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‘Let the People Decide’: Organizers Want a Referendum on ‘Cop City’

Atlanta activists want residents to vote on the controversial training center that was approved for funding by council earlier this week.

Community organizer Nsé Ufot addresses the media outside Atlanta City Hall. (Madeline Thigpen/Capital B Atlanta)

A citywide referendum is the next step for organizers in Atlanta who are determined to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center known as “Cop City” in the South River Forest.

Activists who’ve spent the last two years organizing against the project turned their attention to the referendum after Atlanta City Council voted 11-4 early Tuesday morning to approve an ordinance to fund the project.

The referendum will try to repeal the original ordinance passed by the City Council in September 2021, which authorized the mayor’s office to enter into a lease agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation for the land in South River Forest.

A number of Atlanta activists and organizers held a press conference in front of City Hall Wednesday to announce their plans to get this referendum on the ballot this November.

“Today we are here to let the people decide,” said Kamau Franklin, co-founder of Community Movement Builders, which has been organizing against Cop City for the past two years.

“We’re going to have lawyers prepared not only to respond to the silliness that the city will probably try to do to block this, but to affirmatively go into court and protect the rights of the people of Atlanta,” he said.

In order to get the referendum on the ballot in November, organizers will have 60 days from the time the city clerk approves the petition to collect 75,000 signatures. The clerk has seven days to approve the petition for referendum.

Only residents who were registered to vote in the City of Atlanta at the time of the last mayoral election in 2021 are eligible to sign the petition. Just over 97,000 people voted in that election before Mayor Andre Dickens beat his opponent Felicia Moore in a runoff later that month. While they try to collect signatures, Franklin has said they also plan to file an injunction to halt construction of the facility.

Locals have pushed back against the new training facility since it was announced in 2021, however the movement has grown since an environmental activist was killed while occupying South River Forest earlier this year.

Then it was revealed last week that Atlanta taxpayers would be paying at least $67 million for the project as opposed to the $30 million officials originally said. “Where I’m from, in my working class black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, we would say that you are hustling backwards,” said Nsé Ufot, a community organizer and Atlanta native involved in the Stop Cop City movement.

Of the over 200 speakers at public comment, totalling 14 hours, four spoke in favor of the facility. One, a police officer, spoke about the poor condition of the current facility, while others in favor spoke in support of Dickens’ public safety agenda.

Common among those who urged council to vote down the legislation was the suggestion that this money should be spent on crime prevention initiatives like affordable housing and job training.

Ufot described the council’s vote in favor of funding the project “administrative violence,” and accused Atlanta lawmakers of bastardizing the democratic process. 

“I’m talking about using the levers of power, using the levers of government to thwart the will of the people,” she said, adding, “There’s no world where our community won’t use all of the tools that are available to us to build the Atlanta that we feel like our families deserve.”

Organizers also vowed to hold Dickens and the city council members who voted in favor of funding the project accountable by supporting candidates who run against them.

“We are not going to be intimidated by intransient public officials who have attempted to intimidate people,” said Gary Spencer, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “So we are going to take our fight to the ballot box and we believe we will win.” 

If the organizers are successful in getting their referendum on the ballot, election day will be November 7.