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Activists Are Working to Give the People of Atlanta a Chance to Vote on Cop City

Ignored in public comment and denied responsive public officials, residents are taking matters into their own hands.

“Vote to Stop Cop City” posters.

When it comes to Atlanta’s planned $90 million police training center, widely dubbed “Cop City,” the project’s nonprofit backer, the Atlanta Police Foundation, has long run a reality deficit, trading on political power to support factually improbable claims while keeping the public in the dark. In 2021, Atlanta City Council approved a lease of public Intrenchment Creek Park land, known to activists as the Weelaunee Forest, to the Police Foundation that was riddled with unanswered questions and irregularities.

In a telling example, the Police Foundation has been cagey about how it plans to meet greenspace requirements detailed in the lease, with little accountability from elected officials for obfuscations and outright lies. As a condition of receiving a land disturbance permit, the Police Foundation had to show that a certain number of acres of greenspace would be set aside for public use.

As journalist John Ruch has extensively documented, the Police Foundation initially claimed to preserve a mathematically improbable number of acres: The number of acres devoted to greenspace added with the number of acres for the construction site eclipsed the overall size of the lease. The Police Foundation later released maps showing unrelated properties as part of the necessary greenspace.

The surrounding community stands on shifting sands as DeKalb County and City of Atlanta officials dodge questions about the project. On key issues, such as on how Cop City’s planned shooting range will be soundproofed to mitigate impacts on the youth detention center and surrounding community, Veterans Against Cop City organizer Jaye C., who asked to be identified only by her first name and last initial, is skeptical that officials have conducted an inquiry. “We don’t know,” she told Truthout on the issue of soundproofing. “They don’t know. Nobody knows, and nobody’s finding out.”

In 2021, Atlanta City Council created an advisory board for the project called the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC). It became immediately apparent that this body would be toothless and secretive. CSAC was denied access to the controversial land disturbance permit application. It largely operated in secret, holding meetings with no public announcement and no public version of the minutes, leading to questions about whether the committee violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

When three police helicopters circle over 11 people chanting on the sidewalk, any action associated with the fight to stop Cop City is perceived to incur some degree of risk.

Lily Ponitz, a dissenting member of the commission, was removed under hazy circumstances, possibly relating to her violation of a media ban to publicly criticize discrepancies between the site plan and the environmental study, including speaking with Truthout’s Candice Bernd on the subject. (The Georgia First Amendment Foundation said the media ban likely violates commission members’ free speech rights.) CSAC last met in April; it’s unclear whether the body still exists. Atlanta’s mayor convened a second advisory board, this time with a broader slate of stakeholders, though with little clarity about how or whether the Police Foundation will integrate its input.

Even elected officials are kept in the dark when it comes to Cop City. When a journalist inquired about obtaining the land disturbance permit, public officials claimed to not possess a copy. DeKalb County planning officials appeared unaware that clearcutting was underway until informed by constituent complaints.

The stance among activists is clear: They have little interest in engaging with advisory boards tasked with ironing out the finer points of a project they reject in full. When given the opportunity, though, activists and engaged community members show up at public comment periods in droves. In June, when the Atlanta City Council voted on whether to approve a budget increase for Cop City, more than 300 people registered to speak and hundreds more were turned away. Some activists arrived hours early to be assured a chance to speak. At the end of 12 grueling hours of testimony, with an overwhelming majority in opposition to the training center, the city council passed the budget increase anyway.

Activists rally to reopen Intrenchment Creek Park following public comment on June 27, 2023.
Activists rally to reopen Intrenchment Creek Park following public comment on June 27, 2023.

Despite this setback, Georgians continue to turn out for public comment, on issues large and small. The DeKalb County Commission meets bimonthly during the workday; Cop City opponents show up early to register to speak. Most recently, the Commission has been pondering reopening parts of Intrenchment Creek Park untouched by the construction of Cop City and another development project led by Shadowbox Studios. Activists have concerns about this plan; it’s seen as too little, too late, and the plan to build a new trail risks endangering what activists call the “Grandmother Tree,” a venerable oak with possible historical ceremonial significance to the forcibly displaced Indigenous Mvskoke people.

The spokesperson for the DeKalb County commission did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment on public opposition to the training center and declined to provide statistics on turnout for comment.

At public comment on June 27, DeKalb County resident Laura Kerns expressed her frustration with the opaque local decision-making process. “We’re asking questions and we’re not getting answers,” she said in her testimony. “We feel, frankly, like we’re being teased. What we’d mainly like is a seat at the table.”

High Enthusiasm Despite Referendum Barriers

Confronted with an intractable official process, Atlantans have taken matters into their own hands. A little-used provision of the Georgia Constitution permits voters to reject decisions made by local governments if they collect enough signatures on a petition to put the measure on the ballot.

Stop Cop City activists have a daunting task ahead of them: 70,000 signatures are required to put rejection of the Police Foundation lease on the ballot, which is roughly the number of people who voted in the last mayoral runoff. Hundreds of people signed up as volunteer canvassers when the initiative was announced, and thousands more asked to be notified when the petition was available to sign.

One activist bitterly told Truthout that the cops “are really good at making legal things seem illegal.”

Within short order, the newly created Vote to Stop Cop City secured fiscal sponsorship and raised about $50,000. Bucking perceptions of the movement, the majority of the money raised came from within Georgia. While the campaign is hiring paid canvassers, a lot of the energy comes from folks already engaged in the Stop Cop City movement. In the first week, the petition collected nearly 10,000 signatures. The clock is ticking: Activists have until August 15 to collect the requisite 70,000 signatures.

Broader factors disenfranchising and marginalizing people in Atlanta and across the United States affect the petition effort. At a panel during the sixth “Week of Action” against Cop City, longtime organizers pointed out that over the past several decades, many Black people had been priced out of city limits. Only people residing within Atlanta city limits who were registered to vote in October 2021 can sign the petition, which excludes the new influx of engaged citizens and former Atlanta residents forced out by gentrification. After the initial burst of enthusiasm, collecting signatures may be a long road.

I tagged along with Vote to Stop Cop City volunteer canvassers one Friday in late June. Hazel, a canvasser who asked to be identified only by her first name, expressed frustration that despite living in Atlanta for several years, she established official residency too late to sign the petition. After they set up camp outside CVS, security guards asked canvassers to move elsewhere. Legally speaking, they could have stood their ground, but, as Hazel said, “We don’t want bad propaganda.”

As Atlantans walked by, canvassers inquired about their status as Fulton County residents and voters. Many people who stopped to talk couldn’t sign the petition. Two people had been convicted of felonies and were therefore excluded. (In Georgia, people convicted of felonies can’t vote until they’ve completed parole and probation.) “I can’t vote,” said one frustrated Black man. “Otherwise, I’d sign.”

Other people walking by were ineligible because they lived in nearby DeKalb County, not within Atlanta proper. Recently, DeKalb County residents sued to be allowed to sign the petition, arguing that they should have a voice in decisions about the police training facility, given that it’s being built within their county. For now, however, the most impacted residents are wholly excluded from the referendum process.

Then there’s the fear associated with signing the petition. One person voiced concerns about “being on some kind of registry.” Outsized policing around the Stop Cop City movement has already sidelined activists and discouraged people from showing up to protests. When three police helicopters circle over 11 people chanting on the sidewalk, any action associated with the fight to stop Cop City is perceived to incur some degree of risk. One activist bitterly told Truthout that the cops “are really good at making legal things seem illegal.”

On July 7, the Atlanta Community Press Collective reported that a neighborhood Facebook page discussing how to block canvassers from circulating petitions tagged City Councilor Dustin Hillis. Hillis advised calling Atlanta police should petition circulators proceed with a planned meetup at a park owned by the local homeowners’ association. Proponents of Cop City can draw on the full power of the state to undermine the referendum push and, by proxy, democracy itself.

