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Cop City in Atlanta is the future of America

Why ‘Cop City’ is a war for the future of urban America.

ATLANTA — This hardly feels like the most-talked about piece of real estate in a development-crazed Sunbelt megalopolis. What could be so controversial about a squad of dull-yellow Caterpillar earth movers pushing mounds of Georgia’s red-clay soil back and forth on a steamy Saturday morning, flattening out the city’s newest development site from what was recently 85 scruffy acres of green forest?

But nothing is normal about this construction zone a half-dozen miles southeast of Atlanta’s imposing downtown skyscrapers, cut out of the rolling green tree canopy that hosts a no-man’s land of auto shops, a youth detention center and shuttered sewage plant. A 10-foot tall, hastily thrown up chain-link fence two inches from the roadway shields the work crew on a modern battlefield where one man has already been shot and killed this year and a few dozen others were arrested amid the loblolly pines on charges of “domestic terrorism.”

Cop cars — some of them bearing the markings of “Atlanta Police,” others unmarked — seem to pop up every few hundred yards, like in a video game. They sit at the entrance to the dilapidated ruins of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where mostly Black men did hard time for much of the 20th century, or at random pull-offs — their intimidating presence silently speaking a mantra of the Old South: Keep moving. The air of paranoia out here is thicker than the dense Georgia humidity.

“This is police here,” Jacqueline Echols told me after a nondescript truck pulled in behind us. “They slowed down to see what we were doing.” Echols — a leading local environmental activist — has over the last year also become an expert on First Amendment law, frustrating cops when she tells them they lack jurisdiction to check her ID.

Jacqueline Echols, leader of Atlanta's South River Watershed Alliance, shows where work crews have clear forests for the city's planned $90 million police training center, Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

This Saturday, no one pulled us over or questioned me when I jumped out to take a picture. And there were few visible signs of this winter’s pitched battles in the woods — just a rail shed that’s spray-painted with anarchist symbols and the words, “Save ATL Forest.” There is little else to physically marks this place as the epicenter of an increasingly global controversy over a project known as “Cop City.” And yet fear and loathing, like those parked police cruisers, remain a palpable presence.

Its boosters don’t call it Cop City, of course. Officially, this $90 million project — funded with a blend of tax dollars and money from the corporate cabal that pulls the strings in Atlanta — is the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. Its soft-spoken yet high-octane advocates — when they talk about it at all — claim that the state-of-the-art training site with a gun range, a four-story burn tower for firefighter training, and a small “mock city” is desperately needed to replace outdated facilities and woo new recruits. And don’t police reformers want better trained cops?

Not the police reformers who took to the streets here after George Floyd’s murder. In successfully rebranding the project as Cop City — that’s what almost all of Atlanta calls it now — they are defining what they believe is really happening here in the woods. They say Cop City is the centerpiece of this city’s establishment’s plan for “doubling down” on militarized, warrior-cop policing that so many protested in 2020.

In ramming through approvals to build Cop City, even as public opposition grows bigger and louder, a well-heeled alliance of moderate, mostly Black politicians — including liberal Democratic mayor Andre Dickens — and many white business chieftains tied to the powerful Atlanta Police Foundation are promoting a future Atlanta with cameras on every corner and a cop living on your street. They are crafting a sales pitch about “America’s Safest Big City” aimed at luring more tech companies and startups and speeding up the gentrification that’s already made African Americans a minority again in a city that until recently held a reputation as a “the Black Mecca of the South.”

A lot of opposition to Cop City is centered in the young and progressive East Atlanta neighborhood, including the so-called "Teardown House," a hub of radical activity, Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

I came to Atlanta for four days recently to see Cop City for myself, talk to community leaders and activists, and try to understand why this one fight over something as mundane sounding as “a public safety training center” has become the last stand for activists who just three years ago this month were so wildly optimistic that aggressive, militarized, and racialized policing was finally on the way out in the United States.

And I wanted to know how what started as a ragtag army of “forest defenders” in treehouses has so frightened Georgia’s elites into fighting back with arguably more force than anything undertaken to defend segregation in the 1960s. Their shock tactics have included officers shooting and killing a protester under beyond-murky circumstances, criminally charging demonstrators as “domestic terrorists,” raiding a bail-fund office to charge its leaders with “money laundering,” and even threatening indictments normally reserved for organized crime.

