Aja Arnold Politics

Why Atlantans Pushing to Stop “Cop City”

After the city council passed the ground lease for massive police facility known as “Cop City,” local opposition hasn’t ceased; it’s evolved.
Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

By Aja Arnold / The Appeal

On Sept. 8, the Atlanta City Council gathered after listening to nearly 17 hours of comments from over 1,100 constituents across the city. The flood of messages concerned one thing: a proposed $90 million police militarization training facility known among locals as “Cop City.” The renderings of the facility include a mock city for officers to train in, as well as a helicopter landing base, new shooting ranges, burn tower sites, and more. Its development is being spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation and two-thirds of the funding comes from “philanthropic” and corporate donors, kicking the remainder of the bill to the public.

The project’s supporters, who include Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, have described the facility as a vital tool for improving police morale and fighting crime. Yet about 70 percent of the people calling in expressed their opposition to Cop City. Beyond the basic objections to such a major expansion of the city’s policing footprint, environmentalists are also up in arms, since the site’s proposed location lies within the South River Forest, which is the Atlanta area’s largest remaining green space and, scientists say, one of the city’s greatest defenses against worsening climate change.

The land also carries a dark history. Originally inhabited by the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe before their forced removal in the early 19th century, the land became part of a complex of farms that included a slave plantation and federal prison labor site. The area slated to be Cop City was eventually sold to the city of Atlanta, which used it for forced agricultural labor by incarcerated people from 1920 to the late 1980s. (Bottoms has said that the city “didn’t have anything else to choose from” in terms of a site.)

None of these things deterred the City Council. Nor did the 17 hours of comments. After brief deliberation, the council passed legislation to authorize the ground lease of the forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation in a 10-4 vote. The legislation leased 381 acres of land to the foundation for $10 a year. But there is still a chance that Cop City could be stopped, and people who flooded the City Council meeting with their opposition have vowed to make sure that it is.

The Cop City vote was the culmination of a process that has seen Atlanta’s political establishment — often with the support of the city’s corporate media — relentlessly determined to give Atlanta police what they wanted. This stance is nothing new.

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, along with the police killing of Rayshard Brooks last June, ignited historic protests in Atlanta. But the city’s government has firmly stood in the way of any significant police reform efforts. When the protests began, mass arrests took place throughout the city along with numerous incidents of police brutality, such as that toward college students Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim. The Atlanta Police Foundation paid bonuses to city cops after some staged a sick-out after Officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with felony murder in Brooks’s killing. (Officer Devin Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault after video showed that he kicked Brooks while he was on the ground after being shot.) A City Council member later pushed for additional bonuses to come from the city’s budget. The City Council killed one reform bill at the behest of Bottoms, who then vetoed separate, compromise reform legislation. Officers who were publicly charged in Young’s, Pilgrim’s, and Brooks’s cases have since been hired back on the force and given back pay. The Atlanta Police Department’s budget is now slated at $230 million, a roughly 7 percent increase from the previous year. Now, the city government is working directly with the police foundation to develop its new “state-of-the-art” police militarization facility. 

From the beginning, the process to create Cop City has been secretive. Mayor Bottoms quietly ordered the formation of the advisory board for the project on Jan. 4. There was no press release issued and no local coverage. The board consisted solely of police and fire department chiefs, foundation heads, and city employees, seemingly violating the mayor’s administrative order, which said the board should have community members.

Legislation to lease the land for Cop City was introduced in the City Council in June. (Although the land is city-owned, it resides in unincorporated DeKalb County, where residents do not have representation in the City Council.) As public opposition mounted, the police foundation hosted two “public input sessions” over Zoom in July, during which it presented a slide show, answered pre-submitted questions with no time for residents to respond, muted all constituents, and disabled the chat feature. Administrators of the meeting had their cameras turned off and names anonymous. 

The police foundation could also count on support from its longtime allies within the city’s corporate and media elite. The editorial board for local legacy newspaper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution vociferously supported Cop City ahead of the vote, and the paper’s “Voices Against Violence” section regularly gave space to pro-police pieces full of tough-on-crimerhetoric that echoed the APF’s talking points. (The paper’s parent company, Cox Enterprises, is a donor to the Atlanta Police Foundation; Cox CEO/President Alex Taylor is leading the fundraising efforts for the facility.)

Ahead of the September vote, it appears the police foundation pulled out all stops. The nonprofit filed as a lobbying group on state and local levels on Aug. 25 with no previous records indicating they had done so in previous years. Nicholas Juliano of local lobbying firm Impact Public Affairs, whose clients include Delta, Uber, and others, is listed as the foundation’s lobbyist with a payment exceeding $10,000.

