The Quandary of Bloody Sunday's Legacy
Selma, Atlanta, and Cop City (Revisited)
Last weekend, thousands of people gathered in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the violent attack executed by state troopers on civil rights protesters who were marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and toward the state capital of Montgomery to pressure the federal government to pass voting rights legislation. On March 7, 1965, police beat the protesters unconscious and tear gassed them as they traversed the Alabama River and passed through the county line. On March 5, 2023, police observed the commemoration while, either ironically or unironically, wearing badges that read “Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond.” A promise and a threat, to be sure.
Also last weekend, in Atlanta, a city known as “the cradle of the modern Civil Rights Movement,” officers with the Atlanta Police Department, Dekalb County Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations converged on a music festival organized by protesters against Cop City (a $90 million police training facility that Atlanta’s leaders are trying to build in a local forest) and trapped dozens inside a ring of cops, a strategy known as kettling. Thirty-five protesters were, then, arrested in a hail of grenades and tear gas. Largely outsourced to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the facility is supposed to sit in an area bordering a Black working-class neighborhood. Despite longstanding local opposition, with more than 1,100 Atlanta residents calling in comments about the plan during City Council hearings, and most being against it, Atlanta’s leaders have consistently stated that the Stop Cop City protesters are comprised of outside agitators.
A perversion of the Voting Rights Movement, of which Bloody Sunday is the decisive moment, looms large in the repression of the movement to Stop Cop City. It is precisely their status as elected officials that allows Atlanta’s black mayors and city council members to sanction the framing of police escalation as responsive to community concerns about crime, arguing that they are simply giving people what they asked for. It is the cover of elected representation that allows them to position violent development designed to terrorize the people as the democratically derived, unassailable will of the people. During an Atlanta Press Club event last month, Mayor Andre Dickens snidely announced, “we also do these things in politics called polls ... 69% of Atlantans say they want to have a public safety training center for police and firefighters. Even when we polled under the name ‘Cop City’ just to kind of see if we’d throw them off as the misinformationists are doing — we got it at 61%. So, people want a trained police and trained fire staff.” But when local news sources asked Mayor Dickens’s spokesperson Michael Smith about the surveys, he was unable to provide a poll showing 69% support for the training facility. As for the results showing 61% support, only 2% of people who received that poll even responded. This was not a representative figure, either of Atlanta at large or the Black neighborhood that will be most affected by the facility, by any stretch of the imagination. In short, Mayor Dickens’s representation of the will of the people was predictable political expediency.
58 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, black political power is invoked, not to cease state violence, but to give cover to multiracial iterations of it. If it’s going to be commemorated as anything other than a massive spectacle of gratuitous brutality, the legacy of Bloody Sunday has to be more than black people agreeing to maintain and manage our own captivity for political legitimacy. It has to be more than sanctioning our own dispossession. It has to be something that was actually worth our blood.