But after 90 hours circumnavigating this rapidly gentrifying city that practically invented sprawl, where once-genteel residential streets of screened-in wooden porches with Georgia Bulldog flags now echo with jackhammers as bland and boxy vinyl townhouses fill in every vacant lot, I saw the outlines emerge of even higher stakes: the future of the American city itself.

For civic leaders, Cop City is less a construction project and more of an in-your-face mission statement — that 2020′s protests were a moment of temporary insanity and that an aggressive public safety regime is the vehicle for maintaining boundless growth. Activists see stopping Cop City as a turning point that could reveal a different path — a green and sustainable Atlanta where money is spent not on police but on what the city’s majority-Black working class needs to stay here, such as affordable housing, mental-health services, and public recreation centers.

“The nice way of saying it is that Atlanta is a public-private partnership city,” Micah Herskind, a community activist and writer who’s made a devastating case against Cop City in a series of essays, told me. “The realistic way of saying it is that elite, white-led corporations work with Black political leadership to run the city in the service of the rich and powerful, and at the expense of working class and Black communities.”

As he spoke, the earth movers out at the Cop City site were racing to mold that vision of a 21st-century security state into reality.

“Riotsville, USA” redux

America has been here before. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders including the most famous Atlantan, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — prodded the government to fight poverty after cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark burned over police brutality. The government largely brushed off these demands, and authorities instead constructed not one but two training centers dubbed “Riotsville, U.S.A.” where police officers and troops could practice quashing protests and urban unrest on the fake Main Street of a mock city. One “Riotsville” was at Georgia’s since-renamed Fort Benning, just 115 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Indeed, the Cop City blueprint includes a Riotsville of its own: a mock village with a school, apartments, a night club, and a convenience store. In pushing the training center, however, city officials and the Atlanta Police Foundation have downplayed the riot control aspects, instead stressing the need to replace and upgrade police and fire training that now takes place at scattered, rundown sites.

To head off opposition, the foundation even launched its campaign for the center with a bizarre video that starts with images of King — a leading critic of police brutality during his lifetime — his lieutenant Andrew Young, and the Eternal Flame at MLK’s gravesite before morphing into an intimidating police motorcycle brigade as a narrator intones, “Our job is to carry forward the torch.” For a time, they even called the center The Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training, until even proponents saw that was a bit much.

Micah Herskind is an organizer with the Stop Cop City movement, highly visible on social media, and the author of essays denouncing the plan. He insists the project is not inevitable, despite two votes to approve it by the Atlanta City Council, Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

Still, the proposal puttered in low gear until the day that changed everything: May 25, 2020. The videotaped murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin hit hard in Atlanta; like most major U.S. cities, protest marches were mostly peaceful but there was some vandalism — shattering glass at the CNN Center — and scattered looting in Buckhead, the upscale shopping and residential district on Atlanta’s northeast side. Roughly two weeks later, on June 12, 2020, an Atlanta police officer shot and killed a 27-year-old Black man, Rayshard Brooks, after a scuffle when officers tried to arrest Brooks for drunk driving in a Wendy’s parking lot.

Atlanta erupted all over again, and the Wendy’s was burned down. A brief effort to establish a Rayshard Brooks Peace Center at the site — with gardens, a library, and special events — lasted less than a month; police and city workers bulldozed what remained of the fast-food restaurant and fenced off the site after then-Mayor Keisha Lance Botttoms blamed nearby armed protesters for a July 4 shooting that killed an 8-year-old girl.

A so-called Rayshard Brooks Bill that would have withheld $73 million in city funding until the police department implemented serious reforms failed on an 8-7 vote — an experience that was hardly unique to Atlanta. Similar bills or campaigns to slash cop funding and invest the savings in social services faltered in a number of cities as the echoes from the George Floyd protests subsided, pandemic-era homicide rates rose, and urban Democrats worried about losing elections by looking “soft on crime.” Suddenly, “defunding the police” was off the table and speeding up the construction of Cop City rose to the top of Atlanta’s civic agenda.