Map of the proposed police training facility

Over the summer, residents in Atlanta joined in building a widespread coalition in what became known as the “Stop Cop City” campaign. The campaign’s focus was to counter the heavily supportive messaging circulating in the press and from officials, and to push the moderate-to-conservative City Council to oppose the facility. Although the council passed the legislation, the opposition hasn’t stopped; it has evolved. Construction hasn’t yet broken ground and the lease includes a provision that would allow the city to terminate the agreement with the requirement of giving the police foundation 180 days notice. (Atlanta will also be getting a new mayor in January: Andre Dickens, one of the 10 council members to approve the lease legislation.)

Since the vote, organizers have shifted their focus toward connecting with the Muscogee (Creek) community. On Nov. 27, Muscogee (Creek) community leaders from Alabama, Oklahoma, and Georgia gathered in Atlanta to connect with their ancestral lands through a traditional stomp dance ceremony and cultural sharing tradition. The event, which was organized in collaboration with community leaders of the Stop Cop City campaign, took place in the forest at the proposed construction site.

“One of the things that I hope is that this would just be the first step of a migration of our indigenous communities coming back to their homelands,” Rev. Chebon Kernell, of the Native American Comprehensive Plan and Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds, told The Mainline in an interview. “My hope is that together, as we foster this migration back to recognizing our homelands, that also we can educate the public at large, and say, ‘We want a healthier society. We want a safer society for all of our people, especially for our communities of color who have been displaced in so many different ways.’ … We’re hoping that we start with recognizing indigenous peoples, but then we also recognize the intersectionality that takes place with just having the right to exist.”

Organizers have stayed in the streets and kept up their public criticism of Cop City. In a statement ahead of a march on the police foundation’s headquarters on Oct. 23, Community Movement Builders, a local organizing group that has been a core part of the campaign, described the facility as “a war base where police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements,” adding, “they are practicing how to make sure poor and working class people stay in line. So when the police kill us in the streets again, like they did to Rayshard Brooks in 2020, they can control our protests and community response to how they continually murder our people.”

Community leaders in Atlanta have also strengthened their demands for corporate divestment from the Atlanta Police Foundation, which, in addition to Cox, counts among its donors such companies as Delta, Bank of America, and Verizon. The aim is to make police funding an issue not just for governments, but for some of America’s biggest corporations.

“[These corporations] came out with their public campaigns, supporting Black Lives Matter, saying they stand with Black people,” said Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders, “but at a moment’s notice, these same corporations … decided to side and build out what is potentially the largest training facility in the country for police to be trained in tactics of suppression. We believe [this] is only for the interest of corporate development and protection of private property, but do nothing for issues of safety and concern for the larger community. So we think targeting these corporations is a really important next step.”

On Oct. 7, Color of Change released a report exploring financial ties between police foundations and corporations across America, identifying connections to at least 55 Fortune 500 companies. The study features 23 cities, including Atlanta, where the police foundation’s actions in relation to the killing of Rayshard Brooks spurred Color of Change to launch the wider study. 

After the “Cop City” issue became more well-known, Color of Change became allied with local organizers in their efforts to stop the construction of the facility. Since the vote, Color of Change’s senior director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns Scott Roberts says their intention is to essentially do more of the same.

“We want to continue to mobilize people and … to try and paint an even clearer picture of what’s wrong here and educate more folks on it,” Roberts explained in an interview with Mainline. “We’re still looking to collaborate with local organizers in terms of both supporting what they think will work, but also to be aligned strategically … I’m pretty sure people are going to continue resisting Cop City even up to the moment where it’s going to try and break ground.”

Aja Arnold

Aja Arnold is an Atlanta-based journalist and founding editor of local outlet The Mainline.

19 comments

  1. Thank you for the informative article. This shows the collusion between politicians and those who protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy, namely the cops. In addition it adds validity to my thinking that policing will be more privatized as we head towards fascism. Private police forces serving the very rich. In a way that is already what we have.

    1. @MIchael Lewis Kahn
      The cops are the army of the powerful and wealthy; they’re not the powerful and wealthy. Sure, cops get to be upper middle class in most urban areas because the rich know that they need to pay their army well. But people who run things have exponentially more wealth than cops.

      1. OH, gee, cops aren’t filthy rich? ARe you sure? Jeff, please learn to read.

        “those who protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy, namely the cops.”

        Cops are not designed to enforce law. They are not here to protect us or to serve the public. Their purpose has been for centuries to protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy. They started out as slave patrols, have broken strikes and killed striking workers for 150 years, have stifled protests, kill unarmed blacks, cage people ruining lives for the purpose of assuring that all people conform to the ways of the ruling establishment, and do not try to break free of the ruling class’s vice grip of power. You may want to read one of my books which spends four chapters explaining this and how we have some states with privatized prisons, and in those states the three strike law, and therein forced labor, working for pennies an hour, while you foot the bill for their incarceration. SLAVERY TODAY.
        ANGRY LOUD AND CLEAR TRUTH by Michael Kahn three bucks on Amazon, one of the most powerful books ever written.

