At a rally on Emory University’s quad earlier this week, Maresah Malcom, a senior from Decatur, joined just over 100 fellow students in protesting the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, also known as “Cop City.” Malcom said she came to the Stop Cop City demonstration because the facility is being built in the area where she grew up.
“You’re taking down forests, y’all are killing people to build up something that the community don’t want,” she said. “Who are you building that for? What resources does that bring into the community that we asked for?”
Throughout the week, students from Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Emory University, and Agnes Scott College have organized and held coordinated protests.
At Emory, students attempted to camp out on the quad overnight, but decided to disband when threatened by campus police.
These student-led protests came the week after the DeKalb County Medical Examiner released the autopsy report for Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, an environmental activist who was killed by Georgia State Patrol officers while occupying the forest. The autopsy showed that Paez Terán did not have gunshot residue on their hands. This is significant because it contradicts the statements made by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which said Paez Terán was killed only after shooting at officers first.
Students and faculty who are speaking out against the $90 million facility told Capital B Atlanta they’re doing so because of the potentially harmful impacts it could have on Black communities. They are also using the demonstrations, and open letters to call out and bring attention to school staff with connections to Cop City.
‘Our position of privilege’
The city of Atlanta is currently set to foot $30 million of the price tag to build Cop City, which is why Malcom said she’d rather see the money go to children in the community, specifically for education.
Jaanaki Radhakrishnan, a Detroit native and freshman at Emory, said it’s easy for students to get caught up in the “Emory bubble” and forget that they attend an institution that has a lot of influence in Atlanta.
“We absolutely have a responsibility to use our position of privilege in order to uplift the voices of the Atlanta community and work to support the causes that they’re calling for,” Radhakrishnan said.
Among demands laid out by Emory students on Monday is that Emory President Greg Fenves resign from the Atlanta Committee for Progress, an organization founded by former Mayor Shirley Franklin as a public-private partnership.
The presidents of Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College also sit on the ACP.
The ACP does not provide funding for the public safety training center. However, the 2021 chair was Alex Taylor, CEO of Cox Enterprises. Taylor led the campaign to raise $60 million for the project.
In February, Spelman President Helene Gayle put out a statement affirming the college’s continued involvement with the ACP while clarifying that the school does not directly or indirectly provide financial support for the facility. Gayle did show support for the student-led demonstrations.
“In this case, our students’ activism is bringing attention to what are ongoing issues that need to be addressed: police misuse of authority and misuse of force, casualties that can be prevented and building trust between the communities that law enforcement are entrusted to serve and protect,” she wrote.
A month after Gayle’s statement, she received an open letter from alumni and staff calling for the college to denounce Cop City. The letter also called Gayle’s membership on the ACP into question.
The professors speaking out
Faculty at the other local colleges are among the voices calling for their institutions to denounce Cop City and break ties with organizations providing funding for construction of the facility.
Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College, was one of over 50 faculty members to sign an open letter titled “There is No Cop City in the Beloved Community.”
As someone who works in the development and well-being of young Black people and specifically Black men, Jones said she felt a responsibility to speak up.
“Are we worried about gun violence and gun safety in the community? Yes. We’re also worried about violence from the police,” she said.
Jones said she understands the need for proper training and that the current police and fire facilities are run-down.
“To my view, the city really has not made it really clear how the training that they’ll do at the training center is significantly different, such that we can expect different outcomes from the police that are trained there,” she said.
Faculty and students at Georgia State have been calling out their school’s direct connection to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the organization the city is leasing land to for the training site.
Deepak Raghavan, an adjunct astronomy professor at Georgia State, sits on the executive committee of the Atlanta Police Foundation. Last month, protesters entered the university to demand Raghavan resign his seat.
That was followed by 55 members of the Georgia State faculty signing an open letter criticizing their institution’s involvement in Cop City and the Atlanta Police Foundation.
Julian M. Hill, a contract law professor at Georgia State, said they were interested in the issues surrounding the lease and ways that the City Council could cancel the project and decided to sign the letter in solidarity.
Hill added that while they don’t want the project to move forward, they also want the city to take the opportunity to step back and think more holistically about what safety means.
“You have countless examples of how having more police actually is leading to more violence and people not necessarily getting justice,” Hill said, adding that if Atlanta is going to be serious about safety it needs to prioritize community-based solutions to crime like housing, not more policing.
Desmond Goss, a professor of sociology at Georgia State, said they signed the letter because they are opposed to the facility and because the research does not support the idea that policing makes communities safer.
“In fact, we have research to show that the opposite is true,” they said, specifically highlighting the way policing is detrimental to poor people and racial minorities.
Goss said the university hasn’t responded to the open letter.
Akinyele Umoja said he joined other Georgia State colleagues in signing the letter because he believes that the challenges Atlanta is facing cannot be fixed by putting more resources toward militarization and policing Black communities.
The African American studies professor said that while he is concerned about public safety, the increased militarization will just make it even more likely that Black people will die at the hands of police.
“I think that people’s answers to crime is always more police, more money for cops, things of that nature,” Umoja said. “We don’t really deal with the social causes of crime. I think a Cop City appears to me to be the epitome of that approach.”