What a week for fans of history and democracy in Atlanta.
First, former President Trump was indicted on Aug. 14 for, among other things, attempting to “find” roughly 12,000 votes in his scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Then “Vote to Stop Cop City” announced it gathered more than 104,000 signatures to allow a public vote on the secretive Atlanta public training center plan — only to pause turning them in amid a dispute over validation standards.
Different as those events are, they share similarities and political nexuses that are important in showing what a crucial moment this is in answering the question of who really runs Atlanta and how. Maybe Georgia, too.
The past week’s historic moments will reverberate for years in Atlanta’s civic and political cultures — not just separately but as intersecting waves that may amplify or dampen each other. Predicting the future is impossible, but participating in it is important — maybe involuntary — and knowing the questions is essential.
Win or lose, the achievement of “Vote to Stop Cop City” is already incredible. If the announced numbers are anything close to accurate, it has already energized more people than participated in the last mayoral runoff election — about twice as many as put Andre Dickens into that office and the role of training center apologist-in-chief. That would be a civic Declaration of Independence, a damning indictment of the lack of public engagement that City power is often founded upon, and an unprecedented blow to the old “Atlanta Way” of backroom corporate-political deal-making. Whether those signatures get verified or not, it’s guaranteed that every smart local CEO and politician today is calculating how to adjust to this age of rebellion.
And that’s one big question: Will Atlanta Democrats decrying Trump’s threats to democracy and voting rights make their own attacks on them in the name of stopping this vote?
According to organizers, they already have. On Aug. 20, the coalition announced a pause on submitting signatures to the Atlanta Municipal Clerk for verification pending “clarity” on procedures. Controversy erupted Aug. 21, when the clerk, via a press release issued by the Atlanta City Council, announced signature-matching would be a verification step, which organizers decried as a voter-suppression tactic favored by Republicans.
The referendum organizers had already filed two court challenges in the petition-gathering stage, alleging delay and suppression by City officials. City attorneys have argued the entire referendum is unlawful, while a federal judge issued an extraordinary preliminary ruling that DeKalb County residents’ First Amendment rights were likely violated when the City tried to ban them from collecting referendum signatures. The same decision allows signature-gathering to continue into late September.
The massive count contributes to the mainstreaming of the “Stop Cop City” and “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movements, which City and state leaders have attempted to demonize as “outside agitators” and “domestic terrorists.” Such propaganda and prosecutions are baked into a Georgia political culture that used similar terms and tactics against the previous century’s Civil Rights and labor organizers. But 100,000 participants surely would trigger recalculations about jury pools and who will ask taxpayers to cover what will surely be five to 10 years of battling dozens of free-speech lawsuits.
Which takes us over to Fulton County and District Attorney Fani Willis’s epic battle against Trump’s election scheme. Her use of anti-gang RICO laws in an election case is another legal novelty that may affect Georgia politics in general and “Cop City” protesters in particular. The state RICO laws come with a relatively low burden of proof and severe punishment that makes them powerful in a case involving some obviously kooky conspiracy theorists. But they are also classic mission-creepers and First Amendment threats frequently criticized for misuse and abuse. Atlanta Democrats cheering the Trump indictments might want to think twice about equating organized crime with politicians and consultants telling lies and staging fake government processes to achieve unpopular projects.
In fact, Willis was part of the prosecution team in a previous use of RICO in a public-service case — the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, which generated intense controversy as possible over-prosecution. In her own RICO cases targeting Trump and, in a traditional street-gang case against rapper Young Thug, Willis has shown controversial disregard or open contempt for First Amendment issues. In the Trump case, she twice called a journalist as a grand jury witness. In the Young Thug case, she used song lyrics as evidence of a conspiracy.
Those are troubling mood-setters when considering the “Cop City” cases, where protesters and journalists have been subjects of controversial arrests and over-charging. Some organizers have long said they believe a state RICO prosecution of protesters is coming, and Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr telegraphed as much after the highly controversial arrests of bail fund organizers in May, with Kemp calling them part of a “criminal organization.” Protesters and some elected officials called the arrests an attempt to chill protests.
