On Wednesday afternoon, an expanding crowd of people gather on a street corner adjacent to the headquarters of the global media giant CNN in Atlanta, the sprawling capital of the United States state of Georgia.
They are there to kick off the city’s sixth day of protests against the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who died after being choked by a white police officer on May 25 in the midwestern city of Minneapolis in Minnesota. He was 46 years old.
The crowd is diverse – young and old, from different economic and ethnic backgrounds. They’re carrying placards bearing phrases like “Fuck the Police” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
National Guard officers stand in front of street barricades, watching the crowd move down the road. A few days before, the Georgia state governor had authorised 1 500 members of the National Guard — a unit of part-time soldiers in the US military — to safeguard the city after protests took a violent turn on May 29. The CNN centre suffered damage when rioters broke glass windows and vandalised the iconic CNN logo.
On May 30, city mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the second black woman to hold the position, made an impassioned televised plea for the rioting to stop. Today, the protestors seem decidedly determined to conduct peaceful rallies.
“I love when we keep it peaceful,” says Quintavious Rhodes. “Keep it family.”
The 21-year-old Atlanta native and single father told the Mail & Guardian that he’s protesting to call for an end to racism so that his one-year-old daughter can live in a better America. He points to the damage at the CNN building and said: “This is not what we stand for. CNN is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Atlanta. We want this to be a safe city.”
The demonstrators carry placards and march past some of the city’s landmarks, sites that I know so well. Atlanta is the city I’ve called home since I was two years old: the World of Coca-Cola museum that highlights the Atlanta roots of the multibillion-dollar beverage corporation; Centennial Olympic Park, a legacy of the 1996 Olympic Games; and the Atlanta University Center, the largest black academic community in the US, where four historically black colleges and universities stand side-by-side. The childhood home where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born is just around the corner.
Celebrated as a “Black Mecca”, Atlanta has long been a cultural, political and economic hub for African-Americans. A rallying site for activists during America’s 1954 – 1968 Civil Rights Movement, that Dr King helped to lead, Atlanta has one of the largest African-American urban populations in the United States (reportedly about 50% of Atlanta’s residents are African-American).
The city surrounding metropolitan area supports a thriving black middle to upper class community, a robust hip-hop music scene and has been home to more than 60 000 black-owned businesses over the years.
That’s precisely why many residents say they feel it imperative to stand in solidarity with African-Americans across the US to fight police brutality. The minority population continues to face racial discrimination, systemic injustice and microaggressions.
“I think we’re finally at the tipping point where we’re gonna be seeing some progress,” David Kruglinski, a high school chemistry teacher who has been living in Atlanta for 22 years, told the M&G. “You see people protesting in London. You see people protesting in New Zealand. The whole world is united on fixing this problem, so I think people just had enough.”
The demonstrators marched northbound, passing by a wall where local artist Dustin Emory is painting Floyd’s face on the brick exterior of a small tattoo shop. They pause to watch him work on the mural and raise their mobile phones to snap photos.
Floyd, who was killed when a Minneapolis officer pinned him down with a knee on his neck while he was handcuffed, died the same day that a white woman in New York City’s Central Park called the police to falsely accuse a black man of threatening her and her dog. He was out bird-watching and had merely asked the woman to follow the park’s rules and put her dog on a leash.
The killing of Floyd is the latest in a series of murders of unarmed black people in the US. In February, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a quiet Georgia suburb when a white father-and-son duo who had been following him shot him. In March, Breonna Taylor, 26, was killed after police officers barged into her home in Louisville, Kentucky in the middle of the night looking for drugs or money. No drugs were found in her home.
The Black Lives Matter network has been at the forefront of the outcry against police brutality. Other predominantly African-American communities have joined the swelling #JusticeforFloyd movement, including those in Detroit, the south-side of Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans and New York City. Though largely peaceful, the rallies have been aggressive at times, with participants and intruders attacking people and police deploying heavy-handed force.
African immigrants and first generation Americans are also reacting to the racially charged police brutality. Minnesota has a large Liberian population and they, too, have joined the protests in Minneapolis alongside Floyd’s family and supporters.
The US-based Nigerian young adult organisation Umu Igbo Unite (founded in Atlanta in 2005) posted a statement on Facebook that said: “We cannot allow ourselves to be ignorant of the plight of our fellow brothers and sisters. We can’t ignore the struggle simply because we may not relate to the situation.” ⠀
It’s a poignant reference to the longstanding cross-cultural gaps between African-Americans and Africans living in America, and the opportunity to overcome them.
The two groups have not always understood nor empathised with each other, though they share similar plights.
As a journalist who has worked in several African countries, I have seen public outrage over trigger-happy police and authoritarian regimes that may marginalise or favour certain ethnic or racial groups.
In my native Nigeria, the controversial police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad has faced public condemnation over a string of extra-judicial killings in recent times.
But the reaction has not been anywhere near as organised, sustained or as widespread as it has been in the US.
The protests currently unfolding across America are being described as unprecedented in recent times, as large numbers of white Americans — many of them chanting “black lives matter” for the very first time — join what has previously been seen mostly as a “black struggle”. The worldwide response is also being seen as a turning point.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has not shown any political will towards confronting police brutality and maintains his stance as a president of “law and order”.
Back at the Atlanta demonstration, the Ebenezer Baptist Church looms over protestors. This is the church where Dr King pastored alongside his father. He preached there for two decades before he was assassinated.
Several days ago, a local Atlanta TV news broadcaster carried an interview with Dr King’s daughter, 57-year-old Dr Bernice King. The popular Atlanta figure was asked what her father would think of today’s protests.
“I know he would be proud of them,” she said.
This article was first published in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.