What’s next in the battle over Atlanta’s public safety training center

The vote to fund construction may be over, but don’t expect dust to settle anytime soon.
Protestors yell at council members as Atlanta Police officers protect the Atlanta City Council chambers after the council voted 11 to 4 to approve legislation to fund the training center, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Protestors yell at council members as Atlanta Police officers protect the Atlanta City Council chambers after the council voted 11 to 4 to approve legislation to fund the training center, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Moments after the Atlanta City Council cast the final votes in favor of the city’s planned public safety training center, a procession of armored police officers filed in behind council members.

Opponents in the chamber erupted. The crowd yelled and cursed. Some charged the dais and even threatened individual elected officials by name.

The scene was not the neat resolution some might have hoped for after years of clashes between the city of Atlanta and its own residents over the facility.

Instead, it appears to be only the end of Act 1.

Construction of the $90 million facility is expected to take another two years. And opponents have vowed to continue their protests, demonstrations and visits to City Hall every step of the way.

Immediately after council members approved $67 million in city funding for the facility, the crowd — still over a hundred people strong at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday — broke into a chant: “Cop City will never be built. Cop City will never be built. Cop City will never be built...”

By then, organizers had already planned their next move — an effort to put the training center issue in the hands of the electorate on the November ballot. It will be a tall task after a major defeat for the movement.

City officials and its nonprofit partner, the Atlanta Police Foundation, see an updated training center as a crucial component in fighting violent crime and working to rebuild public safety forces after the pandemic strained resources. Today, police recruits train in a rundown elementary school while firefighters rent shopping mall parking lots to practice for emergencies.

The fight over the complex activists call “Cop City” has reverberated across the United States, attracting attention from civil rights luminaries such as Angela Davis and Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.

It has created something of a perfect storm in a city known for being the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, bringing to the forefront a number of issues that have galvanized activists across the political left.

Opposition to “Cop City” has united racial justice activists, environmentalists and civil liberties groups, as well as those who think programs that reduce poverty is the best way to fight crime.

Limited public dollars, they say, should be spent on social welfare programs, not on a facility they argue will further militarize police and make it easier for the government to quash dissent.

Many neighbors in DeKalb County along the border of the South River Forest, the site of the sprawling complex, don’t want it either. They fear that noisy training activities will be a nuisance in their daily lives. And they worry about the environmental impact on one of the region’s largest urban forests and its watershed.

Mayor Andre Dickens, the training center’s primary booster, has canvassed neighborhoods surrounding the area and says there strong support and enthusiasm for the project.

Neighbors “start coming out at me sometimes (when) I wasn’t even walking up to the door,” Dickens said in a March interview with the AJC. “And so these community members were voicing their support for it ... (and) a lot of them are saying: `Wait, when can you get this going?’”

While the voter referendum is a political attempt to defeat the training center, other activists promised something darker — continuing to agitate on the forested land that is the construction site, where bloodshed and the death of one protester have already occurred.

“If you build it, we will burn it,” multiple speakers promised council members.

A gathering of protesters chants outside Atlanta City Hall prior to the conclusive vote on legislation approving the allocation of funds for the public safety training center on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Vote casts shadow over council

When Georgia Tech student Ricardo Martinez approached the podium to speak at around 11 p.m. Monday, the training center critic had a message for the Atlanta Police Foundation, the city’s controversial law enforcement booster, which is partnering with the city to finance and build the complex.

“Thank you.”

“Thanks to the Atlanta Police Foundation I know, for the first time in my life, the name of not just one council member but all of my councilmen,” Martinez said.

He wasn’t alone.

Across 14 hours, many of the opponents started their comments by naming where they lived in Atlanta and pointing out their council member. They vowed to take revenge at the ballot box if their representative voted in favor of the funding plan.

“It is cruel to dismiss and disregard your own constituents this way,” said Natalie Olson. “It will not be soon forgotten. You can’t dodge accountability on this one.”

Many considered Monday’s vote to be the final legislative hurdle for the controversial facility that’s dominated public discussion. In the days leading up to the meeting, the weight of the decision was not lost on council members.

By Friday before the vote, Council member Jason Winston still wasn’t sure about his decision. The first-term councilor represents District 1, which includes Grant Park where his family has lived for more than a decade.

Winston said that the various Neighborhood Planning Units in his district are both for and against the training center.

“It’s truly something that’s split my district,” he told the AJC. “Although it may seem one-sided in terms of all the people that are reaching out publicly, there are a lot of people, especially on the southern side and my district, that actually support this project.”

Winston was considered one of the few on the fence who may have joined the group of opponents on council. His predecessor, former council member Carla Smith, voted against the lease agreement in 2021.

But on Monday he joined 10 of his colleagues who voted in favor of the funding plan.

Over the past two years, the training facility debate has polarized communities.

Council members say that opponents can often be the loudest voices in the room, but they insist there is also tremendous support for the facility as a step toward addressing Atlanta’s high rates of violent crime.

Some councilmembers say they’ve received death threats. And sources inside City Hall say extra security measures have since been put in place for almost all council members after fringe groups began circulating their names and addresses online.

After the chaotic meeting, council members say the path forward isn’t clear.

“There is more work to be done,” said Council President Doug Shipman, adding that the work includes continued effort to improve the project and making government decisions more transparent.

