A protest of police violence against African Americans in downtown Athens today has remained peaceful despite a heavy law enforcement presence.
Dozens of police officers blocked off entrances to downtown with garbage trucks and other vehicles, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents sat in an unmarked SUV, but law enforcement has mainly kept its distance. The National Guard is back, stationed on campus, and accompanied by Gov. Brian Kemp, who spent the afternoon at Athens-Clarke County police headquarters.
A mix of political speakers, poets and musicians took the stage for a well-spaced-out crowd, including families with young children, stretching a block in all directions. Nearby, a few people sat outside the newly reopened bars on Clayton Street drinking beer.
But the events of last weekend cast a pall. Whereas in the past, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement has held protests on the steps of City Hall, barricades blocked off the building today. Metal trash cans had been removed, replaced by cardboard ones. Several businesses were boarded up or had empty storefront display cases—along with messages in support of Black Lives Matter taped to the windows. A helicopter hovered overhead.
“Our country is at war with its own people,” said activist Imani Scott-Blackwell. Although she had nothing to do with the May 31 protest—and actually tried to convince organizers to cancel it when she heard the National Guard would be there—she said she has been targeted online nonetheless. Activists have been disappearing, she said, and she urged others to take precautions like encrypting their communications.
“But it doesn’t matter. We’re afraid for our lives,” said AADM co-founder Mokah Jasmine Johnson. I’m a target. I’m running for office. I know they’re going to dig up dirt and try to make it out like I’m the worst person in the world.”
Johnson is running against Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines in November, and her husband Knowa is running for ACC commission in the June 9 election. Devin Pandy, a Democratic candidate in the 9th Congressional District, also made an appearance. Mokah Johnson urged the crowd to support black candidates.
“Why isn’t Stacey Abrams governor?” she said. “We still have white men in charge. They won’t protect us. We have to protect each other.”
Racism is a “public health crisis,” Pandy said, comparing it to cancer or COVID-19. “We have failed as a society to reckon with the white supremacist beliefs that have infected every aspect of our society,” he said.
COVID-19 fears may have kept many people away, and along with the police response to the World Without Cops protest, led to rumors that the Justice for Black Lives protest would be canceled. Organizers urged attendees to wear masks, which most did, and stations were set up with hand sanitizer, along with water and snacks.
“I understand that people are nervous, but we must move forward with wisdom and without fear,” Johnson said Friday. “Black people in this country are in danger every day. But we cannot let fear stop us from speaking out for our right to be safe in our communities.”
The protests were sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, who died with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill; Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers serving a no-knock warrant; and Ahmaud Arbery, who was hunted down and shot dead by three white men while jogging in Glynn County. This type of violence against African Americans, however, is nothing new, nor is Athens immune to it.
In 1995, local rapper Ishmael Cuthbertson, known as Ishues, helped organized a march against police brutality after ACC police shot and killed Edward Wright, an unarmed black man, in the Nellie B area. “Twenty-five years later… I’m tired of marching,” Ishues said today.
Johnson closed out the protest by saying, “Do not let these people [the police] jump on us. We’re going to go home peacefully. And we’re going to come back and march again.”
Afterward, a couple hundred stragglers gathered around the Confederate memorial on Broad Street. Mayor Kelly Girtz said earlier this week that he is determined to find a loophole in the state law prohibiting moving, destroying or altering Confederate monuments.
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