Police cars burned in the streets of Atlanta as protesters smashed windows and spray-painted graffiti outside CNN headquarters. Even during the national outcry over police brutality and racial injustice, Chassidy Evans struggled to understand why her hometown, with its legacy of peaceful resistance, had erupted in chaos.
Then her uncle, Rayshard Brooks, was shot in the back by a white Atlanta police officer after fighting a drunken driving arrest and trying to run away. The turbulent protests ignited by the May 25 police killing of another Black man, George Floyd in Minneapolis, had barely simmered down when Brooks was killed last week.
“We stood with the Atlanta Police Department when they were just tearing up our city and said this doesn’t happen here,” Evans said of violent protesters. Speaking through tears at a news conference this week, she added, “It makes you eat your words.”
Brooks’ killing so soon after the fiery demonstrations and Floyd’s death under the knee of a white Minneapolis officer have cast a harsh spotlight on the cracks in Atlanta’s reputation for racial harmony and Black prosperity. Brooks’ death rekindled upheaval in the streets, though it wasn’t as destructive.
Touting itself for decades as “the city too busy to hate,” Atlanta has had an unbroken succession of Black mayors since 1973. African Americans own more than 176,000 businesses in metro Atlanta, according to the Census Bureau, more than any U.S. metropolitan area outside New York. After hiring its first Black officers in 1948, the Atlanta Police Department is now 60% Black, higher even than the city’s Black population of 52%.
But activists and academics say those decades of progress haven’t bridged a gaping socioeconomic divide in the Black community. Three of four Atlanta residents living in poverty are Black. So are all nine people whose deaths by police have been prosecuted since 1997.
“There are a lot of African Americans that are doing well, but there’s a large number of them that are not,” said Gerald Griggs, an Atlanta activist, attorney and a vice president of the city’s NAACP chapter. “That’s part of why you’re seeing this unrest, because they’ve been neglected for 40 years.”
Atlanta faced a defining moment in 1968 when native son Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots flared across the U.S., and thousands of National Guard troops mobilized to restore order in cities. Atlanta refrained from violence, and crowds quietly lined the streets the day of King’s funeral to glimpse the mule-driven cart pulling his casket — a reaction that helped build the city’s legacy of nonviolent resistance.
Five years later, Maynard Jackson was elected Atlanta’s first Black mayor and was credited with affirmative action policies that gave Black-owned companies a greater share of city contracts. Jackson also pledged to prosecute police officers for acts of brutality.
But racial tensions persisted for decades as Atlanta grew its economy — and its national profile — often with few direct benefits to poorer Black residents, said Maurice Hobson, a Georgia State University historian and author of a book on race in Atlanta called “The Legend of the Black Mecca.”
Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, which opened in 1965 and became home to baseball’s Atlanta Braves, encroached on Black neighborhoods. Decades later, the facility was razed to build an Olympic stadium for the 1996 summer games, prompting a real estate rush by white-owned businesses and a crackdown on crime before Atlanta was thrust into the international spotlight.
King’s legacy was often evoked in promoting cooperation between the city’s Black leaders and white business establishment, Hobson said.
“Because this is King’s hometown and civil rights people live here, they have whitewashed the experience of the Black masses and made it about the middle class,” Hobson said.
He also noted that violent protests have rocked Atlanta at least six times since the mid-1960s. Protesters smashed store windows and hurled rocks and bottles in 1992 after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Angry demonstrators faced off with police in 2006 after plainclothes officers serving a warrant busted into the Atlanta home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnson and fatally shot her when she fired a gun at them. Three officers received federal prison sentences.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard says his office has prosecuted officers in nine homicides since he took office in 1997. All the victims were Black.
In the days since Brooks was killed, Howard has announced murder charges against the officer who opened fire and Police Chief Erika Shields has resigned. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has ordered new policies to limit officers’ use of deadly force, while City Council members proposed greater police oversight.
“Keisha Lance Bottoms and Paul Howard in particular want to appear to be responsive by acting very quickly and not hiding behind a protracted investigation period,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
Bottoms, elected in 2017, has been closely watched as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Howard faces a primary runoff election Aug. 11.
Atlanta’s recent upheaval over racial injustice hasn’t spared Black businesses.
After Chanel Hawk watched police cars burning on the news May 29, she learned early the next day that someone had thrown a brick through the window of her consignment boutique.
By the time Hawk reached the shop she’s owned for six years, most of the designer clothing, shoes and handbags had been stolen. So was the cash register with $100 inside.
“I understand they’re mad and they’re frustrated and all that,” said Hawk, who estimates she lost $100,000 in merchandise alone. “But this is a Black-owned business, and they know it’s a Black-owned business. That’s what made me mad.”
She’s among more than a dozen owners seeking help from Atlanta Black Owned Business Relief, a group started after the protests. The group has raised more than $200,000 to help with damage and is aiming for $500,000, co-founder Khadeeja Rayner said.
“I’m not putting down anybody who looted,” Rayner said. “People felt like, ‘I’m going to do what I have to do. They’re killing us anyway.’”
Meanwhile, Atlanta is preparing for Brooks’ funeral Tuesday. Actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry, an embodiment of Black prosperity in Atlanta, is helping pay the bill.
The service will be held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached and more than 1,000 mourned his death five decades ago.