Controversy over the Atlanta City Council’s decision to fund construction for the divisive public safety training center — nicknamed “Cop City” by critics — continues this week as activists in opposition prepare for an entrenched political battle.
Stop Cop City organizers launched their week of action over the weekend, with events planned through July 1. The campaign’s goal is to increase awareness about debate over the training center and expand support for a referendum that could stop the 85-acre project from being built.
Training center opponents say it will be bad for the environment and increase militarization of law enforcement officers who will contribute to the over policing of Black communities and stifle future political dissent.
Voting yes were Jason Winston (District 1), Amir Farokhi (District 2), Byron Amos (District 3), Alex Wan (District 6), Howard Shook (District 7), Mary Norwood (District 8), Dustin Hillis (District 9), Andrea Boone (District 10), Marci Collier Overstreet (District 11), Michael Julian Bond (Post 1 At Large) and Matt Westmoreland (Post 2 At Large).
Winston, Amos, Boone, and Overstreet all represent majority-Black City Council districts.
Some activists who addressed the City Council ahead of the vote threatened to unseat any lawmaker who supported funding for the facility. Atlanta City Council members are elected every four years. Their next election is set to take place in 2025, a year after the next presidential election. Will constituents eventually take their council members down at the polls for how they voted on the training center funding legislation?
Answers to that question from Black residents in these districts, political researchers, strategists, and activists are mixed.
Black folks remain divided on the training center right now
Black residents’ opinions about the training center don’t appear to be as universal as some people may think.
An Emory University survey of 800 Atlanta adults released in March found that a majority of Black respondents, about 47%, oppose construction of the facility.
The same survey found that just under 44% of Black folks support the project, with an additional 9% saying they’re not sure where they stand on the matter.
Emory University political science associate professor Andra Gillespie, who studies race and politics, didn’t work on the study, but noted that the small sample size of Black folks surveyed means the margin of error is likely larger.
“That too suggests that Blacks are pretty evenly split,” she said. “I think what we can conclude from the study is that Black Atlanta, like the rest of Atlanta, is split on support for Cop City.”
Talking with Black folks in majority-Black districts about the training center further reveals the divide.
Retired city inspector Aston Sanson has lived in Atlanta for more than four decades. He and his wife currently live in Grant Park, represented by council member Winston.
The Sansons said they agree with their council member’s “yes” vote on the training center funding legislation.
“They need a new facility,” Aston Sanson said of Atlanta police and fire personnel. “They don’t have anything, really. So having [the training center] set up like a little city … makes sense to me.”
Fellow Atlanta resident Shanda Brown felt differently.
Brown is an administrator who lives near Greenbriar Mall in District 11, which is represented by Overstreet, who also voted in favor of funding for the training center.
In response, Brown said she’s willing to vote Overstreet out of office when the time comes.
“I can’t agree with that,” Brown said of Overstreet’s vote. “They need to clean up Atlanta anyway. And I would say start inside the police department with some of the crooked cops and the cops that are killing our Black men.”
Crime concerns and the 2024 presidential election
Violent crime has been on the decline this year, but it’s still a top concern for Black residents across the city.
Policing isn’t the only way to reduce crime, but some Black folks say law enforcement officers are needed, and those officers need a better place to train.
Adamsville resident Crystal Brown is one of them. The 42-year-old lives in District 10, Boone’s district, where she says her brother was shot and witnesses refuse to come forward.
The stay-at-home mom says she agrees with Boone’s “yes” vote on public funding for the training center.
“Without the cops, I mean, we’re going to have chaos,” Brown said.
Overstreet constituent Tanya Marshall, 72, a nurse and great-grandmother who lives in Cascade, said she, too, supports her lawmaker’s “yes” vote.
“More training and putting everyone under housing together where they can all train and everybody knows the same thing, I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “I would vote for [Overstreet]. I would stand beside her with that.”
Marshall also expressed concerns about crime in the city.
“It touches my heart the way that we are killing and destroying one another,” she said tearfully. “If I had a 19-year-old son right now, I’d be trying to get him to have a child just to carry on the legacy. We need to find a way where we could put down guns and sit down and talk to each other.”
Political consultant Fred Hicks represents Atlanta lawmakers who voted in favor and against public funding. He said it’s hard to tell whether the funding vote will play a huge role in their 2025 reelection bids two years from now, especially with a presidential election taking place in between.
“This could remain a top issue if it comes back that, ‘Hey, you’ve got to spend even more money,’” Hicks said regarding the training center funding vote. “The activist community, they’ll have a lot of other things to deal with between now and then that are not related to the facility.”
Activists’ political playbook
Nearly a month after the vote, the activists’ position hasn’t changed, according to the Rev. Keyanna Jones, a Stop Cop City organizer with Community Movement Builders, one of the local nonprofits working to prevent construction of the training center.
“Where we stand [now] is exactly where we said we would, dead set against every council person who voted in favor of further funding for a project that reeks of environmental racism,” Jones said.
Pro-training center council members who represent majority Black districts are more politically vulnerable than those that aren’t, according to Jones.
“We know that in the case of a Mary Norwood, we may not have a chance because Buckhead is going to Buckhead,” Jones said. “But the rest of them, wherever we can, we intend to make sure that it’s shaky ground for everybody, that nobody feels safe.”
Right now, issues like housing, homelessness, and economic inequality may be more of a concern for Black voters than the training center. Still, Jones said activists plan to remind voters constantly that the millions council members decided to spend on building the facility could have gone to programs that address those other issues, which she expects will remain significant concerns over the next two years.
“We simply keep reminding them that instead of affordable housing, they voted for Cop City,” Jones said. “Instead of mental health services, they voted for Cop City. Instead of youth programs to actually keep youth off of the streets because they complain about them so much, the best the mayor can do is Midnight Basketball, which is attended by more adults than children.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and City Council members who voted “yes” to fund the training center have prioritized policing over addressing many of the problems Black folks care about most, according to Jones and fellow Stop Cop City organizer Matthew Johnson.
Johnson serves as executive director of the social justice nonprofit Beloved Community Ministries. He acknowledged that the Atlanta City Council just approved increased spending on programs addressing affordable housing and youth engagement in the largest budget in Atlanta history.
“Has the city invested some in these things? Yes, but not nearly to the scale that would make it most effective,” Johnson said. “When you can find $67 million for this police training facility, and we had to beg Andre Dickens in 2022 just to allocate the money to the Housing Justice Fund that they have promised, that’s absurd.”
Can the cops behave?
Stop Cop City organizers say they won’t need to keep City Council’s public funding vote at the forefront of voters’ minds for the next two years because the police and other government officials will do that for them.
The killing of anti-training center activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán in January gained international media attention. The May 31 Tear Down House raid and arrest of bail fund organizers drew condemnation from U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Atlanta Police showed up en masse on Saturday when Stop Cop City activists hosted an event at Brownwood Park to build support for the referendum. Officers reminded those in attendance that the park closes at 11 p.m.
Johnson and Jones say the move was meant to intimidate Stop Cop City supporters, but that tactics like this prove they’re right that the training center will militarize police. They expect these tactics to continue and rally others to their cause.
“We’re not going to let people forget,” Johnson said. “We’re going to keep pointing back to Cop City and what [City Council members] chose to invest in instead of the problems.”