Even if the effort to get the referendum on the ballot is successful, there’s no guarantee which way the decision will go. Longtime Atlanta resident David Patrie wants a more transparent democratic process but says come election time, he’ll vote for the project. “Sure, I’ll sign the petition. I support Cop City being on the ballot, but I’ll still vote for it.” Canvassers tell people opposed and in favor of Cop City alike to sign the petition. “Even if somebody is, quote-unquote, not on our side, they should sign the petition and have the chance to vote,” Hazel said. “It’s about democracy.”

Officials Resist the Democratic Referendum

A press conference hosted by the mayor’s office lends a troubling preview of further official resistance the initiative is likely to encounter. When asked a question about the referendum, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens cast aspersions about the integrity of the referendum effort, stopping just short of teeing up outright election denialism.

“Anybody can attempt to get the petition going and get the necessary signatures,” Dickens said. “We ask that they do so with honesty and truth. Collect the signatures from real people, sharing the truth about what they are looking to do. … I don’t personally believe they’re going to be successful.”

Amid repression of protesters and an information void surrounding the project, the referendum effort is a fight to create a local democracy accountable to the people.

Petition gatherers expect issues when it comes time to validating signatures. At every step of the process so far, Atlanta has engaged in an insidious official effort to undermine the democratic process. City Clerk Vanessa Waldon rejected or delayed approval of the petition three times, each on technicalities, two of which were more style demands than legal requirements.

One item, a line for canvassers to attest to the signatures, was supposed to be provided by the city clerk’s office, not the petition architects. Every day the city delayed counted against the 60 days allotted by law to collect petition signatures. Vote to Stop Cop City organizers had to sue the city clerk for a writ of mandamus to compel forward progress on the petition approval process.

Parallel Movement Tactics

Some activists are concerned about whether the shift to electoral politics might sap energy from other flanks of the movement. An activist who asked to remain anonymous, referring to several online anarchist manifestos, raised concerns that the referendum could divert people who might otherwise engage in more radical activism. “I don’t like to predict the future, but I’m cynical about electoralism,” they said. “I think a lot of the shift is from fear.” They worried that, even if the referendum was successful in retracting approval of the lease, Atlanta might move ahead with the plan anyway. “There are so many instances of fossil fuel and logging industries building a pipeline or cutting a forest even though it’s illegal.”

The Atlanta Police Foundation has clear-cut the Weelaunee Forest to build Cop City.
The Atlanta Police Foundation has clear-cut the Weelaunee Forest to build Cop City.

The dominant sentiment among activists, however, remains that the referendum is another avenue to prevail in the fight against Cop City should protest alone fail.

“My view is that the referendum will bring in more people from the city at large to do something pretty easy,” said another activist who requested anonymity. “I hope that, beginning with canvassing and getting pulled into the movement, could be a spark that could be grown into a diversity of tactics.”

Vote to Stop Cop City has released a statement in solidarity with protest and direct action, writing: “Our place in the people’s movement against militarization, police violence, and state repression demands vocal and active solidarity with all tactics on this road to collective liberation.”

Protest plays a vital role in the Stop Cop City movement. Without the actions of a small group of dedicated Forest Defenders in the early days, the controversy over Cop City would likely have never hit the national scene. Protests and Weeks of Action draw activists and focus media attention. Protest — and in particular, police repression of protesters — keeps Cop City in the news and on the radar of environmental, protest rights and civil liberties organizations across the country. Yet, when protesters are arrested and smeared as terrorists, inclusion of other tactics broadens who’s able to participate in the fight.

The referendum provides an alternative, and in many cases an additional, path to fight Cop City. People discouraged from protesting by dozens of arrests on domestic terrorism charges can instead hit the streets canvassing, so long as they reside within Atlanta’s city limits. For Atlanta residents, the referendum is a revolt against “the Atlanta Way.” It’s a rejection of the backdoor deals and unresponsive politics locals frequently (and rightly) denounce.

Amid repression of protesters and an information void surrounding the project, the referendum effort is a fight to create a local democracy accountable to the people. Ignored in public comment and denied responsive public officials, Atlanta residents are taking matters into their own hands. Regardless of the outcome, the referendum rebukes the refusal of elected officials to engage with community concerns surrounding Cop City. If Atlanta City Council won’t do it, if DeKalb County won’t do it, the people will.

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