Longtime Atlanta protester targets Walmart and more

By Ben Smith

Photo of sign protesting Walmart at Suburban Plaza.

Good Growth DeKalb remains adamant about keeping Walmart out of Suburban Plaza.

Even though Walmart will likely take over Suburban Plaza shopping center in Decatur, Brian Sherman still isn’t giving up.

As motorists rushed home under advancing storm clouds late last week, Sherman stood among a couple of dozen placard-waving Good Growth DeKalb protesters insisting Walmart can still be stopped.

Their unflagging commitment intrigued me because this intersection is part of my daily drive. I stopped at their protest, feeling cynical in the wake of news that the Atlanta Braves will move to Cobb County. Why should we regular people bother to stand up to power?

Why continue to fight Big Money, the Power, the Man, or whatever you call It when It always seems to get Its way? That was my question to Sherman, who at 70 has been fighting the fight since the 1960s.

“Because,” said Sherman rather defiantly, “We eventually win.”

Walmart and more

Photo of Brian Sherman, longtime activist.

Brian Sherman.

It was hard to see that from the six-way intersection of North Decatur and Medlock Roads and Lawrenceville Highway. On Halloween, a judge ruled the Walmart building permit was valid. Barring an appeal by Good Growth DeKalb, Suburban Plaza shopping center will be razed and the big box retail superstore will rise in its place.

That likelihood did not faze Sherman. The 70-year-old retired sociology professor seemed in it for the long haul, the really long haul. To him, the fight seemed not just about stopping this development, though the Decatur resident hopes he and his neighbors are successful.

For this lifelong lefty activist, it’s about forcing the company—which has been accused of paying its workers such low wages they have to go on public assistance, practicing predatory pricing, running smaller competitors out of business and bribing foreign officials —to change its ways, radically. However long it takes is almost beside the point.

Sherman’s an equal-opportunity activist. The host of WRFG-FM (Radio Free Georgia 89.3) “Radio Free Activists” on Monday afternoons attends protests all the time.

“I do an anti-war protest every Friday. I believe the more we protest, the less likely this nation will get involved in military actions abroad,” said Sherman, who started challenging authority as a Cornell student in the late 1950s after enduring an involuntary year of ROTC. “[Stopping war] will take a long time. Not in my lifetime.”

For Sherman, who hails from Brooklyn, taking to the streets has been a lifelong passion. He grew up near Ebbets Field before the Dodgers bolted for greener paper pastures in Los Angeles. Asked for an opinion on the Braves impending trek for the suburbs for the same reason, Sherman demurred. Professional sports, he said, was corrupted a long time ago.

Sherman said he was first drawn to the spontaneous street movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In 1968, while coming home from a Doors concert, Sherman recalled arriving to see Grand Central Station in chaos after baton-wielding police had started cracking heads and arresting demonstrators attending a “Yip-In,” an event that had begun peacefully.  Sherman said he immediately joined the rally as it moved outside and onto Fifth Avenue.

Good Growth DeKalb has held protests against Walmart at the intersection of North Decatur Road and Lawrenceville Highway.

Good Growth DeKalb has held protests against Walmart at the intersection of North Decatur Road and Lawrenceville Highway.

When the financial crisis that nearly bankrupted New York City cost him his academic job (and produced the famous Daily News headline, “[President] Ford to City: Drop Dead”), Sherman moved south. In Georgia, Sherman taught at Oglethorpe University and later at Albany State University before retiring in 2003. Sherman said he also worked on voting rights issues.

Next protest just ahead

At WRFG, Sherman’s Monday noon show is part of the station’s daily “Progressive News Hour,” which broadcasts to a tiny island of like-minded listeners in a red state sea of conservatism. According to the WRFG website, Radio Free Activists provides “coverage of political and cultural actions in the metro Atlanta region with emphasis on making connections to world situations,” and “features interviews of anti-war and other activists.”

“Change doesn’t happen unless people are in the streets, whether it’s civil rights, workers’ rights or economic justice,” Sherman said. “We stopped a war in Vietnam. It was a losing war.”

Photo of Grace Campbell, a protester with Good Growth DeKalb, opposing Walmart expanding into Suburban Plaza in Decatur.

Grace Campbell (right) protests with Good Growth DeKalb against Walmart expanding into Suburban Plaza in Decatur.

For example, Sherman said he believes opponents of Monsanto are close to winning the battle against the corporation, the genetically engineered food it produces and its monopolistic practices.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with this fight [with Walmart]. We might win some concessions,” said Sherman. “It’s a long struggle to fight against the behemoth of Walmart and curb their abuses with wages and economic practices.”

“Maybe not in my lifetime,” said Sherman, echoing his commitment to keep the fight going.

He had to end the interview because his next protest was looming. He had to go to the state Capitol for a candlelight vigil for uninsured people who have died because of the decision by Georgia leaders to block Medicaid expansion, he and others believe.

As I hung up the phone I recalled the summation scene from, “The Verdict,” in which Paul  Newman plays a plaintiff’s attorney in a seemingly hopeless wrongful death case.

“You know, so much of the time we’re lost,” Newman tells the jury. “We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless.’  We become tired of hearing people lie. After a time we become dead. A little dead. We start thinking of ourselves as victims. And we become victims. And we become weak, and doubt ourselves, and doubt our  institutions, and doubt our beliefs…..”

Newman ends up concluding, “If we would have faith in justice we must only believe in ourselves, and act with justice.”

For most of my adult life, it was my professional obligation to sit on the sidelines of big public arguments. Now I’m freer to speak my mind, but I find myself mostly complaining about the state of the world. Meeting Brian Sherman, I find myself challenged: Am I willing to fight seemingly hopeless and endless battles for the causes I believe most passionately about, for victories I will never see?

Are you?

Ben Smith can be reached at benzmyth@gmail.com

About Ben Smith

Columnist Ben Smith is filling in for his wife, Michelle Hiskey, as she takes a break from this column to finish writing her memoir, "Trophy Girl." He is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.
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1 comments
JEC
JEC

Thanks Ben for the well written article.  I live in the area and most of the articles and comments I see tend to be dismissive of the protestors.  It's nice to read something that gives us more than just platitudes or rhetoric from either camp.