US cities become battle zones as anger at racial inequality erupts

George Floyd’s death in police custody was the trigger, but African-American fury has deep roots

Police detain a protester in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday night. Photograph:   Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Police detain a protester in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday night. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

 

As the sun rose on the city of Atlanta, the empty streets contained hints of the devastation that unfolded the night before. 

Burned-out trash cans dotted the pavements. The contents of a tin of paint splattered the street where a police car had been targeted.

As workers pushed out the remaining glass from the shattered windows of a central police station, the broken shards shimmered in the sunlight. Graffiti covered the walls of some buildings; elsewhere, hotels like the Ritz Carlton were boarded up.

Downtown Atlanta was transformed into a battle zone on Saturday night as protesters clashed with police for a second consecutive night.

Like dozens of cities across the United States, people from all walks of life, black and white, young and old, took to the streets to protest against the killing of an unarmed black man in police custody in Minneapolis.

George Floyd, 46 years old, died a week ago after he was held down by a police officer who pressed his knee on his neck for several minutes, ignoring the victim’s pleas for his life.

Floyd’s death sparked comparisons with other black victims of police violence, from Rodney King in the early 1990s in LA, to Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when he was held in a choke-hold by an NYPD police officer, an incident that galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many of those protesting in Atlanta had driven into the city from the suburbs after seeing the scenes of violence that unfolded in the city on Friday night, and to protest against what many perceive to be a system of institutional racism in the United States.

Two 21-year-old women, Spencer and Mia, were among the protesters. “So many of my African-American friends have had this kind of experience with the police,” Mia said, as she explained why she was taking to the streets. Spencer criticised the mayor for imposing a curfew, which she said was being viewed by many as a provocation.

“It’s an infringement of rights,” she said, as she joined those shouting the name of George Floyd to the lines of police officers in full riot gear.

Police advance through a cloud of tear gas during a protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Police advance through a cloud of tear gas during a protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

King’s birthplace

Atlanta has a long history of racial inequality. As the birthplace of Martin Luther King, it was at the heart of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, his cortege was transported back to the Georgia capital where thousands of people gathered for his funeral.

Even throughout the tensions of the 1960s the city avoided some of the full-scale rioting that took place across the country. When King was shot, riots erupted in cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit. But not in Atlanta, where residents largely upheld the example of non-violent protest espoused by King.

As community leaders called for calm as Atlanta found itself once more at the centre of racial tensions this weekend, they harked back to this heritage.

Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, implored the protesters: “I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting and burning is not the way. Organise. Demonstrate. Sit-in, stand up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”

A firework explodes in front of a police line in Atlanta. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty
A firework explodes in front of a police line in Atlanta. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

Rapper Killer Mike delivered an impassioned speech from Atlanta on Friday night in which he captured the mood of many. Describing how he was “mad as hell” at the death of George Floyd and the racial inequality of America’s criminal justice system, he urged residents to organise peacefully and “beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth”.

Atlanta’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has emerged as a possible vice-presidential contender for likely Democratic candidate Joe Biden, hit out at President Donald Trump, who referred to protesters as “thugs” on Friday, and whose phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” led Twitter to censure his tweet for glorifying violence.

“He should just stop talking. This is like Charlottesville all over again,” she said, a reference to the president’s comments on far-right protests in the Virginia city in 2017 when he said there were good people “on both sides”.

Members of the Georgia National Guard are seen through the Olympic rings in Atlanta. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage
Members of the Georgia National Guard are seen through the Olympic rings in Atlanta. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage

Coronavirus

She also raised concerns about Covid-19, expressing fears that the mass demonstrations could have health implications for the African-American communities in the state which have already been disproportionately hit by the virus that has claimed more than 103,000 American lives.

“I am extremely concerned when we are seeing mass gatherings . . . we’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks,” she said.

But with the National Guard on the streets of many cities again on Sunday night, it appeared that the health and economic crisis that has seen thousands of people die and 40 million lose their jobs across America has, for the time being, been eclipsed by a cultural one.

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