‘A playground for corporations, developers’

“I think it was because they thought the city was flatfooted, or that it didn’t respond” to the rowdy George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks protests, Kamau Franklin — a lawyer who heads the activist group Community Movement Builders — told me. “People from Buckhead were upset because of damaged property. So I think [Cop City] was not just a morale booster” — for beleaguered officers — “as was publicly said by the mayor at that time, but I think this was also a set plan of being prepared to stop protesters and people in the streets, particularly against the issue of police violence.”

Franklin — an advocate of Malcolm X’s philosophy of Black self-empowerment — spoke to me from his group’s house-turned-headquarters on a low-key street in a formerly industrial neighborhood that locals, confusingly, call Pittsburgh. He sat next to a placard honoring Rayshard Brooks — and his bullhorn. On the building’s side is a large mural that reads: “Protect the Black Community: Stop Gentrification.”

For Franklin — who tried to help neighborhood kids establish their peace center at the burned-out Wendy’s less than a mile away — the issues around Cop City and gentrification are deeply linked. He said that the city’s pro-growth efforts, focused on businesses that hire upscale professionals, have meant that an astonishing 94% of new units over the last decade were classified as “luxury housing.” This has coincided with a longer period in which the city’s Black population plunged from 62% to just 47%, with many African Americans fleeing the city that King, Young and other civic heroes fought so hard to integrate for far-flung, working-class suburbs.

Kamau Franklin of Atlanta's Community Movement Builders is a leader in the city's fights against gentrification and police violence. He's now pushing for a citywide referendum that would effectively kill Cop City, Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

“The gentrification of Atlanta — it is not an accident, it is not happenstance,” Franklin said. “It is under this Black leadership, which has basically allowed corporations and developers a playground, that this has happened. They destroyed all the public housing, and they didn’t create any system for allowing poor people to stay here.”

Yet there is one kind of working-class housing getting support from Atlanta’s “public-private partnership”: cop housing. Indeed, three new homes going up just around the corner from Franklin’s office are intended as housing for police officers, subsidized by the Atlanta Police Foundation. The new cop owners of these reduced-price homes are expected to “participate in community associations and events.” A related program run by the Atlanta Police Foundation with $500,000 in COVID-era tax dollars offers monthly stipends to officers willing to live and get involved in their new working-class neighborhoods.

But suspicious activists like Franklin worry that this program, and so-called At-Promise Centers for youth also funded by the foundation, aren’t so much community policing as ways for cops to gather intelligence on potential uprisings, like an American version of East Germany’s notorious Stasi. Coupled with the foundation’s plan for a citywide “canopy” of 3,000 security cameras — 80% funded by corporate dollars — you can see the outlines of the 21st-century security state. One survey has found that Atlanta is already the most surveilled city in America and seventh-most in the entire world. It’s a police-industrial complex, financed by U.S. capitalism in order to make life easier for a cash-strapped government that must sign off on it.

Just who exactly is behind the Atlanta Police Foundation, which brags of its plan to market Atlanta as “the safest big city in America”? The press-shy organization stayed true to form in not responding to my request for comment.

But its trustees are a who’s who of executives of the major corporations based in this Southern low-tax, right-to-work mecca, including Delta, Waffle House, Home Depot, Georgia Pacific, and others. The foundation board member leading the fundraising for Cop City is Alex Taylor, chairman of Cox Enterprises, which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper ran an editorial and several op-eds pleading for speedy construction of what is steadfastly called “the police training center.” The foundation’s longtime CEO, Dave Wilkinson, is a former top U.S. Secret Service official, and a Republican.

Bulldozers and heavy trucks clear the future site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Atlanta, Miguel Martinez / AP

With that kind of clout, the Cop City push epitomizes what locals have long called “the Atlanta Way,” that working relationship between the business establishment and the predominantly Black political leadership that has emerged since the 1970s. In addition to the carrot of corporate funding, there was a stick: a serious threat by some political leaders in Buckhead to secede from the city over crime and the George Floyd looting, which would have demolished Atlanta’s tax base. In September 2021, City Council members listened to a record 17 hours of testimony, prerecorded because of COVID-19, that was 70% against Cop City — then voted 10-4 to approve it.

It seemed like nothing could stop Cop City at that point. The “forest defenders” thought otherwise.

