence, in the symbolic center of American pacifism. At the end of May, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, angry people across Metro Atlanta burned cruisers, smashed storefronts, looted shops, and threw bricks at the police. For nearly two weeks, dozens of autonomous and leaderless groups descended on the city and its suburbs, at times blocking traffic, at times simply holding signs. Every night of the first weeks of June, crowds descended on Centennial Olympic Park to violate the curfew. Pitched battles with the National Guard gripped the area, as rowdy clusters of people built barricades, de-arrested one another, and slowly developed a tactical intelligence appropriate for the times. Every day, more people arrived with helmets, with goggles, gloves, shields, respirators, and more. Every day, the tear gas seemed to work less and less.

Regardless, hundreds were arrested, some of them brutalized by Atlanta Police, the National Guard, Fulton County Sheriffs, the Department of Natural Resources, and other police forces conscripted to clear the streets by the city government. As the revolt blinks, entering its second month now, a window opens for repressive counter-revolutionary forces. Overwhelmingly, black youth will pay the price if we fail to advance new perspectives, openings, and practices capable of subverting the machinations of the colonial state and its white supremacist auxiliaries.


From Open Rebellion to Unruly Protest

In the first two weeks of events, from May 29th until the second week of June, more or less, crowds gathered across Atlanta every afternoon and evening and clashed with police. When it was possible, smaller crews looted stores around downtown, Buckhead, and even farther into the suburbs. We have heard reports of scattered looting as far as Johns Creek. In Lawrenceville and in Gainesville, some kids are being charged with following police officers to their homes and throwing molotov cocktails at their vehicles.

In any case, following weeks of disorder and the militarization of the city by the National Guard, the crowds slowly shrank in size, if not in determination. It was not uncommon, during this phase, to hear people bemoan the ritualized events at Centennial, as arrests became more prominent features of the night, and the possibilities of open contestation seemed repeatedly frustrated by self-appointed “organizers” and “black leadership” voices – all who suspiciously seemed to echo the commandments of the police.

In this context, protests were organized in other areas of town, including in Midtown, and at strange hours. On one occasion, nearly 500 people, nearly all punks, skaters, queers, and other alternative youth, met at midnight in Little 5 Points. This crowd managed to repel police with fireworks, making space for the vandalism of the Savi grocery store (a business infamous for giving free food to police officers), while winding around the neighborhoods east of the city for hours listening to loud music, and generally breaking the formula of contained revolt.

Killing of Rayshard Brooks

On June 12th, Atlanta police officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan killed 27 year old Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot of a Wendy’s in South Atlanta. The officers shot him in the back as he attempted to flee. Within an hour, around 75 neighbors were gathered at the scene, demanding answers, and cursing at police officers.

The next day, hundreds gathered at University Avenue and Pryor Road, outside of the Wendy’s. Many people wore ski masks, hoodies, respirators, helmets, gloves, goggles, and more as the crowd repeatedly surrounded police officers and forced them to retreat. When self-described “organizers” commanded the crowd to their knees, a small group of Nuwaubians exclaimed that “kings don’t kneel,” a ordered everyone to stand. Eventually, a police cruiser had its windows smashed in the parking lot of a liquor store. Cops from the infamous APEX Unit fired bean bag rounds and tear gas into the crowd, which failed utterly to discourage those gathered, many of whom threw the canisters back.

Within 30 minutes, hundreds of protesters were blocking southbound traffic on I-75/85. Others began laying siege to the Wendy’s, who reportedly called the killer cops on Rayshard Brooks. Hundreds cheered as the windows were smashed and fireworks were shot into the building. When police arrived, driving recklessly into the crowd in hopes of dispersing it, their vehicles were smashed with hammers and bricks, while some individuals shined green and blue lasers into the windows of the car, ostensibly obstructing the vision of the officers inside and their cameras. The fire truck was also blocked by protesters while the building was engulfed in flames.

Front Liners to the Front

Following the mass-torching of the Wendy’s, a large crowd marched to the Zone 3 precinct located at Cherokee Avenue near Atlanta Avenue. Ofc. Rolfe and Brosnan both worked out of Zone 3, which is located nearby in Grant Park, an affluent and predominantly white neighborhood.

From this night on, a larger section of the movement – the abolitionist currents, broadly speaking – began adopting tactics proportionate to the demands of the situation. When the crowd arrived at the precinct, individuals began throwing rocks, bottles, and fireworks at the police, who busied themselves erecting barricades. When the conflict stabilized, dozens of umbrellas emerged from within the crowd, and were used to block police visuals, as the front liners repeatedly attempted to break the police defenses. Before long, tear gas canisters were being fired in Grant Park for the first time in decades, possibly ever. On social media and text threads, fliers and infographics from recent Hong Kong and Chile protests circulated, translated into English, allowing some people to study the tactics utilized by others in circumstances such as these. The methods developed by anarchists and their fellow travelers over the last 20 years seemed to suddenly gain widespread purchase among anyone seeking out mass, participatory, anonymous subversive strategies.

