The governor’s speech at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting was a signal that he and other Republicans will prioritize the $90 million project in 2024, ahead of an election that could be dominated by concerns about public safety and the economy.
It came days after a group of demonstrators launched one of their most coordinated attempts yet to block the complex as hundreds who marched to the DeKalb County site clashed with authorities who fired tear gas to break up the protest.
On Wednesday, an anonymous faction of activists opposed to the center claimed responsibility for a fire that burned several vehicles at a concrete business in Gwinnett County. The firm said it wasn’t involved in the construction of the facility.
Many of the opponents of the complex, who have tried for years to derail its construction, are a mix of environmentalists who object to transforming a forest into a law enforcement facility and liberal activists who worry it would further militarize policing in Atlanta.
Some at Monday’s protest chanted slogans and held banners memorializing a protester who was shot to death by law enforcement in January, while others brandished signs calling to “defund the police” — a stance that caught Kemp’s attention.
“Those who commit acts of violence and destruction, and advocate for the elimination of law enforcement are extremists, and we need to call them out as such,” Kemp said.
“Supporting the training center may be controversial to some, but it’s right,” he added. “And that’s what the people of this state elected me to do.”
The project is championed by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat who says it will provide world-class training to officers and firefighters who now use outdated facilities. It has repeatedly won the support of Atlanta’s left-leaning City Council.
But many of the state’s top Democrats have avoided voicing explicit support for the project even as they condemn demonstrations against the center that have at times turned violent.
Some have also criticized Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, for obtaining indictments against demonstrators, some who are accused of racketeering violations or domestic terrorism charges. Many of those indicted aren’t Georgia residents.
Republicans have emphatically rallied behind the project, and some have talked about pressing a legislative vote to demonstrate their support — and force rank-and-file Democrats to take a stand.
The debate over the complex has political potency ahead of an election that is expected to put Georgia at the center of the race for the White House.
Recent polls conducted by Kemp and Dickens allies have showed broad public support for the training center, though protesters say the thousands of signatures they gathered for a referendum on the construction is evidence of deep-rooted opposition.
In his remarks, Kemp singled out Dickens for being “right on this issue since day one” and credited his public safety plans for combating violent crime. The two have worked to repair frosty city-state relations after Dickens’ 2021 victory.
At a National League of Cities conference, Dickens echoed Kemp’s stance and noted that other municipal leaders are grappling with public safety. The training complex is just one way Atlanta aims to curb violent crime, he said.
“You will find that there’s not a single leader that’s walking these halls that’s not every day dealing with public safety and how to bring down crime,” Dickens said.
“And some of them are in a emergency state right now because their crime has gone way through the roof and their constituents are asking them to do something about it.”
The governor warned business leaders at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s meeting that relenting to the complex’s opponents is “the most dangerous signal we could send.”
“To me, this issue is simple. You either support training and equipping our police, firefighters and first responders — or you don’t,” Kemp said.
“Unfortunately, some elected officials in our state have had problems answering this question,” the governor said. “Well, I know what side I’m on — and I hope our state’s business community does as well.”
Staff writer Riley Bunch contributed to this report.