Add Angela Davis to the list of civil rights activists protesting the construction of a new law enforcement training facility in South River Forest known as “Cop City.”

On March 24, while delivering the keynote address at the 20th Annual Walter Rodney Symposium at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, Davis was presented with a proclamation from the city of Atlanta presented to her by District 4 Council Member Jason Dozier. 

Walter Rodney was a Guyanese-born academic and activist, whose papers were donated to the Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center by his widow and children. Normally, the city issues a proclamation declaring the day of the symposium “Walter Rodney Day.” This year, the City Council decided to honor Davis as the keynote speaker and surprise her by proclaiming it Angela Davis Day. After Davis was given the award, demonstrators in attendance began to chant, “Stop Cop City.”

A few days after the symposium, Davis released a statement and a video announcing that she had returned the award in solidarity with the Stop Cop City movement. 

“I could not in good conscience accept that award at a time when activists were participating in this major campaign to stop this militarized training [facility], and especially because an activist had already been killed,” she said. 

Davis’ decision came before the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals voted Wednesday to allow construction in the South River Forest to continue.

Capital B Atlanta spoke with Davis about why she returned the award, Cop City’s connection to her work as an activist, and how growing up in the South shaped her perspective. 

Here’s what we learned:

Why she returned the proclamation

Davis told Capital B Atlanta that if she hadn’t been so exhausted from traveling, she wouldn’t have accepted the award in the first place. Instead, she had another idea for the proclamation.

“What I would’ve said is that this should be Stop Cop City Day,” she said.

It wasn’t until after the event that Davis said she realized she needed to do her own research into the position of City Council members on Cop City. After learning that the majority of council members are in support of the facility, Davis said she didn’t bring the award home with her to Oakland, California, but left it in Atlanta to be returned to the city.

“There was some chatter on social media that I was given this major award by the City Council, and then I didn’t speak out against Cop City as if there’s an award that would be more important to me than solidarity with my comrades. And so I wrote that statement to try to clarify the situation,” Davis said.

Following Davis’ decision to return the award to the city, the Walter Rodney Foundation, which hosts the annual Walter Rodney Symposium, put out a statement in solidarity with Davis and the Stop Cop City movement.

“We acknowledge the inherent contradictions of Angela Y. Davis receiving a proclamation signed by the same officials responsible for voting for the construction of Copy City at our annual symposium, which celebrates the life, works, legacy, and values of Dr. Walter Rodney,” the statement read.

From the Bay to the A

Davis said she believes it’s her responsibility to call on her “comrades” in California to support Atlanta activists.

“I think this is a clarion call for people all over the country to take leadership from the activists in Atlanta to support them,” she said.

Davis was impressed by the way different movements have come together under the banner of Stop Cop City.

“The local organizing around Cop City has been absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “The work that’s being done by the eco-activists and the abolitionists who are coming together and exploring ways in which those struggles are linked, that is actually a precedent for the whole country.”

While she understands this cause has united people across movements, Davis also highlighted that this greenspace was one that was supposed to be for the Black residents living around the South River Forest.

“It’s, in the first place, a campaign against racism because it’s the Black community that is being affected,” she said.

Cop City has connections to Davis’ organizing history

In 2014, Critical Resistance, an organization co-founded by Davis, and the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which work to build solidarity between Palestinians and Americans, were at the forefront of a movement to end Urban Shield. Urban Shield was an annual law enforcement gathering with training programs and a weapons expo that used to be held in Oakland and hosted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

The groups’ campaign, dubbed “Stop Urban Shield,” went on for five years. Stop Urban Shield organizers also disputed then-Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s characterization that Urban Shield was a place he could train his officers to respond to emergencies and fight terrorism — in part because at the 2017 Urban Shield, the Oath Keepers, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as far-right extremists, had a booth at the expo.

In 2019, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to end the event.

Davis also pointed out that, like the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the Atlanta Police Department works with the Israeli army on training tactics. Those tactics are commonly used by the Israeli army against Palestinians. 

“It took five years. All kinds of efforts that were undertaken,” Davis recalls. “We are so happy, but at the same time we are aware that that’s a precedent for the activists who are fighting against Cop City.”

A Southerner’s perspective

Davis is from Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in what she called a “period of absolute segregation.”

“I grew up during a period when the police and the Ku Klux Klan were often the very same individuals,” she said.

As a prison abolitionist, Davis has been part of conversations about reframing the meaning of safety and alternatives to security “than simply sending armed human beings.”

Instead of more policing, Davis said addressing housing, health care, and education are the way to make communities safer.

“I know a little bit about the history of the development of the police in the South,” Davis said, connecting Atlanta’s history of using prison labor after the Civil War, which overwhelmingly came from Black men who were targeted by Reconstruction-era police.

On the proposed site of the training facility is the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where prisoners worked the land for decades until the facility was officially closed in 1995.

In the past few years, Davis said, she was encouraged by the calls and action to address police violence. “It felt like we were moving in the right direction,” she said, referring to efforts to divert funding away from policing and toward crime-prevention programs like education, affordable housing, and health care.

“Within the last period, [police] have attempted to recapture the offensive,” she said. “One of their major efforts is the creation of Cop City, the creation of this militarized training ground that will lead to even more racist violence and repression.”

Madeline Thigpen is Capital B Atlanta's criminal justice reporter.