Activists fighting to halt the fiercely contested police training facility in Atlanta, Georgia, known as Cop City, have collected a whopping 104,000 signatures for a city-wide ballot referendum on the city government’s lease for the massive $90 million project.
Organizers call it the “most successful” citizen-driven petition in the city of roughly 500,000 residents with a deep history of struggle for racial justice. The broader Stop Cop City movement argues city officials and the Atlanta police are destroying chunks of a beloved forest to build the facility and have bulldozed ahead despite fierce protests and widespread community opposition.
Atlanta voters could have the final say on whether the city leases land for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, a project that became an ugly national controversy after state troopers shot and killed a young protester known as Tortuguita, as law enforcement aggressively cleared tree sitters from a forest blockade in January.
However, it’s still up to city leaders and the Atlanta City Council to approve the signatures and put the referendum on the ballot. Depending on how long the process takes, the referendum could be on the ballot by this November or March of next year, when Republicans will be voting in the presidential primaries.
“We’ve collected over 104,000 raw signatures around the City of Atlanta — from Southwest to Buckhead — and the people have decided,” said Mary Hooks, the tactical lead for the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition’s petition drive, in a statement. “Cop City must be put on the ballot.”
Only about 58,000 signatures from registered voters are needed to place a citizens’ referendum on the ballot in Atlanta, or about 15 percent of the population, according to local reports. However, coalition organizers say they heard reports from inside City Hall that officials may base the requirement on the number of voters registered for the last election, including inactive voters, which would bring the number up to around 62,000.
Instead of submitting the 104,000 raw signatures as originally planned on Monday, canvassers said they will continue collecting signatures under a court-ordered extension as they wait for clarification from city officials on how the signatures will be counted and validated.
Stop Cop City activists fear city officials may attempt to invalidate large numbers of signatures with aggressive “signature matching,” a practice that civil rights groups have implicated in voter suppression. On Monday, the Atlanta City Council was reportedly preparing to vote on a resolution to hire outside legal counsel to verify signatures.
Indeed, Atlanta’s Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon issued a statement on Monday confirming that the city “has developed a step-by-step process to conduct the audit of the documents, of which the signature verification process may be a critical element.” In a process described by some observers as “onerous,” each signature on the referendum petition will be matched manually, line for line, with signatures in the state voter database.
Voting rights advocates are critical of “signature matching,” arguing that minute differences between them could be used to throw signatures out, with signatures from marginalized voters such as those with disabilities disproportionately impacted. The American Civil Liberties Union has successfully filed legal challenges in multiple states where absentee ballots were wrongly discarded due to signature matching, but Waldon said the process in Atlanta would be transparent.
“We are committed to a transparent process that meets the requirements of the law and builds public confidence and trust,” Waldon said.
Still, the Vote to Stop Cop City canvassers are leaving nothing to chance and will continue collecting signatures over the next month. They are also asking for further clarification from the city about whether voters will be notified and allowed to correct or “cure” rejected signatures.
“In addition to the clear problems raised, there are critical questions the city has left unanswered,” coalition organizer Kate Shapiro said in a statement on Tuesday. “How will voters know if their signature is rejected? Will observers be present during the verification process? If a signature is rejected, can a voter appeal or cure the error so that their signature can be counted?”
Earlier this summer, the coalition filed a federal lawsuit after Waldon approved a petition (two weeks after it was submitted for approval) that required each signature supporting the referendum to be written down before a resident of Atlanta. That would have prevented residents from unincorporated Dekalb County — including residents living near the forest and police training city — from collecting signatures for the effort.
In late July, a federal judge ruled in favor of the canvassers and against the city, allowing non-Atlanta residents to collect signatures. The ranks of canvassers swelled with activists and volunteers, and events such as community bike rides were organized to collect large numbers of signatures.
The judge also extended the deadline for submitting signatures to September 23, giving the canvassers more time to collect signatures in case the city attempts to invalidate them in large numbers. The city has reportedly appealed the ruling after a motion to delay the judge’s order was denied, according to reports.
City officials will have 50 days to validate the signatures after the petition is submitted. A spokesperson for the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition told Truthout that Atlanta officials have the ability to put the referendum on the November ballot instead of waiting for the next election in March, if officials choose to do so.
The situation in Atlanta is tense after months of activism and police repression. In response to blockades and acts of property destruction, police have rounded up activists and charged dozens under Georgia’s vague “domestic terrorism” law on flimsy evidence in what activists say is an effort by local police and their allies in Georgia’s Republican-controlled state government to criminalize an entire movement.
However, the vast majority of protests, vigils and events held by the Stop Cop City activists do not involve property destruction tactics, and activists also face felony charges for posting flyers to mailboxes and raising money for a bail fund.
After a formal review of the evidence, Atlanta District Attorney Sherry Boston recently withdrew her office from prosecuting 42 people (including a legal observer) who were rounded up and charged with “domestic terrorism” at a music concert after an embarrassing incident for police in March, instead leaving the prosecution up to Georgia’s Republican attorney general.
Vote to Stop Cop City announced on Monday that the coalition “will consider upcoming opportunities for nonviolent, direct actions to direct the peoples’ frustration with council’s obstruction of the democratic process.”
“If the City needs to see a demonstration of the people’s commitment to this issue, we’re happy to provide one,” Kamau Franklin, an organizer with Community Movement Builders, said in a statement.