During a six-week trip, it seemed quite likely I’d be in the US when one of the country’s regular gun massacres took place. On the same day a white racist murdered nine black people in South Carolina, I was visiting the birth and resting place of Martin Luther King Jr, just one of the peculiarities and bitter ironies I encountered in Atlanta, Georgia.
Understanding The South is important for understanding America, but I don’t claim to have done either. The Civil War is often described as the defining event in American history and its soul goes marching on. The South Carolina killer had a fixation with the Confederate flag and only after his atrocious act have some politicians begun to say that it should be removed from public places. In New Orleans I visited a museum full of Confederacy memorabilia, but scarcely a mention of the South’s willingness to fight to defend slavery, beyond euphemistic references to ‘preserving a way of life’. The day after the Charleston shootings I watched a televised speech from the ‘Faith and Freedom Coalition’ conference in which the speaker drew a direct line between the prohibition of slavery, the legalisation of abortion and the possible legalisation of gay marriage, all of which he saw as undue government interventions to restrict ‘freedom’.
Atlanta occupies a particular place in a region trying to come to terms with its past. From a housing perspective it shares many features with the other cities I’ve visited, but is distinctive because it’s been through both the liberation of civil rights and the bondage of the Olympics. The Games were here in 1996 and have left an indelible, but very familiar, mark. I’ve had a slightly tortured relationship with the Olympics, but coming to Atlanta has removed any doubt: they do more harm than good. As Hurricane Katrina was the accelerant of privatisation and exclusion in New Orleans. in Atlanta it was the Olympics.
There’s now a universal formula for sports-led ‘regeneration’, but Atlanta used its special character to write some of it. Co-option of economic, political and cultural forces enabled the social and physical remodeling of ‘Downtown’, an important difference with London where the lasting impact has been contained in and around Stratford (several miles east of the city centre). Needless to say, given what I’ve seen throughout my trip, public housing wasn’t part of the new Atlanta and has been virtually eliminated. As in Chicago and New Orleans, the process of disinvestment, demolition and displacement has been going on since the 90s and by definition, the victims (again) are largely African-Americans, but the juggernaut of property development has several faces in Atlanta. In fact the city seems to be at the axis of what I’m coining as the ‘PUS Rule’.
Nearly two decades after the Olympics, Atlanta continues to be in thrall to the whims of corporate sports franchises and their rapacious appetite for building stadia by taking lots of public land and money, but giving very little in return. Several Atlanta neighbourhoods are now under further threat by plans to rebuild and redevelop sports arenas, some of which are not even 20 years old. Another major land-grabber in Atlanta, as in other places, are universities seeking to use their increasing wealth as property developers instead of intellect builders. Finally, Atlanta is saddled with being the political home of an ex-President (Carter) determined to bestow his legacy on the city by gobbling up tracts of land that could be used to build the homes his former constituents need. Barak Obama is pursuing a similar vanity project in Chicago. Presidents, Universities and Sports spell poisonous PUS for working class communities in urban America.
The prevalence of an essentially racist urban policy agenda strikes a particular discordant note in Atlanta. It’s not just that the father-figure of the civil rights movement was born and raised here, but some of his acolytes are still active on the local political stage. People who marched at Selma and made huge sacrifices to demand equality have become part of the establishment and instrumental in the corporate re-modeling of the city. While being cheer-leaders for the Olympics, they have facilitated the commodification of the civil rights movement so that it stands alongside another product of Atlanta, Coca-Cola, which itself is a symbol of the old money and old politics that dominates the city and in some cases can be traced back to slavery.
Obama has been quick to condemn the murders in Charleston and rightly link them to the nation’s racism past and present, but he needs to take some responsibility too. Black lives matter. So do black homes.
Despite all the injustice, class warfare and bigotry one of the great pleasures of (and reasons for) my trip has been meeting people who fight back, like Charlotte Delgado. Anita Beaty is another example. Anita’s been standing up to the Atlanta establishment and up for its victims since 1985. She opposed the Olympics and the destruction of public housing that have led to the city having around 12,000 homeless people. Anita now runs a shelter for some of them, but continues to rail against the false ideology she describes as ‘progress defined by growth’.
Coca-Cola World in the Olympic Park, Atlanta (adjacent to the Centre for Civil and Human Rights)
At a Charleston solidarity demonstration yesterday, held at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC