For weeks, I have struggled long and hard about how to verbalize my reaction to our country’s latest sickening string of racial injustices. I’ve started this blog post more than five times before abandoning it because my words felt too weak to wield the weight of the subject matter. I’ve discussed racial injustice before — like about how people today conveniently but erroneously invoke the sainthood of Martin Luther King Jr and about how having close black friends often shapes the way white folks choose to respond to black injustice. But as a proud Atlantan, I wanted to take a few moments to share my thought process on the protests and riots that have recently taken place in my city.
Over the past weekend, there were several protests that got out of hand in our city — starting downtown, a mere few blocks away from the home of our beloved civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Of course, these have sprouted up across the country, and are likely to continue — but there’s something particularly painful about witnessing a series of chaotic riots taking place in the very heart and birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. So far, I’ve seen two primary reactions from my networks on social media:
1) How could this happen in Atlanta? We’re better than this! We’ve enjoyed a long legacy of nonviolent protests, and this is NOT the way to bring out change for this cause. AND 2) I do not condone the violence, looting or vandalism — but I can empathize with the unimaginable grief, frustration and helplessness which has provoked it. First of all, let’s set aside the opportunists who are taking advantage of the situation for their own gain, along with the young and restless hooligans looking to cause trouble and all those who drove in from other states as part of some larger concerted effort to create division for other unrelated causes. Most of us would agree that these folks deserve disapproval.
Instead, for the moment and for the sake of argument, let’s focus on everyone who has participated in the peaceful protest which turned into ugly riots. Let’s talk about the masses who have gathered together in the streets to express their shared sense of outrage over the ongoing racial injustice in our nation. And instead of simply expressing our disappointment, what if we took a moment to consider that if this is happening even in Atlanta, a city which has long been seen as a safe haven by the black community, maybe we should all think twice before we blindly criticize or condemn these protests as out of proportion or unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.
Sure, we could view the whole ordeal as an unfortunate departure from the “otherwise acceptable” cries for justice over the past few years and point out how these riots are unprecedented given the recent decades of our city’s history. But what if, instead, we viewed it as part of the letter our city is writing to itself — in context with the larger narrative of our nation’s history. Maybe we should observe this phenomena as something we must take very seriously and carefully consider at a much deeper level. The violence of these riots should primarily evoke our empathy, long before — and far more — than it ever provokes our censure.
Instead of looking at the rioters in Atlanta and asking, “how could THEY be doing this?” maybe we should ask ourselves, “how could WE have let it come to this?” Because as long as we see these protests through the negative lens of “us” versus “them”, we will never gather together to become a united force for positive change. Reformations are messy, but they will only be more messy and prolonged if we fail to address the 95 (thousand) grievances which are being nailed to the door of our city and our nation.
King observed that the greatest danger to black justice in our country was not the KKK but the “white moderates” who say, “I agree with your goal but disagree with your methods,” regardless of what that method is. These are white men and women who will pay lip service to the cause of justice but who never actually put their “skin in the game,” which a choice that black folks never had. Anyone who is more interested in peacekeeping than peacemaking — those who don’t want justice at the expense of “peace” — which is really nothing more than a courteous respect for the status quo.
He also noted that riots were “the voice of the unheard,” and followed up with the question: “What is it that America has failed to hear?” The fact is, these unruly protests have hung a huge neon-lit sign over our nation which reads: “How have we failed to listen — or what is it that we have failed to hear from the black citizens of our country?” Because the uncomfortable truth is that black voices, black needs and black deaths have not been (truly) taken seriously by the majority culture in American society. And this, of course, is the spirit of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick — and these riots reflect the heartsickness of countless deferred hopes for black justice. And when these recent protests are added to the annals of our nation’s history, they will be presented in the context of a much larger narrative. In the history books written decades from now, today’s protests will be seen in light of everything that has taken place in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The fight for equality, freedom and justice has been a dark and painful process for black citizens and all those who have stood with them throughout the years.
As for Atlanta, it became known as “the city too busy to hate” — a kind of marketing slogan used by Mayor Ivan Allen in the 60’s to promote the city as a welcome haven for business-oriented, forward-thinking citizens — for blacks and whites alike. It was a jubilant declaration that the city had moved beyond the racial tensions of its past to embrace a flourishing future. But the motto also drew criticism from those who claimed it was just a smokescreen — a clever way to avoid addressing the real roots of racism in the city, citing that a more accurate version of the motto was “the city too busy to care.”
Regardless of its past accuracy or utility, however, I believe this motto has outlived its usefulness for our city. For while Atlanta’s “busyness” may have eased our conflicts in the past, it will require far more than the busyness of our commerce or recreation to bring about any true and lasting justice in the future. As MLK said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Neither does the absence of hate signify the presence of love. Because the fact of the matter is that if our city remains “too busy to hate,” then we will also find ourselves too busy to love.
At the end of the day, the real enemy of empathy is not antipathy, but apathy. In other words, the main obstacle to cultivating a heartfelt love for black lives and their livelihood is not our hatred, but our indifference. Furthermore, as our hearts grow in compassion for the black community, the more we will begin to hate any and all forms of injustice that are perpetrated against them. And only when we are determined to “get busy” with the hard work of racial reconciliation at the expense of a temporary tranquility — only then will we ever get to enjoy the long-term rewards of a hard-earned peace.
And so while we may be tempted to despair at the sight of ostensibly hate-filled protests, these shocking displays of powerful passion tell a story about a people who care about their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this country — just like every other American. What the black community wants, what they have always wanted, is simply to enjoy the same measure of freedom to live without fear as the white community has enjoyed for centuries — nothing more and nothing less.
The history of our city, just like our country, is FAR from perfect, but it is OUR history — and more importantly, it will be OUR shared future. Both Atlanta and America will only experience true liberty and justice when it is equally available and fully extended to all of its citizens. And we MUST begin by whole-heartedly embracing the grief of the black community, and everything in their painful past and present which has caused it. And then after that, y’all, we best get ready — cause’ we’ve got some work to do. 💪❤️💪
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.