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Marchers envelop Atlanta’s streets until they are blocked out of state’s ‘Liberty’ Plaza

Liberty Plaza

State patrol officer does not allow marchers inside Liberty Plaza - saying he is following orders (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta is a city known for peaceful protests and a commitment to civil and human rights.

As evidence of Atlanta’s legacy, Saturday’s March for Social Justice and Women attracted more than 63,000 people to walk from the Center for Civil and Human Rights to the State Capitol.

The peaceful spirit for a more inclusive society was in full force – until the marchers arrived at the State Capitol.

That’s when marchers were corralled to walk towards the fenced-off space inaccurately called “Liberty Plaza.” For whatever reason, state patrol officers limited access to Liberty Plaza to just a small portion of the marchers – and that was despite having lots of empty spaces that could have held thousands more.

Liberty Plaza

State patrol officer does not allow marchers inside Liberty Plaza – saying he is following orders (Photo by Maria Saporta)

As a result, people outside the fence could not hear any of the speeches that were meant to comfort and inspire the masses. Many people were upset they couldn’t get in – urging me to write about the lack of liberties they faced when they tried to enter Liberty Plaza.

The state patrol said they were just following orders, but they didn’t disclose who were the people making the decision to limit access to the area that supposedly had been designed for people to gather.

After Saturday’s experience, one fact is abundantly clear – the space the state has set aside for protests and public gatherings does not work for the people.

Admittedly, I have never liked the idea of relegating the people to a space on the back end of the State Capitol – an area that seems designed to push the public to a space that is largely invisible.

(I also don’t like the plan to put a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at Liberty Plaza for the same reason. As one of the greatest leaders to ever come from Georgia, King’s statue belongs on the front grounds of the Capitol – ideally near former President Jimmy Carter).

In the past, marches and protests took place on the front steps of the capitol – where speakers could be heard and seen by thousands. Plus it was a statement: We are marching to the front steps of the State Capitol.

Liberty Plaza

People press up against the fence surrounding Liberty Plaza – trying to hear the speakers (Photo by Maria Saporta)

I remember back in the late 1960s and early 1970s walking to those very steps to advocate for civil liberties and against the Vietnam War. I also remember the State Patrol encircling the Capitol building – on guard in case the crowds got out of hand.

To be fair, no one anticipated that Saturday’s march would attract the turnout it did.

Organizers of the Atlanta march expected that maybe 10,000 people would show up. Then when the Saturday morning thunderstorms were in full force, they decided that even if just several hundred came, it would still be a success.

Instead more than 63,000 people showed up (some estimates were as high as 75,000), and they were united by the sense of a new movement taking hold – one that also was blossoming in cities around the country and the world.

“What happened today was that all races and all genders – including LGBT – came together to stand for change, to stand for democracy and unity,” said Tharon Johnson, a public policy professional with the Greenberg Traurig law firm. “I’m so proud of the organizers, but more importantly I’m proud of the tens of thousands of women and men who showed up in the rain to peacefully protest for equality and for all of mankind. We must continue.”

Liberty Plaza

Thousands of people unable to enter Liberty Plaza during Saturday’s march (Photo by Maria Saporta)

That feeling of optimism was echoed by Stephanie Davis, a longtime Atlanta feminist who helped the organizers secure dignitaries as well as outreach to like-minded organizations.

“It was fabulous, and it was so diverse in every way – in age, in race and in every way except politically,” Davis said. “The organizers were very clear it was not going to be an anti-Trump protest. It was jubilant because people feel empowered when they feel they are not alone.”

They certainly were not alone. “Organizers were overwhelmed by the response,” Davis said. “They were so brave to take it on.”

But both Davis and Johnson had issues with the way Liberty Plaza worked (or should I say didn’t work) for the destination of the march.

“It was disappointing that we had the marchers who walked two miles to Liberty Plaza and they were shut out and not allowed to come in within the Plaza,” Johnson said. “We must change that and make sure it never happens again for people who peacefully want to march and gather to express their voices.”

Liberty Plaza

Large open spaces inside Liberty Plaza defies statement that marchers were being kept out because the space was full (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Davis also said that part of the problem might have been an inadequate sound system, but the space does not create a natural amphitheater or podium so that voice could carry over to a large audience.

“Having it at the state Liberty Plaza restricted us,” said Davis, who would have preferred for the marchers to just take over the steps in the front of the State Capitol. But the Capitol police had blocked off the street leading to the front steps.

By comparison, Davis said the Atlanta police were friendly and supportive to the marchers – obviously having gained experience on how to manage protesters during the Black Lives Matter events that took place last year.

Stacey Abrams, the state’s House minority leader, was one of the speakers at Liberty Plaza. And she pointed to the State Capitol saying it was supposed to be the People’s Capitol. At its best, government is by the people and for the people.

When asked why Liberty Plaza had been closed off to marchers, Abrams said she didn’t know who had made that decision and that she would look into it.

