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Judge: Officials Unlawfully Tried to Obstruct Stop Cop City Ballot Effort

The judge struck down a requirement for only Atlanta residents to be allowed to collect signatures for the referendum.

Environmental activists hold a rally and a march through the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, on March 4, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia.

On Thursday, a judge ruled in favor of activists attempting to put Cop City on a ballot this fall, issuing a scathing decision saying that Atlanta officials placed unlawful restrictions on activists’ ballot effort.

U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen ruled that the city was unjustified in forcing Stop Cop City activists to prove their Atlanta residency before being allowed to collect signatures to qualify for a November referendum on the issue. Cohen reset the deadline for signature collection, giving the activists another 60 days to reach the 70,000 signatures from Atlantans registered to vote needed to put the issue on the ballot.

The decision was a blistering rebuke, saying the city failed time and again to provide evidence to back up their argument that signature gatherers should be required to be Atlanta residents.

“Requiring signature gatherers to be residents of the city imposes a severe burden on core political speech and does little to protect the city’s interest in self-governance,” Cohen wrote, saying that the nonresident plaintiffs who brought the case have shown that the city’s restrictions caused “irreparable harm” to activists’ ability to exercise their rights to political speech.

“The City has offered no specifics as to why permitting nonresident Plaintiffs to gather signatures on a petition that must be signed by residents of the City will cause any disruption to the political process,” Cohen continued.

The decision is a major win for Stop Cop City activists, who say they’ve collected more than 30,000 signatures so far.

“We are thrilled by Judge Cohen’s ruling, and the expansion of democracy to include our DeKalb neighbors, and levels the playing field for our coalition,” said Mary Hooks, a lead organizer for the Cop City Vote Coalition, in a statement. Hooks continued, saying that the movement to stop “Cop City has been marred time and time again by the silencing of democratic input and repression of community participation, and since the launch of this campaign, we have been playing on a field tilted in the City of Atlanta’s favor.”

Indeed, activists say that the city has tried to interject at nearly every step of the referendum effort so far in what they say are clear attempts to erode their own citizens’ rights to protest police expansion through the democratic process.

City officials, including Atlanta’s Democratic mayor, have essentially argued that the referendum wouldn’t do anything even if it were successful because officials wouldn’t allow the lease for the proposed 85-acre facility to be revoked. Meanwhile, Mayor Andre Dickens has engaged election denialist tactics against activists’ effort, casting aspersions against activists and implying that they are being untruthful to the press.

“We know [the referendum] is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly,” Dickens said in a press conference earlier this month. “We are making sure we continue monitoring the process.”

His hostility toward the activists came through again in a statement issued by his office after the judge’s ruling Thursday, which heavily featured fear mongering over crime and violence.

“We can either have the best-trained firefighters and police officers or we can decide to settle for sub-par training conditions in sub-par facilities. We need the best facilities to serve and protect our community in emergency situations,” the statement read, going on to tout a reduction in crime across the city.

Activists condemned the statement, pointing out that the supposed reduction in crime happened without Cop City and that research has in fact shown that increased militarization of cities and increases in law enforcement resources don’t actually decrease crime. Meanwhile, police have continued to perpetuate violence with impunity, including when police shot and killed Stop Cop City activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, whose chosen name was Tortuguita, earlier this year.

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