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Oct 17, 20

Front Liners to the Front, Part 2: Between Politics and Rebellion in Atlanta

photo: Maria Oswalt 

In my last article, “Front Liners to the Front (Part 1)”, released on July 8th, I catalogued the overarching structure of the George Floyd Rebellion in Atlanta, GA from May 29th through July 4th. From the fiery afternoon of May 29th, when thousands burned police cruisers and looted stores downtown, to the pitched battles of early June, to the killing of Rayshard Brooks and the subsequent minoritarian actions taken in the wake, it seemed clear that the period of open insurrection had ended by mid or late June but that new frontline protesters might be able to retain the conflictual initiative for a bit longer. I believe that hypothesis was correct. At the time of writing, on October 15th, it seems clear to me that this new period has ended.

For posterity’s sake, that emancipatory movements in the near or distant future may act with greater understanding, what follows is an imperfect account of some general dynamics of the second half of the George Floyd Rebellion in Atlanta, GA. Countless protests, actions, events, fundraisers, and meetings have occurred within the context of the rebellion, far more than is within the scope of this article. I do not believe it is pre-emptive to say that the rebellion of this summer has ended, nor that it is a contradiction to insist that large waves of autonomous resistance and mobilization are coming in the near term as a direct result of the sequence set in motion this June. What follows, I humbly dedicate to everyone who threw back tear gas canisters, who stayed up all night making sure people were getting bailed out, who offered first aid or emotional support to those wounded by police, and who physically attacked store fronts, police cars, carceral and bureaucratic infrastructure, or cheered heartily for those who did.

To support all facing charges or harassment in the context of rebellion, donate to atlsolidarity.org. To read the first part of this report, go here.

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” – THE REFRAIN OF THE COUNTER-INSURGENCY?

Following the tragic death of Secoriea Turner on the night of July 4th on University Avenue, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms held a press conference in which she audaciously claimed that “these aren’t police officers shooting people on the streets of Atlanta, these are members of the community shooting each other.” Having failed to adequately advance this narrative – essentially the “Black on Black crime” myth – in the previous two weeks, despite daily attempts involving Killer Mike and other cultural icons of the Black bourgeoisie, the killing on the night of the 4th seemed to be a tipping point in the eyes of the public, marking the definitive end of mass mobilizations in the context of the George Floyd Rebellion, or the local killing of Rayshard Brooks by APD. Every few days, television news coverage, especially aimed at White suburbanites, demonized teenagers selling water bottles on the sidewalk, young people racing cars and dirt bikes, and protesters all in the same breath. After the Mayor’s press conference, Governor Kemp wasted no time extending the deployment of 1,000 National Guardsmen indefinitely to the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) Headquarters, the Governor’s Mansion – where protests occurred regularly late at night for several weeks – and the Capitol Building.

The trashing and partial burning of the GSP Headquarters on the 4th, detailed at greater length in part one of this essay, shocked the authorities. Georgia Bureau of Investigations, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF), Atlanta Police, and other law enforcement agencies fanned out across the state, knocking on doors, and approaching people for information on the protest. No public statement was made by any participants, and no formal section of the movement denounced the action, a sign of the maturity, horizontalism, and informal self-organization widespread in the rebellion. (Note: To date, there have been no arrests associated with the vandalism of the GSP Headquarters.)

As the days went by, center-left and right-wing pundits and social media personalities initiated a phase of advanced misinformation, simultaneously claiming the movement had been “hijacked” by white people, “ANTIFA,” “insurrectionary anarchists,” and also by undercover white supremacists. NBC News began publishing delusional historical revisions, claiming that the protests in Minneapolis began “peacefully,” and that “public support had waned after protests became violent.” The idea that a rupture catalyzed by Black youth could become a vortex for every disaffection scandalized the political and professional classes across the country. The received intelligence coming from the universities (as “anti-oppression politics”) is that non-Black people can participate in struggles alongside Black people, but only passively, or only as “supporters.” In other words, the revolts of Black people should be kept in an ahistorical container, and others should not seek to advance adjacent or overlapping aims for their own reasons within the general crisis of governance initiated by the Black working class. Fortunately, the movement retained its hyper-diverse character, catalyzing rebellious and self-directed participation among the (non-Black) Indigenous, immigrant, and white working classes. The revolt continued to race ahead of all commentary, laying radical and reformist ideologies to waste, week after week.

JULY 25TH: NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION IN SOLIDARITY WITH PORTLAND PROTESTERS

In Portland, Oregon the Trump Administration deployed a new federal police force, comprised chiefly of Border Patrol officers – taking advantage of the growing discourse around “agitators” – in order to crush the nightly resistance taking place there. This failed utterly, as thousands of protesters surged into the streets, and public sympathy once again seemed to support militant direct action against the police, the government, and the stagnant economy – still completely closed in most cities because of COVID-19 restrictions. After viral footage circulated showing unmarked officers snatching protesters off of the streets and shoving them into vehicles, autonomous groups in the Pacific Northwest called for a national day of solidarity to take place on July 25th.

In Atlanta, around 200 protesters, nearly all of them in frontliner gear, converged on the joint Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Agency (ICE) headquarters, located on Ted Turner Drive downtown. Catching police completely off-guard, the crowd utilized nearby equipment and barriers to construct a large barricade in the road. When a single officer approached the crowd, people began to heckle him and throw objects, forcing him to retreat. For the next hour, at the very least, protesters smashed windows and shot fireworks into the headquarters. The officers inside fled the building, which incurred heavy damage. Police claim vandalism costs to the building alone was at least $200,000. The veneer of the facility was boarded up for several weeks. No arrests were made. Anonymous participants sent the following statement to local news, who published the statement:

“In solidarity with Portland, a crowd gathered in Atlanta outside the DHS/ICE office. These agencies are directly responsible for ruining untold numbers of lives, and for the violent policing of the Portland protests. We will fight with everything we’ve got against Trump’s private police force, against authoritarian and despotic governance. What the police produce, above all, are their own grave-diggers. Their fall and the victory of the ungovernable are equally inevitable.”

Media coverage of this and similar solidarity actions across the country – including bold actions in Seattle, Oakland, Aurora, Richmond, and elsewhere – was surprisingly minimal, as the corporate press focused endlessly on Trump’s Twitter account, and as election coverage was beginning to consume everything else. In Austin, Texas, Garrett Foster was shot and killed by a far-Right extremist during the solidarity protest, a signal of the grassroots counter-insurgency in embryo.

KENOSHA, WI AND THE SHIFTING BALANCE OF FORCES

On June 16th, just after the murder of Rayshard Brooks and the subsequent torching of the Wendy’s on University Avenue, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp lifted nearly all restrictions on businesses aimed at reducing the transmission of COVID-19. As bars, restaurants, and worksites of all kinds began to slowly reopen, the protests began to shrink, as many workers were kicked off Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and thus forced to work with no guarantees for their well-being. By mid-July, nearly 800 people had been arrested at protests in Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs, including several dozen for serious felonies. Many more had been injured or traumatized by the wanton use of tear gas, flash bangs grenades, rubber bullets, and other “less-lethal” munitions utilized by the National Guard, and the metro-Atlanta police forces in the preceding weeks and months.

In early August, a new myth began to spread, advanced by the Democratic Party and its NGO hydra, that the George Floyd Rebellion, and all subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, actually served the interests of Donald Trump more than anyone else! According to this line of reasoning, Trump was using the unrest as an “excuse” to blame the Democratic party for not suppressing the riots, and as a method of deploying his new federal troops. The protests, so the narrative goes, were “helpful” at first, but now are turning (white) people against the movement. The Democrats were already blaming Black people for their possible electoral loss. Many leftists fell for this deceitful and disgusting talking point, just as they had naively fallen for previous myths and tropes over the summer: that “piles of bricks” were being staged by police to provoke rioters, that arson and looting was being coordinated by white supremacists and “Boogaloo Boys,” that outside agitators were traveling across state lines in large numbers, endangering local communities and leaving before the repression came crashing down. If you believed all of the tropes, myths, half-truths, and lies rolled out in the context of the rebellion, you would have a hard time believing there had even been a rebellion at all! This new myth couldn’t have appeared at a worse time.

On August 23rd, the Kenosha Police Department shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake in the back 7 times in broad daylight, as he was getting into his car where his children sat in the back seat. Impossibly, he survived. By nightfall, residents were throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at police, looting stores, and smashing their way into the courthouse. By the second night of rioting, the Department of Corrections building was ablaze. Spontaneous protests in Madison, Wisconsin descended on downtown, smashing store fronts and erecting burning barricades. On the third night of the unrest, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber were shot and killed by 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was a part of a semi-organized network of white vigilantes and militiamen who had descended on Kenosha and other cities in order curtail protests, and to act as a paramilitary auxiliary to the local police. In the days that followed, professional sports teams from multiple leagues went on strike, refusing to play as a sign of direct sympathy and solidarity with Jacob Blake and the Kenosha protesters.

