Hundreds of people spoke out against Atlanta’s planned public safety training center at Monday’s city council meeting — with the public comment portion of the meeting going past 1 a.m.
It was the second time this year an overwhelming number of residents have railed against a project they refer to derisively as “cop city.”
It may have been the public’s last chance to make their feelings known to Atlanta City Council members. The council was scheduled to vote on a $67 million funding plan at some point after the public comments concluded.
It was unclear when the vote would occur during the meeting, or if the council would adjourn and come back Tuesday afternoon.
Twelve hours into the public comments, only four people had spoken in favor of the training center. Meanwhile, opponents lined up early to sign up to speak. They chanted, waived signs and cheered each other on as an overflow crowd watched the proceedings from the City Hall atrium, outside the council chambers.
By the time the first speaker took the podium at 1 p.m., more than 350 people had signed up, with well over 100 more waiting in a line that snaked through the atrium when the sign-up list was cut off. Still others protested outside the building, which security officials said had reached its capacity under the fire code.
As protestors chanted “let us speak,” Atlanta City Council members approved a motion from Council member Michael Julian Bond to allow the council to avoid the city’s public speaker limitations and allow more people to address the body.
“Stop Cop City! Viva Viva Tortuguita!” chants rang throughout the building as organizers told speakers directly impacted by the training center or police violence to move to the front of the line. The calls referred to Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an activist who was shot and killed by state troopers on Jan. 18 during what public safety officials called a clearing operation of the site.
The usually bustling offices at City Hall were empty on Monday, as city officials suspended services there in anticipation of the large crowd.
The meeting became more heated as time ticked along. After nine hours, the audience shouted frequently, breaking out in chants, cheers and angry jeers in open defiance of council rules that seek to maintain a polite decorum in the chamber.
After a series of tense exchanges between the crowd and Councilman Michael Julian Bond, Council member Liliana Bakhtiari called for a brief recess around 10 p.m. that seemed to catch almost everyone in the chamber off guard.
“I do not know how to move forward,” Bakhtiari said, stepping down from the dais to speak directly with those in attendance.
If the crowd continued to shout out of turn and criticize council members by name, she said, the Council would clear the chamber, move the meeting to a committee room and call the remaining public speakers one-by-one to offer their comments on the training center.
Bakhtiari said some members had received death threats from training center opponents, and the mood in the room was making them nervous.
“I get that you’re mad with us,” said Bakhtiari, who opposes the training center. “...I just want to find a way to move forward that does not force anyone out of the room.”
Bond has been a frequent target of their ire. After one speaker said that Bond spoke with “disdain” when he made a reference to the activists, he spoke at length about his own history as a civil rights activist and member of the NAACP.
Those in attendance stood and turned their back on him when he spoke.
Police stood on alert when another speaker briefly refused to relinquish the microphone at the end of her allotted time. “Don’t touch her!” one person in the crowd shouted, when an officer turned the mic away from her and urged her to sit down.
After Bakhtiari spoke with the crowd, the meeting resumed. The cheers and clapping continued during the ensuing speakers, but the mood noticeably lightened.
The funding legislation calls for city taxpayers to cover a larger share of the facility’s costs than previously known. For years, city officials and the Atlanta Police Foundation have said the cost will be split evenly in one-third shares, with taxpayers, the foundation and private donors each contributing around $30 million.
Instead, documents presented to the council last month show the city would spend $31 million on construction, in addition to paying the foundation $1.2 million in annual lease payments over 30 years. Those payments, part of a “lease-back” agreement, would add another $36 million to the city taxpayers’ contribution.
The annual payments will be used to pay off a $20 million loan that makes up the majority of the foundation’s purported share.
An AJC review found that the payments were never explained publicly until last month, even though decision makers have been aware of them since key parts of the project were first approved in September 2021.
Since the last crowded meeting on May 15, where 300 spoke, tensions have only risen.
The recent arrest by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation of three training center opponents on fraud and money laundering charges last week further fueled outrage against the project.
One speaker read from a statement that he said was from the three, Scott Kautz, 39, Adele Maclean, 42 and Savannah D. Patterson, 30.
“Dozens of police with assault weapons and equipment surrounded our home in DeKalb County and threatened to throw a flash bang grenade into our living room,” the statement said. “We, of course, surrendered peacefully and were taken to jail in our pajamas.”
A large security presence inside City Hall grew throughout the day. Atlanta police officers lined tiered balconies surrounding the room while others led bomb sniffing dogs through the hallways. Signs posted outside of security listed extra precautions — like a ban on liquids and aerosols — put in place due to “increased security concerts.”