‘This is what they do to the Black community’

Exactly one year to the day before my first drive past Cop City, the Guardian’s Mike Jordan published an article describing his encounters there with the small band of environmental activists — the “forest defenders” — who were camping and living in treehouses amid the loblolly pines and sturdy white oaks, covered with vines of kudzu. He depicted a thicket of barricaded paths, interspersed with an abandoned pickup truck spray-painted with “Defend the Forest” and heralded by a small sign reading, “You are now leaving The U.S.A.”

In mid-June 2023, the “forest defenders” are gone. So are hundreds of the mostly young-growth trees that once shielded them amid one of metro Atlanta’s few remaining green spaces that environmentalists have called “the lungs” of this traffic-clogged city.

“The whole idea of the clear cutting is just to send the message that this is going to happen,” Echols — who heads the South River Watershed Alliance — told me. She believes that Cop City proponents think that “once they get rid of the trees, people will become a lot more accepting that this is inevitable.”

Echols — cynical about her dealings with civic leaders after years of fighting them to stop wastewater pollution of the South River, which is fed by the creek adjacent to Cop City — does not see the project as inevitable. That’s why she took a couple of hours on a Saturday morning to drive me around the edge of the site and through the mostly Black surrounding neighborhood that has been under constant assault from what she sees as environmental racism.

“That’s what they do to the Black community,” Echols said as we drove past a large closed landfill across Key Road from the Cop City site. She said a claim by city officials that they’ll plant trees on this Superfund pollution site to make up for the lost forestland is one of many Cop City untruths. She told me that “the policy [of enhanced policing], the location, that targeting of the Black community. It checks all of the boxes of environmental racism.”

The history of this land and its relationship to the white supremacy culture of the Deep South is crucial to understanding how Cop City turned into such a flashpoint. Long before the railroads crossed to make Atlanta a city, this forest was occupied by the Muscogee tribe of indigenous Americans who were forcibly removed by Andrew Jackson’s U.S. government during the brutal migration known as the Trail of Tears. The forest’s new white masters ran a slave plantation, but ideas for the site after the Civil War and emancipation languished until 1915 — the heyday of Jim Crow segregation — when Atlanta opened a prison farm here. Touted as a model of penitentiary reform, the prison farm — where civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael was briefly jailed during a 1960s uprising — was later targeted in lawsuits for brutal treatment of its mostly Black inmates. Activists see Cop City as merely the newest, shiny model of racist social control.

But it’s less clear how Cop City’s most immediate neighbors — predominantly Black and working class, who live and vote in an unincorporated section of DeKalb County (the Cop City site is also technically in DeKalb, but the city of Atlanta owns the land) — perceive it. Activists who know or have canvassed the neighborhood insist the project is unpopular, noting that constant, annoying gunfire from an existing range at the prison farm will get worse if Cop City opens. But they acknowledge some are reluctant to speak out publicly because they work for businesses supporting the project; there are more “Defend the Forest” yard signs in liberal East Atlanta than near the site.

“A lot of people don’t want it to be here,” said the Rev. Keyanna Jones, a social justice activist who grew up near the site and was living in the area when Cop City was approved. She added another factor: fear. “The state has escalated repression to free speech. People are afraid of being called ‘domestic terrorists’ for having a yard sign.”

The killing of Tortuguita

Few would argue that it was the young “forest defenders” — some local but many from out-of-town, politically far left, viewed as fearless eco-warriors by their allies and as terrorists by the state — who kept the Cop City issue alive during the dog days of 2022.

Noah Gringi holds a sign at a news conference for Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán in Decatur, Georgia, on Feb. 6, 2023. Terán was killed by police near the site of Atlanta's planned Public Safety Training Center, Arvin Temkar / MCT

Clashes with the police were inevitable, especially as the state’s ultra-conservative GOP Gov. Brian Kemp — seeking to burnish his “tough on crime” credentials ahead of a rumored future run for higher office — put more state troopers and investigators on the case. As the calendar moved toward 2023, there were more arrests on the site and increasing violence on both sides, including episodes where protesters sabotaged construction equipment. Foes of Cop City won’t deny that the property destruction gave fuel to the state and city crackdown, but some insist such acts were an understandable response to city officials ignoring the sizable public opposition. They echoed the explanation of Atlanta’s civic hero, King, who said during 1967′s “long hot summer” that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

The forest showdown came to a head on Jan. 18, as state and city law-enforcement raided the encampment. One of the forest defenders — a 26-year-old native of Venezuela, named Manuel Esteban Paez Terán but known to his comrades as Tortuguita — died in a hail of gunfire. Police claimed that Tortuguita was armed with a handgun and that they shot and wounded a state trooper in the groin, but activists say the official story doesn’t jibe with either the forest defender’s non-violent personality or the facts on the ground.

