By Monica Johnson
The following is based upon a talk given by Monica Johnson, a Party for Socialism and Liberation activist in Atlanta, on a PSL national webinar June 18. She addressed community response to the police murder of Rayshard Brooks. This 27-year-old African-American man was shot twice in the back and killed by police in Atlanta on June 12. His “crime” was that he had fallen asleep in his car while parked in the drive-through line in Wendy’s.
It is so inspiring to be able to witness the people rising up right now in the face of violence from the police, while we celebrate freedom from slavery at Juneteenth.
Hearing the news of Rayshard Brook’s death was jarring and painful.
It was a shock to the system to see footage of cops killing a man in the midst of unending protests against the very same phenomenon that killed George Floyd. It goes to show that this system will not go down without a fight, and we’ve only just begun.
A testament to that intrinsic understanding of what it will require to smash that system was in full effect right after Rayshard’s unjust killing. Activists and community members showed up at the scene of the murder within an hour of the event; a shifting cast of people taking up the task of holding the space for the entire day after.
Subjected to police terror from birth
When I woke up and made my way up the street to the Wendy’s at 11 am, people were already united in the decision to keep Wendy’s from having any business that day. Folks needed no guidance to decide to initially block cars from entering the Wendy’s, and eventually blocking the whole street.
The people know who their oppressors are. As time progressed, more community members showed up, expressing how hurtful Rayshard Brooks’s murder was because it was another manifestation of the police terror they had experienced from birth.
They talked about Atlanta’s Red Dogs, a depraved invention of the Atlanta Police Department. This tactical unit terrorized working-class communities for 30 years. The unit went into communities and picked fights, trying to provoke young men into reacting so they could arrest them on trumped up charges. Community members detailed how they had been targeted and bullied from childhood. They even mentioned how the system sets them up for failure; forcing them to grow up on welfare and punishing them for their efforts to fill in the gaps in resources that the government leaves.
APD has a practice of sending Black officers to play “good cop” whenever people are protesting. On that day, it had no effect on the righteous anger of the people. As soon as the Black cops arrived, they were berated for showing up to stand against a demonstration of militant love and solidarity with our people.
All day, people asked the cops, “Who do you protect, who do you serve?” and we knew the answer was the ruling class. In Atlanta, we have a Black face in the mayor’s office and had a woman who claimed to be progressive as the police chief, but it didn’t result in change or a better deal for working class folks. While it may fool people outside of the city or outside of the struggle, those affected know that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has not made a positive difference in their material conditions.
Black people are still being pushed out of their homes and living on the street. It’s still much easier to find a convenience store in a Black neighborhood than a grocery, and essentials like deodorant are still locked up behind anti-theft screens in the grocery stores, making buying it a humiliating experience.
Georgia is supposedly “leading the way” in reopening from movement limitations due to the coronavirus, but my bus route is still completely out of service, leaving me and other carless folks with no economical way to get around. The mayor even had the gall to defend that Wendy’s as a place you could get a salad, somehow mitigating the food desert problem.
She certainly doesn’t serve us with rhetoric like that.
Protests continue into the night
The people kept the energy up for hours out there in the hot sun. We split our membership between a couple other events/marches throughout the day, and when the big march downtown was ending, our members led hundreds of people over two miles down to where we had been holding the Wendy’s. Several people remarked that they had not been to a more organized march in Atlanta and continued to look to us for guidance through other spontaneous developments throughout the night. Our numbers were not large down by the Wendy’s for much of the day, so watching hundreds of people arrive with militant chants cutting through the air reinvigorated the action.
The pigs threw tear gas at the crowd, but because we were unified, and we had warned people to be wary of following the police away from the center of the intersection we were holding, no one was directly hit or badly injured.
As the evening progressed, that unification gave the group the numbers and power to take the highway and stop traffic on the major north/south thoroughfare, although attempts had been made earlier in the day.
Media puts property above Black lives
The media has focused on the subsequent destruction of the Wendy’s as evidence that this movement is violent and therefore, invalid. But that Wendy’s was destroyed because of the righteous anger of the people.
Rayshard Brooks’s death was not just an issue of police terror, but also of the culture that says anyone who is not a direct source of profit has no right to exist near businesses in our own communities. The destruction of the Wendy’s is nothing compared to the loss of Rayshard Brook’s life. In the word of revolutionary Che Guevara, “The life of a single human being is worth millions of times more than all the property of the richest man on earth.”
Here in Atlanta, we are going to continue to be out in the streets demanding justice for all victims of police murder and brutality.