By Olivia Rosane / Common Dreams
After listening to nearly 15 hours of public comments opposing the controversial project, the Atlanta City Council voted early Tuesday to provide additional funding for a police training center known as “Cop City.”
A coalition of activists and community members have been protesting the facility since the council first approved it in 2021, arguing that it would increase the militarization of the police and destroy 85 acres of Weelaunee Forest, one of Atlanta’s four “city lungs.”
“I cannot believe I am standing here, pleading for you not to spend the tax dollars of a Black city, to tear down a forest in a Black neighborhood, to increase the policing & caging of more and more Black people,” one Atlanta resident said at the council meeting. “All this in a city with Black leadership. I’m tired of it.”
Despite a day and night of similar comments, the council voted 11-4 to approve additional funds for the $90 million project a little after 5:00 am ET Tuesday morning, The Associated Press reported.
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“The whole world is watching,” the public chanted during the vote, as WABE reported.
When the training center was first approved in September 2021, city officials said that taxpayers would only foot $30 million of the bill, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective. However, recent reporting from the collective revealed that, as early as late October of the same year, members of the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) were discussing further funding with the city, in the form of a $1 million-per-year lease back arrangement with the city that would repay a $20 million construction loan over 20 years.
The final bill approved by the council Tuesday is even higher than that: It includes the initial $30 million, an additional $1 million for a gym, and approval for Mayor Andre Dickens to enter a lease-back arrangement with the APF that would actually amount to $36 million over the next 30 years, according to WABE.
“Just think what $60 million can do to care, educate, house, and nurture the people of this city,” the same Atlanta resident said of the project’s expanded price tag.
“Just think what $60 million can do to care, educate, house, and nurture the people of this city.”
City officials argue that the deal still saves them money they would otherwise have to spend renting another facility and that the city’s police and fire departments truly need a new training center, according to WABE.
In a statement Tuesday, Dickens called the vote a “major milestone” and promised to make Atlanta a “national model for police reform with the most progressive training and curriculum in the country.”
“We know there have been passionate feelings and opinions about the training center,” he added. “Over the past several months, we have heard from citizens who have concerns about the center as well as from many who support it.”
The latter were in short supply at the council meeting. More than 350 people signed up to comment, according to WABE, and more than 220 of them spoke against the center, AP reported.
“We’re here pleading our case to a government that has been unresponsive, if not hostile, to an unprecedented movement in our City Council’s history,” Matthew Johnson, the executive director of local nonprofit Beloved Community Ministries, said at the meeting, according to AP. “We’re here to stop environmental racism and the militarization of the police.”
Residents expressed concern about what losing the forest would do to water quality and the urban environment.
“It’s majority Black and brown immigrant communities, poor, working-class people, and so that has been a sanctuary for our people for a very long time,” 26-year Atlanta resident Eva Cardenas, who attends church two blocks from the “Cop City” site, said during a rally before the meeting, according to WABE. “Seeing that being clear cut and displacing our people is really concerning to me because it leaves us vulnerable.”
Rights groups and experts have criticized the city’s response to the protests for being heavy-handed and “fascist.” In January, police shot and killed forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, or Tortuguita, in what experts toldThe Guardian was the first U.S. police killing of an activist trying to prevent a forest from being cleared. Police have also charged anti-“Cop City” activists with “domestic terrorism,” another unprecedented move.
Days before Tuesday’s vote, police arrested three members of a bail fund group that had supported the protesters, making the Atlanta Solidarity Fund “the first bail fund to be attacked in this way,” Civil Liberties Defense Center executive director Lauren Regan said at the time.
But despite the arrests and Tuesday’s vote, “Cop City” opponents are not deterred.
“The message of 15 hours yesterday was consistent: Cop City will never be built,” the group Defend the Atlanta Forest wrote on Twitter.
Olivia Rosane is a staff writer for Common Dreams.