An autopsy performed for Tortuguita’s family and their attorneys posited that the non-binary activist had their hands in the air and was sitting cross-legged when they were shot as many as 57 times. There was no gunpowder residue on their hands to suggest they’d fired a gun. Their supporters also believe the trooper may have been wounded by “friendly fire” from his fellow officers. Authorities claim there is no body cam footage of the shooting, but released a tape from shortly after in which an officer asked, “They shoot (sic) their own man?” The investigations into what really happened are still pending.

During the peak of protests in the 1960s, activists believed that clashes with authorities would “heighten the contradictions” of an unjust society, and win more people to their cause. That appears to be happening in Atlanta more than a half-century later. The governor and city leaders, frustrated by the persistence of the protests, have launched an unprecedented campaign to rebrand protests of Cop City as “terrorism.” That only seemed to bolster opponents’ argument that Cop City is the symbol of Atlanta planning to amp up militarized policing to stifle dissent.

Georgia lawmakers had expanded the state’s domestic terrorism statute in 2017, supposedly as a response to the mass murder committed by white supremacist Dylann Roof in neighboring South Carolina. But spearheaded by Kemp, who claimed activists “chose destruction and vandalism over legitimate protest,” state and local prosecutors charged 42 protesters under the domestic terrorism code in the two months after the raid that killed Tortuguita. One of the arrestees in the winter dragnet was an observer from the Southern Poverty Law Center; others were charged after merely attending a music festival in the woods.

Almost everyone involved in the Cop City fight has stories of harassment, arrest, or worse. Ashley Dixon, a veteran organizer now with the racial-justice group SURJ, who’s canvassed the neighborhood and attended demonstrations, said she was arrested at a May 2022 protest in upscale Inman Park for blocking the roadway even though she was standing on a public sidewalk. Those charges were dropped, but a protester that Dixon was handcuffed with later said her family in New York was visited by the FBI.

Shortly after that, Dixon said she was passing out flyers at a Walmart near the Cop City site when a woman said her phone had died and asked Dixon if she could borrow hers. At the end of their conversation, the woman casually mentioned she works as a police officer. Two minutes later, an Atlanta police cruiser arrived and an officer tried to question Dixon before taking down her license plate. Dixon recalled she was “really shaken.”

The peeling paint on MLK’s dream

In late May, the pro-Cop City forces may have overplayed their hand. Police working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided an East Atlanta home and arrested three people involved with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which raises money to bail out suspects and finance legal defense, and charged them with “money laundering” and “charity fraud.” It was an audacious move that went even beyond the tactics used against 1960s civil-rights activists, and legal experts were appalled. Activist Hannah Riley called it “a terrifying escalation by the state,” while Georgia’s liberal Democratic U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff — who’d avoided the controversy — came off the sidelines to gently criticize the raid. Even the judge who arraigned the three suspects said of the state’s case, “I don’t find it very impressive.”

That wasn’t the only setback for Cop City. Amid the tepid mainstream media coverage, an independent journalist — Matt Scott of the Atlanta Community Press Collective — revealed that City Hall had hid the true cost to taxpayers by failing to disclose a major leaseback agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation. Opposition grew from more established environmental and neighborhood groups and even from organized labor. With the overall public costs now tagged at $67 million, Cop City came up for a City Council revote — and it was déjà vu all over again. This time, testimony lasted more than 14 hours. Again, a strong majority spoke against it. Again, Cop City passed — 11-4 this time.

One “yes” vote came from a familiar name: at-large council member Michael Julian Bond, the son of a famed 1960s youth civil-rights fighter, the late Julian Bond, who in 1966 was expelled from the Georgia Legislature over his opposition to the Vietnam War and who had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to get his seat back. I was told student activists who got a meeting with Bond right before the Cop City vote gawked at the councilman’s office collection of historic civil rights photos as he explained why he’s backing the police on this one.

