Atlanta Protests Reveal Divides in Bastion of Black Success
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If any city in America could think it was inoculated against the protests that have swept across this country’s urban landscape, it might have been the metropolis of Atlanta.
The onetime Confederate stronghold is not only the place that gave birth to Martin Luther King Jr. and many other notable African Americans, it is also a magnet for younger generations of black people—a land where black lives not only matter but flourish. In addition to hundreds of black-owned restaurants, salons, barbershops, and other small businesses, Atlanta is home to African-American entrepreneurs who are global giants in their industries. One of them, the actor and mogul Tyler Perry, opened a 330-acre studio in the city last year, employing hundreds of people on some days within one of thelargest production facilities in the country.
Here, black descendants of slaves can realize the kind of wealth once reserved for the white aristocracy of the Deep South. And in neighborhoods such as Guilford Forest, young black families live in new subdivisions of sprawling mini-mansions, walking trails, and playgrounds, all within close proximity to the Midtown business district. In the historic arts district known as Castleberry Hill, young, urbane black professionals own lovingly renovated homes, sip cocktails at lounges owned by black celebrities, and stroll the art galleries and shops.
Landmark legislation introduced in the 1970s by the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, opened the way for black-owned businesses to get municipal contracts, and in the ensuing years a cohort of millionaires of a different hue was born. So attractive was the economic opportunity that the city became known by black people across the country as “Hotlanta,” an old Allman Brothers Band song title and a double entendre that not only underscored the city’s sweltering summer temperatures but also designated the city as the place to be for ambitious black Americans. According to U.S. Census data, more than 2 million African Americans live in greater metro Atlanta, and there are more than 7,600 black-owned businesses. Only the New York City area has more black-owned businesses, but it also has twice as many African-American adult residents.
It’s that sense of being special—that black economic prowess—that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms invoked on the night of May 29 in response to protests over the killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died after a police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
The protests in Atlanta had just taken a violent turn, and Bottoms, a rising political star and Atlanta native, appealed to the residents of her city, reminding them of the multitude of black enterprises and the opportunities provided by the city’s strong corporate community. “What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta,” Bottoms said. “We are better than this.” Or, as Michael Santiago Render, an Atlanta-bred rapper known as Killer Mike who joined the mayor at the hastily arrangedpress conference, said: “Atlanta is not perfect, but we are a lot better than we ever were, and we’re a lot better than other cities are.”
Yet for all of the promise that’s come to fruition in Atlanta, there are still many dreams deferred. Even with the city being the headquarters ofCoca-Cola Co.,United Parcel Service, andHome Depot and the home to several renowned medical institutions and top colleges and universities, there are long-festering problems. Stubborn unemployment, low wages, poor housing conditions, and inadequate health care continue to bedevil many African Americans in and around this city—and then thecoronavirus pandemic came to town. “This southeastern part of the U.S. had some of the worst health outcomes in the nation even before the pandemic hit,” says Dr. Sandra Ford, the district health director for the DeKalb County Board of Health. (DeKalb County encompasses part of the city of Atlanta and the greater metro area.) The rate of Covid-19 infections in blacks vs. whites in the region, she says, has been almost 3 to 1.
As viral video spread of yet another black person killed by a white police officer, people who’d just lost their jobs, or were concerned for sick or dying relatives, or were waiting for unemployment payments to arrive—or all of the above—decided there was little left to lose if they took to the streets. Atlanta wasn’t immune to unrest and destruction.
But the mayor, while sharing the protesters’ pain and speaking of her personal concern for the safety of her own children, reminded them that their city had gained so much in recent years and did in fact have much to lose. Just minutes after riotous crowds hadvandalized the CNN Center, a landmark downtown building that’s served as home to one of the city’s most prominent businesses, Bottoms reminded them that they were destroying a symbol of what Atlanta has achieved. “Ted Turner started CNN in Atlanta 40 years ago because he believed in who we are as a city,” she implored the protesters. “They are telling our stories, and you are disgracing their building. Go home!”
On the next evening, as protests continued in the city’s streets, Bottoms and her police chief acted swiftly to fire two of Atlanta’s police officers and suspend four others after they pulled two black college students from a car and used taser guns on them. (Five of the six officers are black, one is white.) Two days later, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, commended Bottoms in an online forum. “I’ve watched you like millions and millions of Americans have on television of late,” he said. “Your passion, your composure, your balance has really been incredible.”
The unrest will subside. Even the most roaring fires are eventually reduced to ashes. Atlanta isn’t paradise, and it’s learned that relative prosperity isno panacea for generations of old and deep social problems. In his days as mayor, Jackson liked to say Atlanta was “too busy to hate.” But this is a city where there is capable leadership, strong opportunity, civic pride, and, most of all, hope. It’s a city that, because of its past, offers a blueprint—a blackprint, if you will—of how economic opportunity and prosperity can become the province of all people.
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