“This Is Chaos:” Order Maintenance and the Fear of Black Anarchy in Atlanta

Pure Heat Community Festival, part of Atlanta Black Gay Pride, (Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

In the early 20thcentury, Atlanta’s Black elites believed that an orderly Black community was a safe Black community. Black disorderliness particularly among the working class and poor majority, they believed, had the potential to incite racial violence in the name of restoring order. The Atlanta Race Riot in September 1906 seemed to illustrate this. As rumors of drunken Black men raping white women circulated in the city’s newspapers that summer, figures such as First Congregational Church leader Henry Hugh Proctor began to call for law and order. Proctor specifically railed against Black Atlantans who frequented saloons and dives, sites that offered brief moments of freedom for working class Atlantans, both Black and white. He disparaged the patrons of such establishments as “vicious, ’rounders,’ loafers” who “frequent the barrooms, poolrooms, gambling dens, dives, and restaurants attached to these bars.”1 Though Proctor sought to distinguish between orderly, law-abiding African Americans and the “vicious rounders,” white mobs attacked Black Atlantans of all classes during the riot and even targeted successful Black businesses for destruction. Nonetheless, in the aftermath, Proctor blamed the Black disorderly, arguing, “Black lawlessness is ‘not a theory’ but ‘a fearful condition threatening the very perpetuity of our institutions and the peace and happiness of every fireside.”2 Black disorderliness, then, posed a threat to African Americans as a race and thus stood in the way of racial advancement.

Black elite leaders such as Proctor and local Progressive reformers Lugenia Burns Hope of the Neighborhood Union and the staff at the Atlanta Urban League sought to uphold order in Black communities and Black homes. Such order maintenance required the constant policing of Black attempts to live freely, which registered as anarchy to the respectable elite. Men trying to relax at a bar after work were scolded by self-appointed vice patrols and Neighborhood Union representatives used gossip, shunning, and banishment to police women’s sexual behavior.3 Black people could not be too visible in public, they could not live too freely.

Nearly a hundred years later, Black leaders once again engaged the politics of order maintenance to confront Freaknik, an annual festival for young Black folks. Though it began in 1982 as a relatively low-key on-campus gathering the Atlanta University Center students, by the early 1990s tens of thousands of Black youth from around the country were flocking to Atlanta annually. The three-day affair was a sprawling party throughout the city, in which young party-goers commanded public space and disrupted business as usual by dancing freely in the streets. Its anarchic nature was at the roots of its success and its downfall.

After Freaknik ’93 brought in over 100,000 partiers who congested city highways and streets, powerful business owners and wealthy in-town residents demanded that city leaders either end Freaknik, move it to the city’s predominantly Black west and south sides, or get it under control. In 1994, just two years before Atlanta was due to host the Olympic Games, the city’s Black elected officials, worked to reign in the festival. Mayor Bill Campbell promised to maintain order, claiming, “We allowed [the students] to take control of the streets and that’s not going to happen again.”4 He enlisted the Atlanta Police Department to reimpose order by closing major highways, restricting cruising on the city’s thoroughfares, and rigidly policing offenses against order such as open container violations and public indecency. Black leaders’ desire to impose order on the chaotic festival effectively killed Freaknik. While they pointed to the traffic and crime as excuses for suppressing the festival, just as important was their desire to limit Black youth’s public displays of freedom. The presence of young, disrespectable Black folks posed a threat to the social order Atlanta worked to cultivate as it sought to become a “world-class city.” Officials in the so-called Black Mecca thus prioritized in-town property values over the desires of its Black citizens.

Black youth are taking up public space once again in Atlanta, not to express joy but to mourn and share their rage. Despite Mayor Lance Bottoms’ demands that demonstrators “go home,” they are still in the streets, clogging highways and burning down businesses this time to protest the police killing of one of their own, Rayshard Brooks. Black Atlantans perhaps better than anyone else know the limits of Black electoral politics. Despite its nearly fifty years of Black mayors, city council presidents, and police chiefs, Atlanta remains deeply unequal and inhospitable to Black residents whose very presence upsets the pro-growth social order. Creating chaos and refusing to make their demands through orderly, procedural means, Black Atlantans are forcing Black liberal leaders to acknowledge their own limitations.

  1.  As quoted in David Fort Godshalk, Veiled Visions The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations. Chapel Hill, Nc: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 76
  2. As quoted in Jay Winston Driskell, Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (Charlottesville, Va: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2014), 83.
  3. See Jacqueline A. Rouse, Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1992); Jay WinstonDriskell, Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics(Charlottesville, Va: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2014).
  4. Richard Bono, “Midtown Wins Freaknik Safeguards,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 24, 1994, J1.
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Danielle Wiggins

Danielle Wiggins is an assistant professor of history at the California Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in history from Emory University in May 2018 and her B.A. in History from Yale in 2012. She is a former National Fellow of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation at the University of Virginia. Her research examines the intersections between post-civil rights black politics and the rightward-shifting Democratic Party from the 1970s to the early 1990s. In her forthcoming manuscript, she uses the politics of crime, welfare, and economic development in post-civil rights Atlanta as a lens through which to examine these developments. Her work has been featured in the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of African American History, Atlanta Studies, and the Washington Post's "Made By History." Follow her on Twitter @dl_wiggins.

Comments on ““This Is Chaos:” Order Maintenance and the Fear of Black Anarchy in Atlanta

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    Dope. The parallels in expression of black joy and pain the author draws are profound and bring into relief the limited possibilities of a people under untenable conditions…even in their supposed holy land. Prof. Wiggins deserves a raise.

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