Fifty years ago, when Shirley Franklin was still a high school teenager, she slipped away from her Philadelphia bed – without telling her mother – for an anti-nuke march on the Pentagon.
The biographical tidbit is necessary to any assessment of last week’s decision by Mayor Kasim Reed, Franklin’s successor, to clear Occupy Atlanta and its tents from a downtown park – and send the bonded-out protesters against corporate greed and economic disparity on a nomadic trek across the city, like some Lost Tribe of Ishmael.
Atlanta may not have realized the implications at the time, but the city crossed a generational divide when Reed was elected two years ago. Born in 1969, he is the first mayor in nearly 40 years who did not spring from a culture of protest.
However inevitable, it was not a fact that some were willing to ignore last week.
“If he wants to be like Bull Connor, then so be it,” one of Reed’s elders, state Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta, said shortly before he and 51 others were arrested at the park.
To call up the specter of Birmingham was a vast – the mayor might argue slanderous — exaggeration. No injuries were reported Monday night. No fire hoses were turned on schoolchildren. No German shepherds were sicced on the defenseless. No skulls were cracked by batons. This wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t even Oakland.
That said, Fort’s 48-year-old reference point was revealing. As was Reed last Monday, when he put Occupy Atlanta on 24-hour notice.
In front of reporters, the mayor first said grace over his city’s reputation for tolerance and the right to free speech. But Reed – a former music industry attorney – then drew on more recent history.
He pointed to a flawed hip-hop concert that Occupy Atlanta had attempted to stage at the small park. With inadequate security and radio spots that advertised at least one rapper whom concert promoters couldn’t deliver.
“You’ve had people killed in concerts where artists who were promised do not show up all across the country. This happens all the time,” Reed said. The mayor judged Occupy Atlanta to be a danger to themselves and nearby residents, and ordered the impromptu campground shut down.
The Occupy Atlanta decision may be the first real evidence that the city is being governed with its changing, more conservative demographic in mind.
In a recent post on “Blogging While Blue,” Democratic strategist Cabral Franklin, son of the former mayor, noted that the three of the four fastest-growing districts in the city were in downtown Atlanta, Midtown and Buckhead – “areas where people vote more conservatively.”
“Midtown in 2011 is not Midtown in 1990,” he said in an interview. Franklin’s assessment of Reed, who stands for re-election in 2013: “I don’t think he wanted the Occupy movement to be that one thing that he didn’t play right. I think he was trying to govern as close to the center as he possibly could.”
Criticism of Reed has been muted, but it exists. Eric Robertson, political director of Teamsters Local 278 and a Reed supporter, consulted with the mayor throughout the confrontation – and disagreed with the decision to resort to force.
“My hope is that we can get into some sort of dialogue where he can understand what’s happening with the movement,” Robertson said.
But if Reed is new to an era of protests, so is Occupy Atlanta. “There have absolutely been mistakes made,” Robertson said. His union members brought U.S. Rep. John Lewis to speak to the protesters in the first days of their occupation of Woodruff Park – only to see the civil rights icon turned away. “Disastrous,” he said.
Occupy Atlanta’s insistence on unanimous decisions paralyzed any attempts to give the movement a sharper focus that the public could latch onto, the union official said.
One of the more nuanced reactions to the removal of Occupy Atlanta came from Michael Julian Bond, a 10-year city councilman and son of ’60s activist Julian Bond.
“I really don’t know why the mayor didn’t act sooner. I believe in civil disobedience. I grew up in a household full of activists,” said the younger Bond. But he also represents the downtown residential district, and spoke of a recent neighborhood meeting.
While sympathetic to Occupy Atlanta, his constituents “pointed out a stark contradiction to me,” Bond said. After years of complaints, police only recently had swept aged, homeless black men out of the park.
“But when it’s twenty-something white kids, it’s allowed to go on. That kind of stuck with me,” he said. “If [police] had been allowed to go out on the first night when the park closed, there probably wouldn’t have been but about five or 10 people who were willing to go to jail that night, and the cost of it would have been considerably less.”
Bond also said Occupy Atlanta may have a rose-colored view of history. Arrest and jail are central points of civil disobedience, he said.
“I don’t know if that’s been forgotten over time, or just romanticized. But there were real arrests in Atlanta,” Bond said. The difference between Birmingham and Atlanta, he said, was how protesters were subsequently treated by police.
As for the prospect of growing conservatism in the city, Bond was unimpressed. “Atlanta’s always been a conservative place. We have a culture here that’s deeply rooted in church. Atlanta’s always had this very conservative undercurrent, even though – at the same time – it’s been very progressive mentally. But the values have been conservative,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider