Song for Weelaunee

Spread the love

As helicopters chopped the sky above our heads and tear gas drifted on the breeze, police blocked an entrance to the massive law enforcement training facility they’re determined to build in southeast Atlanta. The project, dubbed Cop City, is being pushed along despite the wants and needs of the community. In revolutionary defiance, hundreds of individuals from the area and across the country converged at this point, marching as a collective, a unit of unity, carrying banners, puppets, and tree saplings. Myself and a handful of other musicians carried our instruments. The “marching band,” as journalists referred to us, formed in a small community space on Nov. 11, 2023. We connected digitally from various parts of the country, all with intentions to attend the Block Cop City action planned for the following week and hoping to offer music in solidarity. 

That Saturday, we gathered to play music together for the first time. Saxophone, trombone, sousaphone, snare and bass drum: We were equipped with these nonviolent means of resistance, shields of song that continually kept us from being depleted, subdued or silenced by the systems that tried to suppress our voices. We learned “Bella ciao” (“Goodbye Beautiful”), an Italian protest song, sung by workers against harsh working conditions in the late 19th century, adopted by resistance movements fighting the fascist regime. Today, the song has become a revolutionary anthem, with a forest defender adapting the song and writing lyrics specifically for Weelaunee. 

Our weekend was spent practicing music and attending direct action training. Training sessions supplied us with the knowledge we needed to maintain the highest level of safety possible through our inevitable clash with police. The training also provided the space for us to make connections, learn from organizers, understand personal risk and build fellowship with others in the movement. We, the band, ran through our song list in a neighborhood park as others nearby painted signs, discussed tactics, prepped supplies and laid out food to feed everyone. We knew that regardless of the outcome of Monday’s action, the strength of connecting committed individuals around a cause and resisting oppression as one was more powerful than anything they, the police, could throw at us. 

On Monday, Nov. 13, we gathered at Gresham Park with hundreds of fellow protestors. We heard from leaders in the movement to Stop Cop City, like Community Movement Builders’ Kamau Franklin and from Belkis Terán and Joel Paez, the parents of Tortuguita, the Weelaunee forest defender who was killed on Jan. 18, just 10 months prior. Members of the American Indian Movement beat a drum while chanting a prayer for the protection of the forest and the safety of everyone there to protect her. We gathered in a circle, hands resting on the shoulders of once-strangers, now-comrades in this fight to preserve the land and her people. We stood in silence until we were released from that trance of time. Then we, the band, began to jam — playing the songs we’d learned and improvised. Belkis joined nearby with a cowbell. Her enthusiasm seemed to channel the spirit of her departed child — tenacious and passionate in the fight for a sacred cause.

We gathered strategically, organized by closeness to the front line, by those who’d have to accept the greater risk of harm. Individuals who couldn’t participate in the march carefully dispersed from the park. Our sousaphone and bass drum left with them to support the rest of us from afar. We stepped off, crossing the park and following a bike trail through the woods. Colorful puppets, held high on sticks, shimmered in the breeze — puppets formed into insects, birds and other beings in flight above us, buzzing with the energy of our gathering. Banners draped along our sides and in front, holding us all behind canvas walls to show the world our message of peace. We, the band, bundled in the middle of the march, rotated through our repertoire of songs, blowing notes to the sky to lift our spirits high. We emerged from the woods onto residential streets and to Constitution Road, on route to an entrance of the Cop City construction site.

What I will detail next has been hard to recount. I’ve witnessed police brutality during protests in Detroit: Back in 2020, while holding space on a city street, riot police happily beat those around me. I had my trombone then and kept playing. My instrument served as a gas mask and shield. I stood my ground, blowing air through my horn as brutes came barreling toward me. My heart racing, a fear response paralyzing me as they turned to attack whoever was beside, for whatever reason, avoiding me. I replay those moments in my mind, wondering what I could have done differently. If I had used my trombone to protect others, could I have been killed for brandishing a “weapon”? I think of how my music protected me. How the music I chose came naturally, “The Godfather Waltz” barreling out of me as the police, themselves a state-sponsored mafia, wreaked violence on us for exercising our right to protest — in peace — against the atrocities committed by them — the villains — the police. 

What came next on Constitution Road could be marked as a success, for unlike in Detroit in 2020, individuals who marched that day were able to leave and not be dragged off and severely beaten by police. Though, like the violence I’d seen in my own city, I’m still afraid of those memories. Being assaulted and dehumanized by the people who are “sworn to protect” is always traumatic, and that trauma is permanent, affecting a person their entire life, reaching beyond them, to their family. The families of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd and the families of thousands of others who’ve been murdered by the U.S. police — tens of thousands of individuals wounded by those whose job it is to protect them. And like the family of Tortuguita — their siblings, parents, relatives, and friends — wounded by what the Georgia State Patrol did. This was the pain we held in our memories as we stood there, face-to-face with them, the state and local police. 

In the middle of the road stood armored officers, spread in lines from side to side, flanking the tank they called “The Beast.” More of their vehicles lined the road. A van, ready to cart people away, was parked around the corner. I continued to play, starting “This Little Light of Mine” as I tried to hide my anxiety. My bandmates beside and behind me played boldly. Before I could process that the front of the march had met the wall of officers, the tear gas guns went off. They launched flash bombs into the crowd, their battle sounds bursting into dense clouds of chemical compounds. The front line pushed through a wall of police shields, umbrellas held forward to shield their faces from the gas. Our section of the march moved to the side of the road and continued pressing forward. We were pushed back over a ditch, stumbling, held up by each other. A tear gas canister hit the ground nearby. The cloud entered our lungs, choking us. The words, “I can’t breathe” came rasping out of me. I turned away for air and saw my comrade, his trombone held high and directed at the police, blasting Woody Guthrie’s tune, “All You Fascists.” We, the band, slipped back into formation instantly, jumping in on the next beat, playing until the smoke cleared and everyone returned to “safety.”

I’m gonna tell you fascists
You may be surprised
The people in this world
Are getting organized
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose 

Race hatred cannot stop us
This one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow
And greed has got to go
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose 

All of you fascists bound to lose
I said, all of you fascists bound to lose
Yes sir, all of you fascists bound to lose
You’re bound to lose! You fascists
Bound to lose! 

People of every color
Marching side to side
Marching ‘cross these fields
Where a million fascists die
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose! 

I’m going into this battle
And take my union gun
We’ll end this world of slavery
Before this battle’s won
You’re bound to lose
You fascists bound to lose! 

Bella Ciao (for Weelaunee Forest): 

Odetta – This Little Light of Mine:

Woody Guthrie – All You Fascists: