- Photo by Rachael Flora
"Once again God has smiled upon this city of Savannah... Yesterday, you saw Savannah Strong. But you also saw Savannah Love." — Mayor Van R. Johnson, II
YOU ALMOST don’t want to jinx it.
But just as Savannah seems to have largely weathered the storm of COVID-19, we also seem to have weathered — for now — the storm of civil unrest which has descended on so many American cities in the wake of the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman.
It’s way too soon to rest on our laurels and pat ourselves on the back. But how could one city be so lucky?
Maybe there’s more than luck involved.
In fact, I know there’s more than luck involved.
This past Sunday’s peaceful protest was unlike anything seen before in Savannah.
We’ve had many civil rights rallies before, of course. And as far as downtown crowds go, every year — other than 2020, that is — sees a St. Patrick’s crowd that is much larger.
But this gathering was different.
As echoed by similar rallies around the world, it seems to mark a collective paradigm shift in our shared value system, a profound reordering of mutual priorities.
And that’s a very powerful thing.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t just bend — it breaks. And that seems to be the case with the impact of Floyd’s killing on the world’s collective attitude towards not just racial disparity in policing, but in the very concept of policing itself.
For an excellent first-person account of Sunday’s protest, read Rachael Flora’s report on it this issue.
There are many reasons why Savannah remained peaceful. Our small size and very individualized personality enables the kind of civic spirit so many other cities and towns find elusive.
As I’m fond of saying, the worst thing about Savannah is that everyone knows everyone else and is all up in everyone else’s business....
.... And the best thing about Savannah is that everyone knows everyone else and is all up in everyone else’s business.
To me, however, the main advantage right now is clearly leadership.
Just as Mayor Johnson navigated the tough calls regarding COVID-19, he immediately had to jump into a situation even more nightmarish for any mayor:
The possibility of having to watch the city burn on his watch.
Let’s remember that the original Sunday rally, set for 2 p.m. in Johnson Square, was publicized by a private citizen, affiliated with no particular group in or out of town.
Many red flags were raised and much suspicion aroused, which is a different debate for a different time.
But the development to essentially coopt and take over that same place and time slot was, in my opinion, a master stroke, however that decision came about and whoever participated in making it.
Nobody had to try and publicize a “competing” rally, nor did anyone have to discourage anyone from attending any event.
When all was said and done, Johnson had gathered “all the living mayors of Savannah,” as he put it, at the protest – Otis Johnson, Edna Jackson, and Eddie DeLoach (the man he defeated just a few months ago).
It was a powerful statement of solidarity and, it must be said, of leading by example.
It may seem counterintuitive that Savannah, one of the chief ports of entry for the transatlantic slave trade, could have responded with such calm restraint.
But it’s not just Savannah. There are many other such counterintuitive examples of civic cohesion.
Baltimore — a city nearly synonymous in many minds and in pop culture with dysfunction and racial tension — experienced no noteworthy violent incidents so far in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
Flint, Michigan — a city so ravaged by economic decline and racial disparity that it doesn’t even have drinkable water — also experienced no violent incidents of note.
Meanwhile, Atlanta, whose motto is “The City Too Busy To Hate,” has been beset by unrest from one end to the other, for days and nights on end.
In the end, each city, each community, has to handle these crises and challenges on a case-by-case basis, as they see fit.
But in our case, as with the pandemic, the difference seems to have boiled down to leadership.
Leadership, and love. Our love of a city we share, warts and all.