I get asked a lot by readers and fellow reporters if I think the Atlanta public safety training center protests have any real chance of stopping the project. I’m no Nostradamus, but I’ve seen stranger things happen to even bigger civic steamrollers. And Atlanta’s protests recently took similar turns as populists and rebels ironically are proving far better at working the system than the capital-S System here does.
One example I saw up close was Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, a seeming juggernaut that toppled in 2015 as the establishment underestimated the populist power of then-novel social media and was KO’d by a one-two punch of criticism about social justice issues and the project’s blank check. A project seen as stoppable by no one became something everyone of every political flavor could hate.
It’s an instructive example, since Atlanta famously hosted the 1996 Olympics and ever since has used its tactic of virtually unchecked backroom dealmaking as a playbook for civic projects, including the training center – only this time, under the spotlight of criticisms on those same Bostonian themes of government tyranny and Big Business tax-vampirism.
Atlanta’s civic mythos of the Olympics focuses on “we won!” – not such mechanics as “we bribed!” or the tragic realities of what the Games do to anyone in its path of wealth extraction and land displacement, all with someone else’s money. Not that local protesters were silent on such issues; it’s just that in 1996, government and media could essentially ignore them and successfully garner international TV glory.
That was then. Now, the training center is in many ways Atlanta’s anti-Olympics. The secrecy and bullying of the planning process, such as it is, are exposed by social and alternative media. The project has become an international embarrassment, with Atlanta and Georgia living down to a lot of the stereotypes other places have about the South regarding brutal cops, good ole boys and ambitious conservatives painting Black-led cities as crime havens. Then there’s the protesters’ thermonuclear strike of a nickname for the project. “Cop City” is this era’s “Centennial Olympics” – a brand that will mark the city for years to come, only this time in unflattering ways and from the bottom up instead of the top down.
None of that means the protesters will convince the general public or overcome ye olde tactics of City government simply ignoring them or, when that is impossible, arresting them. But two major developments in recent weeks had unintended consequences of a tangible shift that is moving some mainstream leaders.
One was the May 31 arrests on still-mysterious money laundering and charity fraud charges of three organizers of a bail fund that supports protesters. Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr – both Republicans – made ham-fisted, evidence-free attempts to paint them as domestic terrorists or funders of violence. That drew criticism from such Democrats as Georgia’s U.S. senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, as raising First Amendment concerns – already a massive issue in the policing of protests. State Sen. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, also chimed in, calling the claims a “lie” and part of Carr’s supposed intent to run for governor. Behind all of that was much online agitation from Democratic campaign workers.
Then came the Atlanta City Council’s momentous – and divided – vote on June 6 to approve public funding for the training center. Putting the lie to claims that the public part of the budget would be $30 million, the council authorized more than twice that amount. With the actual plan still fundamentally secret and construction not even started, it would be no surprise for that amount to rise and tax coffers to open further. The blank check has been signed.
Opponents who organized hours of public comment against the funding – dwarfing the work of supporters – immediately pivoted to the dramatic and legally novel tactic of petitioning for a ballot referendum that, if approved by voters, would kill the training center’s lease. The move is based on a similar rebellious vote in Camden County in Southeast Georgia that overturned a planned spacecraft launching site, a novel tactic approved in February by the Supreme Court of Georgia. That was part of a broad-based populist movement against secret government-corporate dealmaking that is trending statewide and embraced by everyone from urban anarchists to rural MAGAs.
The effort has major hurdles, including collecting more than 70,000 voter signatures and overcoming a likely legal challenge, as the referendum tactic is new and has not been tried at the municipal level. Fred Smith Jr., a constitutional law professor at Emory University, tells me he thinks the referendum is likely to go to the state Supreme Court and that its supporters have strong arguments. Smith said that, based on the Camden precedent, the training center opponents have a “reasonable case… I’d use an even stronger word than reasonable.” And, he said, they also would have a strong argument for a court order halting the project pending the outcome of the case since “the whole point of the litigation [would be] for it not to be built… [and] give voters a chance to decide if it should be built.”
Among the effort’s leaders are organizations run by anarchists and Marxists that buck the typical trend of nonprofits dependent on corporate funding and thus unlikely to rock civic boats. But they are already bringing along more mainstream figures, such as state Rep. Ruwa Romman (D-Duluth), who commented in opposition to funding to the council and supported the referendum campaign on Twitter. The Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, an umbrella body of the City’s Neighborhood Planning Units, on June 17 voted to support placing the referendum on the ballot, according to board members Lora Hawk and Jereme Sharpe.
Sharpe also announced immediately after the council vote that he is making another run for the Post 1 At-Large seat held by Michael Julian Bond in 2025 following an unsuccessful 2021 campaign. (Bond, who voted in favor of the funding, did not respond to a comment request.) Sharpe calls himself “100 percent a no vote on Cop City” because the process “went against everything that democracy is supposed to be.” He said he is talking with potential challenges in council Districts 9 and 12 as well, who were already considering runs but were energized by the training center funding vote.
“I think this vote shifted a lot forward, and quickly, is what it did,” he said. “… It looks like the political season started a little early for Atlanta.”
It’s far too soon to say how training center politics will play out in 2025 or 2026, but the scent of blood in the water is plainly growing stronger for mainstream politicians on either side. The agitation of potential challengers also shows the double-edged sword of the plan’s secrecy, which remains so aggressive that City officials defiantly ignore even obvious errors in the lease and funding legislation about the facility’s size. That has clear advantages in moving fast without scrutiny and paying fealty to police interests whose 2020 protests were a prime mover of the current plan.
But it also opens up room for error and opposition, as noted by J. Benjamin Taylor, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. He notes that proponents are banking on the eventual success of their claims that the facility will improve training and recruitment and restore green space and that the opposition is led by outsiders.
“On the other hand, because this has generated so much media attention, it does not matter if the claims of the proponents are true or not,” adds Taylor. “Because the state has taken such a pro-police training center position, Democrats who are not particularly invested in the direct outcomes of the center (good or bad) have incentives to oppose it now. Similarly, if there are people who were looking to break into Atlanta city politics, which is always difficult at the local level, they now have a salient issue where they can clearly differentiate themselves from the current government and its policies.”
That media attention includes the tremendous success of the “Cop City” protests. “The main reason this has legs now is that you have a dedicated opposition who is very good at getting media attention, and the powers that be have, perhaps, not done the best job selling the center,” Taylor said. “Thus, until there are empirical outcomes to point to for either side, this will continue to be a useful political football for those who want to attack the state or the current ATL politicians who want to see the center built.”
As I’ve argued, in the deliberate information vacuum about the training center, everyone is essentially a protester tossing that political football. However, I’d add that there are already some empirical outcomes, like the falsehood about taxpayer spending and the still-mysterious police killing of a protester in an alleged shootout that wounded a state trooper, which was an initial pivot point in mainstream opinion.
Expect more shoes – or combat boots – to drop that may shift the debate one way or the other. Look for another request for public money that could unite left, right and more in unhappiness. The governor and attorney general are strongly implying, as protesters themselves believe, that organized-crime prosecutions are coming against the movement, which surely would set off more international controversy and lawsuits. There is the possibility of more dramatic action by the subset of protesters who have destroyed property or thrown firebombs or rocks toward police officers and civilians. There’s the question of whether some Republicans outside Atlanta – mostly the target audience of the governor’s crackdown politicking – will sympathize with the referendum in this populist time.
There is also the growing list of lawsuits alleging First Amendment violations by Atlanta and state police against protesters and journalists covering them. If the claims in those lawsuits are true, the arrests constitute a pattern of civil rights violations that would warrant a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Gerry Weber and Drago Cepar Jr., two civil rights attorneys involved in some of the lawsuits, say they are unaware of any such complaints filed with the DOJ, but Cepar added, “That may change in the future, though.”
I have no predictions on how the protest movement ends. If the training center is built, it may never end – in the sense of it forever being branded “Cop City” and the general site of the killing of a martyr for international protesters. I do know that today’s public has legal tools and media leverage for which old-school Atlanta leaders are unprepared. Because of that, whatever happens in this watershed moment, the city’s politics and media will never be the same after this kind of organizing – and this kind of policing.