While self-proclaimed allies, companies, and brands posted black squares on their social media accounts for #BlackoutTuesday, I was in jail waiting for a bond hearing for the charge of violating curfew in Atlanta.
On Monday June 1, I was legal observing along with other members of the Georgia Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) while hundreds of protestors marched to demand an end to racist police violence in this country, following the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade, among others, at the hands of police. The NLG is the “nation’s oldest and largest progressive bar association and was the first one in the US to be racially integrated."
One of the key tenets of NLG is defending the rights of protestors. Much like journalists, legal observers do not participate in the protests; rather, we document, we witness, and we observe to ensure that people can express their views without unconstitutional disruption or interference. Police can easily identify us—NLG legal observers are widely known for our neon green hats that say "Legal Observer." We’ve been monitoring police activity at these protests and ensuring the rights of protestors nationwide while wearing these hats for over 50 years.
Those of us legal observing had planned to document, witness, observe—knowing full well that arrests would be made—and then coordinate representation for those arrested. Representing protestors at bond hearings is another key tenet and service provided by NLG across the country. But instead of representing protestors as I had planned, our chapter scrambled to find representation for me and the other individuals who had been arrested Monday night and over the weekend, which totaled over 300 individuals. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. These protests are being called “violent”. Protestors are being called “thugs.” And even as a lawyer, with my green hat on, observing protestors, I and another legal observer were arrested. The police didn’t bother to announce that there was a curfew and therefore protestors, journalists, and legal observers alike had to disperse. They saw me, right at the 9:00 PM curfew, lifted me in the air, handcuffed me, and took me to jail.
As visionary Black leaders across the country demand accountability for cops who kill members of our beloved community, politicians across the political spectrum are falling in lockstep with Trump’s anti-Black bid to crush protest activity with military-grade force. This is very much the case for the city of Atlanta—a place often referred to as a Black mecca. Atlanta, the city “too busy to hate,” has been very busy undermining the rights of protesters this week. In recent interviews with the media, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has referenced Atlanta’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement and has gone so far as to quote Audre Lorde, evoking the word “revolution” to describe the protests taking place across the country. But Mayor Bottoms’ actions are hardly revolutionary.
While she has criticized Trump for his response to protestors, stating it’s “like Charlottesville all over again” and that when Trump speaks “he makes it worse,” Mayor Bottoms has made it worse for peaceful protestors, journalists, and legal observers like myself by allowing Atlanta to become militarized and rampant with police violence to the point that I was literally lifted off the ground and put into a police car for legally observing protestors. In my six years of being an activist and legal observer here in Atlanta, I have never before seen the authorization for the use of tear gas and rubber bullets at protests. When my co-legal observer and I were arrested, the police told us that Mayor Bottoms has authorized them to arrest anyone on the street, including journalists and Legal Observers like us. And while everyone around the country praised her for firing the two officers caught on video Tazing two teenagers, that was the only reason they were fired: they got caught and video of their abuse went viral. We witnessed similar acts of violence by the police every night on the streets, and yet nothing has been done to those officers. Finally, officers in Atlanta and around the country are being praised for taking a knee in alleged solidarity with the protestors. Here in Atlanta, we witness this performative gesture before the 9 pm curfew, but as soon as the curfew hits, the police begin indiscriminately arresting and brutalizing those who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
A true visionary, a true leader, would take concrete steps to support the thousands of Atlanta residents exercising their civic duty and demanding accountability for homicidal police violence. A true revolution, the revolution Audre Lorde was alluding to, would not allow for the indiscriminate arrest of people protesting or allowing for the arrest of journalists and legal observers. Instead, Bottoms and her police chief, Erika Shields, are deploying a grossly inappropriate display of police force against peaceful protestors, journalists, and legal observers. So while Mayor Bottoms is getting accolades across the country for being the new face of the Democratic party and videos of Police Chief Shields talking to protestors herald her as an example of a “good cop” the people on the ground protesting—and those protecting their rights—know that she has sanctioned police violence and the militarization of our city against Brown and Black bodies, including my own. In her impassioned speech last Friday, Mayor Bottoms condemned those burning cars and defacing the CNN building saying that they were “disgracing our city.” But the real disgrace is Bottoms and Shields.
In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, none of us are safe until all of us are safe.
Asia Parks is an Atlanta community organizer turned lawyer. She is the current chair of the National Lawyers Guild Georgia Chapter.