OPINION: ‘Atlanta way’ long gone as city leaders face death threats over training center

Protesters yell at council members after the vote passed 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/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Protesters yell at council members after the vote passed 11 to 4 to approve legislation to fund the training center, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Public officials always know they’ll face controversy, but Atlanta City Councilman Jason Winston never imagined what would happen to him and his family after the City Council voted earlier this week to fund the planned public safety training center.

After a marathon session that included more than 14 hours of mostly negative public comment, the council agreed 11 to 4 to fund the center, and then gaveled out just before 6 a.m.

As some in the crowd chanted and boo’d, three white protesters pushed toward a barrier in front of Winston, who is Black. One tried to jump the dais, cursing him. A second screamed at him, “[expletive] coward!” The journalist George Chidi reported a protestor earlier yelled at Winston, “I’ll catch you outside, [expletive]!”

In the days since then, Winston and his wife have been harangued on social media and received death threats over voicemail. He’s been called the N-word and told, “I hope you end up like George Floyd.”

The “Stop Cop City” website shared his address and the home addresses of every other member who voted yes, along with the chilling instruction to protestors, “Make them tremble.” Every member of the city council now has full-time police protection based on the level of the threats against them, and even some of their children.

“It’s shocking,” Winston said. “Just there’s this element of violence that has come out of all of this.”

While he expected to hear some booing and cheering Tuesday morning based on the final outcome, “I did not expect there to be threats of violence, people yelling in our face, trying to jump over the dais to actually physically attack us.”

The council’s decision on Tuesday morning followed months of building controversy over the center. What began as local concerns over environmental impacts and policing ballooned and became a rallying cry for some left-wing activists to not just defund the police, but eliminate police and government altogether.

The two lanes of opposition merged into a single shouting protest that left council members struggling to separate the local activists from the national opportunists.

Winston and others said they understood many of the concerns raised locally and added amendments to the legislation funding the center increase transparency and oversight for the future facility. But the mostly violent rhetoric only intensified. Opposition is now coming from environmentalists, social justice activists, voting rights groups, and more.

Members say they don’t know where exactly the threats are coming from, since most are anonymous, but Council President Doug Shipman said some groups have reached out to him to say the violent rhetoric is not coming from them — and that it’s crossed a line.

“My sense is that it’s mostly national activists. It doesn’t feel local to me,” he said.

“There definitely are some national players who want to go beyond defunding the police, abolitionists and anarchists who are portraying their views onto this.” The anarchists should not be conflated with the other protesters, he said.

Michael Bond has been a member of the council since 2009. He’s also the son of Julian Bond, the Civil Rights leader whom white state House members initially refused to seat after he won his election in 1965.

The younger Bond grew up knowing that death threats and intimidation were a part of his father’s life, so he said he hasn’t been too fazed by the anger against him after voting yes. But he said the open threats to city council members and their families are something he’s never seen.

“I’ve never seen the level of acrimony that was on display in the chamber and in the atrium,” he said. “And it does run completely afoul of ‘the Atlanta way’ that people are used to for protesting.”

Bond said he always responds when he’s criticized at a meeting because his father believed that not responding to accusations is seen by opponents as acquiescing to the charges. But every time he spoke this week, the protestors stood to turn their backs on him.

“I’ve heard the Civil Rights stories told over and over again growing up,” he said. “A constant was that they were clear from the beginning that if you felt that you couldn’t contain your anger or would behave violently, they did not allow you to participate.”

He said other groups’ failure to condemn the threats of violence and destruction now are doing their own efforts a disservice. As he and others walked into City Hall for the vote, he walked past drum beats and chants of, “If you build it, we will burn it.”

Bond voted yes, he said, because not building it would violate the civil rights of Atlantans who should have fully staffed and trained departments for fire, police, and emergency response.

Shipman does not vote on legislation as council president, so hasn’t gotten the worst of the threats. But he said he’s worried about the effect the rhetoric now will have on people considering a run for public office in the future.

“We all want good people in public service and this is a sobering reality that could discourage people from wanting to get involved, especially at the local level. It’s always emotional to be in public office, but this is something else.”

But Jason Winston and other other members I spoke with said that hasn’t been the effect on them.

“I want to come from a place of strength,” Winston said. “I’m motivated more than ever to continue doing the work and not letting any of this stop me from doing what I was elected to do.”