        Thank you for correcting me. I am slow and thought that cops are wealthy. geez.

      2. @MIchael Lewis Kahn
        I need to learn how to read? More like you need to learn how to think. How rich somebody is has NOTHING TO DO with who they protect or any of the other comments you made; it’s based on how much they’re paid, which you didn’t even mention. We agree that the cops are the army of the rich and that their main job is to protect property and those who own it, but you’re way off base regarding how much wealth cops have.

      3. I never said cops were rich, you assume and do not think. You are trying to make me look stupid. I am saying that cops do not protect any laws for the poor or even the middle class. They protect the interests of the rich. I never said the cops had money. People who are rich are the only ones that cops enforce laws for. The middle class may report a car is stolen, or a robbery. The perpetrator or a fall guy may be caught, but the property is gone. The rich pay accountants so that they don’t pay taxes. I am fully aware that cops are not rich, you do not only not read well, you are buying the lie that cops help anybody other than politicians and the very wealthy. The media upholds the image that they are public servants and protect the people. They do nothing of the sort. Learn to read, and you can start with my books. Domestic arguments are solved when cops are called by somebody going to jail, the relationship ends, like it or not. The one who calls the cops is always perceived in court as the one in the right. There is no justice in this land, and cops assure that by constantly lying in court. Rich people do not go to prison no matter how heinous any white collar crime is. Black ones sometimes do, but if they are athletes or such they get sentenced lightly. To think for a minute that cops are any representatives of the law is a sure sign of being deceived easily, and to assume I said they are rich is another example of your ability to not perceive the obvious. What the legal system practices has nothing to do with the law.

    2. @MIchael Lewis Kahn
      Sorry, I misread what you wrote. We actually agree on this. I thought that you wrote that cops were the powerful and wealthy. Guess I should slow down, but I have so much to read and so many other things to do that I often rush this more than I should. Again, sorry for the misinterpretation of what you wrote.

  2. An absolutely unapologetic monument to militarized police and white supremacy in the heart of the Deep South! The world watches in stunned amazement as the United States only western nation with no universal healthcare, decaying infrastructure everywhere, endless war and a war budget that will only deepen its frightened insecurity staggers to oblivion as a failing empire lead by utter fools!

  3. The history of the land that is slated for this vile project echos the worst of America; stolen from it’s indigenous inhabitants, a slave plantation, the new slavery of the 14th Amendment.
    Psychological studies have suggested that when a police force is armed and trained with combat hardware they are more likely to view the public as the enemy (and many police officers are veterans of combat). The corporate coup d’etat that has taken place in the last forty years in The United States has resulted in an already problematic police force becoming a militarized fascist one. This, of course, is by design – the greater the yawning divide between the haves and have nots in a neoliberal assault, the greater the need to control an increasingly restive population. The police in America have always terrorized communities of colour, but these monstrous practices are going to become increasingly familiar to the non-elite populace.

  4. Most city residents can’t seem to understand that they elect the people, called Mayor and legislators, that hire and pay a police force to act on their behalf. Not on their behalf. This includes “activists” and community “organizers” that protest and complain about police behavior, yet support the concept of political power solely in the hands of elected officials, as if we still live in the 18th century. Learn how to break out of this archaic acceptance of letting politicians rule over you on my website.

    1. “improved” does not mean safer, does not mean better, does not mean less death. Floyd’s situation is a result of “improved” training. The knee on the neck is a method of murder developed by Isaeli forces, and taught to our police forces in their newer training. The future that has been planned is a totalitarian fascist police state. Those people are not idiots, they have observed unarmed blacks being killed on the regular by cops, you may not have seen it due to the media not covering it. 85% of inmates are there for drug-related crimes, most of them victimless. Cops are brutes, and trained to be so, and lie on the regular, trained to do so. This more advanced training would simply mean more effective ways to control the population by means of tyrannical forceful violence.

  5. I sometimes live in Georgia, but not in Atlanta. Bottoms told George Floyd protesters to ‘go home’ last year. She and her cohort of upscale liberals have done it again. There is a layer of African-American politicians who collaborate with the capitalist system due to their class position, and she is one, along with almost the whole Congressional Black Caucus. This facility plan reminds me of the Green Zone in Baghdad. It is essentially a para-military base for the police inside the city, a counter-insurgency tactic.

  6. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” – The Declaration of Independence

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