“This Is Chaos:” Order Maintenance and the Fear of Black Anarchy in AtlantaRoundup
tags: African American history, Atlanta, urban history, Protest
Danielle Wiggins is an assistant professor of history at the California Institute of Technology.
Late on May 30, 2020, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms rose to national notoriety with a passionate speech that rebuked not the police who had snuffed the life out of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, but rather chided those protesting police violence. Speaking as a “mother of four black children,” she scolded residents who had purportedly corrupted the city’s peaceful protests with violent rioting. “This is not a protest,” she asserted, before going on to admonish people running around “with brown liquor” in their hands and “breaking windows” to loot the local businesses, many of them she suggested were Black-owned. Evoking Atlanta’s most famous resident, she asserted, “This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.”
Lance Bottoms is not the first Black mayor of Atlanta to evoke the image of Dr. King in response to Black unrest in the city. In 2016, when thousands of protesters took the highways of Atlanta to protest the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, then-mayor Kasim Reed made a similar appeal. He shouted to a segment of the protestors, “We hear this generation’s concern, and the protest tonight, but we’re going to have to do it in a King-ian fashion. We’re going to have to make sure that people remain safe, and I simply ask that people don’t get on the expressways.” Like Lance Bottoms, Reed evoked a particular image of King to suggest that there was a right way and a wrong way to protest. The “King-ian” way, according to the two mayors’ revisionist history, did not involve blocked roadways or broken windows. The King-ian was orderly and restrained with a quiet dignity. It certainly did not involve brown liquor.
Lance Bottoms’ admonition reflects a deep-seated concern about the orderliness of Black urban dwellers shared among Atlanta’s Black liberal leaders for decades. It illustrates a preoccupation with Black expressions of freedom, particularly as aired by working class and poor folks. Black elites viewed such expression—whether displayed publicly in rowdy marches, broken windows, looting, and raucous music and conversation played loudly and publicly, or in private, intimate spaces—as excessive, anarchic, and potentially dangerous. At the turn of the twentieth century, Black urban leaders engaged in order maintenance practices in an attempt to protect Black communities from racial violence. As members of the city’s political establishment at the end of the century, Black elected officials deployed the politics of law and order to police Black youth’s expressions of freedom at the annual Freaknik festival, which in its excess threatened to impede the city’s economic development. In the latest iteration of this commitment to order, however, Black elected officials are seeking to circumscribe Black political engagement to the ballot box, a strategy whose limitations are made visible in the “Black Mecca.”
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