On August 25th, 300-400 people gathered at Woodruff Park for an emergency solidarity demonstration. Around 150 people donned all-black clothing and some other material preparations. The crowd marched directly toward the Zone 5 precinct downtown and began constructing barricades in the road, using police barriers and newsstands. A window of the precinct was smashed, and a dramatic de-arrest of a protester radically escalated conflict with the police, who rushed out of the precinct deploying pepper spray in every direction. The crowd began to scatter, especially those who had not arrived prepared for this possibility. As police began to throw flash bang grenades, frontliners regrouped and began shooting firework mortars and throwing stones back at them, which, in turn, sent the officers running for cover. Now on Peachtree Street, a crowd of around 100 people, nearly all in black clothing, continued marching north together, as police were seemingly mobilizing to trap everyone in the downtown corridor before they could safely disperse. While Atlanta Police were being pummeled with bricks, the Georgia State Patrol deployed a bearcat – an armored, tank-like vehicle. GSP seemingly has a larger budget than local police, and seemed anxious to avenge the vandalism of their headquarters. The remaining crowd turned onto West Peachtree Street, but the bearcat followed. Several Molotov cocktails were reportedly thrown at the vehicle and while news journalists were present for this, they failed to report it. We can be certain that every police officer in Atlanta, however, was debriefed on this development.

A helmeted officer quickly emerged from the top hatch of the bearcat and began shooting marker rounds at protesters from close range. Failing to regain the initiative, or to turn around to confront their enemy, the shrinking crowd was forced to turn east on Pine, hoping to escape downtown as quickly as possible. At the intersection with Piedmont Avenue, Georgia State Patrol deployed tear gas, splitting the crowd in half. Demonstrators trapped downtown were demoralized, and forced to walk alongside the so-called “Black Revolutionaries,” a group of paid actors who pretend to be an armed militia and who indulge in photo opportunities for local police. Several people in this crowd were snatched off the sidewalk as they walked back to their cars. The other crowd, continuing east into Old Fourth Ward, repeatedly engaged in determined clashes with police, who were attempting to enclose them on every block. Nearly all of them managed to escape the area without being detained.

MOVEMENT DECELERATION

Now that police had finally regained the definitive upper hand, for the first time since early June, they were determined the keep it. Protests and marches continued almost daily for the rest of August, many of them erroneously brutalized by APD. As activists and community groups continue their fight to open the Rayshard Brooks Community Center on the site of the University Avenue location where Rayshard died, police officers often mobilize disproportionate force to intimidate those gathered to hear speeches and promote reasonable demands. On several occasions, National Guardsmen and officers in riot gear mobilized for crowds of seniors, parents with their children, and other unassuming demonstrators holding sidewalk vigils or simple protests. Local police deployed the same overwhelming force in the final weeks of the Occupy Atlanta protests nine years ago, as mayors across the country coordinated simultaneous attacks on encampments and the marches and protests that followed those evictions. A similar dynamic was emerging across the country once again. As the crowds continued to shrink, for all of the reasons I have laid out and more, police did not miss the opportunity to re-establish their preferred position of tactical and logistical dominance. Amid all of this, people of conscience continued to quit local police forces in droves, others began blowing the whistle on department-wide corruption. We can only hope this continues and accelerates.

JUSTICE FOR BREONNA TAYLOR?

On September 23, the Kentucky Attorney General announced that no officers would be brought on charges for the murder of Breonna Taylor, but that one officer would be charged for missing her and recklessly endangering her neighbors with his stray bullet. The Taylor case had become a cause célèbre for the movement over the summer. An emergency action was announced that night, once again meeting at Woodruff Park.

Around 300-400 people gathered on short notice, many wearing all black and helmets, but now some also adorned bullet proof vests and one-person medical packs. The events in Portland and Kenosha, where increasingly armed counter-protesters have attacked protesters, seemed to have an impact on the general atmosphere within the movement. Protest organizers announced that there would be no formal speeches given, and that the crowd should resist any attempts by activists or bad-actors to utilize a megaphone or authoritarian postures to control the crowd. This did not work. In a short time, a semi-formal coalition of protesters arrived who seemed determined to lure everyone to the Capitol building, an ideal terrain for the police who were already stationed there with support from the National Guard.

Upon arrival, police immediately began shooting frontliners with marker rounds, as they had done before at the Kenosha solidarity event. Lacking shields or projectiles, and with the area surrounding the Capitol in a state of constant architectural control, the crowd was forced to retreat north, back onto Peacthree Street. Within a few blocks, individuals wielding a megaphone entreated the crowd to stop. Lacking a spontaneous or obvious objective, and being comprised of more tame people and students then the previous few months of protests, most participants seemed willing to listen to the self-appointed leaders. What exactly they planned remained completely unclear. The crowd sheepishly returned to the Capitol and was swiftly tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. As the movement has lost the tactical initiative, and actions have tended toward less ambitious aims, identity-based pseudo-interventions previously discarded seemed to be re-embraced, especially by the college students in the crowd. “White people to the front” screamed the people holding placards and signs, seeking for a comforting assurance in a night with seemingly no clear direction or opportunities. Everyone wearing helmets and hoodies seemed to ignore them, perhaps with a tinge of annoyance. Police and National Guardsmen encircled much of the remaining protesters, and slowly formed a kettle on terrain designed exactly for that. While some people escaped, and many left early, a few dozen people were detained and/or arrested.

