By ERWIN FREED
“The Cop City project is now radioactive, and the longer you associate [with] it, the more toxic you will be!” — Layla Flores, Atlanta resident, speaking to the city council, May 15, 2023.
On May 15, almost 300 Atlanta residents gave testimony for more than seven hours against Cop City at an Atlanta city council meeting. All who spoke were opposed to construction of the police training facility. Cop City would destroy at least 85 acres of important urban forest and be used by police departments around the country to train in methods of urban warfare.
There were an additional hundred or so residents waiting in line to register to make statements when registration was shut down. After the comment period, council members Hillis, Amos, Overstreet, Shook, Westmoreland, and Norwood introduced ELMS 32709. According to Atlanta Community Press Collective, “If approved, [this legislation would authorize] the transfer of $30m from the FY23 budget for the construction of Cop City & $1m for a gym at the site, & authorizes the mayor to enter into a leaseback agreement w/ APF for Cop City.”
Commentators are asserting that the public comments may have more than doubled the previous record of in-person residents speaking at a city council session. The turnout for the meeting provides a prominent example of the massive amount of public reach-out and community events that have been organized around Atlanta under the broad banner of “Stop Cop City/Defend Weelaunee Forest” over the last two and a half years.
Atlanta-based activist and journalist Micah Herskind made the important point on Twitter that, “[Monday]’s #StopCopCity turnout at city hall is the result of THOUSANDS of hours of door to door canvassing. Conversations in grocery store parking lots. Block parties. Town halls. Info sessions. Workshops. ORGANIZING… So many people have put so much unseen labor into this movement, doing the nitty gritty work of organizing and educating people. This is a truly robust, people-powered movement.”
In contradiction, supporters of Cop City, which include the major media corporations and many politicians in Atlanta, argue that Atlantans “want Cop City.” The ruling class in Atlanta is basically unified in saying that the movement to Stop Cop City is totally dominated by middle class, white anarchists from outside of Georgia.
It is obvious, however, that sentiment and anger against Cop City’s potential construction are strongly felt throughout Atlanta and Dekalb County, not to mention the rest of the country. The many community members who spoke against the project represented metro Atlanta in all of its diversity. Speakers made many essential political points while city councilors largely did their best to ignore them. Around 6 p.m., in response to cheering amongst residents, council President Doug Shipman attempted to mobilize police to empty the chambers of residents. Stop Cop City supporters held their ground and remained in their seats, as is their democratic right. Within two minutes, the cops and politicians backed down.
A number of longtime residents and prominent community members made their voices heard. A common theme was how the $33.5 million that the council is discussing to allocate towards Cop City could be used on providing basic services for working-class and poor Atlantans. The Atlanta Community Press Collective gives many examples of people using this framework. In one comment, “Liliana Nogan[,] a lifetime Georgia resident and student in Atlanta for the last two years, hopes that Council will remain open hearted and listen to the comment of the community. She wants to see the money used for restitution to the city to combat the homelessness epidemic.” In another, “Graciela, a GSU students asks Council to terminate the lease and stop funding Cop City. She wants to see the money go to addressing homelessness, the wage gap in Atlanta, and decarceration.” Among many more: “Melanie Futrel is a social service worker in Atlanta. She [thinks] Cop City funds should go to resources for care, not cops.”
One of the most powerful testimonials came from Jimmy Hill. In 2019, Hill’s son Jimmy Atchison was murdered by an Atlanta police officer. We quote his statement at some length, and the full statement is available here: “When I think of the young man [sic] who was killed in the forest, up on Bouldercrest, up on Key Road, a road I done went up [many] times [because] I am from Southeast [Atlanta] and I see he was on his knees with no residue on his hands, I think about my son because my son was unarmed and surrendering. He received two conflicting commands. Come out with your hands up; freeze, don’t move. And he was shot one time blowing out his brain. And yet the officer said he feared for his life…”
“We always want to shout and quote Dr. Martin Luther King. There are too many sycophants and scared Black [people in] leadership positions. … What happened to character, what happened to dignity, what happened to principles? I stand [with Tort’s family]. On May the 1st a proclamation was given to families of victims of police brutality. I thought it was police brutality but when I got [there I saw] ‘anti-gun violence.’ Call it what it is. Police brutality is police brutality, don’t sugar coat it. … When I got home I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned … and I thought about Martin Luther King when he said, ‘There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor proper but because my conscience tells me it is right.’ Today my conscience tells me it is right to return this Proclamation. … I hand this Proclamation back, I refuse to accept it.”
The Rev. Keyanna Jones, speaking on behalf of the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City and Community Movement Builders, read a letter from the clergy coalition. The Rev. Jones brought attention to the vast ecological damage Cop City would have on Weelaunee People’s Park and the connected communities. Jones also pointed out the fact that the forest is stolen Muskogee land, and provides a cultural center for Muskogee peoples.
She continued that due to centuries of greed, the land has been subjected to tremendous abuse “from the forced removal of Indigenous communities, to serving as a plantation for African slave labor to the site of the Old Atlanta Prison farm in the 20th century that produced immense profit for the prison system. Today, the sounds of bird song in the forest canopy are drowned out by the sounds of gunfire from the adjacent APD firing range. We remain indignant by the city’s commodification of the land, water, and air on which we all depend.
“We remain heartbroken by the state sanctioned police murder of … We are dumbfounded by the lack of transparency, communication, and accountability from the law enforcement officers involved in Tortuguita’s murder. Today his [sic] family has received no apology, no explanation, no evidence, and no report with details surrounding the murder. In fact, quite the opposite. Multiple news agencies have reported overwhelming evidence of a cover-up. … We are appalled no charges have been brought forth against the murderers of Tortuguita.”
Jones denounced domestic terrorism charges against forest defenders “for expressing their First Amendment rights. This is nothing less than an attempt to suppress legitimate opposition to Cop City while clearcutting the forest … despite not having the proper permits to do so. … We declare with courage and commitment that Cop City will never be built.”
Micah Herskind was one of multiple speakers who made the important connection between Atlanta’s wealthy elite and Cop City. In addition to pointing to Bernice King’s letter opposing Cop City, Herskind also highlighted an email between Atlanta Police Foundation CEO David Wilkinson and Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen. In that letter, Wilkinson points to demands from corporate executives in Atlanta for the city to vastly expand its policing apparatus. Wilkinson and the unnamed CEOs referred to Buckhead’s threat to secede from the city. Buckhead is a disproportionately white and wealthy neighborhood in North Atlanta.
The May 15 city council meeting is an excellent example of the profound opposition to Cop City by Atlanta residents. There will be more committee hearings on the proposed allocation for Cop City from Atlanta, which also provide opportunities for mobilization. These culminate in a June 5 vote by the whole city council on the proposal, if it gets that far.
While the fight is led by people in Atlanta, as it must be, it is essential for people around the country to show support through mobilizations, social media, and organizational statements. Cop Cities are part of the strategy by the state to suppress dissent and protect capitalist exploitation and oppression in the face of the many crises facing workers in the United States. Our ability to organize against this Cop City is crucial to building opposition against other Cop Cities that have been proposed around the nation.
Top photo: Matthew Johnson, Atlanta faith leader and activist, speaks at the May 15 city council meeting in opposition to Cop City. (Below) Hundreds hoping to give testimony line up outside the council chambers. Many chanted, “Viva, viva, Tortuguita!” and “Stop Cop City!” (Matthew Pearson / WABE)
great article!!! thank you for covering this issue. one small correction: the next vote is on june 5, not on june 6. thank you!!!
We corrected the article. Thanks! — The editors