Marc Bolden is frustrated with the out-of-town protesters who cut through his DeKalb County neighborhood, blasting their music and fireworks late into the night and clashing with police.
Margaret Mason Tate, who lives less than a mile up the road from Bolden, is unnerved by the heavy law enforcement presence and the reoccurring drone of helicopters.
While Tate and Bolden have staked out sharply different positions on Atlanta’s new public safety training center, both are fed up with the side effects from the $90 million project.
The intense debate has drawn national attention as well as protesters from across the country, some of whom have thrown rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at police.
One activist was fatally shot during a confrontation with police officers on Jan. 18 after he allegedly fired at them and wounded an officer. DeKalb officials recently closed a nearby park, referring to “dangerous and possible life-threatening” booby-traps hidden by protesters.
Neighbors know it’s possible the turmoil could drag on for nearly two more years, as the city’s plans show construction continuing on the 85-acre site into 2025. Work crews have already begun preparing the site and installing silt fences for the project, which critics derisively call “Cop City.”
Opponents, meanwhile, are trying to halt the project with a zoning appeal they filed in DeKalb, citing environmental concerns. A hearing is set for April 12. Amy Taylor, one of the petitioners, said police “absolutely need better training.”
“But they can go somewhere else. You cannot move the forest,” said Taylor, who lives on Key Road across from the site. “You can’t tear up this forest and expect to not have drastic environmental effects as a result.”
City officials are predicting they will prevail in that case, noting a Fulton County Superior Court judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order from the same petitioners last month. In his 10-page ruling, Judge Thomas Cox Jr. pointed out that DeKalb and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division have approved the project.
“This has stood the test of legality,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re standing on approved ground.”
Dickens was among the majority of Atlanta City Councilmembers who voted for the project in 2021 after hearing over 1,000 comments called in by residents, most of whom were opposed. Bolden’s and Tate’s views illustrate how opinions today are mixed among residents living near the site, which sits east of Atlanta, west of the Gresham Park neighborhood, north of Interstate 285 and south of Interstate 20.
The mayor said he sympathizes with such residents who are caught in the middle of the heated debate. He recently visited Bolden’s neighborhood to answer questions about the development, which is planned to feature an auditorium, classrooms and a mock village for law enforcement training.
The training center is being constructed in the 30316 zip code — a 13-square mile area with a median household income of $82,645 and a median home value of $312,900, according to the most recent Census data.
“I feel for them as a community,” Dickens said, “that they are ground zero of a national conversation now that they were not invited to — that they just got added to the party.”
Hope for revitalization
Marc Bolden recently drove his truck down Key Road, gesturing at piles of discarded tires lying amid the fallen leaves in the shoulder. An abandoned couch sat upside down on the side of the road across from a blighted and vacant house.
Motorists, Bolden said, have drag raced down the road. Occasionally, he added, people leave behind unwanted dogs and cats, which wander through Bolden’s Boulder Walk neighborhood.
A married father of three, Bolden bought his home in 2018, moving there from Brookhaven. He likes the area’s proximity to Atlanta and sees potential for its revitalization, particularly if the training center is built as planned. He hopes it will boost area property values. And he is pleased Atlanta has decided to stop explosive deactivation training at the site, and that officials intend to move their gun range away from homes and add noise suppression materials.
“The land itself has been neglected. It’s just a wasteland,” said Bolden, a marketing director and former U.S. Marine who leads his neighborhood’s homeowners association. “No one was going to do anything with it. In my opinion, if they build the training center there and they take care of it … and it is actually something useful, it benefits us.”
The city, Bolden added, has property rights.
“They own the land,” he said. “They can do what they want to do with the land. They don’t need permission from us. We don’t have to be in favor of it. I would love to have a 200-acre park next door. But guess what: It’s not there. I don’t control what someone else does with their land. And neither do you.”
Bolden has been annoyed by some of the protesters’ tactics, including those who have cut through his neighborhood to get to the city’s land.
“Or they will try to come door to door to tell us they are fighting for us,” he said. “I had some of these kids come and tell me one day, ‘Bro, I’m fighting for you, Man. I’m trying to stop police injustice and police brutality against you.’ And I’m like, ‘Get out of here.’”
Bolden said one young protester from Wisconsin told him he did not know what was going on with the city’s project, “And I am like, ‘No, you don’t know what is going on.’”
Bolden pointed to a pair of incidents that happened in July, when people destroyed a security camera at the entrance to his neighborhood and painted “Cop City” followed by an expletive on his community’s fence.
Bolden said he believes protesters were behind those incidents. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, could not independently confirm that.
Atlanta police records, meanwhile, show calls for service along Key Road totaled 248 between Aug. 22 of last year and March 21 of this year, a 66% increase from the preceding six months when there were 149 calls. DeKalb 911 dispatch records show calls for service around the training center site more than doubled during the same timeframe, from 119 during the first half of that period to 299 during the second. Dozens of the Atlanta and DeKalb calls during the last six months involved reports of suspicious people or trespassing.
Bolden said things have improved recently amid the increased police presence and arrests of protesters on stiff charges. As he drove down Key Road, Bolden passed several Atlanta police cars parked near the construction site.
“That is helping,” he said, adding about the protesters: “Some of them are starting to think, ‘Wow, man. They are for real. They are not playing.’”
‘Feels like ... a different country’
Margaret Mason Tate strode into her lushly wooded backyard off Bouldercrest Road Monday, showing a pair of visitors where she occasionally spies deer and opossums. She raises vegetables and herbs in a few raised planting beds that catch sunlight filtering through her white oaks. She pointed to where her great-grandmother’s beloved hostas were transplanted from South Carolina.
Attracted by her large backyard, her friendly neighbors and the small businesses in East Atlanta, Tate moved there 10 years ago from Morningside. She intends for her nine-year-old son to inherit the property.
As Tate spoke about the plans for her home, gunfire rang out from the police firing range. Later that day, two black Georgia State Patrol SWAT trucks slowly turned onto her road and then picked up a large group of rifle-wielding officers emerging from a field near the construction site. They were there to help clear the area after DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond issued an executive order closing Intrenchment Creek Park.
The week before, a helicopter passed over Tate’s home a few times, something she says has happened often amid the controversy over the city’s plans. The noise, she said, makes it difficult to homeschool her son.
“It genuinely feels like we are in a different country,” said Tate, a life coach and writer who previously owned a doula agency in Atlanta.
Tate opposes the public safety training center, citing her fear that police will oppress minorities living in the area. She also predicts flooding will worsen on her property because of the construction. And she has a ready response for proponents who highlight the greenspace featured in the city’s plans.
“The notion that keeps getting repeated that this is what we want and that the neighborhood is just enthused about our new green space that is going to happen — as if we don’t have a green space. It’s a forest,” said Tate, who added she used to explore the woods and observe wildlife there with her son.
She is also concerned the character of the area will change and that local small businesses will be displaced, if the project is built and it attracts more residents who want to shop at chain stores.
“It’s just going to become homogenized,” she predicted.
Tate bristles at critics who dismiss the out-of-town protesters as interlopers, calling that absurd and insisting it shouldn’t matter where they are from.
“I think that they believe that they don’t count,” she said.
“There is never going to be a way that we are all going to agree on tactics, but I think the mission is pretty universal. And that is the point,” she said. “I believe that we have got to do what needs to be done in a lot of different ways and bring it to the attention of the people who are really going to actually be able to affect change.”
As for the prospect that the noisy fallout could continue for month after month during the project’s construction, Tate sounded a note of resignation: “It’s terrible. We are settled into the reality.”
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