The final house of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta's Vine City neighborhood is unmarked and the paint is starting to fade — much like King's dream of ending poverty in America, Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

With so few Cop City proponents eager to talk, the loquacious Bond has emerged as something of a spokesman. He spoke to me by phone to defend his vote, arguing that the needs for the facility — especially for firefighters, who are rarely mentioned — are pressing and that the previous mayor, Bottoms, should have accelerated the training center during her term but was too afraid of antagonizing the progressive left.

But Bond seemed especially irked by opponents’ claim that his famous dad never would have supported Cop City. “They’ve really thrown his bones on me — they’ve been kind of harsh on me,” the councilman said. “I didn’t appreciate it, because I came to my position the same way he taught me and he came to his positions. He didn’t do it in an emotional way or a romantic way — he analyzed things and weighed both sides and used critical thinking to come down on his decision, and that’s what I did here.”

Cop City foes don’t see the vote as the last word, but merely the end of the beginning. Lawsuits are challenging the domestic terrorism arrests and the project itself, with environmentalists — who’ve posted viral images of brown muddy water in the South River since the earth moving began — alleging the work is violating the Clean Water Act. Activists are mounting seven days of protests starting Saturday that they call a Week of Action, while planning pressure campaigns against contractors and Cop City corporate donors. The boldest move is a plan by Franklin’s Community Movement Builders with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Working Families Party to get a referendum to undo the Cop City lease on the Atlanta ballot as early as November. But there are already City Hall roadblocks, on top of a high bar for signatures and a short window for gathering them.

And would it actually pass?

‘Inevitability is a lie’

I swung by a Foodtown grocery store about a mile or so from the Cop City site. Some claimed ignorance of the project. Lekenia Franklin, 36, who’s lived directly across the street from the site for three years, told me, “I think it’s a good idea … because of the violence. It could stop a lot of violence, stop a lot of crime.” But Eric Nimmons, a recent arrival from Georgia’s Low Country, was dubious that police training is the answer. “They need more programs that are socially based, because you’re losing them,” he said, referring to Atlanta’s youth. “You need education … What about midnight basketball? The mayor and all these older people are so disconnected.”

The little downtime I had in Atlanta was invested in a quick visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church, his childhood home, and the Eternal Flame and tomb where the slain Nobel Peace Prize winner is buried alongside his wife, Coretta. Then I drove out to Vine City — crossing streets named after King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and other civil rights icons — to see the modest split-level at 234 Sunset Avenue where MLK spent the last three years of his life.

In those final days, King was plotting a Poor People’s Campaign march on Washington aimed at forcing a massive government effort to abolish poverty. His assassination on April 4, 1968, ensured this would be a road not taken, but I doubt the tireless civil-rights crusader could have predicted that his own hometown would shift into reverse, taking a U-turn toward deep inequality. I was also shocked that there were no markers at the home — which the King family sold to the National Park Foundation in 2019 — and that its paint is faded and peeling. The neglect seemed a metaphor for King’s dream of a more egalitarian America. A place that branded itself in the 1960s as “A City Too Busy to Hate” is now a city too busy to care.

On the car radio, the big story was the Justice Department report about shocking police misconduct in Minneapolis. Those findings were prompted by George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests — and they already felt like a historical relic. The millions who marched in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and around the world three years ago this month — was that a dream, too? If Cop City is built, Atlanta will define the American city of the 21st century: over-policed, heavily surveilled, and increasingly unaffordable for the average citizen.

The flame of 2020 and its protest marches was not eternal. Yet I left Atlanta impressed by the growing coalition of neighborhood activists, environmentalists, and social-justice fighters working so hard to reignite that spark before it flickers into smoke and ashes. There is a very real chance that 85 acres of red dirt on the southeast corner of Atlanta will become a barren monument to civic and corporate folly.

“If this movement has taught me one thing,” the activist Herskind told me, “it’s that inevitability is a lie.”

The basics

What: The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, dubbed as “Cop City,” is a $90 million state-of-the-art facility that would consolidate training for the city’s police, firefighters, and emergency responders. Some of its features include a four-story burn tower, an enhanced shooting range, athletic fields, and a “mock city” where officers would train on civil disturbances.

