Activists from Chattanooga and Atlanta banded together Friday night for a fiery resurgence to this summer's marathon protests against police brutality in honor of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, curating "good trouble" in Chattanooga's Bushtown.
A caravan of three busloads of activists honoring Lewis and the 55th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act traveled from Atlanta, where Rayshard Brooks was killed, to Louisville, the home of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in March.
Then, as the final stop of a three-city freedom ride, they came to Chattanooga, where activists have been protesting the police killings of Taylor and others all summer, heightened locally by the case of Reginald Arrington, struck repeatedly by the batons of Hamilton County sheriff's deputies.
Local activists who have been fighting for criminal justice reform more nights than not throughout the summer sounded off with a relit resistance toward city officials after the recent enforcement against activists including leader Marie Mott, who was charged with protest-related crimes after turning herself in.
"We all know that camouflaged in this rhetoric that seems to have concern for our community is a letter from the city strongly discouraging this gathering today," Rev. Timothy Careathers of Westside Missionary Baptist Church said in a response to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke telling organizers of the rally that they would not be permitted to gather in Miller Park amid a pandemic.
"Their disdain for Black agency had them strongly discourage us from convening on their property that your tax dollars aided in paying for," Careathers added. "Perhaps it is because we come in the spirit of peace, while at the same time we come to disturb. Maybe it is because they know that they desire us to be peacekeepers, but we refuse to be peacekeepers because we are called to be peacemakers."
Berke said before the event that the move was consistent with the city's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have had a rule that says we can have no more than 10 people in the executive orders that I'm signing. We reached out to the organizers and let them know that was the case," Berke said in a virtual news conference on Friday. "We've been consistent in saying that we do not want those large events on our property."
The decision comes after weeks of uninterrupted protests in the park by other local organizations that drew crowds ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred activists who marched the streets, often gathering at Miller or other city parks for hours at a time.
No events larger than 10 people were given permits in the city due to the virus, according to Berke.
"Nothing that has happened in Miller Park or elsewhere has been permitted," Berke added. "My understanding is that they moved this event elsewhere, and we appreciate the fact that they have been sensitive to our request."
The activists took the decision as an affront to the movement, but were not deterred from gathering on a private property.
"It is time to do something that many of us have been scared to do for too long. And that is, pick a side," community activist, organizer and City Council Candidate Marie Mott said in a call for attendees to hold the mayor, council, police and other authorities accountable. "There's no longer time for middle ground, does not exist."
The crowd of roughly 150, stirred by the impassioned speeches of Mott, Careathers, Georgia Rep. David Dreyer and other religious and community leaders, then accepted the late arrival of the bus riders from Atlanta.
"I'm just excited to be here with you and to deliver a message from both of my mentors, Rep. John Lewis and Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian. Both of them told me over and over and over again that the movement was led by young folks," Freedom Rider and attorney for the Georgia NAACP Gerald Griggs said. "And they said that is incumbent upon every generation to earn the respect of their ancestors, and to earn the respect of their descendants. So now, it's on us. We don't have any more excuses. We gotta get in some good trouble."
"Freedom is not ringing right now, right, so we got to send a message like that generation did," he said, citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1962 call for freedom from Stone Mountain in Georgia to Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. "We got to go get in some streets. We got to go block some highways. We got to go speak to some people in ways that they not comfortable about."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.