But the majority of the task force’s work will be done behind closed doors and out of the public view, the mayor’s office confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.
“I can’t say for sure that all will be (closed), but I expect most will be,” Dickens’ communication director Bryan Thomas said in an email. “The purpose of the meetings is for Task Force members to meet, learn, deliberate and propose recommendations in each of the four identified areas.”
The closed-nature of the task force meetings does little to bolster confidence among training center critics.
“The things that Mayor Dickens’ is doing to foster public accountability are really just performative,” said Rev. Keyanna Jones, a member of a faith coalition that opposes the center. Jones added that she is “disappointed but not surprised.”
“They are like rubber stamping things that say, ‘Hey, we did this, we can check it off the list.’ But they’re not effective.”
The group is part of Dickens’ attempt to increase public input on the center and quash some fears that it is being built to better militarize police against the community.
Protest over construction has echoed throughout the city, state and even across the nation. In January, a protester was killed by police after he allegedly opened fire on Georgia State Patrol troopers attempting to clear the forest.
The first-term mayor has repeatedly acknowledged that his administration could have better handled the situation by more proactively stating the need for and the benefits of the training center. Dickens is now working to reengage the community through the task force and other measures.
“There has unfortunately been a lot of misinformation about this project,” Dickens said in a release. “And I am hopeful that we are able to work together to separate fact from fiction as we move forward, together.”
But critics of the facility say the new stakeholder committee is just a band-aid, as demands that the project be called off have been ignored. Even historic civil rights groups involved have taken heat for their participation.
Chris Bruce, political director of ACLU of Georgia and a member of the committee, defended the group’s involvement. He said the ACLU is focused on protecting First Amendment rights of the 40 or so protesters who face weighty domestic terrorism charges.
“Despite our opposition to the training center development, the ACLU of Georgia would be remiss in sidestepping this critical opportunity to prioritize demonstrators’ civil rights and civil liberties in conversation with the City of Atlanta,” Bruce said. “This is not about agreement, it is about accountability.”
‘Dog and pony show’
Letters went out from the mayor’s office in March inviting community stakeholders to the new initiative.
The task force is made up of members from civil rights organizations, clergy, policy advisors, academics, environmentalists, historians and community members who will attend bi-weekly meetings for around four months.
Some notable organizations represented include the ACLU of Georgia, Georgia NAACP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Atlanta Regional Commission and professors from Morehouse, Spelman and Georgia State University.
The AJC reached out to multiple members of the task force who either did not reply or refrained from commenting until after meetings begin.
Participants will be split into subgroups that will study and make recommendations for the matters of green space, repurposing the former Atlanta Prison farm site, sustainability, and public safety training curriculum. The committee is expected to release recommendations for the project by July.
Atlanta City Council initially OK’d plans for the training center in a 10-4 vote in 2021, despite intense opposition and criticism that the community wasn’t engaged. Dickens, who at the time sat on council and voted in favor of the facility, is now left playing catch-up.
“Things that are coming up from the community are now making me even more broader in my view of it and how we should create more benefits for the community to understand it for sure, but also to participate in it,” he told at AJC during a lengthy interview last month.
Organizations that have been on the front lines of protests against the project don’t believe the most recent community input effort will have any impact at all.
Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders, a southwest Atlanta-based social justice organization, called the task force “a farce.”
“I think this is only another way, sort of a switch and bait tactic, of the city to say it involved the community,” Franklin said. “But at this late time period, this process is only kind of like a dog and pony show.”
Dickens’ decision to form a new task force comes while the future of the original citizen committee is unclear. The City Council-appointed Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee has canceled its meetings the last two months.
Neighborhood resident Amy Taylor, a member of the committee, is opposed to the location of the facility because of the environmental impact. Taylor is also a part of multiple challenges to the land permits issued by DeKalb County for the site.
Taylor said her experience on the committee, however, has mostly been positive and that the city has listened to recommendations like moving the shooting range and creating separate entrances for public safety vehicles.
But what concerns her is that the original stakeholder committee, to her knowledge, isn’t involved in the new engagement effort.
“We should all be on the task force,” she said. “Because we represent the community that lives around it.”
Taylor and other critics of the new task force are also skeptical of any suggestions that come out of the meetings, after its members were given invitations from the mayor’s office itself.
The mayor’s office said that Dickens’ took member recommendations from people both inside and outside of City Hall.
“The Mayor appointed folks who have been critical of the facility, as well as those who support it and those who haven’t expressed a view one way or the other but who have important perspectives,” Thomas said in an email.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC