It Means More in Atlanta

The Hawks' NBA season may be over, but their hometown has taken a place in the national consciousness it has many times before: at the forefront of the social justice movement.
photo of Eric YeboahEric YeboahContributor IJuly 1, 2020

The CNN Center in Atlanta sits on Marietta Street in the center of tourist attractions, restaurants and sports venues. Centennial Olympic Park is just a few feet away. The World of Coca-Cola museum, State Farm Arena, the College Football Hall of Fame and the SkyView Ferris wheel are close by. On a typical day, this area is buzzing with energy and serves as a stop where you can get a taste of Atlanta all in one bite.

On May 29, however, downtown Atlanta became a destination for the unheard, following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Activists called for justice and an end to the murder of Black people in a country wracked by systemic racism for centuries.

Two men stood on top of the CNN sign in front of the studio building. One holding a Black Lives Matter flag and another carrying the flag of Mexico. A police car was in the middle of the street in flames. Windows at CNN and the nearby Omni Hotel were smashed and vandalized. Graffiti littered the sides of the building. Protesters yelled, pushed and pleaded with police as they were closed off from continuing their march. Tensions rose as officers in riot gear, shields, helmets and driving Humvees locked down the area, confining the protesters to an area in front of the CNN Center. Tear gas was released on the protesters and batons were drawn.

A riot to some—rebellion to others.

The scene, from one point of view, may have been too easily dismissed as mayhem. But for those with a sense of context, the demonstrations that night were a portrait of catharsis, a response to how the promise of America has failed them. "This is a moment where people are feeling a lot of stuff right now and are fed up," Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said that night.

Atlanta has long been considered a haven for Black culture. In the last few weeks, it has also become a place to process Black pain. When Atlantans see Taylor and Floyd, they see themselves, they see a cousin, a sister—they see family. Then they see, on their own soil, Rayshard Brooks die at the hands of police in a Wendy's parking lot.

Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce understands the frustrations. Since Floyd's death, he has become one of the leading voices in the NBA on racial injustice, joining a new committee of coaches to bring attention to the issue and pursue solutions within NBA cities in the wake of these tragedies.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

"For me, this isn't new," Pierce said during a discussion with reporters along with team CEO Steve Koonin (via Fox Sports South). "I've been Black for 44 years. This feeling of outrage, it isn't new. I think what's new is that it's on TV, and it's on TV when a lot of people can't leave or move."

Atlanta is the proverbial capital of the South. Its heart. The capital of Black America. A place where Black culture is felt the moment you arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. There are few, if any, places in this country where Black people feel comfortable and accepted. Atlanta, with its flaws and all, offers a home.

It's no surprise the city, historically, has been an important terminal when social protests sweep the nation. A place where homegrown talent rises up, shares their feelings and mobilizes to fuel the momentum of the moment.

Pierce and his Hawks have leaned in to this movement, using their public profiles to lend, or find, their voices and become comfortable with addressing the uncomfortable.

Hired in 2018, Pierce and his staff have spoken with their players about recent events, including discussing their Black skin color and what comes along with it—that they have different protocols to abide by when they interact with police.

Hawks All-Star point guard Trae Young protested in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, days after the city that has adopted him demanded justice just a few steps from the arena he plays in.

Lloyd Pierce has worked with his players and other NBA coaches to speak openly about social injustice in the wake of George Floyd's killing.
Lloyd Pierce has worked with his players and other NBA coaches to speak openly about social injustice in the wake of George Floyd's killing.Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

"I know that I'm not just a basketball player; I'm a role model," Young told reporters recently. "I'm bigger than what I just do with a basketball. I know when it's times like this I need to speak up and speak up for what's right."

Kevin Huerter, the Hawks' lone white player, had never been to Atlanta before the team drafted him two years ago. As he watched the protests unfold, and later stood on a stage with his teammates, coach and members of the Georgia NAACP to address the need for reform in the criminal, voting and policing systems, it dawned on him that this is still "just another city" dealing with the harms of systemic racism regardless of its strong Black ecosystem.

"Standing up on that stage as a white man is a little bit embarrassing," Huerter told Bleacher Report. "Because you know that we have made a lot of things very hard for the Black community and a lot of other communities. I can't say the same for everyone across the country that is white, that [they] really know what people are fighting for and understand the injustices that exist."

The ATL is no stranger to protest. From the four-day Summerhill rebellion in 1966, when protesters responded to the police shooting of a Black man named Harold Prather, to July 8, 2016, when 2,000 protesters stood face-to-face with Atlanta PD on an Interstate 75 ramp in response to the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the city has long been a staging ground for social justice.

The city has welcomed many Black mayors, Black police chiefs and Black business owners. According to Atlanta.com, there are 60,000 Black-owned businesses in Atlanta and more than twice that many in the metro area.

