By Mike Ludwig / Truthout
The Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition in Atlanta submitted more than 116,000 signatures on Monday to put a referendum about the embattled police training complex on the ballot for local voters, but city officials quickly refused to validate the signatures and move the petition along due to an ongoing legal fight over the signature-gathering process.
Stop Cop City activists accused Atlanta officials of once again subverting democracy after moving forward with the construction of the 85-acre, $90 million police training complex, despite months of fierce protest and loud community opposition to a facility that activists say would further militarize Atlanta cops. City of Atlanta officials claim their hands are legally tied after winning a favorable decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that threw out a deadline extension granted to the activists by a lower court.
Under law, city officials have 50 days to verify signatures once a ballot petition is submitted and accepted, and the 50-day “clock” does not start ticking until the petition is accepted by the city. The delay could keep the Cop City referendum off the ballot for the November elections and possibly punt the vote to March, when Republicans will be voting in the presidential primary.
Different court rulings in the ongoing legal battle cast confusion over the signature-gathering process, activists say, and city officials are not helping. The Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said the city’s refusal to accept the signatures and start the verifying process was “another disgraceful push” to “stonewall democracy.”
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“The city was notified on Thursday of our intention to submit, yet was too cowardly to release any response, or even respond to our email, until after we arrived — still, even their press conference is virtual to ensure the people cannot attend,” the coalition said in a statement.
In a memo released shortly after the signatures were submitted for verification by Atlanta clerks on Monday, an attorney for city officials claimed a deadline extension won in court by the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition no longer applies due to a subsequent appeals court ruling handed down last week.
“The city is not in a position, does not have discretion, to choose to accept the petitions today, at least not to start the 50-day (verification) clock,” attorney Robert Ashe told reporters on Monday.
The Stop Cop City movement has brought plenty of unwanted attention to the City of Atlanta and both state and local police, particularly after state troopers shot and killed a protester known as Tortuguita when attempting to remove Forest Defenders from a protest camp in January. The shooting — which was not recorded on police body cameras and sparked accusations of foul play on both sides — marked the first killing of an environmental protester by police in the United States.
After feuding with local prosecutors, Georgia’s Republican attorney general recently filed sweeping racketeering and conspiracy (known as RICO) charges against dozens of activists, bail fundraisers and a legal observer. Critics say there is little evidence that many of the RICO defendants participated in sporadic acts of property damage that enraged local authorities, and the sweeping indictment is designed to demonize a broad movement that is now attempting to take its cause to the polls.
The legal wrangling over the petition began earlier this summer, when clerks for the City of Atlanta issued the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition a petition for signature gathering that came with rules requiring that an Atlanta resident be present each time the petition is signed.
Four residents of unincorporated neighborhoods near the Cop City construction site filed suit, arguing that the rule prevented participation by people living next to the sensitive forest and floodwater-absorbing wetlands slated to be impacted or destroyed by the police training complex. On July 27, federal district judge Mark Cohen agreed and issued an injunction ordering the city to allow anyone to gather signatures from registered voters and extending the deadline for submitting the petition by several weeks.
Before Cohen’s ruling, the original deadline for submitting the petition was August 21. At the time, the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition announced the petition had garnered more than 100,000 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot — enough signatures to represent roughly one-fifth of the city’s population and far more than required to put the issue on the ballot. Activists said they would continue collecting signatures under the deadline extension to make up for any signatures thrown out by scrupulous auditors working for the city.
However, the City of Atlanta appealed Cohen’s ruling, and on September 1, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the injunction as it considers the city’s case. According to the city’s memo, the August 21 deadline for submitting the petition is now in effect, thanks to the stay on Cohen’s ruling. The memo said the city would take the petition with its 116,000 signatures into “the Clerk’s custody” and would begin verification quickly if the 11th Circuit rules in favor of the activists and orders the city to do so.
“As always, Atlanta City Council can simply bypass this timely, costly, and frankly embarrassing process, by heeding the calls of their constituents and voting to place Cop City on the ballot,” the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said.
Analilia Mejia and DaMareo Cooper, co-executive directors of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a national group supporting the petition drive, said activists won’t stop fighting for the more than 100,000 Atlantans who want to vote on Cop City.
“In Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement, it’s shameful to see officials go to such lengths to deny their citizens their right to vote,” Mejia and Cooper said in a statement.