On Wednesday, An Atlanta city clerk approved a referendum petition from opponents of the Public Safety Training Center, now perhaps better known as “Cop City,” which is slated to be built on 100 wooded acres in a neighboring part of Atlanta County. DeKalb. If organizers can get approximately 75,000 signatures in the next 58 days, Atlantans will have a chance to vote on whether to cancel the lease on city-owned land for the project. If that referendum passes, the activists will have successfully stopped Cop City.
The effort was announced the day after the Atlanta City Council voted 11-4 to approve $31 million in public funding for the center, following a marathon rally that featured more than 13 hours of testimony from hundreds of protesters and lasted the entire the night until 5:30 in the morning. The actual price will be even higher. Due to a “lease agreement,” the city will pay the Atlanta Police Foundation, the group that would maintain the facility, $1.2 million a year for the next 30 years, bringing the total public cost closer to $67 million. The rest of the money, another $60 million, will come from the APF, a nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of the police department.
Supporters of the bill, a bipartisan coalition that includes Republican Gov. Brian Kemp as well as most of Atlanta’s Democratic-leaning city council and its Democratic mayor, Andre Dickens, say current police training facilities are substandard. and that Cop City is necessary to increase police retention and morale. The ideologically diverse coalition that has formed in opposition argues that the center will further militarize police and destroy a forest that has been called one of Atlanta’s four “lungs” in official city documents.
To say that opponents of the project have been repressed would be an understatement. In January, the Georgia State Patrol shot and killed a protester named Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in a hail of bullets during a raid in the woods where activists had camped out for months to try to block construction. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Teran shot the officers first, but as I wrote in April, the autopsy undermined that claim. Since then, according to guardian, 42 people protesting against Cop City have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Some were charged with terrorism for destroying construction and police vehicles, others simply for appearing to be associated with the Defend The Atlanta Forest movement.
In May, three activists were charged with felony intimidation of a state official for posting fliers calling a police officer who participated in the January raid a “murderer.” Earlier this month, at least a dozen officers in SWAT gear raided an Atlanta home that was a well-known local organizing hub. They arrested three activists linked to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that has paid legal fees for protesters. These activists were charged with charitable fraud and money laundering, charges they vehemently deny.
The Cop City referendum was inspired by a similar and successful effort in Camden County, Georgia to stop construction on a proposed rocket launch site. That referendum, which passed overwhelmingly, was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court. According to the journalistic watchdog group Cop City ATL Press Collective, organizers have 60 days to collect the required signatures, but only 58 days to do so if they hope to place you on the November 7 ballot. If they miss that deadline, the referendum could appear on the ballot in March. Paul Glaze, an organizer with the Cop City Vote Coalition, told Atlanta’s 11Alive that more than 3,000 volunteers have signed up to collect signatures.
On June 7, the activists announced their campaign plan at a press conference that featured speakers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Working Families Party. “People need to have a say on whether or not there is a police city. The city council has failed time and time again to listen to the masses of people in Atlanta,” said Kamau Franklin, founder of the local group Community Movement Builders, who spoke with mother jones in February. “We are not contemplating failure. We are contemplating what we will do when we are successful and when we have to force the city to give that forest back to the people, and when we stop the city of Atlanta from militarizing their police to attack our community.”
A central question in the Cop City fight is whether the majority of Atlantans really want it built. In February, Mayor Dickens released a poll showing that 61 percent of respondents supported the public safety training center and 26 percent opposed it. A separate poll conducted in March by Emory University professors found that only 48 percent supported it, while 46 percent opposed it.
Come November, we may finally get an answer.