It started with one tweet. And it ended with thousands chanting, "It's bigger than you," outside Atlanta's CNN Center on Aug. 18.
A generation frequently criticized for its do-nothing, hashtag activism used social media to galvanize a large turnout of students and peaceful demonstrators of all ages to march and show solidarity with the protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
"I just moved in the spirit of my frustration, and I had no idea," says Atlantan Elle Lucier, 19, who took to her frustration over her generation's lack of civic action to Twitter last week.
"I was tweeting my anger that we are so quick to post our thoughts but not act on our anger behind the thoughts," says Lucier, who posted her number on Twitter to see if anyone would dare follow up. "I said I just need 10 people and we'll go march on the steps of the CNN Center."
Seven people responded the first day. The next day, the number of respondents doubled to 15. A hastily organized town hall meeting at Ebenezer Baptist Church to plan the rally brought out an unexpected 200 people on Aug. 13, she says. Lucier and other organizers had hoped for a turnout of 500 for their hashtag-billed march and campaign #ITSBIGGERTHANYOU on Aug. 18. According to the local Fox News affiliate, the rally drew an estimated 5,000.
State Representative "Able" Mable Thomas was there. So was celebrated Civil Rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. But five decades after the Atlanta Student Movement sit-ins began demonstrations that would integrate lunch counters formerly located only blocks away, Monday's grassroots and student-led march served as a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement had also been propelled by young people.
The flier had called for participating marchers to wear their Sunday best. Though most who showed up lacked the church clothes, they made up for it in spirit. Carrying homemade signs with messages such as, "AmeriKKKa's Worst Nightmare/An Educated Black Man/More Malcolm Than Martin," the crowd of thousands gathered at the steps of the CNN Center to protest police brutality, overt militarization, media misperceptions, and the perceived smearing of Michael Brown by the Ferguson Police Department.
Dione Hudson, a 30-year-old native of Ferguson, Mo., in attendance at Monday's rally, expressed relief over the national exposure her hometown is receiving for a climate she described as "racist and segregated."
"In the South, they dealt with it [during the] civil rights era," said Hudson, who moved to Atlanta three years ago. "But St. Louis as a whole is just very segregated. We've definitely got a long way to go."
Monday's march was the latest in a five-day stretch of local peace rallies, vigils, and events loosely organized as responses to the events in Ferguson. While local turnouts have been peaceful compared to the clashes between the police and the public in Ferguson, the Atlanta events have faced their own share of criticism from those who feel the gatherings lack organization or a forum for solutions.
An Aug. 14 rally organized in recognition of the National Moment of Silence drew a diverse crowd of approximately 100 people to the Old Decatur Courthouse. Attendees came to observe five minutes of silence, but they stayed for an additional two hours to voice frustrations, anger, criticisms, solutions, and let out cathartic screams.
Taryn Jordan, of the local Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, hadn't planned on showing up last Thursday, "because I'm not one for vigils," she said after addressing the crowd. "But I felt an important shift in how we look at this moment."
There were also points of dissension, such as the severe heckling one middle-aged black father got when his critique of the black community's ills hinged on young black women who don't "close their legs" to thugs.
That's when Jordan stepped up again to refocus the discussion.
"The reason we are here today is because a man was executed," Jordan said. "We don't need to argue. We've got [other things] we need to do; I understand that. But fuck respectability politics."
When a white demonstrator elicited boos from the crowd after stating that if she was being targeted by police, she "wouldn't be walking the street at 8 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night; [she]'d be home reading [a] book," another white woman chided her.
"Sweetheart, this isn't our stage," she yelled in response.
DeKalb County SCLC President Nathan Knight criticized the highly emotional response at the Decatur rally as typical of a generation that tends to put public action before diligent organization.
"I have been to many of these, and it dies out in 10 days," said Knight, an older civil rights era organizer who urged those in Decatur's crowd to make sure they were registered to vote. "None of you will be anywhere making a difference if you don't go somewhere and start to [make change] the right way. ... Those emotional outbursts will not get you anything except tired."
On Monday evening, as the crowd in front of the CNN Center swelled into the thousands, the march began heading west on Marietta Street. Police escorts blocked traffic at intersections as marchers flooded the street. Before they could reach the recently opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights on Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, the sky opened up and the rain came. The marchers continued on in soggy clothes, their chants echoing over the thunder: "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" and "Hands up, don't shoot!"
The wave of protestors crested at their starting point just as the clouds broke. Back at the CNN Center, Lucier took off her wet shoes and stood on the red-lettered CNN logo, flanked by her comrades, with a bullhorn in her hand.
"There is a high running through this crowd right now. And it ain't from weed, it ain't from no pills, and it ain't from drink. It's from the spirit - the spirit of civil disobedience," she said. For the next 15 minutes, Lucier delivered an impromptu speech, punctuated with spontaneous crowd chants that recalled the spirit of the '60s.
Even as she passionately addressed the crowd, Lucier admitted some uncertainty about the next step. She announced a meeting on Thurs., Aug. 21, at a time and place to be disseminated later under the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanYou.
"Young people are not the future," Lucier said. "Young people are right now. ... It's our time. Atlanta, it is our time. This was the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement for our ancestors. ... It will be the pinnacle again if we allow it."
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