ATLANTA — Over the past year, racial justice has been at the forefront of newspaper headlines. Countless articles have started with positioning George Floyd’s death as a breaking point for calls for racial justice, the end to police brutality, and defunding the police. However, the evils entrenched in policing did not just enter public consciousness, nor is the advocacy to end its harm toward marginalized communities new.
As activist and organizer Mariame Kaba explains in a New York Times op-ed, policing in the south is rooted in slave patrols from the 1700s and 1800s to return runaway slaves. In the north, police were utilized as a weapon against labor strikes. Police brutality is not new, and the brutality policing often espouses is not only a mere side effect. Throughout history, policing as an institution was created in opposition to the interests of marginalized groups. Kaba goes on to note that much of police’s duties isn’t locking away murderers or saving lives as we’ve been socialized to believe; it’s handing out parking tickets or responding to mental health crises, some tasks which they are not fully trained and equipped for.
As calls to defund the police have grown, some cities have made notable gains. According to Interrupting Criminalization, from May of 2020 to around January 2021, organizers diminished police budgets by over $840 million, reallocated at least $160 million to community initiatives, and removed cops from schools in over 25 cities, including in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Charlottesville.
However, in chronicling Atlanta’s reckoning with a movement to defund the police, much is marred by the continuous efforts to shut down police divestment in favor of reallocating resources toward community empowerment. Below, we’ve outlined the waves of protests, politicians’ demands to defund the police, and continued police empowerment measures through city government that all took place in Atlanta over this past year.
Beginning on Fri., May 29, Black Lives Matter protests proliferated across Atlanta, joining millions across the country. These demonstrations eventually surpassed the length and size of those during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, becoming the largest civil rights demonstrations in U.S. history. Some politicians responded unfavorably toward the protests, such as Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who told protesters in a press conference to “go home.” In response to widespread protests in Atlanta, Bottoms imposed a citywide curfew of 9 p.m.
During one such protest, college students Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young were terrorized by police while driving home, although they themselves were not connected to the protest. Officers broke windows, pulled Pilgrim out of the car, and tased Young, who was hospitalized and arrested. The firings of two out of the six Atlanta Police Department officers involved were later overturned, and both officers received back pay for their time off the job .
As protests continued, 298 protesters were arrested in Atlanta over the last weekend of May. On the night of June 12, 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was killed by APD officer Garrett Rolfe. Rolfe and accompanying officer Devin Brosnan followed a call to a Wendy’s parking lot in Southwest Atlanta where Brooks was asleep in his car. As Brooks attempted to run away, Rolfe shot Brooks twice in the back. Brosnan proceeded to kick his dying body, and neither officers rendered aid or called for an ambulance for more than two minutes. Following his death, Black Lives Matter protests reignited throughout Atlanta. Many protesters faced continued police violence and harassment. Sources on the ground the following night confirmed to Mainline that a group of protesters at Zone 3 in Grant Park were targeted by police deploying teargas and rubber bullets.
On June 15, Atlanta City Council sat down to listen to about 17 hours worth of public comment, with nearly all the callers voicing their support for defunding the police. In fact, following this meeting, council member Jennifer Ide of District 6 proposed legislation titled the Ide Amendment that would withhold around 50% of the APD budget while the city council investigated and urged Mayor Bottoms to create a plan to reform the APD; however, this amendment would not affect salaries or pensions. This amendment initially had 12 sponsors, making it a veto-proof majority. However, several council members later removed their support and names from the legislation. Following this, Councilmembers Ide, Matt Westmoreland, Andre Dickens, Natalyn Archilbong, Amir R. Farokhi, Antonio Brown, and Carla Smith voted in favor of the ordinance. Ultimately, the Atlanta city budget passed with the APD receiving full funding, including a $14 million increase to their budget.
In July, Bottoms vetoed the popular 8 Can’t Wait legislation, a police reform measure. The city council did not overturn the veto even though they initially passed it unanimously.
On Wed., Sept. 23, a grand jury indicted Louisville police officer Brett Hankinson for wanton endangerment, but did not indict for any charges related to Breonna Taylor’s death or indict any of the other officers that were present that night. Protesters voiced their discontent on the streets nationwide and in Atlanta, only to be met with increased police presence and harsh treatment. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund issued a statement saying, “Tonight police used tear gas and plastic bullets on protesters who were doing nothing but standing in the street. They beat and bloodied people for no reason.”
In November, the political tides shifted as Georgia carried Joe Biden in the presidential election. Both U.S. Senate races went to a runoff in which Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff defeated the Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Jan.5. Biden has stated he is opposed to defunding the police. Osoff and Warnock have stated they oppose defunding the police, although Osoff says he supports demilitarizing police and Warnock says he supports re-imagining new ways of policing.
On Wed., Jan. 6, the Capitol siege rocked the U.S. as armed Trump supporters broke into, vandalized, and looted the nation’s Capitol. Some even assaulted police officers or called for the death of politicians as they attempted to locate and capture politicians such as then-Vice President Mike Pence. Over 140 people were injured during the mob storming, and five people were killed amidst the violence.
However, despite advance warnings of a potential attack, officers were instructed not to use aggressive tactics toward the mob and were woefully unprepared or unwilling to act. This stands in stark contrast to the heavy police presence at peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. In tandem, protestors across the nation invaded state capitol buildings to oppose the certification of election results that verified President Biden’s victory. In Atlanta, a group of Trump supporters protested at the Georgia Capitol building, some carrying guns, which led to zero arrests.
The same night, protesters gathered at another location in solidarity of Jacob Blake, who was severely injured in a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisc., in August. News had arrived that the local prosecutor decided to not file charges in the case in which an officer shot Blake seven times point-blank in the back in front of Blake’s children, which has led him to paralyzation. Sources on the ground confirmed to Mainline that at least two protesters were injured by APD the night of their solidarity protests in response to the Blake decision.
In the city council meeting that followed, city council members were flooded again with calls from constituents decrying the grotesque double standard on display in the Atlanta police department, once again demanding police be defunded. Police chief Rodney Bryant was present at the meeting and lied about protesters’ injuries and arrests, saying callers were “misinformed.”
Beyond rejecting calls to defund the police, lawmakers actively amplified efforts to ensure that defunding the police could never come to fruition. Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law in May aimed at blocking defunding the police efforts, which limits the government’s ability to cut police funding by more than 5% a year. Other states such as Texas, Florida, Indiana, and more are considering legislation that would penalize cities for reallocating police budgets toward community initiatives.
Last year, despite hordes of calls from the public urging the city council to defund the police department’s budget, council members approved an increase of the police budget by $14 million. This year, police chief Rodney Bryant proposed a budget of $230 million, a 6% increase from last year’s $215 million budget.
Rolfe, the APD officer who killed Brooks, was reinstated to the police department after the Atlanta Civil Service Review Board granted the termination appeal. The board noted they “reversed the termination of officer Garrett Rolfe only on the basis that they were not done in accordance with the Atlanta City Code.” This means the board did not rule on whether Rolfe’s actions were worthy of dismissal, but rather that the proper procedures had not taken place leading up to his dismissal. He will be placed on administrative leave as APD assesses whether further investigation is needed to determine whether Rolfe violated APD policies.
Even as demands from abolition activists have grown, the protection of policing as an institution has remained steadfast. But racism cannot end until the systems that violently perpetuate it are dismantled. So, in the face of continued extrajudicial killings, abolitionist activists in Atlanta and across the country persist in their raw, impactful advocacy.