Why even ‘the Atlanta way’ faces a reckoning on policing

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Atlanta is famous for being the city “too busy to hate.” But “the Atlanta way” is being tested by the shooting of Rayshard Brooks and a wrenching debate on race.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
A protester watches as a Wendy’s in Atlanta burns June 13, 2020, following a rally against racial inequality and the police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

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The arrest of former officer Garrett Rolfe on murder charges for shooting Rayshard Brooks has put Atlanta at the forefront of a wrenching debate over race, class, and the use of deadly force by police.

For Georgia novelist Tina McElroy Ansa, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, the protests have created a discomfort rarely seen in a city that prides itself on racial peace.

“In some ways, Atlanta is not a Southern city, nor a Western city, nor a Northern city, but it reacts in a different way – the ‘too busy to hate’ thing,” says Ms. Ansa. “Atlanta is a different kind of animal, and it defines us. But we have so much to clean out. It’s a huge conversation to have.”

But many residents believe that the debate must go beyond police budgets and policies, to the kind of inequities of opportunity that simmer under the surface even here. In that way, Atlanta, they say, offers a unique starting point for a nation searching for peace.

“This is not about ostracizing police,” says Atlanta native D.J. Jones. “And race can’t be the point of our victimization. There are so many cogs in the system, and the only way we can fix it is people sitting together and learning from each other.”

When Atlanta resident D.J. Jones watches the video of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks, he squints with the eye of someone trained in armed diplomacy.

Mr. Brooks was killed on June 12 after being questioned for over 30 minutes by two white Atlanta police officers after they found him asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru.

At the point of arrest, Mr. Brooks panics, struggles with an officer, grabs a Taser, and flees. He is shot in the back. The officer says, “I got him.”

The escalation seemed contrived to Mr. Jones, a U.S. Army linguist. The way the officer repeated questions seemed calculated to his ear. “I thought, ‘He’s riling him up. He came to this call with an agenda.’”

Mr. Jones’ mission for more than a decade has been spanning the globe from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan as a street diplomat in a civilian suit, doing counterterrorism work by bridging the trust gap between disaffected neighborhoods and the powers that be.

Over the past month he says he has watched his own country – his own city – explode as protests against police brutality have been met with more police brutality.

As a citizen, and a bassist, he joined Juneteenth parties to celebrate the end of slavery. Black Atlantans like himself, he says, “are walking with less fear.”

“This is happening now because American society has focused on fixing surface racism without addressing policing culture,” he says. Protests here and across the U.S. offer, he says, “the last rebuttal of the Confederacy.”

Here in a former Confederate city, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is traversing ground that Black mayors have since taking the reins in the early 1970s. She has signed executive orders to curb use of force and has demanded the firing of at least 10 officers for unprofessionalism, and worse.

The arrest of former officer Garrett Rolfe on murder charges for shooting Mr. Brooks has put Atlanta at the forefront of a wrenching debate over race, class, and the use of deadly force by police.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Army linguist D.J. Jones attends a Juneteenth block party in Atlanta's West End on June 21, 2020, as a civilian. Mr. Jones has done diplomatic counterterrorism work throughout the world, but has found a challenge to democratic norms in his hometown. Atlanta, he says, is in a unique position to address a militarized police culture that he says has contributed to extrajudicial police killings of Black Americans.

But many residents, including Mr. Jones, believe that the debate must go beyond police budgets and policies, to the kind of class divides and inequities of opportunity that simmer under the surface even here in America’s “Black Mecca,” which the city has been referred to since the 1970s.

In that way, Atlanta, they say, offers a unique starting point for a nation searching for peace.

“T.I., the rapper, made a statement that Atlanta is ‘Wakanda,’ the perfect city from ‘Black Panther,’” says Nathaniel Q. Smith Jr., an Atlanta native and founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity. “I push back on that, not because I don’t believe that Atlanta is special for Black people, but because we’re not Wakanda.

“Yes, the protests are about police brutality and a criminal justice system that is inherently racist, but at the end of the day it is because people feel like they are not getting their fair share.”

“The Atlanta way”

The ninth-largest metro in the U.S., Atlanta is the undisputed capital of the South. Its triumvirate of historically Black colleges – Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta – seeds the country with Black intelligentsia. It is a popular destination: Over 600,000 people moved to the metro area – more than the population of the city itself – since 2010, many of them Black Americans seeking a return to the South.

Part of its appeal lies in the “Atlanta way.” First created as part of a marketing campaign in 1923, it joined the Black and white elite in a bid to unify the city around commerce. That comity was on full display in 1968. As riots flared across the U.S. after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis, Atlanta remained calm as his casket was brought home to the historic Old Fourth Ward, where he had preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

In essence, Atlantans decided that in order to rise to prominence “we are going to be that place that articulates a different mindset ... that surface-level racial strife is not good for business,” says Calinda Lee, a historian at the Atlanta History Center.

