DUNWOODY, Ga. — Located just north of Atlanta, Dunwoody is a town of swim teams and summer camps, carpools and cul-de-sacs. Trees are everywhere here, and so are minivans.
Dunwoody is a comfortable little community far removed from the ongoing protests in Atlanta … which is why it was beyond surprising to see the city’s major thoroughfare lined with well over 500 Black Lives Matter protesters on Tuesday afternoon. For a community whose civic centerpiece is a shopping mall, that qualifies as a serious statement.
The protests have come to the suburbs.
Granted, this is an infinitesimal sample size, given that protests are happening all over the world and in every state in the union. But Dunwoody is a primarily white, upscale community; at the most recent census, its population was 70 percent white, with a median family income of over $100,000. The area voted for President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than a 10 percent margin in 2016. So the fact that a large protest took place here, much less went off with virtually no backlash, speaks volumes about the strength of the movement now enveloping America.
The protest stretched for more than five blocks along Ashford-Dunwoody Road, a wide, active thoroughfare that runs past upscale shops and valet-parking restaurants. A few miles further north, in Roswell, a similar protest also went off without incident. Law enforcement officials at the scene, who declined to give their names because they were not authorized to speak publicly, praised the demonstrators for their peaceful gathering and their equally peaceful dispersal.
The Dunwoody protest ran through the hottest part of one of the hottest days of the year so far — the mercury nearly touched 90 — and Lydia Wells, the protest’s organizer, played the role of camp counselor, trying to make sure everyone stayed hydrated and kept in line.
“Stay on the sidewalk!” Wells called out. “We don’t want you to get arrested. And wear your masks!”
Wells, who founded a nonprofit called God’s Eyes Initiative, dedicated to aiding the homeless, organized the protest in consultation with the Dunwoody police.
We are aware of a planned peaceful protest in the Perimeter Mall area today. The DPD absolutely supports and encourages peaceful assemblies. We encourage protestors to stay on the sidewalk and to respect the rights of businesses and property owners. pic.twitter.com/aCNjwP88Bt
— Dunwoody Police (@DunwoodyPolice) June 2, 2020
“I wanted to show that we could have a protest the right way, one that’s peaceful, one where we could be good role models for our children,” said Wells, who sported a black shirt that read QUEEN across the back. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do here so far.”
As it turned out, there were no provocations or aggressive actions, either from the protestors or the police. Aside from a couple cars whose occupants shouted obscenities and raised middle fingers as they drove by — multiple protesters said there were, at most, two in the hours they’d been standing — the traffic beside the protest was a steady stream of supportive honks and fist-pumps. SEC tailgates are more confrontational than the Dunwoody Black Lives Matter demonstration.
There were water bottles, and fruit snacks, and stacks of Papa John’s pizza. The entire feel was that of a high school homecoming parade, an exuberant sense of community … which is not to say it wasn’t serious. Were some of the protesters there just so they could post properly hashtagged selfies on Instagram before swinging through a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru? Sure, probably. But the overwhelming mood at the protest was community, not glory-seeking or confrontation.
“If you’re not peaceful, we don’t need you here,” one organizer shouted. “You are not going to ruin it for us!”
Almost every protester had taken the time to create a hand-drawn sign. Some had challenges (“Why is my black skin a weapon to you?”), some stuck with the straightforward BLACK LIVES MATTER, some listed the names of people who had died in police custody. Chants of “No Justice! No Peace!” and “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” wound up and down the line, and protesters of all races joined in.
When you’ve got white high school students in an affluent community in 2020 chanting two of social justice’s most memorable, galvanizing phrases, you know we’re entering a new chapter in our history.
And yes, the presence of so many white faces — perhaps even as many as half of the protesters — joining up with the protest effort is significant. Multiple people interviewed for this story acknowledged how important it was to reach across the racial divide even within protest efforts themselves.
“We need to see [white people] out here,” said Tanaesja Milligan, an occupational therapist from nearby Marietta. “We want them to add their voice, their privilege to what we’re doing.”
“We can’t assume they’re not on our side,” added Natasha McKend, a nurse from Marietta.
“We can’t be complacent,” said one woman, a longtime Dunwoody resident, who declined to give her name. “White people like me need to stand side by side with people of color.”
What can we draw from small, peaceful protests in a week where so many larger ones have turned violent? By themselves, not much. But they demonstrated that when the focus of a protest is on communication, when the destructive elements aren’t present, when the police response is respectful rather than confrontational ... bridges start getting built. It’s not much — and one or two bad actors could tear it all apart in 24 hours — but it’s a start.
As the protest began to wind down toward its scheduled ending, organizers admonished demonstrators to clean up around themselves. Protesters rolled up their posters and began making their way back to their cars. One organizer tried to catch the newly motivated protesters as they left, seeking to keep them informed and engaged.
“Take a picture of our contact information,” she said, holding up a card. “We need to get your email addresses so we can let you know about the next one.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.