Trump alleges the Fulton charges violate his free-speech rights, too, and he may find out the hard way that the First Amendment isn’t a shield against criminal behavior. And, of course, there are many factual and consequential differences between Trump’s assault on a presidential election and protesters hating on a regional training center.
But it’s good to take a breath and contemplate whether we are entering a time when any unpopular or disfavored movement can become a “gang” worthy of decades of prison time and what that means for political, public and individual life. Observe carefully whether the Trump case feeds the flames of “Cop City” cases or whether backlash to training center charges draws some fire lines. If this legal angle manages to unite MAGA and Stop Cop City, hold onto your red caps, black masks, and all other headgear.
Another question is whether Willis’s RICO case cools or kindles the state GOP taste for provoking Atlanta politically every once in a while — an underlying factor in this case. Trump’s alleged conspiracy involved plenty of locals known for proposals like taking Hartsfield-Jackson airport away from the City. Among Trump’s “fake electors” were state Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), who was not charged in the indictments, and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones of Jackson, who faces a separate independent investigation due to a conflict of interest Willis created. Both men, as actual outside agitators, were among key supporters of the failed Buckhead cityhood movement, which is a fascinating political nexus of Trump and “Cop City.”
Endorsed by Trump and led by one of his family friends, the notion of Buckhead becoming a separate city shared some political contours with the “Cop City” protests, including a populist groundswell against mayoral policies and the aim of staging a referendum. Fueled by crime fears and a backlash to 2020’s police-reform movement, Buckhead cityhood drew support from some disgruntled police officers and gave major momentum to the training center project. When Dickens inherited the political mess, the training center became a crucial device for his message that separate cityhood was unnecessary.
Cityhood died far more peacefully than Trump’s election conspiracies but shared the penchant for outrageous insults and providing ridiculously false testimony at General Assembly hearings. From an establishment perspective, the whole thing had the flavor of a hazing gone wrong. The GOP traditionally likes to mess with Atlanta but not ruin it. But times had changed, and the establishment was outflanked by its farther-right wing and, more importantly, shaken from below by populism. It’s no surprise some of these same Georgians veered off course with Trump’s election claims, too, just like with the training center, where big-D Democrats are supposed to ignore little-d democracy sometimes and get away with it for some transactional power, only to find protesters willing to out-organize them.
Another similarity between Trump’s schemes and the “Cop City” debate is crises foisted upon the public with roots in systemic inequities and wrongs: the Electoral College, GOP gerrymandering and DeKalb County as a disenfranchised dumping ground for Atlanta’s unwanted facilities. Corporate-titan fiat is another. An obvious irony of Trump is that he was elected to shake up the game while being a classic player of it.
For those of us who’ve covered development for years, reading Trump in the indictment is just recapping what many real estate CEOs do every day — seek legal loopholes, draw up secret plans, entertain the press and public with grandiose claims, bully or fund politicians, and do it all with someone else’s money. The training center, which is fundamentally also a secret corporate-funded plan, isn’t much different. Parkland magically appearing on training center maps to fulfill an impossible public statement is as unconvincing, if not as childish, as the Sharpie version of a hurricane path.
The past seven days underscore how sick Atlanta is of these problems and these games — and how persistent they are. It’s a key moment in a time so historic that it’s natural to reach back to Atlanta’s past for similar examples of when everything changes. I’ve said “Cop City” is this era’s “Centennial Olympics,” a brand and a tactic that is reshaping our identity. GSU law professor Anthony Michael Kreis has suggested Willis’s charging of Trump harkens back to the unfulfilled work of Reconstruction. After considering everything Trump and talking with some “Vote to Stop Cop City” organizers about their focus on marginalized Black and LGTBQ communities, I’ve thought a lot about another time the City got a national spotlight, and Booker T. Washington declared the “Atlanta Compromise” on civil rights — only now, a W.E.B. Du Bois mood is ascendant, and it’s more like the Atlanta No-Compromise.
Whatever you call it, it’s a magic moment when Atlanta is changing, and there is unprecedented opportunity to set its course. While all the combatants will present themselves as defenders of some ideal of democracy, the real deal will prove themselves by empowering you to help run your town.