We Can Have Cop City, or We Can Have Democracy

Atlanta’s Democratic leadership is trying to build a massive police urban-warfare training facility before the public can stop it. The outcome will set a precedent for the political future, with implications well beyond the city itself.

Activists participate in a protest against Cop City on March 9, 2023, in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Atlanta residents are awaiting a court decision on whether they will be allowed to vote on the construction of a massive new police training facility, dubbed “Cop City.” The $110 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center would draw police trainees from across the country and contain an entire mock city, a model strikingly similar to the Israeli military’s “mini-Gaza” used to train Israeli troops for urban combat.

Atlanta’s Cop City was proposed after the 2020 George Floyd uprising, the mass protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd by then officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, MN, and other instances of racist police violence. As with earlier waves of Black Lives Matter protests, 2020 led to some policing reforms — many imposed by voters through ballot initiatives — but in general, police institutions responded to the movement by preparing for war. Just over a year after George Floyd took his last breath, the Atlanta city council voted to green-light Cop City.

From the moment it was announced, many Atlanta residents have fought bitterly to stop Cop City, while the city government is doing its best to build it anyway. The effort to ram Cop City past public opposition is dovetailing with antidemocratic measures and increasingly draconian anti-protest laws across the country, in a bipartisan spiral toward authoritarianism that we ignore at our peril.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the struggle against authoritarianism doesn’t always revolve around far-right Republicans. In urban centers like Atlanta — think also of recent police responses to protests in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis — Democrats are paving the way to the society far-right Republicans dream of, where decisions are made by and for those already in power and the police are armed and ready to keep everyone in their place.

The Referendum on Cop City

In June 2021, Atlanta city councilmember Joyce Sheperd introduced Ordinance 21-O-0637 proposing to lease 381 acres of publicly owned forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of Cop City. The facility itself would be built on eighty-five acres of clear-cut land in the Weelaunee Forest, adjacent to a majority-black area of Atlanta. Dozens of cop cities have been built or are under construction since the George Floyd uprising, but Atlanta’s would be the flagship — the largest and most public-facing police urban warfare training center in the United States.

The fight to prevent construction brought together people of all stripes, including anti-racists and opponents of militarized policing, environmentalists sounding the alarm about the potentially disastrous climate impacts of destroying so much of Atlanta’s green space, and residents who see Cop City as part of rampant gentrification or who simply think taxpayer money could be better spent on underfunded public services. Local activists mobilized demonstrations, direct actions at construction sites, a network of forest encampments, and a nationwide solidarity campaign.

In June 2023, after two years of escalating protests and repression, the Atlanta City Council met to vote on public funding for Cop City’s construction. Residents again packed city hall, with public comments lasting for over thirteen hours, the vast majority dead set against the project. Once again, the city council ignored its constituents and voted to appropriate tens of millions of tax dollars to build Cop City.

The next day, Atlantans turned to a more formal type of public comment, one with some teeth — a referendum campaign to repeal the 2021 ordinance leasing land to the Atlanta Police Foundation. It would be the first time a popular referendum (meaning a vote on a policy instead of a politician) has been used in Atlanta.

One could be forgiven for expecting that the response to a proposed referendum on an ordinance supported by the mayor and twice approved by the city council would be a public awareness campaign to persuade residents that Cop City is in fact a good thing. That’s how democracy is supposed to work, right? Instead, the city government threw up every roadblock they could to prevent a popular vote.

The first version of the petition was rejected on a technicality; when it was resubmitted and eventually accepted, the city of Atlanta sued both to restrict signature collectors to Atlanta residents and to invalidate the petition altogether, saying that it was unconstitutional in Georgia. A district judge kicked the can on the second objection, saying it would get adjudicated if the referendum were to make the ballot. On the first question, he ruled that anyone could circulate the referendum petition, and he extended the sixty-day deadline to submit signatures.

