On a Sunday afternoon, after a sedate morning worship gathering, I took a hand-lettered sign and boarded the train to join whatever marchers might be gathering in downtown Atlanta after the latest spate of gun violence and national hurt. I found a crowd assembling in Woodruff Park at the foot of the avenue that leads to Martin Luther King’s birth home and the renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church.
News choppers clattered overhead as one woman, glancing skyward, said, “I hope you have a full tank of gas.” Blue lights flashed in the fading light. Activists handed out leaflets highlighting grievances from neglect of the disabled to the occupation of Palestine. Others with clipboards touted voter registration. A guy with a bullhorn announced a number to call in case of arrest. Moms with strollers, mainstreamers, floridly inked alternatives and students from Georgia Tech and Emory jostled alongside serious anarchists. A few protesters drifted by to say they appreciated the sign I held aloft.
Behind each persona, sign and slogan, there was certainly a story that led to this street corner. Childhood lived in the gale of deprivation, loneliness or conflict. Or of being near-neighbor to the suffering of others. Elusive opportunity that had some insistent, not-so-secret logic. Unwillingness to swallow hard and trudge on any longer after the sinister images from Chicago, Baton Rouge and the “civility” of St. Paul.
Movement leaders began to ply us with protest rhetoric, scorn and insults reserved for the city fathers and the police. Suddenly the intersection was engulfed in smoke as a roar rose above the heads of pedestrians and the din of traffic. A posse of sympathetic motorcyclists and ATV riders were doing doughnuts under the traffic lights, some of them standing on their seats and gesturing wildly, others delighting the crowd with death-defying wheelies. Firecrackers peppered the maelstrom.
Then the march set out, in defiance of police, mayor and the likes of former mayor Andrew Young, coursing down the city streets, occupying intersections with chants and slogans, dancing and rapping beneath the stony gaze of Atlanta’s historic heroes.
The people’s power is the power that wins,
’Cause the people’s power don’t stop.
It is our duty to fight.
It is our duty to win.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
An age-long struggle
For hours we traced the canyon byways to the staccato of drums, occasionally passing police who kept a wise distance to avert clashes but who could not dodge the insults and fury of the angriest marchers.
Footsore and thirsty, I took leave and finally peeled away from the crowd as we passed a train station and rode home in air-conditioned silence as I sorted through the rush of questions and impressions:
- What is the place of a white Christian in the age-long struggle by people of color to find equity and peace in a society like ours? If we believe the first rule of peacemaking is standing with the oppressed, how do we express that solidarity?
- What does it mean to join a crowd of protesters holding differing views and manifesting varied responses but who all have a shared concern? Should I have tried to restrain the anarchists exuberantly flipping the bird to the police? Would a surprise hug have eased alienation run amok? What about vandalism, stone-throwing and edgy slogans?
- Beyond the messy march through the streets, will it lead to some dialogue to bridge the divide now gaping with enmity and recrimination? Andrew Young called the marchers “unloveable brats.” And the anger of the mayor and commissioners was palpable, especially after the marchers shut down the interstate. Movement leaders sneered at the mayor and his sidemen as “sell-outs.” There were only grudging signs that anyone was ready to sit down and talk.
‘We count for nothing’
Later, I was part of a conversation about these things with street folk who come to a weekly lunch. I gave a brief account of my experience at the march. One outspoken African-American friend, “DeRay,” responded in a harrowing way:
“I wouldn’t even cross the street to join you in your march. To me, it’s just regular folks fighting with regular folks. Nobody on either side of this thing cares for my community, who walk the streets and sleep in the bushes. Y’all have your jobs, your homes, your families, your education, but we got nothing. The leaders we’ve elected, our mayor, even John Lewis in Congress, make no difference at all when it comes to our trouble. Maybe it would be better if you regular folks just knock each other off — then we’d drive your cars and find something to eat from your fridges.
“Not too long ago, one of our homeless guys was murdered. On the sidewalk wrapped in a blanket. Shot point blank. But nothing happened. The police took little notice. No one marched. Next to nothing in the newspapers or TV. Until the murderer shot a white woman. Then the police were all over it. We count for nothing with any of y’all. King is dead. Burns me up.”
It was a long ride home from lunch with DeRay. Here’s what’s inescapable: There’s work to do.
Jonathan Larson, with his family, has wandered Asia, North America, Europe and Africa in service and witness, garnering a reputation as storyteller and minister. He and Mary Kay now live in Atlanta as he speaks, leads retreats and writes.