Ms. Lee recalls as a senior at Spelman College protesting in the wake of the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating – and feeling now, after settling here and raising a family, a sense of weariness that little has changed in nearly 30 years.

“I can still see myself, not only marching in the street and ... organizing rallies, but also saying, how do we channel this?” says Ms. Lee. “Even as these charges are being brought now, I guarantee you that African Americans all over the nation are holding their breath and waiting for the excusing and minimizing. But it is also reminding us that class is a particularly vulnerable reality for African Americans.”

“Atlanta is undergoing a demographic shift that seems to be hastened by class, which can’t be unlinked from race,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “You can have descriptive representation in government, but who is the power behind the power – and is that as diverse as the city?”

Despite a burgeoning Black middle class, the state of Black Atlanta remains precarious. Under the last mayor, Kasim Reed, only a handful of housing initiatives were finished, even as the city partnered with developers and corporations to build amenities for a gentrifying white middle class. Black unemployment was 11.5% compared with 2.7% for white people in 2017, according to the Brookings Institution, and the opportunity gap between tony Buckhead and Bankhead is vast.

Changing demographics and voting patterns in the suburbs, too, complicate the picture, says Dr. Gillespie. Just north of Atlanta, the suburban congressional district once led by Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich is now held by Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath, whose son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in 2012 in a convenience store parking lot by a white man upset by rap music.

“All of these things are building up,” says Dr. Gillespie. “It’s boiling over.”

For Georgia novelist Tina McElroy Ansa, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, the protests have created a discomfort rarely seen in a city that prides itself on racial peace.

“In some ways, Atlanta is not a Southern city, nor a Western city, nor a Northern city, but it reacts in a different way – the ‘too busy to hate’ thing,” says Ms. Ansa, author of “The Hand I Fan With.” “Atlanta is a different kind of animal, and it defines us. But we have so much to clean out. It’s a huge conversation to have.”

The reckoning comes as the country embarks on a fundamental debate about racial progress, even as the White House denies the existence of institutional racism in policing.

Meanwhile, Ms. Bottoms is being floated as a potential vice presidential pick for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, even as she grapples with the same challenges faced by other Democratic mayors of large cities.

“Mayor Bottoms has to broker the views of everybody to bring everybody to a place of consensus,” says Ms. Gillespie. “But residents may not be as willing to compromise – it becomes a dirty word – and it’s what makes ... what these mayors have to do fraught. The rhetoric has potential to be a stumbling block.”

As other cities like Camden, New Jersey, and Minneapolis reshape their police forces, Atlanta began a heavy review of its police budget last week.

Atlanta police had already reformed to a more humanistic approach after a string of debacles in the 1990s and 2000s. For the past four years, until her resignation this month, the city was led by a lesbian police chief in a city that’s one of the most LGBTQ-friendly in the country.

“This doesn’t happen here”

The reforms had been so successful that Mr. Brooks’ niece, Chassidy Evans, shook her head when rioters burned Atlanta police cars after the George Floyd shooting.

“This doesn’t happen here – leave them alone,” she remembers thinking. Days later, her uncle was killed at the hands of police.

But there are challenges, starting with deep disagreement among law enforcement officials about whether Mr. Rolfe was really at fault or was a scapegoat.

“Those types of cases are extremely difficult because we can all point to what the citizen could have done differently, but unfortunately all we can deal with is what did occur – and was it justifiable under the law and policy?” says Samuel Reid, who has conducted police oversight in both Minneapolis and Atlanta.

Already, 19 Atlanta police officers have resigned, many have called in sick to their shifts, and other departments have said they will only respond in Atlanta if there is an “officer down” call.

The greater challenge, those who study American policing say, will be to address broader inequities that have resulted in the militarized “us versus them” culture witnessed as police used tear gas on protesters in 96 U.S. cities over the last month.

“At the next press conference I’d like to see the heads of city departments reporting on what they have done to alleviate the criminogenic factors in the community,” says Robbie Friedmann, founding director of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange and professor emeritus at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “Because if you cut the police budget, you are going to cut into the flesh and bone of the police force and you are going to end up producing less effective police, and it will end up hurting the community that needs those services most.”

But in Atlanta, there is a sense of a power shift. The cops are “basically on strike,” says Mr. Jones as peaceful protests have continued, often taking the form of bonfires and street parties.

Polling shows a dramatic shift among Americans in favor of deeper reforms, a fact reflected by the diversity of protesters gathered at a protest block party at the corner of Peeples Street and Ralph Abernathy Boulevard in the city’s West End, a gentrifying Black neighborhood.

“This is not about ostracizing police,” says Mr. Jones. “And race can’t be the point of our victimization. There are so many cogs in the system, and the only way we can fix it is people sitting together and learning from each other.”

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