Still, it isn't exempt from the systemic struggles that Black Americans face, regardless of marketing slogans like "The City Too Busy to Hate" or "The Black Mecca." Disparities in health, economics, justice and voting access are all as prevalent today as they were decades ago.

In 2015, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the 22 percent Black unemployment rate in Atlanta is more than three times higher than that of white people (6 percent). The same report found that 80 percent of Atlanta's Black children live in communities with high concentrations of poverty, compared to 6 percent of their white peers.

Three years later, Bloomberg published an analysis that found that Atlanta ranked worst in income inequality among large cities in the United States.

And while Atlanta may be home to a population that is 51.8 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, many of those residents would be quick to note this city is not a "post-racial" utopia.

Indeed, many in the state have long fought to ban citizens' arrests and institute a hate-crime law, the latter of which Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed Friday to go into effect Wednesday, though some fear a pending bill that adds protections for first responders could compromise the new legislation.

And then there are the monuments and statues that honor the Confederacy. A 2019 Georgia law deemed that if such monuments are to be moved, they must be relocated to a "site of similar prominence, honor, visibility and access," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. While some, including President Donald Trump, have argued the monuments are a part of the state's history, each also stands as a slap to the face of Black humanity, a reminder of the enslavement Black people faced in Atlanta until the end of the Civil War and still feel the sting of today in more subtle ways in their daily lives.

City councilman Antonio Brown, who in 2019 was elected as the youngest city councilman in Atlanta's history, has lived here for eight years and in that time has come to the conclusion that what Atlanta is differs from what it appears to be.

"You have an establishment that has been in leadership for decades that has protected the interest of this narrative," said Brown, who represents District 3, an area with the low-income Vine City and English Avenue neighborhoods in addition to the much more affluent Atlantic Station and its multimillion-dollar developments. "They protected this narrative that Atlanta is the city too busy to hate. Atlanta is a city that cares about its Black and Brown communities. ... I've heard that nonstop in this city. But when you really dig into what has truly transpired underneath that narrative and underneath the establishment that is propelling this narrative, you begin to realize no, that is actually not true. Not only is it not true, but we have to make some serious changes, and we have to address some broader issues, especially around systemic injustices that have created the environments and conditions that have kept our Black and Brown communities oppressed."

Pierce recognizes the two Atlantas well. Given his job title, and his recognizability, he's treated with a respect he feels he wouldn't enjoy were he not the Hawks' head coach. Simply remove that title, and he'd be vulnerable and exposed to the same harms as every other Black individual.

"I say this all the time: I wear my Hawks shirt," Pierce said. "It's my uniform. It's my only access to privilege here in Atlanta because people know that I am the head coach here in Atlanta."

That division, in a city with a rich history of activism, is a big reason why Atlanta has become a hub from which to respond to the latest examples of systemic racism in the country, no matter where they occur. Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike spoke out with tears in his eyes during a press conference the night of the late-May demonstration: "It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. ... I'm mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I'm tired of seeing Black men die."

Trae Young spoke at a recent demonstration in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, to raise awareness about police brutality and systemic racism.
Trae Young spoke at a recent demonstration in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, to raise awareness about police brutality and systemic racism.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

There lies the conundrum that rears its head during times like these. What is the "appropriate" way of protesting? There may be no right answer. But there are a lot of different strategies. And sometimes it's a matter of speaking your mind, taking action.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown knew the feeling and didn't allow distance to stand in his way. On May 29, Brown, who is from Marietta (a town 20 miles northwest of Atlanta), drove 15 hours from Boston and organized a demonstration of his own.

"Meet at MLK memorial site 530-630 assembly time," Brown tweeted before being joined by rapper Lil Yachty, Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon and Brooklyn Nets guard Justin Anderson. Before the start of the protest, Brown addressed the crowd on the same grounds where Martin Luther King Jr. lies buried:

"Everything that we see and experience and are feeling is something from decades, centuries, ages ago. So as a 23-year-old from this generation, some people from other generations are gonna have to bear with us. Because from what we've seen since social media has hit—from Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, all the way up until George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner—that's all we've seen. That's all we've seen throughout our generation, throughout our youth. Coming from kids, coming from social media era, all we've seen is people get killed on TV, on camera. So, I don't want people to confuse the response of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor. I get young people looting. Understand I'm not necessarily saying that's the right thing to do, but our energy, our voices need to be heard in some way, shape or form."

As the Georgia heat bore down on the crowd, Brown glided through the streets he calls home. He walked side by side with protesters, shouting for justice through a megaphone while holding a white sign with black letters that read "I CAN'T BREATHE." He believes his status and popularity don't relieve him from the duties of activism. As he said recently, he identifies just as much as an activist as he identifies as an NBA player.

