Tuesday, May 2, 2017

We Were There

As we examine the legacy of the Los Angeles Riots 25 years ago, I wrote a two-part piece on the Cafe blog of my experiences, based on my memories of the Atlanta Riots. I was a student and our uprising took place in the Atlanta University Center (AUC) as a protest to the acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King a year earlier. As young black college students who had our own battle scars from interactions with police over-zealousness, our grievances mirrored those of the LA rioters; unfortunately, the response of Atlanta law enforcement and elected officials was to treat us as miscreants. All these years later, that is still the perspective I have when recalling the events of those few days.

On FB, some of my peers offered the same memories, which suggests that this was a significant and transformative life experience. I also noticed that most of those remembrances barely feature women, even though we were right there protesting along with our brothers. I hadn't given much thought to that fact in many years, but with the hindsight of 25 years, I wanted to offer some of my theories. This is not an attempt to re-write the narrative, just raising a few issues and drawing parallels to the current state of affairs.

I recall that the initial protests against the verdicts began on Spelman's campus. That detail was rather insignificant until I fully unpacked that memory. The entire episode began the previous night when we were attending a campus pageant at Morehouse and the verdict was announced. We made our way back to campus where we watched the news reports from Los Angeles. Our frustrations mounted and however information got spread back then without the internet or social media, a protest was set to occur the following afternoon. The next day I remember discussing the events at lunch, leaving the cafeteria, seeing a group of protestors chanting down the street of our main campus, and then following them out of the gate to where things morphed into what became the riots.

So Spelman was there. Yet in the images that come up in news reports or the memories of participants, Spelman is not there. (Take a look through these photos published in the AJC and take note of how many women you see.) Presumably, we were inside the protective bubble of our gated community watching events unfold on television just like the folks from uptown. When we did venture off campus to witness, speak, or join the protests, efforts were made to immediately remove us from the fray. We were warned by campus police not to follow the protestors off campus. Our Morehouse brothers escorted the curious back to campus. Our Sister-President chastised us for getting involved in what was deemed not our battle to fight.

In its most benign form, the impulse to protect Spelman students made sense because no one wanted to see their daughters and sisters get hurt. So when Spelman students sought to participate in the protests and found barriers, it may have been with the false assumption that we had nothing to contribute. But it was unrealistic assume that we were immune from danger, especially when plenty of us witnessed police encounters with brothers who were stopped for walking/driving while black in a southern town.

I attempted to persuade my parents that I had legitimate reasons to participate, but they did not hear me. So when I resolved to disregard their pleas and those of our campus police to venture outside anyway, I faced the wrath of Morehouse brothers. I understood their position on safety, but chafed against their paternalism. Who knows if more visible participation by women in those protests would have prevented some of the violent clashes, or at least prevented the rapid descent into mayhem.

Perhaps I was too young and too naive to express these sentiments then. But a recent conversation with a current student suggests that there remains an impulse to shield Spelman students from reality. They believe Atlanta is unsafe and avoid using public transportation or taking any chances walking through the West End neighborhood. Which is ironic since the public housing that surrounded our campuses 25 years ago is gone or has been redeveloped. No major city is totally safe--neither are the suburbs or the exurbs. Isn't the point of going away to college to discover life, good or bad?

Furthermore, it was disingenuous to suggest that Spelman women needed to stay put on our gated campus while our sisters at Morris Brown and Clark Atlanta were not similarly protected when those tear gas canisters were unleashed on their campuses. I don't recall if they were escorted back to their dorms and admonished to stay inside. Male and female students alike were impacted by our shared university library being closed down at the beginning of our final exam reading period. And what good is shelter on our campus from police violence, only to be vulnerable to other forms of violence off campus that I dare not address at this time...

If the conventional wisdom was that black women were exempt from police misconduct, I need only invoke the name of Sandra Bland as an example of my point that we were/are no more safe than black men in confrontations with law enforcement. And historically, women were not exempted from harsh treatment once arrested or imprisoned, especially in the South. For that matter, neither were children.

Speaking of children, that is perhaps the primary reason why women should never be sidelined in any public outcry against police violence. Women must be seen and heard so that our babies, like Tamir Rice and now Jordan Edwards, are not forgotten. That is the legacy of mothers like Mamie Till-Mobley and the mission of the Mothers of the Movement. We may not have all been mothers 25 years ago, but we were sisters; and among those of us who are mothers now, we remember Los Angeles and Atlanta and see Baltimore and Ferguson and wonder why we are still taking to the streets. And will we need to be in the streets for the next 25 years?

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