Atlanta Was Already Broken

Recently I stumbled upon a link to an AJC op-ed, published August 2021: “The Wendy’s fiasco: The one that broke the city?” The piece—authored by notoriously pro-police AJC contributor Bill Torpy⁠—sought to portray Atlanta as a city rife with gang activity and lawlessness. Throughout the piece, Torpy paints a picture of a “Mad Max Atlanta”. In particular, he references the events occurring at the protester-occupied Wendy’s at which Rayshard Brooks was murdered by police during the summer of 2020. Torpy laments the position in which the Atlanta Police Department found itself during a time of increased scrutiny towards policing, and attempts to connect the violence which occured at the occupied Wendy’s to the larger “crime wave” of 2020—specifically citing the tragic murder of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner on July 4th, 2020  to make his case. Well, I was there too. 

I was at there at the occupied Wendy’s the morning after the murder of Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police officer Garrett Rolfe. Brooks’s murder ignited a city mere weeks into the national George Floyd uprisings. I was there the night the Wendy’s burned down; I was there on July 4th, 2020 (leaving before the horrific events late that evening in which Ms. Turner was killed); and I was there the next night to record the response from “Lady A” (Rayshard’s sister and, from what I could see, de facto leader of the occupation of the Wendy’s).

Not only was I there, but I am from here. A Grady baby, I spent my summers under the watch of my great-grandmother at Grady Homes, went to the schools in the metro area, and graduated from Georgia State University. I worked here, grew up here, and watched as people I knew were herded from public housing to the outskirts of town, made to continue their lives reliant on inadequate MARTA lines. I was there, I am from here, and I speak with some experience when I say that despite Mr. Torpy’s claims, this city was already broken.

There is more to be said about how a man falling  asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through line escalated to a police call, then to a murder. There’s even more to be said about why and how we got here as a city than I have any right to try and cover in one article. However, to try and get to the root of it all, I’ll lean on the words that one of the long-standing occupiers of the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center (the proposed name of the community center to be built in place of the Wendy’s) shared on the building’s demolition day: “No hope, no food, no jobs; what you think gonna happen?” 

A simple look at the Opportunity Atlas for the part of town that includes University and Pryor shows how desperate a situation just being born in the wrong area code can be. This desperation is also illustrated upon examining patterns of supermarket redlining and food apartheid by large food chains who refuse to locate in low-income communities. While it’s possible to collect endless statistics which convey the reality of economic divestment faced by this part of the city, the reality is that anyone who’s lived here could tell you themselves.

The words spoken by “Lady A” are part of a larger plea by the community members and activists I recorded on camera that summer, as the bulldozers circled the Wendy’s. The sentiment generally shared by those who chose to speak to me in that moment gets at the root of the issue: the divestment from communities and people as the true source of “violence” in Atlanta. The divestment of funds, the divestment of opportunity, the divestment of hope. A divestment impacting all of those who live in Atlanta’s neglected neighborhoods, and which only reverses itself once the forces of gentrification take hold.

The demand of the Wendy’s occupiers was the erection of a Peace Center on the ground where Rayshard Brooks was murdered. A place for crime diversion, a place for communal interaction, somewhere to be human. Yet in Torpy’s op-ed, the Peace Center was only referenced in a throwaway quote by City Councilmember Joyce Sheperd (who’d later propose the notorious Cop City legislation before being ousted by labor organizer and activist Antonio Lewis). For Torpy to not foreground those community demands—community investment and a Peace Center—in his telling of events is disingenuous at best. It is particularly disingenuous when we take the time to view the city through a wide lens and see how the divestment from communities has in turn created “many Atlantas”, with the understanding that the Westside and the Southside are where hopes go to die.

The 2020 BLM uprisings highlighted the issues of police brutality and accountability on a world stage. These protests ignited many conversations on policing, including but not limited to the institution’s racist origins,  its infiltration by white supremacist organizations, its internal gang structures, and perverted incentives under the influence of private money. However, following months of protests and community demands to scale back policing, protesters and community-members were only met with more brutality and more lawlessness from the “law.” 

