“You could feel the heaviness and the darkness,” activist Amisha Harding says about the early days of Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Atlanta. Her answer: unity, kindness, conversation, music, "Healing Walls" and the macarena. (Image courtesy of Harding)
How Amisha Harding became an accidental activist amid Black Lives Matter protests
Amisha Harding was reluctant to join the crowd after seeing how some protesters clashed with police, vandalized property, and left shattered glass and burning cars in their wake opposite Centennial Olympic Park early in the Black Lives Matter protests. She took heed when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms held a press conference and said, “If you love our city, go home.” It was her love for her hometown that ultimately inspired Harding, a first-generation American with roots in Trinidad and Antigua, to drive downtown two nights later and support the cause (SEE VIDEO).
Although the 41-year-old mother steeled herself for the changes brought by violence and chaos, she was unprepared for the charged atmosphere. “You could feel the heaviness and the darkness,” she says. “Black protesters and white protesters were yelling at each other. People were in the faces of police officers, screaming at the tops of their lungs. And there was a Christian group yelling at everybody to let God handle it. It was a hot mess.”
Once tear gas was fired, ratcheting up the volatility and pandemonium, Harding found herself running for cover alongside cousin Samantha Harding, who was visiting from Raleigh, North Carolina. By the time they got home, they were shaken and determined to change the energy that made the city unrecognizable to them.
They brainstormed all night and decided that if they could create a space for everyone to have their say without shouting, that might de-escalate the tension and even introduce an element of joy to the fight for justice. The result is what Harding calls Healing Walls, heavy plastic panels measuring 4 feet by 8 feet and fabricated to insulate walls and prevent moisture. They provided a place where people could write down their thoughts.
Every day, a fresh wall goes up in front of the Ferris wheel near CNN Center with a theme on which visitors can riff. The conversation-starters have included “We want our government to know . . . , “We want to live in a country where . . . ” and “We are the change we commit to.” The walls have attracted men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds to speak their minds without raising their voices. Comments have ranged from profane to profound. And one gentleman, a Wiccan, posted “Witches Against Racism” in a show of solidarity.
Harding, who describes herself as a “true West Indian,” laughs when listing her multiple careers. She does consulting work for nonprofits and is a licensed real estate agent. She started a meal-prep company and T-shirt line in response to the Covid-19 quarantine. And she teaches Zumba every weekend — where her “Dance it out!” mantra has been helping stressed-out students recalibrate their bodies and minds since 2013.
She figured the same principle would apply in the midst of the protests, so she curated a playlist of R&B, soca, reggae, gospel and hip-hop music to shift the energy and lighten the mood.
A natural empath, Harding remembers crying over sentimental TV commercials as a 4-year-old. And while she couldn’t explain why she felt so deeply then, she says her heart has “always been big enough to feel my pain, your pain and the world’s pain.”
Harding has an 18-year-old son attending Morehouse College and understands how the accumulation of trauma, anxiety, depression and fear in the face of police injustice can result in rage. But her perspective hasn’t blinded her to the dilemma of National Guard troops and Atlanta police officers assigned to keep the peace.
After hanging her first Healing Wall and setting up loudspeakers to play Bob Marley, Beyoncé and Machel Montano last week, she approached a phalanx of armed guards in riot gear.
“Heeeeey,” she called out in greeting. “I’m Amisha! I’m a friendly protester. How are y’all feeling today? How are your families feeling about your being out here? What do you think about what’s going on in the world?”
It took a minute before the officers’ stunned silence and shocked expressions gave way to smiles of recognition when they realized Harding was sincere. Then everything shifted.
One Guardsman explained how he understood why people were so angry — which only complicated an already difficult job for him. Another’s eyes filled with tears in response to Harding’s simple act of kindness and hospitality. And a third blurted, “Can I take a picture with you? I love you!”
Since that night last week, hundreds of selfies have been snapped and hugs exchanged between unlikely allies. Videos of uniformed officers doing the macarena, the electric slide and dancing to soca music alongside demonstrators have gone viral. Messages of support have poured in from around the world via social media. TV and print media have picked up on the story. Off-duty Guardsmen have stopped by Harding’s perch just to say “hi” or drop off bottled water and hand sanitizer. A National Guard general gave her a ceremonial pin to acknowledge his gratitude.
On June 5 she was deputized to help maintain order when Major Trey Constantine asked her to assist in enforcing the 9 p.m. curfew.
It was Harding’s turn to be shocked before realizing the request was sincere. So she lifted her megaphone and improvised the call and response, “WHEN I SAY CURFEW, YOU SAY ‘GO HOME!'” As the crowd disbursed peacefully, a handful of teenagers infiltrated the space and started to shout obscenities at the officers. They were no match for the immediate clap back.
“Leave them alone,” the protesters said. “You can’t come around here with that bad energy. These [Guardsmen and police officers] are our friends.”
No arrests were made that night, and the next morning the mayor lifted the curfew.
Her cousin has since returned to Raleigh, where she plans to do her own series of Healing Walls, and Harding is hoping to find a permanent home for the growing collection in her living room. She sees it as an important chronicle of Atlanta’s evolving history. Meanwhile, she has kicked off yet another new initiative, Courageous Conversations for the Collective, to create a safe space for people of color and their allies to have frank conversations about race in public forums.
“Samantha and I tripped and fell and became accidental activists,” Harding says. “We intentionally made space for joy, peace and unity, and what we invited into the space came into the space.”
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