But when the campaign submitted their 116,000 signatures by the new deadline — significantly more than all votes cast in Atlanta’s last mayoral election and almost double the amount required to get on the ballot — the city rejected them on the grounds that the campaign had missed the original deadline, arguing that since the lawsuit was being appealed, the new deadline was false. That appeal is currently with the Eleventh Circuit.

On top of this, the City Council voted to adopt signature-matching procedures, which experts criticize as riven with problems that result in the exclusion of marginalized people. But that procedure only kicks in if the process is allowed to proceed. As it stands, 116,000 signatures sit in boxes and the referendum is at a standstill while construction of Cop City moves forward.

Antidemocracy in Action

Switching out mayors and city council members — all Democrats in the first place — has had no effect. After the 2021 vote to lease land for Cop City, many longtime city councilmembers, including Sheperd, were ousted by a slate of younger Democrats running on progressive platforms. Yet the 2023 vote to fund Cop City was almost identical to the 2021 vote to lease it (11–4 and 10–4, respectively). Likewise, the mayor who initially supported Cop City, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was replaced with Andre Dickens, who had previously signaled some willingness to stand up to police. Since taking office, however, Dickens has overseen the bureaucratic suppression of the referendum and brutal police repression of protesters.

Not only has changing Democratic representatives been unsuccessful in aligning the city with its constituents on this issue, but the tactics that Atlanta Democrats are using against the Cop City referendum have directly mirrored Republican attacks on the direct vote elsewhere.

Ballot initiatives and referendums are the only large-scale means of direct legislation we have, and as such are a good barometer for democratic institutions. Where the local party in power is uncomfortable with people having a direct say in legislation, it’s a good bet that those politicians aren’t governing in most people’s best interests. That’s because when voters are allowed to legislate for themselves, they tend to agree on a lot of core issues.

For example, every single state initiative to raise the minimum wage has passed going back to 1996, with an average of 60 percent support in red and blue states alike. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans made opposition to Medicaid expansion a pillar of their platform, but when voters have petitioned to put the expansion on the ballot in Republican states, it has passed almost every time. Abortion is supposed to be the polarizing issue par excellence, but all seven votes on abortion rights or bans since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision have gone for reproductive freedom (four initiatives to protect abortion rights passed, while three to ban abortion failed).

As a decision-making mechanism, ballot initiatives themselves are highly popular, and voters from both parties are acutely hostile to legislators trying to take away the direct vote. So when state or local governments want to do just that — typically connected to an initiative that is popular with voters but unpopular with party leaders — they usually try to avoid appearing as though they’re simply against democracy. Instead, they tend to take a more subtle, death-by-a-thousand-papercuts approach — legislation that makes the process more expensive and less accessible, bad-faith bureaucratic obstacles, overly burdensome technicalities, and lengthy court challenges.

Some of the most common methods state and local governments use to weaken citizen initiatives have been trying to increase the winning percentage it takes to pass initiatives; upping the number or widening the geographic distribution of signatures required (which hikes up costs for campaigns); arbitrarily changing deadlines and paperwork requirements; imposing “single-subject” rules that can sound like common sense but in practice enable courts to toss initiatives by claiming they relate to more than one thing; imposing divisive or misleading ballot language; sponsoring competing measures meant to confuse voters; and so on.

When all else fails, legislators have resorted to gutting initiatives they oppose through bills that undo the intended effect, and courts have overcome popular citizen initiatives by ruling them unconstitutional, sometimes on absurd technicalities. In rare cases, often involving the carceral system, government agencies have simply refused to comply. This is where the role of the police comes into focus. When push comes to shove, who is going to enforce the rules, and who do the enforcers answer to?

Around the country, wherever ballot initiatives are being used to pass policy that the majority wants but the ruling party opposes, state and local governments are resorting to rigging the game to prevent a popular vote. That’s exactly what we’re seeing in Atlanta. In many instances, initiative campaigns have managed to overcome gerrymandered rules to win. Whether or not this is possible in the future may come down to how barefaced the police can be in suppressing dissent.

The Police State

The job of police is to enforce the status quo, and a deeply unequal status quo requires heavy-handed enforcement. Historically, the institution of police was imported from England, where constables were used to defend the rule of monarchy against the masses since the thirteenth century. A similar practice developed in the seventeenth century via deputized bands of armed white men enforcing the system of slavery in the American and Caribbean colonies.

The first formal police departments in the United States were the ruling class’s response to abolitionist calls for rebellion. Modern policing did not develop to defend everyday people from criminals, but to protect the beneficiaries of a racialized and exploitative system from those who wanted to change that system.

Today reasonable people might disagree about the ideal role of policing on the road to a more just society. But we should all agree that to the extent police exist, they should be accountable to the communities they police, not just to the people in power. It would be difficult to overstate the danger that militarized police, armed with the weapons, tactics, and attitude of war, pose not just to the safety of our communities, but to any chance we might have of democratizing the US political and economic systems.

It is no accident that Cop City emerged in reaction to the 2020 racial justice uprising, itself a popular rejoinder to racist police violence. During that moment, police brutalized protesters and attacked journalists with impunity. The Department of Homeland Security even admitted to using unmarked vans to kidnap activists at gunpoint. Cop City was proposed in the aftermath of these events to train police how to better operate as though they are an occupying force in hostile terrain of a majority-black city.

One of Cop City’s prime inspirations, the Israeli military’s “mini Gaza,” speaks volumes. It’s hard to find a single person, whatever their stance on Israel and Palestine might be, who wants cops to police their neighborhood the way Israeli soldiers operate in Gaza. Supporters of militarized policing implicitly understand that those guns will be pointed at other kinds of people in other places.

In January, 2023, as if to leave no doubt about the type of policing Cop City would supercharge, Atlanta police raided the Stop Cop City protest encampment, shooting activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán at least fourteen times in the process, killing them on the spot. Police claimed Tortuguita had a weapon and fired on police, but recordings from the raid indicate police likely shot at each other by accident, while the district attorney has refused to make forensic evidence public.

Later that year, just as the referendum campaign was gaining steam, Atlanta police arrested dozens of protesters for domestic terrorism, racketeering, and other felonies carrying twenty-year prison sentences or more. Then they arrested three people running the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which helped provide bail for Stop Cop City activists.

The targeting of support activities like the bail fund, as well as the outrageousness of some of the charges — terrorism charges for having muddy shoes, felony intimidation for handing out flyers about Tortuguita’s murder — make it clear that getting honest convictions is not the priority. These police and prosecutor actions, like recent legislation across the country criminalizing dissent and enabling vigilante violence against protesters, are about breaking the movement.

Shortly after the crackdown on activists and supporters, the Atlanta city clerk published the referendum petition online with all signatories’ personal information, effectively doxing everyone who wanted a public vote on Cop City. When activists demanded that information be redacted, the city council directed the city clerk to comply, but the clerk has yet to do so. As with obstructions to the referendum, the bureaucracy has a way of fluidly taking the shape of repression. Through it all, organizers on the ground refused to be cowed, and continued to press the fight against Cop City.

People Power vs. Police Power

The most direct threat of authoritarianism clearly appears to come from the Republican Party. With the accompanying media parade focusing on two-party candidate elections, it can be all too easy to overlook the ways Democrats in liberal cities are putting pieces in place for the authoritarian transition. The fight to stop Cop City is emblematic of a broader struggle to govern through popular will against a political class that appears increasingly ready to swap out democratic institutions for a police state.

Right-wing Republicans are not the immediate problem in Atlanta, where the ruling Democratic political establishment came to power in the wake of the civil rights movement. But knowingly or not, that Democratic political establishment is laying the far right’s groundwork in repressing voting and civil rights to prepare the police for war against their own population.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Atlanta, and the impacts of the fight over Cop City will not stay local. Through antidemocratic measures, the criminalization of protest, and the militarization of police, the ruling class is attempting an encirclement maneuver around possibilities for change from below. The more of these battles we lose, the fewer our options become.