I’d hope that in this post-tense we’d be able to make use of these lessons, but in this piece the author buries the larger context of divestment from Atlanta communities in favor of fearmongering over crime and lawnessness. Torpy seems to live in a world of “good guys and bad guys’—cops and criminals. If only the world were so simple. Though he does make a small note of the “blue flu” epidemic that surfaced following calls to defund the police, for the most part Torpy defends APD, painting a simplified cause and effect relation between the summer’s protests and Atlanta’s recent “crime wave”: “Police have been in a tough situation. In June 2020, following the protests of the police killings of George Floyd and then Rayshard Brooks, violence in Atlanta exploded.”

Torpy engages in no greater inspection of the “thin blue line” ideology, no critique of the code of silence, no mention of the distrust fostered by the violent police response to the 2020 protest movement. He makes no suggestion to hold police forces to a higher account, and dedicates no more than a footnote to the “blue flu”. No mention of the already over-policed streets on the Westside where Black bodies are fed into a carceral system that serves state and private profit. He makes no acknowledgement that this alleged spike in law-breaking and violence coincided with the most economically and emotionally uncertain times faced by the city and country since the Great Depression. It all seems in bad faith; the article lacks nuance. Instead, this article points to the institution of policing and insinuates that the police are not showing enough force, not militarized enough, not violent enough.

Not only does Torpy fail to critique the institution of policing in any meaningful way, but he also fails to interrogate the background of Garrett Rolfe, the officer who shot and murdered Mr. Brooks. While Torpy takes the  time to lay out the GBI-alleged gang affiliations of Mr. Brooks, no mention is made of the 12 prior complaints (9 dismissed) made against Rolfe. There is no mention of the 2015 shooting incident that then-presiding Fulton County Superior Court Judge Doris L. Downs described, saying “I had never really seen anything like this case, where the police report didn’t even mention that any shots were fired.” Further, while it’s an open secret that police forces frequently cycle out offending officers to nearby counties instead of laying them off,  APD couldn’t even hold themselves to that standard when it came to Rolfe, despite his record of offenses. Details like this  are crucial to the story of what happened here, how we got here—yet Torpy does not employ them. 

Circling back to Torpy’s claims of gang activity—according to those I spoke with on the day of the demolition, there was indeed gang activity present at the Wendy’s site. But this only highlights how woefully the city has failed the youth in financially defunded areas. It also exposes the reality that for some, crime and gang activity has become a viable option for financial uplift and communal bonding. The average income in the four tracts surrounding the Wendy’s is $20,000 annually. When the jobs around you pay minimum wage and barely keep you above water working 40-60 hours a week, it’s no wonder that some turn to alternative routes, including crime. If the city truly wants to address gang activity, that can only start if we offer viable alternatives to gang activity for the most economically vulnerable of us. It’s essential then that we begin the fight for a living wage in the state of Georgia, as $7.25 is far below what’s considered livable.

The solution then—to reducing crime, violence, gang activity, and restoring community trust is harm reduction—not the criminalization of poverty. However, Torpy, the AJC, and capitalist media are more concerned with fearmongering about rising crime than they are addressing what’s at the root of violence and poverty in this city. To move forward, we must invest in communities to the point where crime is no longer a viable option. Repeating the same strategy over and over again in the definition of insanity. So why do we resort year after year to increasing policing budgets expecting different results, meanwhile blinding ourselves to non-violent, crime reduction alternatives?

