Place, race and space in Atlanta

By Tom Cullen
Special to The Progressive Populist

Atlanta, Ga.

Race in Atlanta plays a huge role in determining people's attitudes about physical space and the use we make of it. Visitors to Atlanta commonly remark on the ability of blacks and whites here to work together so comfortably in the office and then to separate for recreation and worship.

Race has made it especially difficult for Atlantans to find the "common ground" that is the necessary basis for community. White Flight is not an exclusive feature of life in Atlanta, but the phenomenon is as dramatically evident here as anywhere.

In the past, visitors have found Atlanta's downtown boring and sterile, empty at night, and often wonder why this is so. In fact, there are really very few places where Atlantans of different classes and races can mingle on terms of equality and familiarity, except in the workplace, which has its own hierarchies. This is what made the drama of Olympic Centennial Park, played out during the Olympics, so poignant and profound.

From the very beginning, the Park, which was developed for the Olympics, was advertized as an attempt to create the very thing Atlanta lacked: a pleasant, hospitable place where Atlantans (and their guests) could come to do nothing more than to be together and enjoy one another.

It's true that during the Olympics, diversions were planned for the 27-acre park, including two concert stages, and many edifying promotions. I got as far as Bud World (Budweiser, the official beer of the Olympics) but people there were able to give me accounts of pavilions created by other sponsors like AT&T and Swatch, which were educational, and therefore to be commended.

According to the plan, the Olympic spirit would be nowhere more evident than in the Park itself, a living room where visitors and locals could freely congregate and mingle twenty-four hours a day. Planners assumed that at least 60,000 people would be in the park at all times. They did not overestimate, either the numbers or the friendly, joyful spirit of the Park, which prevailed magically until disaster struck early Friday morning.

Pipe bomb explodes in a crowded public place and joy turns to sadness, the dream-killers strike again. Two people die, hundreds are injured.

Until that moment, the spirit of the Olympics had been glorious ... snafus and glitches of small significance compared to the good will evident everywhere. Forty-thousand volunteers, brimming with civic pride, had been waiting six years to welcome Olympic visitors to Atlanta. Within minutes of the bombing, broadcast commentators assure their audiences that the 1996 Olympics will be remembered for the bomb more than anything else.

The search for blame begins, and the first culprit is the Park itself. It is the one Olympic site that is "open". Fencing surrounds it, but entrances are wide and there are no metal detectors. Every other site directly associated with the Olympics, the "venues" for competition, have airport-style security. Metal detectors, pockets emptied, parcels and bags are searched, some places more than once.

Minutes after the bomb, news media produce expert consultants who have worked for the CIA. They testify they warned Atlanta of the folly of having a public park with free access. People like Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia are surprised to find themselves in the position of reminding interviewers that we cannot have a free society without having some "common ground".

Larry King is not having it. Somebody screwed up and a price must be paid. This is gonna be a bummer for everybody but the media. Committees will be formed, inquiries launched. Every level of government will get into the act.

Then Andy performs magic.

The Park is closed for three days to enable the police to complete their investigation there. On Monday, the third day after the bombing, it is announced the Park will reopen the next day with a memorial service led by Rev. Andy Young, in which the main ingredients are drawn from the African-American church.

Bright and early Tuesday there are long lines at every entrance to the Park, as police search bags and inspect "electronics". Security guards are heard commenting that people now happily submit to procedures which would have infuriated them a week ago.

The park is crowded ("We're back!"); half the audience seems to be interviewing the other half. (There are 14,000 registered journalists in print and electronic media here at the Olympics). The Ceremony is at the largest stage, already underway when I arrive. Winton Marcelis opens the show (playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee"), then Billy Payne speaks (white guy in a necktie), then Andy Young. Hoping to get as close as I can, I fall into step with Rev. Jesse Jackson's entourage as it passes me.

Approaching the stage, I am aware of a beefy security guard, who fixes me in his steely gaze. Or is it my imagination? At this point, little is known about the "perp", the bomber, except that he is a white male, like me. Rather than try to accompany Jesse Jackson to center stage, I decide to attempt to fade into the crowd and be as inconspicuous as possible.

Andy evaluates the humanizing character of the park in conservative terms: "There were no incidents or fights. People didn't even get too drunk." He goes on to talk about the redemptive value of unmerited suffering. Nothing new here, but this is not a situation for theological novelty. People listen to him and respect what he says because he knows what he's talking about and he means it. The service concludes with the spirited singing of the Georgia Mass Choir.

As the music and the prayer and the rhetoric is wrapped around the Park, the disaster itself is being incorporated into the pageantry and myth of the 1996 Olympics, an exciting part of the games. People will tune into Olympic broadcasts each day to get news of the investigation along with the results of the track and field. Ratings soar.

In the course of the week, Law Enforcement artfully discloses it has a serious suspect, who turns out to be a security guard employed at the Olympic Park to protect the park and visitors. He lives with his mom, loves police work too much, more than is good for him. In fact, he is the security guard who discovered the bomb.

Reports suggest he planted the bomb in order to discover it and be a hero. This fits a standard profile. People in Atlanta begin to feel better, but the emphasis on the standard profile is a little troubling.

(FBI's methods remind one of the way Howard Cosell used to report prize fights. He would decide how the fight was going to go and who would win it, all well in advance of the fight itself. The fight he reported matched the fight he planned exactly, regardless of what happened during the actual fight. Outcomes at odds with his predictions were announced as amazing, incomprehensible prodigies.)

When it is demonstrated that the security guard could not have made a warning call to 911, a critical piece of evidence in the case, officials speculate that the call might be a mere coincidence.

As subsequent days go by and no arrest is made, confidence erodes, anxiety rises. Hundreds of false bomb threats pour into police headquarters. The Olympic Centennial Park, however, appears to prevail, as a symbol of the Olympic Spirit at its best, and a hopeful sign for Atlanta.

Tom Cullen is a writer in Atlanta, Ga.

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