One week after city officials refused to start the process of validating 116,000 signatures on a petition for a citywide ballot referendum on the embattled police training complex dubbed “Cop City,” the City of Atlanta is coming under mounting pressure from top Georgia Democrats and dozens of community groups to ensure a referendum is on the ballot for November elections.
Activists and a broad coalition of community groups want Atlanta voters to decide whether the city leases 85 acres of publicly owned land and fiercely defended forest to build Cop City. At a meeting on Monday, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved a resolution introduced by Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari that orders the city to begin digitizing signatures while a federal appeals court considers litigation surrounding the petition, but the council stopped short of using its power to simply place a referendum on the ballot.
Meanwhile, writing in The Nation, Democratic Representatives Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib called on the Justice Department to investigate the fatal police shooting of a Cop City protester known as Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, accusing law enforcement of engaging in a “cover-up” after Tortuguita became the first environmental activist in the United States to die by police gunfire as troopers cleared a forest defense camp in January.
A team of Georgia State Police claim Tortuguita shot first while sitting in a tent, but body camera footage and an independent autopsy cast doubt on those claims, and both sides accuse the other of foul play. In a scathing op-ed, Tlaib and Bush said “heavily militarized” state troopers shot and killed “a nonviolent activist protesting in the local forest that Cop City would destroy, in a hail of 57 bullets.”
“In the immediate aftermath of their killing, law enforcement claimed that Tortuguita possessed a firearm and fired first. This was a lie,” Tlaib and Bush write. “Body camera footage suggests one officer shot another, and autopsies showed Tortuguita had their arms raised and no gunpowder residue on their hands when they were killed.”
Tlaib and Bush, two progressives known for questioning police violence, appear to be the first members of Congress to call for a federal investigation and say publicly that Tortuguita and their family are victims of a police “cover-up.”
After months of protests and heavy-handed police repression — Georgia’s Republican attorney general recently filed racketeering (or RICO) charges against dozens of activists, including a legal observer — the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center has become a debacle for city leaders in Atlanta, many of them Democrats. Cop City has also become a focal point for debates over police funding and public safety that erupted into the mainstream during the 2020 protests against racist police violence in Atlanta and beyond.
“Tearing down trees in Black and Brown communities at a moment of reckoning with the climate crisis to perpetuate the prison-industrial complex demonstrates an astounding lack of morality, foresight, and care for those living in these neighborhoods,” Tlaib and Bush write. “This is racist.”
Now, former gubernatorial candidate and voting rights champion Stacey Abrams is among the Democrats with a national profile calling on city officials to give Atlanta voters a chance to decide.
“The rarely used citizen referendum is designed for precisely this type of fraught issue,” Abrams said in a statement on Saturday. “Regardless of one’s position on the subject matter, the leadership of the city should make every effort to allow direct citizen engagement by vote.”
Echoing voting rights groups, Sen. Raphael Warnock, the first Black senator from Georgia, sent a letter on Friday urging city officials to “err on the side of giving people the ability to express their views” and raising concerns about transparency of the process city officials would use to verify the 116,000 signatures on the petition for a referendum. In the past, aggressive “signature-matching” schemes resulted in intense litigation over absentee ballots in Georgia, particularly after former President Donald Trump and his ilk attempted to undermine the results of the 2020 election.
“In the spirit of ensuring the people of Georgia have a voice in their government, I respectfully request that the City provide greater clarity around its processes for verifying petition submissions and take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that all eligible signatures are counted,” Warnock wrote.
Warnock added that “at minimum” voters need timely information on how to correct or “cure” signatures thrown out during the verification process.
The Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition delivered the petition with 116,000 signatures last week, a startling number considering there are roughly 500,000 residents of Atlanta. City officials accepted the petition into their “custody” but claimed they could not start the signature verification process due to pending litigation and conflicting federal court rulings. The delay could potentially push a voter referendum on Cop City from November to March, when Republicans will be voting in the presidential primaries.
As the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition points out, members of Atlanta’s City Council could put an end to the confusion over the petition by simply voting to put a referendum over the construction of Cop City on the ballot. In June, a majority on the council voted to approve a crucial land lease and $60 million in taxpayer funding for the police complex despite hundreds of residents who waited hours to speak against it during a marathon meeting.
In a letter to the Atlanta City Council on Monday, a coalition of grassroots and community-based groups write that public engagement has been insufficient during the entire process of approving and moving forward with the police training complex, regardless of where one stands on the issue of Cop City. The best resolution is allowing the people to vote on an issue that is “just as consequential as it is controversial.” At the heart of the referendum, they write, is an opportunity for citizens to directly answer the question of “how — not whether — our city invests in public safety.”
“A referendum is nothing more than an opportunity for direct democracy on legislative decisions that this City is making on behalf of its residents,” the groups told Atlanta City Council members. “A referendum on the usage of public land and dollars is neutral — it is not pro- or anti-policing, nor does it resolve any reasonable debate on the environmental, health, safety, and human rights issues impacted by these decisions.”
After months of embarrassing conflict with activists and the ensuing political maelstrom, the City of Atlanta is also talking about brining “all sides” together for a group decision.
“We believe it is time for all sides to begin to have solution-focused conversations informed by the facts and not clouded by misinformation or unnecessary divisive language so we can come together and find common ground,” the City of Atlanta said in a statement to Axios last week.
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