ONE MORE ATTEMPT

Several weeks prior, a dance party was supposed to take place at midnight in the Little 5 Points plaza. The event was called off when organizers realized police had already encircled the entire neighborhood, and had spread rumors to business owners that “ANTIFA” were coming to burn down all of the bohemian shops.

On September 26th, a protest of around 120 people, nearly all wearing black, met at Freedom Park in Little 5 Points. This crowd marched immediately to the Little 5 Points mini-precinct, which had temporarily covered it’s sign with a piece of paper to obscure its true operations. Sparing the precinct, the crowd continued to march into Inman Park, cheering the individuals smashing ATMs and doing graffiti, and receiving applause from the overwhelmingly white restaurant patrons on North Highland. Just a few blocks west of the restaurants, on the bridge passing over the Beltline, dozens of officers charged into the crowd from their cars, which flanked the crowd on the bridge, arresting everyone they could. Had protesters observed the advice of activists operating a police scanner Twitter, they would have known that this is exactly what the police hoped for. Had protesters stopped at the first parked police vehicle, instead of advancing parallel to a line of 7 or 8 of them, they could have provoked officers into tear gassing the crowd in full view of the hundreds of wealthy bystanders cheering them on. This alone could have opened a new sequence of revolt in Atlanta, it seems. Having missed this opportunity, the situation has reached a stalemate.

THE RETURN OF POLITICS IS THE DEATH OF THE MOVEMENT

“For millions of people, life itself depends on the speediest possible demolition of this history, even if it means levelling, or the destruction of its heirs. And whatever this history may have given to the subjugated is of absolutely no value, since they have never been free to reject it; they will never even be able to asses it until they are free to take from it what they need, and to add to history the monumental fact of their presence.”

– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

The situation still teeters on the edge. The edge of what? Of civil war, of insurrection, of a constitutional crisis? The collapse of an age? It seems like an entire world is burning up, in flames of rebellion and climate decay alike. There’s no guarantee about the future, except for what force we can bring to bear on the situation ourselves. Nearly a thousand people are dying of COVID-19 every day in this country. As the Senate hesitates to pass another stimulus package, nearly half of all US renters are on the cusp of eviction. Students and teachers have been forced to return to dangerous in-class schedules. On television, the President gives a nod to the Proud Boys, while his opponent says he “supports the police,” when asked if he supports Black Lives Matter.

Will the next sequence of rebellion emerge from the prisons or camps, from renters or those forced from their ancestral homes? Perhaps it will be students and teachers, taking joint action to defend themselves from a highly contagious disease? It could be regular people, joining in the streets to oppose far right extremists, or to respond to the failure of the courts to convict killer cops. It could be a confusing array of forces, acting in an uncomfortable alliance to oppose a Constitutional Crisis initiated by Trumpist forces within the state, on election day or in the following months. It’s almost useless to calculate the likelihood that unrest will continue, or to waste precious time modeling the future in order to more clearly glimpse into the uncertainties of the mass disaffection under way. What’s important is to give up waiting, to give up politics. Prepare yourself, prepare your team, prepare your neighbors, to bring the situation to a higher level of tranquil ungovernability. Give yourself the means to win, whether that’s food and health autonomy, a rapid response network, a bulletproof vest, or a stack of cash. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but there are certainties for us that we can move on immediately.

  • Study the revolt. What methods did people use most effectively, and why didn’t other methods catch on? Could discarded attempts spread at a later date, or should they be put aside? Where did people fail to initiate riots in June, and why? What limits did the revolt encounter that it was unable to overcome, or perhaps even unable to recognize? Get together with your roommate or a small group to discuss these and other pressing questions, as you see them. Develop measurable and actionable hypotheses for you and your team.
  • Prepare the world. Be accountable to the entire world, not just to your own community. Wherever you are in real life, ask questions. More than 20 million people participated in protests this June and July, and they all have a unique experience. The way forward is hidden in small fragments within each of those experiences. Nurture every section of the movement (even the people you don’t know) with ideas, attention, resourcefulness, financial aid, and whatever else is needed. Build networks, squash beefs, skill up. Cultivate a combustible and resilient environment.
  • Be ready to move. When the moment comes, don’t hesitate. Hesitation is as contagious as courage, but twice as lethal.

REST IN PEACE
GEORGE FLOYD
BREONNA TAYLOR
SARAH GROSSMAN
DAVID MCATEE
RAYSHARD BROOKS
SEAN MONTEROSSA
LUWATOYIN SALAU
GARRETT FOSTER
JOSEPH ROSENBAUM
ANTHONY HUBER
MICHAEL REINOEHL
+ and all of those who died fighting for Black lives.

Rest in peace little Secoreia Turner, 8 years old; this world is not good enough for you.

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