Where: The 85-acre Cop City footprint, part of a larger city-owned tract of land that for decades housed the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, is located in the South River Forest about six miles southeast of the city’s downtown. The property is actually just outside the city limits in an unincorporated section of DeKalb County.

When: The original plan called for the training center to be completed by this year, but the clearing of the site didn’t even begin until this spring. The new timetable for completion, amid lawsuits and a possible referendum, is unclear.

Why: Proponents say a modern facility is needed to replace scattered public-safety training sites that have deteriorated or closed in recent years, and to attract top-quality recruits to the police and fire departments. Critics say Cop City, with its “mock city” to train for putting down civic disturbances, is an endorsement of militarized policing of low-income communities.

How: Atlanta City Council, in two separate votes, has committed some $67 million in taxpayer dollars for the project. The rest is expected to come in private donations to the Atlanta Police Foundation, whose board is heavily comprised of leaders of the region’s largest corporations.

What people are saying

“The nice way of saying it is that Atlanta is a public-private partnership city. The realistic way of saying it is that elite, white-led corporations work with Black political leadership to run the city in the service of the rich and powerful, and at the expense of working class and Black communities.”

— Micah Herskind, Stop Cop City activist and writer, on “the Atlanta Way” of civic leadership

“They’ve really thrown his bones on me — they’ve been kind of harsh on me. I didn’t appreciate it, because I came to my position the same way he taught me and he came to his positions. He didn’t do it in an emotional way or a romantic way — he analyzed things and weighed both sides and used critical thinking to come down on his decision, and that’s what I did here.”

— Michael Julian Bond, pro-Cop City Atlanta City Council member, responding to critics who say his late father, the legendary civil rights leader Julian Bond, never would have supported the project


2017: Atlanta city officials and the business-funded Atlanta Police Foundation begin discussing replacing the city’s outdated police and fire training facilities with a $90 million state-of-the-art site on city-owned land at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm in adjacent DeKalb County. The proposal won’t be made public until spring 2021.

May 25, 2020: George Floyd is murdered by Minneapolis police. Atlanta sees large-scale protests, mostly peaceful but with some vandalism and looting downtown and in the upscale neighborhood of Buckhead.

June 12, 2020: Protests flare again after an Atlanta police officer shoots and kills a 26-year-old Black man, Rayshard Brooks, while trying to arrest him for drunk driving in a Wendy’s parking lot.

June 20, 2020: A Rayshard Brooks Bill that sought to force major reforms in the Atlanta Police Department by withholding $73 million in city funding fails in City Council on an 8-7 vote. Weeks later, the city shuts down an incipient Rayshard Brooks Peace Center at the now-burned-out Wendy’s site, blaming activists for the shooting death of an 8-year-old girl.

Sept. 8, 2021: City officials have accelerated the push for the training center — branded by foes as Cop City — to boost morale and stave off a secession threat in Buckhead. Despite a record 17 hours of testimony, mostly against, City Council votes 10-4 to approve spending $30 million on the project.

Summer 2022: The growing presence of environmental activists known as “forest defenders” camping in the woods on or near the Cop City site draws national attention and growing scrutiny from law enforcement. Arrests, clashes, and vandalism increase.

Jan. 18, 2023: A “forest defender,” 26-year-old Venezuelan native Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, is shot 57 times and killed during a law-enforcement raid at the site. Authorities claim Tortuguita shot and wounded a state trooper, but an autopsy found no gunpowder residue on their hands and suggested the activist was sitting cross-legged with their hands in the air when they were killed.

January-March 2023. State and local police arrest a growing number of protesters, and prosecutors charge at least 42 of them as “domestic terrorists” under a 2017 state statute.

May 31, 2023: Police working with state agents raid a building housing the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which raises bail and legal defense funds for protesters, and charge three people with money laundering and charity fraud. The arrests outrage civil libertarians and are criticized by U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

June 6, 2023: After revelations that the actual Cop City costs for Atlanta taxpayers have more than doubled, City Council holds a second vote that is largely a replay of the first one — approving the project on an 11-4 vote despite hours of testimony against it. Activists vow to stop Cop City by protests and lawsuits, and through an effort to place a referendum on the November ballot.


(c) 2023, Philadelphia Inquirer,%2430%20million%20on%20the%20project.


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