The first ever public housing projects in the country were built in Atlanta, and it’s no coincidence that today housing here is nearly unaffordable to the average working person. Income inequality in Atlanta is the highest in the nation, while nationally rates of inequality are the highest they’ve been since the French Revolution. And while inflation in Atlanta has spiked to unprecedented levels over the course of the pandemic, the city is no stranger to rising costs and gentrification. It was during the 1996 Olympics that inequalities began to widen. The city’s priorities during that time can’t be illustrated more plainly than by the construction of the Atlanta City Detention Center, whose intended purpose was to clear the streets of the city’s “inconvenient” houseless population ahead of the Olympic games. Since then, the still-open jail has continued storing human bodies, while Atlanta’s Black political class continues offering nothing but representation, carceral solutions, and austerity politics. 

While Atlanta became less and less affordable for working people, the pandemic exacerbated the faults of our institutions. Leading up to the events which took place on July 4, 2020, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the poor died faster under a medical system that answered to profits. Likewise, the protestors that occupied the Wendy’s didn’t step from shadows; they were raised here, molded here. They are your neighbors; your coworkers. The occupier’s actions were a response to their reality—no hope, no food, no jobs. They were a response to city leaders refusing to engage in good faith (no matter how Black the faces of that leadership may have been). A response to the actions of a leadership devoted to profits over the well-being of living, breathing citizens. A response to the fearmongering media that refused to show anything other than “horrors” to their nightly audiences.  The occupiers deserve a fair and balance appraisal that is not afforded by Torpy’s  AJC op-ed.

Political uprisings happen in response to the ways our institutions have failed us. The summer of 2020 gave us an opportunity to grapple with the topic of police brutality, the divestment from Black and Brown communities, and the history and origins of racist institutions in this country and city. But instead of grappling with and addressing historic tensions, the slaughtering of Black and Brown people by police continued.  This piece is not meant to paint the Wendy’s occupation as perfect, however, we can’t allow media personalities and private monied interests to portray  last summer’s uprisings with such imbalance. When a city rises up and gives voice to grievances carried over through generations, we must engage meaningfully. Atlanta did not do this.

Unfortunately, it seems that the city has decided to continue down the path of more police and more surveillance  as a means of population control and “law enforcement” with the election of its new mayor, Andre Dickens. But the events that took place on University and Pryor did not come from nowhere: what happened was from here, born here, sewn here, and it will not be solved by more guns on the street and boots on the ground. It will be solved once this city begins to engage the root of the anger, distrust and animosity that was given rise to in that occupation. 

We do a disservice to each and every one of us the longer we choose to ignore how we got here in favor of infantile narratives of “good guys and bad guys”. As a city and as a community we have to come to the understanding that we are all interconnected, and that isn’t just moralizing—it’s good policy. To care for our social, medical, economic and environmental well-being is good policy because not only does it save cost, but it restores (or begins to build) public faith in the common good—public investment in human results.

It’s nearing the end of Black History Month and the city of Atlanta once again wraps itself in the righteous haze of the image of MLK and the Civil Rights movement. And while the city loves to embrace the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, it also opts to divest from communities, schools, and people. Instead we see increased privatization and austerity measures, flanked by an overfunded and militarized police force. A comical contradiction between image and action; a localization of the militarism and economic exploitation held up by laws and structures rooted in racism that King actively advocated against. This city isn’t lost. We can do better and deserve to do better for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

King saw the Watts Riot as “the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been bypassed by the progress of the past decade.” Perhaps that is what happened at University and Pryor. But what we cannot do is to allow for single-sided narratives to be spun on movements in real time and go unchecked. It is our turn to do the humanizing work to drag this country just a little bit closer to the promised ideal. 

The time is now (as it always was, and always will be) to do the work. Join an organization that is fighting for a fair and just wage (like your local DSA chapter). Join or support organizations that are focused on housing justice, preventing the further sprawl of the carceral state, groups that are fighting to defend and invigorate our democracy, or a local mutual and cooperative aid group. Or, all of the above. It’s our turn to do the work and it’s our duty to do better, because it’s clear: Atlanta was already broken far before that tragic night on July 4th, 2020, and we can only begin to improve once we’ve reckoned with what brought us here.