Watching the Police

In Atlanta, a Race to Kiss the Ring of Police

The D.A. race in the ‘Black mecca’ reveals the cozy relationship between prosecutors and police unions, no matter how diverse

“Watching the Police” is a new GEN column about the movement to rethink policing in America. Malaika Jabali will examine how plans to defund, abolish, or otherwise reform the police are playing out in cities and police departments across the country.

“It’s basically Alien vs. Predator down here.” Brandyn Buchanan, chair of the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America, was talking about the two remaining candidates in the race for district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, and he couldn’t find anything good to say about either of them.

Fulton County has jurisdiction over the city of Atlanta, where former police officer Garrett Rolfe fatally shot 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks twice on June 12 after Brooks had fallen asleep while allegedly inebriated in his car, blocking the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant. Two months later, the choices in the Democratic primary runoff came down to six-term incumbent Paul Howard, who was the first Black DA elected in Georgia, and Fani Willis, a Black woman who worked as a prosecutor in Howard’s office for over a decade (she has also been a defense attorney and judge) and who frequently touts her relationships with the local police union.

Charging a police officer with murder is rare. Convicting one is practically impossible. Howard charged Rolfe with felony murder anyway, plus 10 other counts, to national media attention and some praise from activists. (The DA also charged Devin Brosnan, the other officer who was with Rolfe, with three lesser counts.) The charge also opened the door for detractors, including Willis, to accuse Howard of using the Brooks case to score political points. “I don’t think we can anymore talk about whether he made [the case] political,” Willis said in a television interview. “He literally put images of the Brooks case in his television commercials, and he put that case in his radio ads. It was clearly for his political benefit.”

Howard’s move smacked of opportunism, a way to breathe life into a faltering campaign and paper over his failure to substantially address police brutality during his 20-plus years in office. “Howard let police violence cases sit on his desk for years,” the DSA’s Buchanan told me over the phone. “He’s got a terrible record in terms of appropriating city funds for personal benefit. Not to mention sexual harassment accusations. Every kind of scandal you can think of.”

But in Buchanan’s estimation — and Alien vs. Predator metaphor — Willis isn’t any better. “She’s in that neoliberal mode of ‘we’ll give a victory speech talking about making herstory,’ while being endorsed by police unions and Mary Norwood, a conservative ‘independent’ candidate who ran for mayor.”

Prior to Brooks’ killing, Willis had campaigned on becoming Fulton County’s first woman DA and rooting out corruption in Howard’s office. Throughout the summer, Willis argued that Howard failed to give police officers due process, including for an officer charged with excessive force after viral video footage showed a group of officers violently removing two Black college students from a vehicle during the George Floyd protests. Willis was endorsed by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers in Atlanta and accepted a $2,500 contribution to her campaign. She also received a $1,000 contribution from Noah Pines — the attorney representing Garrett Rolfe — less than three weeks after the ex-officer shot Brooks to death.

Black women are expected to be proud of a Fani Willis, or a Keisha Lance Bottoms, or a Kamala Harris, regardless of their policy record.

When asked by a TV reporter in July if she would continue with Rolfe’s prosecution if elected, she replied, “I will definitely look at the GBI’s report,” referring to a Georgia Bureau of Investigations document that will not be made public until the criminal case is over. “I will look at what preliminary investigation this district attorney did in four days,” she continued, implying that Howard’s probe was rushed. “If I find that charges are appropriate, I will bring them.”

Willis had won the three-way primary back in June, but not by enough to avoid the runoff. With only she and Howard left in the race, she beat him in a 45-point landslide in August. Willis won’t officially be elected until the general election on November 3, but with no Republican opponent in the race, she is effectively the district attorney-elect.

On the surface, Willis’ victory reads as a straightforward case of a pro-cop prosecutor benefiting from law-and-order backlash and the support of a police union that reflexively and vehemently defends officers who shoot, kill, and abuse civilians. But dig a little deeper and you find a larger story that goes well beyond a single DA race, or a single union, to reveal the codependent forces determined to protect the status quo against the progress appearing on the horizon. The power players who run these institutions — prosecutors, unions, city governments — are often members of the same communities that have taken to the streets to create the largest social justice movement in American history, a dynamic that is especially true in Atlanta. Behind the scenes, those forces rage just as fiercely.

In my lifetime, the only mayors I’ve seen in Atlanta were Black, from Andrew Young to Kasim Reed to Keisha Lance Bottoms. A Black woman police chief and Black district attorney graced the nightly news. Police departments were substantially Black, along with the police unions who protect them.

In this Southern city, representation isn’t a novelty. My young eyes soaked in encounters with Black teachers, principals, doctors, and lawyers. We took high school trips to historically Black colleges and universities, admiring the thousands of fashionable students transitioning into young adulthood in the storied halls of colleges like Spelman and Morehouse, the latter of which boasts Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee as graduates.

