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Cop City

Organizers Make Final Push on ‘Cop City’ Referendum

As the deadline to submit signatures approaches, the Cop City Vote Coalition remains confident it will succeed.

Mary Hooks fills out a petition form verifying that she is an Atlanta resident who witnessed each signature. (Madeline Thigpen/Capital B)

Mary Hooks was the first person to sign the petition for a ballot referendum on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, dubbed “Cop City.” More than six weeks later, she now spends her days canvassing the streets of Atlanta collecting signatures from registered voters to get the issue on the ballot.

The Cop City Vote Coalition, which is organizing the petition drive, needs 58,203 signatures total but intends to surpass that number.

“We’re really trying to get as many signatures as possible,” Hooks said. “We’re expecting the city to try to throw out as much as two-thirds of the signatures we get.” 

As of Aug. 14, the coalition reports having collected 80,000 signatures and aims to get 100,000 by Aug. 21, when they plan to turn the petition in.

The Cop City Vote Coalition is the culmination of two years of organizing to stop Atlanta from building a new training center in South River Forest. After the Atlanta City Council voted in early June to authorize $67 million for the project, organizers turned their focus to a ballot initiative to let the people of Atlanta decide.

Since launching the referendum campaign, the coalition has been organizing on two fronts: legal battles in the courts and grassroots efforts in the streets, collecting signatures and spreading its message. 

Made up of organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Working Families Power, Movement for Black Lives, Community Movement Builders, and a number of individual local organizers, the coalition announced the campaign days after the City Council vote.

Two weeks later, the group sued to force the Municipal Clerk to approve its petition to begin a referendum campaign, after the clerk had twice rejected the petition for technical errors.

Once the coalition got the petition campaign off the ground, a group of DeKalb County residents sued the city for the right to collect signatures. Previously, only Atlanta residents could act as witnesses to petition signatures, however the portion of South River Forest where the city wants to build the training facility sits outside the city limits in unincorporated DeKalb.

U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen ruled in favor of the DeKalb residents and extended the deadline into late September. Attorneys for the city have already filed an appeal and a motion which would prevent Cohen’s ruling from going into effect until the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals could decide the case.

On Aug. 14, Cohen denied the city’s request for his ruling to be delayed until the appeal is heard.

Right after the judge’s ruling, Hooks said the coalition got an influx of around 150 organizers from DeKalb who signed up to do canvassing.

“That was before school started back,” Hooks said. 

But organizers said they’ve seen a dip in the number of volunteers available during the week. To compensate, the coalition has been making a concerted effort to get out to weekend block parties and outdoor festivals to collect signatures.

On the Ground

Last Thursday, Hooks walked around Campbellton Plaza, introducing herself and asking people if they’ve signed the petition yet.

Like a lot of the people Hooks talked to, Nicola Henderson said she’d already signed when a group of guys with the petition came to the laundromat where she works.

Henderson said last month was the first time she’d heard about Cop City, but was willing to sign the petition because she wants to protect Black people.

“I’ve seen more cops kill Black people than anybody,” she said.

While some Atlantans show immediate interest in the petition, Hooks said she has encountered others who believe that more police are the solution. 

“We had one guy the other day who didn’t want to sign because he said they need more police to stop crime,” she said.  

Another organizer with Hooks spoke to the man about the realities of how much time police actually spend fighting crime. 

Ultimately, he didn’t sign, and the organizers moved on.

But Hooks said that even if she doesn’t get a signature from someone, she makes an effort to talk with them about why she decided to join the coalition and why she’s out trying to get as many signatures as she can.

Most people are at least willing to hear them out about the petition, and many end up signing, she said. 

Keturah McMillian from Summerhill said she signed the petition because she knows Cop City has been a big issue in Atlanta.

“I just want to keep the violence down. People deserve to feel protected and served by the police,” she said, and she doesn’t think they feel that way right now.

Quite a few people who Hooks speaks to are willing to sign but are wary about putting their address and phone number on the petition.

“I just tell them, ‘You know they have it anyways; they just have to verify it’s you,’” she said.

Others she approaches about the petition are already onboard with the movement and just needed to be given the opportunity to sign

“We should try to help our community, and funding cops is not the way,” said Decarius Clark, who told Hooks that he had already signed when she asked him about the petition.

Clark said he’d much rather see the money going toward homeless shelters or homes for people than toward police.

The vote coalition has modeled their campaign after a referendum organized in Camden County, Georgia, to block a spaceport the county’s Board of Commissioners wanted to build. After voters rejected the spaceport in the referendum, the county commissioners challenged the election in court in an attempt to continue with construction of the project.

However, in February, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the vote by Camden residents to block the spaceport.

Once the petition has been turned in, the city will begin the process of verifying each signature before the referendum can be scheduled.

If the city takes all the time they are legally allowed for signature verification, the referendum date would be set for the next citywide election, which would be the March 2024 primary.

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