Nse Ufot, a community organizer, speaks as a part of the ‘Vote to Stop Cop City’ coalition during a press conference to launch a referendum campaign to put Cop City on the ballot outside of Atlanta City Hall, Wednesday, June 7, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

‘We’re not going away’

The morning after the vote, activists gathered outside City Hall with coffee and donuts to address the media. Their message: The fight’s not over.

“We’re not giving up,” said Nsé Ufot, a community organizer. “We’re not going away.”

First up is a campaign to call for a public vote on the project, relying on Georgia’s rarely used ballot initiative process.

Getting a measure to the ballot won’t be easy. Activists say they would need more than 70,000 signatures from Atlanta residents who were registered to vote during the last general election.

Even if opponents gather enough qualified signatures, the effort is likely to face a legal challenge.

In 2023, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of voters who successfully petitioned to nix a spaceport development in Camden County. But it is not clear if the ruling applies to city governments as well as counties.

In the meantime, opponents say they’re contemplating legal action to halt construction. If a judge agrees, it could buy time while they collect signatures over the next two months to force a public vote.

A broad coalition of groups are also planning a week of action later this month, including demonstrations at the South River Forest.

It was there, five months ago, that the movement’s stakes crystalized in tragedy.

On the morning of Jan. 18, Georgia state troopers were clearing the forest of protesters when they came across dozens of tents, state law enforcement reports say. In the confrontation that ensued, Georgia state troopers shot 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran to death.

The troopers say Teran shot first, wounding a trooper in the stomach. Teran’s family disputes that. The protester’s body was left with at least 57 gunshot wounds, an autopsy by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed.

And the week before the council’s vote, SWAT officers with the Atlanta Police Department raided the pink and rainbow-colored home in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood known as the Teardown House, arresting its two owners and a third woman on fraud and money laundering charges.

Activists said the arrests were meant to intimidate the opposition. The three defendants, Marlon Scott Kautz, Adele Maclean and Savannah D. Patterson, run a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to protestors arrested during demonstrations. They are accused of using some of those donations for personal expenses.

Their arrest warrants tied their charity to extremism, saying they raised money to “fund in part the actions of Defend the Atlanta Forest, a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.”

The Department of Homeland Security told the AJC last week that no such classification exists. Even if it did, a statement from the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that “membership in a group alone is not sufficient basis for a domestic terrorism investigation.”

Taken together, opponents say the actions of law enforcement and prosecutors only reinforces their distrust of police.

Attempts at compromise

City Council did try to address some of critics’ concerns about the project early Tuesday morning ahead of the vote.

The body passed amendments to the funding legislation that provided various requirements like barring explosives training and helicopters from the site, and prohibiting outside agencies from using the facility without council approval.

Another resolution passed was a proposal from Council member Liliana Bakhtiari to try to offer environmental assurances. It requires the city to identify $100 million from various funding channels to put toward preserving tree canopy in the South River Forest and preventing further pollution of its watershed.

“The point is to show that this conversation is not done and that we have trust to earn back with additional investment in the community,” she said. “Outside of just putting up the facility, we also need to use this as an opportunity to jumpstart envisioning that goes for decades.”

City Council also sent a message to the Atlanta Police Foundation: We’ll be watching. But they’ll need the foundation’s permission.

The body passed a resolution requesting that the nonprofit create two positions on its Board of Trustees that would be filled by two council members.

“Given the need for additional transparency and accountability, I think it’s important that we have elected positions on their board of trustees that are accountable to the public,” Council member Alex Wan said at the meeting.

Wan’s comment led to audible laughter from those in attendance.

A protestor speaks to fellow protestors during the public comment portion ahead of the final vote to approve legislation to fund the training center at Atlanta City Hall, on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

History serves as prelude

Across the marbled atrium outside the council chambers, portraits of civil rights leaders hang prominently on the wall.

Many who oppose what they call “Cop City” see themselves as continuing the fight for justice that those predecessors began.

In Teran’s killing, the domestic terrorism charges leveled against protesters, and in the financial crimes arrests, opponents see evidence of the government wielding its power to suppress dissent, much as it weaponized law enforcement against Black civil rights protestors during the 1960s.

The dissonance was too much for some to bear.

“I feel insane watching the same (city leaders) who laud Atlanta for being the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., using the same tactics deployed to fight the Civil Rights movement decades ago,” Atlanta resident Cailin Pitt said around the nine-hour mark of testimony Monday night. “I feel disgusted.”

Robell Awake, another Atlanta resident, felt disbelief.

“I cannot believe I am standing here pleading for you to not spend tax dollars of a Black city to tear down a forest in a Black neighborhood to increase the policing and caging of more Black people — all this in a city with Black leadership.”

No council member bore more of the crowd’s anger than Michael Julian Bond, for what they saw as a betrayal from one of their own. A former NAACP employee, and son of civil rights icon Julian Bond, the councilman reminded the audience that he had once been arrested for protesting Apartheid in South Africa.

Julian Bond was a freedom rider during the 1960s.

“For those that have commented ‘what would my father do?’ I’m doing as my father trained me to do,” Bond said, as boos cascaded through the chamber. “To think critically and to analyze the facts of the situation without emotion.”

The crowd replied in anger: “Shame! Shame! Shame!”