These experiences dispelled pervasive anti-Blackness in a country steeped in white supremacy and shielded me from internalizing false narratives of Black inferiority. But the beauty of feeling represented has increasingly bred frustration, as I have also observed Atlanta succumb to the priorities of its wealthier white residents, its elite business community, its conservative state legislature, and the political ambitions of career politicians. I have seen public housing in the city — home to America’s first public housing development — completely demolished, and its poverty displaced from the city to inner-ring suburbs, like my hometown of Stone Mountain, a few miles east of the city limits. I witnessed the massive Dekalb County Jail emerge off our main exit ramp near I-285 and the birth of extended living motels along Memorial Drive. I saw this transition in real time — a metro area thriving on its reputation as a “Black mecca” while also having the highest income inequality in America.

And yet, as conditions for the poor and working-class have declined in Atlanta, Black people are asked to celebrate the mere existence of Black elected officials, mirroring the vapid optics of national politics. Black women are expected to be proud of a Fani Willis, or a Keisha Lance Bottoms, or a Kamala Harris, regardless of their policy record. Striving is inherently good, and “Black excellence” in any form — even if it’s won on the broken backs of our country’s Black working-class masses — is lauded.

“The police union has never seen a situation where they thought a policeman should be prosecuted for anything.”

After Fani Willis defeated Paul Howard in the August runoff election, one of her campaign’s first Facebook posts announcing the win notes her “historic victory,” with the hashtag #FIRSTWOMANDA. A Black woman DA has the potential to counteract racism in America’s policing and incarceration system, where Black people are vastly underrepresented as judges and prosecutors. But by aligning herself with police unions, Willis raises concerns about whether racial justice will actually be accomplished. A review of her campaign contribution disclosures for the runoff shows that a third of her contributors were fellow attorneys, adding up to over $25,000, supporting her argument that the IBPO contribution of $2,500 was relatively nominal. But some civil rights organizations are skeptical of police union endorsements and contributions altogether.

About a month before the August runoff, a coalition including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Bar Association (a professional association for Black attorneys) held a press conference denouncing the practice of accepting endorsements and contributions from unions. “It is an inherent conflict of interest,” NAACP’s Richard Rose said in the presser. “We know that the police union has never seen a situation where they thought a policeman should be prosecuted for anything.”

On the IBPO’s national website, an information page on the Committee on Political Education stresses the importance of giving politicians money: “We need to make sure that the pro-law-enforcement, pro-IBPO, pro-labor politicians win. Remember, as a public employee, you ultimately have the power to hire and fire your boss at election time. When you win on Election Day, you win at the bargaining table.” In California, police unions donated 200 times as much money to state legislature candidates as the NRA did between 2011 and 2018.

But police officers and prosecutors aren’t just any other special interest group. “Prosecutors have incredible power and incredible discretion to impact the lives of people in their community,” says Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. Police officers “have a badge and a gun and can take away the liberty of members of their community, and most importantly, they are charged with protecting their community. That is huge power and authority.”

“When there are outside influences that actually had any impact or are perceived as having any impact [on a prosecutor’s decision], that starts to destroy the fundamental starting point of the ethical obligation and role of prosecutors as ministers of justice,” Krinsky continues. “The entire system crumbles when that starting point is not intact.”

In addition to exerting political will in elections, police departments — through union contracts — have successfully negotiated for protections that allow officers to avoid punishment. While the city of Atlanta doesn’t have a police union contract, dozens of other cities use them, with some that include egregious provisions. The Chicago police union contract requires that misconduct records be destroyed and helps officers avoid taking lie detector tests. The Baltimore police union contract protects pay for officers who kill, according to the Police Union Contract Project, an activist-led initiative.

At a press appearance in May, a month to the day before the killing of Rayshard Brooks, Fani Willis accepted the endorsement of IBPO Local 623, while including a subtle dig at Howard’s strained relationship with the police department. “They and I have the same vision,” she said, repeatedly stressing her cooperation with officers. “The police and I have committed to each other… we will always offer the other a seat at the table.” Recalling an earlier exchange with police union members ahead of the announcement, Willis said, “We told a joke at the table, ‘won’t it be a wonderful day when the DA and the police can work together?’ That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

Atlanta is a majority-Black city where police officers — and the elected officials who protect them — are often the same race as victims of police violence. The common solution to simply diversify the ranks of officers and district attorneys raises the question: What are they working toward?

At 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in late August, the crowd outside a warehouse on University Avenue south of downtown Atlanta had dwindled to about a dozen people. A helicopter thundered overhead, making a complete circle around the site before it flew north toward the Southern city’s skyline.

“Yeah, I saw it,” an activist told me, referencing the white van parked covertly across the street. Earlier in the evening, a motley crew of about 100 activists — largely young, some on roller skates, and some donning masks with protest messages — rallied across the street from perhaps the most heavily guarded empty lot in the city.

