Stop Cop City Activists Want a Democratic Process. The City of Atlanta Doesn’t.

Activists with Atlanta’s Stop Cop City movement, which seeks to prevent the construction of a massive police militarization complex, want to put the issue to a popular vote. But city officials are hostile to the democratic initiative.

A brief confrontation between Cop City protesters and Fulton County sheriff's deputies, just hours before Donald Trump was indicted on August 14, 2023. (Courtesy of Ryan Zickgraf)

Over the past year and change, Atlanta’s Stop Cop City protesters have been primarily concerned with halting the construction of a massive police militarization complex in a forest southeast of the city limits. But on August 14, they turned their attention to another matter: the fact that former president Donald Trump was on the cusp of being indicted in Atlanta for attempting to sabotage the 2020 presidential election.

Activists took the opportunity to highlight the undemocratic nature of the Cop City project. The ex-president wasn’t the only politician attempting to suppress the vote, they said in speeches outside the county building.

“The whole world is watching to see what happens when a black Democratic mayor decides that he wants to subvert democracy in the so-called ‘Black Mecca’ of the United States,” shouted Rev. Keyanna Jones, a member of the faith coalition opposing Cop City. “Isn’t this behaving exactly like the same bad actors that we saw after the presidential election of 2020?”

Meanwhile, several Fulton County sheriff’s deputies on motorcycles, with sirens blaring, rode on the sidewalk toward the protesters in order to force them to move a block away, to a designated free speech zone.

Stonewalling Tactics

Since the escalation of the Cop City fight earlier this year, Georgia officials have employed a number of repressive tactics against the left-leaning protesters — a loose coalition of people ranging from neighborhood groups, activist organizations, and environmentalists concerned about the project’s razing of a swath of Atlanta’s famed tree canopy.

In January, the police killed an environmentalist named Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán by shooting them at least eleven times during a raid on protesters in the forest near Cop City. The medical examiner has ruled Tortuguita’s death a homicide. About forty other activists have been arrested and held on specious domestic terrorism charges, including attendees of a Stop Cop City music festival.

Additionally, in May, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three activists involved in the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a mutual aid and bail fund, on allegations of “charity fraud” and money laundering due to their effort to oppose Cop City. Building on this narrative of corruption, Governor Brian Kemp said the state would “track down every member of a criminal organization, from violent foot soldiers to their uncaring leaders.”

But it’s not just Republican governors and police employing shady tactics. Activists with the Stop Cop City movement also point the finger at the Democrats who run the city of Atlanta. In June, after a year of public protests, the Atlanta City Council voted to spend an additional $30 million on the project, bringing the city’s total funding to $67 million. They cast their votes despite hundreds of people voicing their objections after a marathon fifteen-hour meeting.

In the wake of the city council vote, organizers opted to employ a tactic of direct democracy, which means petitioning for a referendum that will allow Atlanta residents to vote yes or no on repealing the lease of the property to the Atlanta Police Foundation. To successfully trigger the referendum, Stop Cop City activists need more than seventy thousand voters to sign a petition to submit to the city by a sixty-day deadline.

Since the referendum effort began in mid-June, organizers say, city officials have tried to delay the effort and undermine the signature collection process. The municipal clerk delayed certification of the petition by weeks, and on the afternoon of June 16 — the day that the clerk told the activists to return to pick up the signature petition form — City Hall’s doors were locked early without notice.

A college student speaks out at the Stop Cop City pro-referendum rally outside an Atlanta federal courthouse on August 14. (Courtesy of Ryan Zickgraf)

The movement’s lawyers responded by filing ​​a motion to ask a judge to force the clerk’s office to take action.

“It was a one-page document,” said Kurt Kastorf, an attorney for the referendum organizers. “The fact that the clerk was taking an extremely long time to execute her statutory function led us to a concern that this was simply an attempt to stonewall this process and try to run us out of time.”

Additionally, the city’s attorneys have tried to invalidate the petition drive in court. In response to Baker v. Atlanta, a suit by four residents who live near the Cop City site that challenged the residency requirement for canvassers on First Amendment grounds, the city called the petition “futile” and “invalid.” The city argued that the city’s lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation for Cop City has already been authorized and could not be retroactively repealed. But US district court judge Mark H. Cohen ruled against the city on August 14.

Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens has personally cast doubt on the legitimacy of the referendum campaign, saying during a press conference that the referendum effort would be “unsuccessful if it’s done honestly.” Meanwhile, some volunteer canvassers report having been harassed by police and forced to leave public spaces and get off of sidewalks.

Stop Copy City organizer Kamau Franklin, the founder of the group Community Movement Builders, said, “It’s obvious to us, based on statements and actions by the city, and particularly Mayor Dickens, that the city is completely opposed to allowing democracy to take place.”

What’s Next for Stop Cop City

In early August, the Stop Cop City movement got a new outspoken ally in King Center CEO Bernice King, who quoted her father, Martin Luther King Jr, in his 1957 speech “Give Us the Ballot” in a letter that called on Atlanta city leaders to “put it to a public vote.” She wrote:

The participation of the people must be welcome. Atlanta cannot be a city that closes its ears to its most vulnerable residents, who have been made so by historically discriminatory, destructive, and undemocratic policies and practices.

Even with suppression efforts, organizers say that they’ve collected 104,000 signatures from those who also want to see Cop City “put to a public vote.” But they’re planning on continuing to collect signatures over the next month, part of a sixty-day extension granted in Baker v. Atlanta. Franklin says he expects the city to try to invalidate those signatures so the referendum won’t make the November or March ballot.

On Monday, Atlanta’s interim municipal clerk, Vanessa Waldon, announced that the city would use a process called “signature check” to verify the petition. Voting rights experts have described this controversial process as “witchcraft” and “the phrenology of elections,” alleging that it frequently results in signatures getting thrown out over minute differences in signatures, disenfranchising voters. In 2018, Georgia Democrats cheered when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully sued the state of Georgia for rejecting close to six hundred absentee ballots for suspected signature mismatches. Now the Democrat-run city of Atlanta plans to use the same flawed process.

Democratic senator Raphael Warnock has condemned Republican attempts to challenge votes in Georgia’s elections, saying, “We are in the midst of an all-out assault on democracy and on the freedom to vote.” But he and other Democratic Party leaders have not commented on local Atlanta officials seeking to suppress the Stop Cop City referendum.

“It’s not surprising to me that when they don’t get their way, the City of Atlanta — Democratic politicians, whether they’re black or not — will stop the rights of people to have their constitutional rights exercised,” said Franklin. He lamented that he sees surprisingly little difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. “I think they’re in bed with corporations and developers. Their major concern is what those folks want.”