Every few days, more and more determined crowds, with less news coverage, and sometimes less numbers, attempted to storm the Zone 3 precinct. One night, an individual threw a molotov cocktail at the police lines, although it failed to explode. The general style and composition of the protests at the Zone 3 precinct did not swallow the movement, as other events and crowds continued to mobilize daily across town and in the nearby suburbs. Still, it is undeniable that we have entered a higher phase of subjectivation, in which new combative protest cultures, aesthetics, crews, cliques, and methods are developing within the framework of the ongoing revolt against anti-blackness and police violence.

As the participants and curators of the new front line protest culture continue to refine their own needs and methods, it is becoming less common to hear individuals default to identity-based pseudo strategies (“white people to the front”) and more common to see multi-ethnic crowds of young people work together in a chaotic tactical storm to accomplish shared goals with practical means. Instead of asking for those perceived to benefit from relative privileges to sacrifice themselves at the front – a demand that can only be embraced by weak-willed and inexperienced white students who, regretfully, will be smashed in a second without putting up a fight – it is slowly becoming normal for people to address one another on the basis of shared ethical understanding sand intentions: “front liners to the front, lasers on the cameras, barricaders to the back; cameras film the cops, not the bloc.”

Only this kind of intelligence can help us move to the next phase of struggle. If it is necessary to question the role of white people in the movement, it will have to occur with deference to the capacities and power that each individual is capable of bringing to the table with tact and enthusiasm, not shame, virtue signalling, or acquiescence.

No Justice, No Peace Center

In the days following the killing of Rayshard, community members of all ages and backgrounds gathered at the ruins of the Wendy’s to pay homage, to light candles, and to talk with their neighbors. The building, now covered in graffiti, became a kind of locus of black communal joy, as some chose to bring smokers and grills to the site, to give sparklers to children, and to commune with whoever gathered. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss the self-organized encampment built at the Wendy’s – renamed the “Rayshard Brooks Peace Center,” by it’s inhabitants. Reflections and perspectives on the 3 week running “autonomous zone” will have to emerge from those who dedicated themselves to it’s development and maintenance, which the author of this text can hardly claim to have done.

In the aftermath of the June 13th revolt in Peoplestown/South Atlanta, the chief of police resigned, and the city government worked overtime to discredit and obscure the realities of the situation on the ground, finding themselves unable to establish a desirable balance of force with increasingly hostile and prepared crowds. To make matters worse for the Mayor, officers across the city began calling in “sick” in the hours and days following the indictment of the two cops who killed Brooks.

Police morale was at an all-time low, as officers felt unwilling to work with the District Attorneys office, with the mayor, with the National Guard, with the State Patrol. The only strategy the government retained was spreading gossip, rumors, and false narratives about gun violence, increased crime, and “unprecedent disorder” engulfing the city. In reality, the phase of open insurrection had long passed, and any increase in violent acts could just as easily be attributed to the spike in unemployment related to the ongoing COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic.

The Fourth of July

On the 4th of July, a large contingent of police encircled the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center/Wendy’s, threatening to evict those encamped. Simultaneously, around midnight, a crowd of just over 100 people descended on the Zone 3 precinct, now scarcely guarded by more than a dozen officers left with no anti-riot gear. The crowd did not miss a moment to erect barricades, with those inclined to, breaking up and throwing bricks, doing so. Some shined lasers at cameras while others tossed massive firework mortars at officers and the building. As police reinforcement arrived; the crowd fled the scene.

Marching through the residential streets of Grant Park, it was not long before the group, seemingly well prepared despite being an informally organized crowd composed of small crews and individuals, descended on the Georgia State Patrol Headquarters. Immediately, individuals in the crowd went to work destroying a police vehicle, while many cheered, and others still began throwing rocks at the windows of the facility. Many, many, windows were smashed while the veneer of the building was painted with abolitionist and anti-nationalist slogans. Some enterprising young people began shooting fireworks into the smashed windows, and quickly set about using lit objects to start a fire in one of the offices. Having smashed nearly every street-facing window and seemingly set the building alight, the crowd continue to march into the neighborhood and managed to disperse with no arrests.

While the fire inside the building was extinguished, the flame nonetheless terrified the ruling class and political elites, who rushed to call in the National Guard again. They are continuing to blame a surge of gun violence on the protests, as the repressive operations of the extreme Right, the Trump administration, the moderate Left, and self-styled “progressives” seem to come from the same playbook. Counter revolutionaries are prepared to use any methods – from tear gas, to curfews, to identity politics – to crush what is under way.

Whether or not the emerging combative subjectivities can retain the initiative is to be seen. In any case, it seems unlikely that the countless people who have participated in the clashes, and who have gone through the same experiences of development and evolution as we have, will simply return to respectable and tame protest cultures soon. As for us, we will continue to fight, and to think, and to develop. We are not afraid to pause and catch our breath, because we know that even if we do not win, we will never be defeated.

Black Lives Matter
RIP George Floyd
RIP Rayshard Brooks
July 8, 2020

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