For the past two years, the City of Atlanta has attempted to use $67 Million in taxpayer dollars [total project cost is $90 million] to build the largest police and firefighter training facility in the country. Set to be built on 85 acres of Indigenous Muscogee Creek Nation Forest, the training facility—now known as Cop City—ignores the pleas of a national chorus to end the militarization of police.
Although some of us do not live in Atlanta, we are clear that this too is our fight. We are clear this issue is bigger than Cop City. It is about the preservation of our nation’s democracy. Those who focus merely on the development of this training facility and overlook the forces that are blocking citizens’ dissent are missing the point. Cop City is a laboratory testing the strength of our democracy. If the forces opposing democracy prevail in the South, they will set up shop in a city near you.
DeKalb County District 6 Commissioner Edward C. “Ted” Terry shared with me that “From the very beginning, the project was off to the wrong start because it was already decided. There was no consultation with the nearby neighbors or local officials in the area and the notion was “well, this is the city of Atlanta’s property, we can do whatever we want.”
A surround sound choir of sorts has been vocal about why and how the building of Cop City undermines public safety. In August, organizers collected over 100K signatures necessary to force a referendum on the project. Opponents of Cop City are being met with an unprecedented signature verification process. On September 1, the circuit court “issued a stay on a federal district court’s preliminary injunction that allowed people who lived outside the city limits to collect signatures”. Then on September 5, over 60 activists involved in organizing against the building of Cop City were indicted by the Georgia Attorney General on RICO charges as “prosecutors have sought to portray the fight against the training facility—officially known as the Atlanta Public Safety Center—as a criminal enterprise.”
Terry also mentioned that “While DeKalb County voters and residents can’t sign the petition and are powerless in how this decision was made, we’ve been very supportive in encouraging our neighbors to the West and in the city of Atlanta proper to sign it. The signature verifications in recent Georgia elections has really been used to undercut eligible voters whose signature might not have matched because of the signature map. At its core this practice is undemocratic and there are lots of other ways to verify voters.”
These combined forces are blocking the democratic process. The people have spoken, and a referendum should be underway. Instead, local politicians are now requiring a labor-intensive process to yet again block the peoples’ voices from being heard. In the words of activist Mary
Hooks, tactical lead for the Cop City Vote Coalition, “Atlanta City Council: simply place Cop City on the ballot and let the people vote. We’re ready to accept the outcome of a free and fair election. Can the City say the same?”
When it comes to Cop City, the question that surfaces for us, as employees with the national racial equity organization, Race Forward, centers around our national identity as a democracy. The organizing activities and tactics of organizers are a practice of democracy, protected by the Constitution. However, the response of the government is that of an autocratic institution; charging citizens for protesting the development of this facility will lead to a chilling effect on future protests. We must question the long-term impact of dismantling organizers’ efforts and ignoring those 100,000+ signatures.
Although the situation in Atlanta appears dire, we will never allow anti-democratic forces to dim our hope. Those of us on the periphery, practitioners dedicated to the work of advancing racial equity, are committed to following the leadership of those on the front lines of this fight. But we must also prepare ourselves in the event that the tactics espoused by those who favor Cop City spread to other parts of the country.
We must also be careful to continue following the leadership of the people most harmed by this and other policy decisions. Certainly, the people who will be most harmed by Cop City will be people of color, persons living in poverty, and other marginalized groups. These impacted parties urged officials to put this issue before the people, so the people can grapple with and test this idea. This is democracy in action, right? Isn’t that what we all say we want?
Let’s be clear that our nation is grappling with important questions about our democratic identity. Our collective ability to practice and preserve democratic principles is undermined by what’s happening in Atlanta. But we should not, not for one second, believe that this issue is isolated to the South. Across the country, we’ve seen efforts to quell dissent. Across the country, we are seeing attacks on the referendum process. This latest foray in Atlanta with Cop City and the resistance towards it, will be a case study for years to come. But to build a just, multiracial, democratic society, free from oppression and exploitation, in which people of color thrive with power and purpose, we need the praxis of more community in government and more government in community.
Everette Thompson is the interim vice president of movement and capacity building at the national racial equity organization, Race Forward.
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