Less than three months prior, a Wendy’s occupied that lot. Within 24 hours after Garrett Rolfe shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, the restaurant was set on fire and its interior reduced to rubble and ash. It has since been demolished, and a tall chain-link fence surrounds the lot. Behind its wires you can make out the signs of resistance still preserved on the pavement, like fossils entombed in amber. Written in bold, white spray paint, a common clarion call in this hot summer of protest: “Fuck 12.”

It’s a saying I first heard years ago, from frustrated friends harassed by police the moment they became teenagers. The Black joy I shared with them regularly was invisible to police officers who primarily see young Black men as threats, fomenting a fear that hardens into cynicism. Our stomping grounds in the S.W.A.T.S — Southwest Atlanta, Too Strong — were a second home away from the eastern suburbs where I lived. They were a 10-minute drive from where Rayshard would emit the last breaths of his young life.

“I don’t know if other people would understand why he would fight, but he had just seen the life of a Black man that complied with the police be taken,” says the organizer of the rally, a woman who asked me to refer to her as Lady A, referencing George Floyd. “I’m complying, I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to do,” she continues, piecing together Rayshard’s final thoughts. She gets some latitude to do that. She’s Rayshard’s sister.

“For the police and the people we feel like should be protecting us to be so against the movement is sickening.”

After Rolfe killed her younger brother, Lady A hosted sleep-ins at the Wendy’s site for several days. “So many homeless brothers and sisters came over because every day I cooked food,” she recalls. “We built a family there.”

The death of a loved one can create immobilizing sorrow. Brooks’ sister appears to find healing through activism. “I still haven’t had a chance to really grieve,” she tells me, her voice beginning to tremble for the first time in our conversation. Her pace slows down, as if the steadiness will keep her emotions from overflowing. “I’ve been trying to keep everything going, and help [his wife] keep everything going,” she says. “Even though we have other siblings, it’s just really me and her doing the fighting right now.”

Rayshard has five siblings on his mother’s side. Lady A, his sister on his father’s side, is bearing the burden of fighting for her brother’s legacy. “Ever since this has been going on, I live a secretive life. So much has been happening that I can’t trust nobody. State troopers trying to follow me home. Having to circle the block four and five times before I can go home. My babies seeing it, scared for me to leave [the house]. It’s horrible. I have never seen nothing like this in my life.” Then, disappointment. “For the police and the people we feel like should be protecting us to be so against the movement is sickening.”

Given Fani Willis’ enthusiasm for her police union endorsement, Rayshard’s sister isn’t hopeful for a rare conviction. “Fani Willis may be the one that takes the trial. And by them already being friends and buddy-buddy… we’re not slow,” she says, referring to what she perceives as a relationship between Willis and Pines, Rolfe’s attorney who donated to her campaign. So Lady A has largely dedicated herself to a vision she has more ability to control: developing a Rayshard Brooks Peace Center.

She partnered with Community Movement Builders, a social justice organization headquartered just a few minutes’ drive from where Rolfe killed her brother. They turned her sleep-ins into weekly rallies and broadened the message from policing to transforming the entire political and economic system that props it up. Booming through a megaphone at the late August rally, Kamau Franklin, who heads Community Movement Builders, shouted out to the crowd, “I don’t say Black Lives Matter. Usually I say Black liberation movement. This is a movement for land and full control over the economics and institutions that are in our community.”

He elaborated later on the larger economic system that encourages violent police interactions with Black people. “The issue is not just about police brutality.” Under capitalism, “police are used to enforce rules that benefit an upper class and that punish, harass, and murder just to control poor, working-class people.” This analysis, Franklin says, steers the conversation away from “‘these are a few bad apples.’ People have far more expansive demands.”

Given the web of interconnected forces — police authority encouraged by both major political parties, laws that protect officers more than civilians, police unions hell-bent on defending even outrageous police violence and misconduct, a political class focused on career advancement, and the fierce support for police among many who are more financially well-off — activists like Franklin see little choice but to think more systematically. A growing number of everyday people are being radicalized to join them.

As much as Lady A’s life has been shaken by two tragedies — her brother’s death and an ever-present police state tracking her as though she is the one who pulled the trigger — Rayshard’s older sister is undeterred. “To protect my little brother, I’m all in. I won’t stop.”

Under fluorescent streetlights across the street from the rally, with the final traces of sun maintaining the sky’s deep indigo color, a young girl stood on a concrete road barrier. “Revolution,” it read. Right knee bent, she posed for her picture. To her left, additional concrete blockades formed a memorial. Two protestors broke from the crowd. They lit candles and replenished wilted flowers with fresh carnations, gingerly placing them on the concrete barriers. That evening was not for rage, like the day after Brooks’ killing. But the fire still burned. In black paint, on the barrier next to the young photo-taker, a message of resistance recalled Lady A’s determination: “We Won’t Stop.”

Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney & columnist for GEN Mag & The Guardian

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