By Maria Saporta
Just as every generation must learn the art of civil disobedience, Atlanta’s ongoing role as the center of higher learning in civil and human rights is as vital as ever.
That inescapable fact hit home after the protests – both nationally and locally – that followed the Ferguson, Mo. case when a Grand Jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, over the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
After a press briefing on the day before Thanksgiving, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Police Chief George Turner proudly accepted the mantel that their city had a special place in history – a responsibility to be a beacon to show how to fight an injustice strategically and nonviolently.
A good barometer, Reed said, was: “What would Martin Luther King Jr. do?”
Chances are that most of the young people protesting the Ferguson ruling before Thanksgiving were born at least 20 years after King had been assassinated in 1968.
Doug Shipman, CEO of the Atlanta-based Center for Civil and Human Rights – which opened earlier this year, has repeatedly reinforced that 75 percent of the current U.S. population did not personally experience the civil rights movement.
All the more reason why Atlanta’s role as the living learning laboratory is as essential as ever.
As we found out with the Ferguson protest, as we found out with the Rodney King riots in 1992, and as I’m sure we’ll find out with a future national racial crisis, every generation needs to rediscover and recommit itself to the valuable teachings that have built the foundation of Atlanta’s soul.
It’s a lesson that Atlanta, if we remain true and focused to our core values, has shared and can continue to share with the rest of the nation and the world.
The Ferguson protests and the Rodney King riots provide distinct comparisons and contrasts for Atlanta.
From the Race Riots of 1906 to the Rodney King riots of 1992 (sparked by a national outcry to a Los Angeles case of police brutality against a black man where the officers were barely punished), Atlanta amazingly had managed to contain much of its racial tension to nonviolent protests and conflict resolution.
But on April 30, 1992, that all changed. Swarms of angry blacks stormed downtown streets vandalizing storefronts, street furniture and worse. They were angry – looking to attack white people for the injustice they felt.
Here is a radio commentary I recently shared with Jim Burress of WABE about my thoughts of the Rodney King riots in Atlanta.
I was walking from the Georgia-Pacific building, where I had been interviewing a business leader, to return to my desk at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The streets were eerily quiet and empty.
When I was less than two blocks away, all of a sudden a man running my way started yelling at me, saying: “Watch out. We’re killing crackers.”
I could hear the faint sounds of an out-of-control crowd. Another man told me to head the other way. When I told him I was headed to the newspaper and was almost there, he accompanied me to make sure I would be safe.
The next several hours were a nightmare for all of us who had grown up believing Atlanta was immune from the racial violence that had plagued so many other cities. More than 40 people were injured – including many journalists and photojournalists trying to cover the riots. Whites were targets – regardless of their political leanings.
My children were at the Downtown Child Development Center at the old Rich’s Store for Homes – which like the newspaper – was ground zero for the riots. We were barricaded – separated from each other – not knowing how we would be reunited.
The damage to property totaled more than $1 million, but the toll on city’s soul was much greater. We were preparing to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games – an event we had won largely on our reputation of being a city of racial harmony and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.
Now business and civic leaders had to face the hard truth that Atlanta could not rest on the laurels of its proud past but had to constantly nurture its relationships with people of all races and income groups.
Chief Turner remembered the 1992 riots and how unprepared the community was for that kind of violent outburst.
“We had buildings burn. We had patrol cars burn,” Turner said. “We had officers who were injured.”
By comparison, Turner said the police worked with leaders on the Atlanta University Campus, the faith community and organizers to prepare for protests. Those relationships paid off in the way that the police department deployed its resources during the protests, Turner said.
“This was not anything like Rodney King,” Mayor Reed said.
Both Reed and Turner readily admitted that Atlanta has a lot at stake in how it treats protesters and demonstrations.
It is not only a question of what would Dr. Martin Luther King do? It is also a question of what Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. do. Or what would Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff do? Or what would Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays do?
Several times during the press conference, Reed brought up the word “optics.” He talked about how important it was to not create “images that are inconsistent with who we are” – presumably images of a brutal police force that does not tolerate civil protest.
“We want people to demonstrate peacefully in our city. We would like to encourage journalists to cover the situation,” Turner said. “We have a tremendous history in our city with the different place we were in with the civil rights movement. We allow people to continue to demonstrate .”
Turner said his officers have been trained to be diligent and respectful when it comes to demonstrations.
Asked if the Ferguson incident could have happened in Atlanta, Reed said that “Ferguson could happen anywhere” because it involved one individual and one teenager.
But what would be different in Atlanta would be how information would flow after the incident. As Atlanta’s mayor, he would be transparent, and even if he resisted, “there are too many women and men who have shed blood and tears” – Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery….who would not tolerate a lack of transparency in the city.
Then the mayor showed the delicate balancing act he has been walking.
“Optics were a consideration, but safety was our No. 1 priority,” Reed said. Later he added: “It shows that having a strategy of having a firm but soft hand was the right call.”
For me, it is a reminder of Atlanta’s ongoing responsibility to continue the teachings of civil rights, civil disobedience and nonviolent protest – adapting them for each generation – whether it be for the Rodney King era or for the Ferguson era or for those many conflicts destined to come our way.
Or I can put it another way.
Let’s make sure each generation truly understands the multi-dimensional teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, ongoing human rights struggles – and spends quality time at our one-of-a-kind Center for Civil and Human Rights.