Brown's march eventually reached the Georgia State Capitol in downtown Atlanta, where Brogdon addressed the turnout. With Anderson's hand draped on his right shoulder and Yachty standing to his right, Brogdon shared that his grandfather, who walked with Martin Luther King Jr. and led sit-ins, would be proud of their protest. Brogdon wanted listeners to bask in the moment.

"We built this city," Brogdon said. "This is the most proudly Black city in the world. In the world, man. Let's take some pride in that. Let's focus our energy. Let's enjoy this together. This is a moment we have leveraged right now. We have a moment in time. People are going to look back, our kids are going to look back at this and say, 'You were a part of that.'"

A week later, Atlanta rapper Lil Baby also decided he couldn't remain silent. In a Black Lives Matters shirt, black joggers and a face mask that read "No Justice, No Peace," the 25-year-old, alongside councilman Brown, led protesters down Mitchell Street, passing by a few pro-Black pieces of graffiti artwork.

Antonio Brown later revealed in an Instagram post that during the march Baby whispered to him, "This is what matters!" an acknowledgement alluding to the responsibilities that lay on the shoulders of Black artists.

Antonio Brown @AntonioisMuted

Thank you @lilbaby4PF ✊🏽 #arevolution https://t.co/uHEu1aI8m1

Another week later, Lil Baby dropped a song with a video called "The Bigger Picture" about police brutality through his eyes.

The same day as the release of the song, June 12, Atlanta cop Garrett Rolfe shot and killed the 27-year-old Brooks in the parking lot of a Wendy's drive-thru on the southwest side of the city. Police officer Devin Brosnan was also on the scene, and the district attorney says Brosnan stood or stepped on Brooks' shoulder after Brooks was shot.

It was only 13 days after Atlanta PD officers used Tasers and excessive force on two college students. (Six officers were later charged for their involvement.) Less than four months after Arbery was killed. Three months after Taylor was killed. Three weeks after Floyd was killed.

Brooks' cousin, Decatur Redd, stood in front of reporters wearing a gray-white tank top and a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap the following day. He began simply by saying "Rayshard Brooks," amplifying his cousin's name so it won't be forgotten.

"I got two little boys," Redd said. "They'll see the same video. That's their cousin. That's where it hurts so much. I thought Atlanta was higher than that. I thought we was bigger than that. I just want to make enough noise that they investigate the situation. Don't let Rayshard die in vain like that."

Atlanta responded with plenty of noise. That night, protesters brought signs, smashed glass, threw fireworks inside the Wendy's and blocked a nearby highway. The exhaustion of a community forced to mourn the repeated murders of Black people by those who ostensibly are meant to protect them was clear. When police finally were able to remove the blockade of protesters, the officers immediately built a barrier between protesters and the defaced restaurant. A crowd of more than 100 people faced them, and a Black woman could be heard screaming "We matter!" at officers.

Both officers involved in Brooks' killing turned themselves in five days later. Rolfe is facing felony murder and 10 other charges. Brosnan is facing an aggravated assault charge. But you won't hear much rejoicing. There isn't time; there's too much work to do.

Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery decided she wanted to be a part of that effort. So she followed the lead of Maya Moore and will sit out the WNBA season to dedicate her time to working for racial justice initiatives. "For me and how I function, I know that I'm an all-in type of person, so I'm all in for social reform," Montgomery told Bleacher Report.

She was attracted to Atlanta over the course of her first two seasons in the league. So much so that she purchased a home there and left a championship team in Minnesota to be in Atlanta. She says she moved for the reason "a lot of [Black] people come to Atlanta: because they know they will be welcomed and they know they'll feel at home."

In a letter published in the Players' Tribune, Montgomery recounted growing up in Saint Albans, West Virginia, surrounded by people who didn't look like her. "It wasn't really 'til I got to Atlanta ... that I was surrounded by people who looked like me," she wrote. "... A lot of the business owners here are Black business owners, Black female business owners. And I mean at a high level."

Still, Montgomery sees this time as a chance to "create momentum" in the social justice movement.

Montgomery isn't new to the kind of work she has ahead. She was part of the 2016 Minnesota Lynx team that was fined $5,000 as an organization (as well as $500 per player) by the WNBA for wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts in warm-ups, which resulted in four off-duty cops who provided arena security walking off the job. She never envisioned herself making a decision of this magnitude, but to her, the significance of this moment must be met with significant action.

"Not a chance Renee from February 2020 [would] have even thought about it," Montgomery said. "That's how those eight minutes and 46 seconds changed the world."


Eric Yeboah is a producer at Bleacher Report.


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