In short, Georgia would be smart to rethink the whole idea and design of Liberty Plaza. Instead of making the public feel unwelcome, Georgia should celebrate the multiple voices and individuals who add a richness to our society, our city and our state.

Liberty Plaza

Hundreds of people – not allowed inside Liberty Plaza – lean up against fence trying to hear speeches (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Liberty Plaza John Lewis

Hands of peace reach out to U.S. Rep. John Lewis – one of the main speakers at Saturday’s march (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Liberty Plaza

These two women’s signs say it all: “The Power of the People is Stronger than the People in Power” and “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance” (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Liberty Plaza

Thousands of people march to Liberty Plaza, but then are not allowed to enter. Many turned around and left (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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  1. Chad Carlson January 23, 2017 9:21 pm

    Having a controlled space is antithetical to the whole idea of “liberty.” Truly Orwellian. It all fits in nicely with this development:
    People need to get as excited about what’s happening at the state and local level as they do at the national level.Report

  2. Bruce Ramsdell January 23, 2017 10:41 pm

    Being corralled into “Liberty Plaza” sounds like a good way to lose your liberty.Report

  3. Scott Morris January 23, 2017 11:19 pm

    Our governor-appointed real estate firm, the Georgia Building Authority, struck out again with that one. The space also has limited hours and a list of rules discouraging daily use. What could be another decent downtown green space goes largely unused most of the time.Report

  4. JosephCourtney January 24, 2017 12:27 am

    The march volunteers and public safety staff I spoke to at the gates all said there was a limit on the number of people who could be inside the enclosure. They only started letting more people in at the back when some people started leaving. It makes sense that you wouldn’t want too many people in a fenced enclosure. I thought it was a poor choice for a place to end the march. If the sound system had been remotely adequate it would have made things much better for the thousands of people outside the fence. (the sound was terrible at the march starting point as well). All in all, it was a rousing success. Just have someone else do the sound next time.Report

  5. Gretchen Wood January 24, 2017 6:04 am

    Has anyone addressed the inadequate sound system in Centennial Park? Only a fraction of the crowd could hear anything.Report

  6. Peachy News January 24, 2017 4:04 pm

    Was thrilled with the good spirit and turnout at the march Saturday – Thank you to all the organizes who did a fantastic job, even if the State was not accommodating – the people who took part rose above the challenges to create one of the greatest events I’ve ever seen in this city. Thank you for covering the happenings with details and accuracy, Maria – I’ve posted a music video with close up scenes of the march to celebrate – Hope you’ll enjoy! Here’s the link https://youtu.be/ouH-eZCzuTgReport

  7. Cityzen January 24, 2017 9:47 pm

    Which local politicians chose to support the 60,000 marchers?  John Lewis, Hank Johnson, Shirley Franklin and Kwanza Hall were there.  Also Vincent Fort?  
    Where were the Mayor and the many council members who are running for mayor or council president?  Tweeting distractions about the Falcons while ignoring their constituents’ expression of solidarity on social justice? 
    Refusing to stand up and be counted in resistance to this appallingly divisive and dangerous President? Especially after Trump denigrated the 5th District – our city-  wasn’t it pretty inexcusable for local pols to hide?
    If any others were out there on Saturday, I trust they’ll say so and be spared this criticism.Report

  8. GlennKurtz January 25, 2017 6:02 am

    For starters, why does Liberty Park have a fence around it.  If it is the people’s park then the fence should go.  Other public spaces (i.e. roads and bridges) do not have fences around them.Report

  9. Burroughston Broch January 26, 2017 11:01 am

    GlennKurtz  Because it is State property with a safe occupancy limit of 3,000 persons, and because the State wisely wants to keep the druggies and homeless out. They head for Hurt Park, except that GSU wants to chase them out from there.Report

  10. Cityzen January 26, 2017 1:55 pm

    I’ve since heard that Cathy Woolard, Vincent Fort and Alex Wan were on the march with us.  Good for them.  

    Where were candidates Mary Norwood, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Peter Aman?  Where was the Mayor and where was Andre Dickens? Was a march for social justice and against Trump values too radical for them?  Why do they prefer to change the subject to the Falcons?Report

  11. SteveHagen January 26, 2017 3:53 pm

    It was a wonderful day of solidarity!!!. It was a shame that so few people we allowed in the “Freedom” plaza  especially after people started to leave.  
    After about two hours in, some were allowed in.      While I saw many Democrat  reps and senators, I saw no Republicans.  Sad…. .Report

  12. mnst January 26, 2017 4:53 pm

    Liberty Plaza is absolutely one of the worst public spaces in the city. It can barely really be called a public space at all, given that every time I drive past it, it’s locked up like a gated subdivision.Report

  13. Burroughston Broch January 26, 2017 5:59 pm

    The Georgia Building Authority was established by Democratic governors in the 1960s.Report

  14. Burroughston Broch January 26, 2017 6:00 pm

    A controlled space like the White House or the Capitol doesn’t please you? It did until about a week ago.Report


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