The “Vote to Stop Cop City” referendum effort may or may not do just that. Either way, its organizers already see the campaign as an unprecedented, history-making challenge to the old “Atlanta Way” of backroom deal-making.
The call for direct democracy is coming from a broad coalition of left-wing groups, some with a record of affecting municipal races and the capacity and ambition to engage roughly as many voters as cast ballots in the 2021 mayoral runoff. The sheer scope of public outreach and the scale of internal organizing are aspects its leaders think give it legs to shake up the political establishment. As the public safety training center has become a symbolic battle about who really runs Atlanta and how, referendum organizers express confidence it will be the regular folks and marginalized communities they represent.
“It’s historic,” says Vonne Martin, the Atlanta-based deputy chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), one of the coalition partners. Martin says organizers see the referendum movement functioning “as a vehicle for building Black and Brown power in Atlanta – to seize power from Black elites and white corporations and really put it back in the hands of, frankly, Black folks who historically have been marginalized and repressed. This is a building effort — to build communities and really share their stories.”
Britney Whaley, senior political strategist at the Working Families Party’s (WPF) Georgia chapter, calls the referendum effort “a tool in how we build power and how we get people to listen to us.”
“Yes, this particular issue is Cop City… but this is really about democracy and how you listen to people and how you govern,” she says.
New Disabled South Rising (NDSR), the political advocacy arm of New Disabled South, is among those joining the effort against a project that sparks a wide variety of concerns, from police reform to environmental justice to political representation to LGBTQ rights to general good government. NDSR in particular agreed to become one of two fiscal sponsors for the referendum effort, according to President and CEO Dom Kelly.
“It feels like we’re in a really historic moment,” said Kelly. “That’s why when we got asked to do this, it was a no-brainer. We want to be part of this for our people, disabled folks… I think it is going to change politics. This is something that has never been done before in this state, as far as I’m aware, or in this way.”
Mariah Parker, a labor organizer, hip hop musician and former Athens-Clarke County commissioner who now lives in Atlanta, ended up putting their name on the referendum petition application at the Atlanta Municipal Clerk’s office in an ad-hoc piece of activism. Parker also sees “Vote to Stop Cop City” as a potent challenge to Atlanta’s establishment.
“I think the Atlanta Way is a consolidation of resources and power to bring a certain outcome that supports the elite in Atlanta,” says Parker. “So similarly, we need to consolidate our forces as the people in order to direct the political currents that uplift working-class people. I think in the referendum, we’re meeting them on our turf.”
The political and cultural differences are evident in the methods and results. The training center planning is a secretive series of charades and shell games, like private planner the Atlanta Police Foundation running its own review committee while hiding the actual site application from it and Mayor Andre Dickens attempting to blur the specific facility with the conceptual notion of the South River Forest green space. The results range from the mystifying to the brazenly impossible and potentially illegal. Questions to City and state officials are frequently met with stony silence and protests with accusations of terrorism.
“Vote to Stop Cop City,” on the other hand, is coming directly to tens of thousands of citizens’ doors as it aims to collect at least 70,000 signatures – likely many more – by mid-August to get the question on the ballot. Signature-gatherers are everywhere from community festivals to restaurants to churches. (Field offices are at Park Avenue Baptist Church at 486 Park Ave. in Grant Park and the American Friends Service Committee office at 711 Catherine St. #150 in Adair Park.)
It’s a process that’s cheerfully open, proactively engaging – and maybe even fun. Parker took the petition along the other night to karaoke at the Glenwood in East Atlanta Village.
“I make music. I like going to shows,” says Parker. “I might as well bring along a clipboard.”
At the same time, it’s a massively organized machine sending out signature-gatherers in three shifts a day, as well as providing the personal support needed for doing so. Core groups in the effort, organizers say, are WPF, Community Movement Builders (CMB), the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition and SONG Power, the advocacy arm of Southerners on New Ground.
Whaley and Martin say that such work really began in organizing hundreds of people to provide public comments – almost all in opposition – in advance of an Atlanta City Council meeting in early June where public funding for the training center ultimately was approved. That effort included arranging child care, sleeping bags and other necessities for people who had to participate into the early-morning hours. “This is a real community effort where people are going to be able to take care of each other,” said Martin, noting the importance of a mutual-aid approach by CMB.
Many of these organizations are small. WPF says four of roughly five or six local staff members are “embedded” in the referendum effort. But they are also experienced at mobilizing large number of volunteers. Whaley said WPF is already operating a phone bank as well and will have text banking underway in early July.
The effort also takes money. Kelly said on June 26 that NDSR – which is only one of the two fiscal sponsors handling donations – had received about $50,000 for the campaign. “This is fueled so far by grassroots donors,” he said, tallying about 700 individual donors. The majority of those donations came from within Georgia, he said, describing that as undercutting City Hall and state narratives that all “Cop City” opposition is from outsiders. However, 44 other states were also represented, showing the national scale of the “Cop City” controversy.
The Hip Hop Caucus is among the national organizations attracted to Atlanta’s “Cop City” activism. That group planned a June 30 town hall at the Westside’s Gathering Spot with Parker and members of CMB and Southern Center for Human Rights on Atlanta’s history of “over-policing,” including the infamous Red Dog Unit that committed such abuses as a raid on the Atlanta Eagle gay bar.
“Hip Hop Caucus is in this fight because for two years Atlantans have said that they do not want Cop City and the City’s elected officials have refused to listen to the community,” said Brandi Williams, the Hip Hop Caucus’s field campaign director, in a written statement to SaportaReport. “The democratic process exists to represent and serve the people, and we’re on the ground to help make sure that the people of Atlanta are heard.”
This is, as protesters are fond of saying, what democracy looks like. And not just in Atlanta and not just on the left. Georgia is seeing a trend of the general public refusing to sit at the kiddie table and silently eat what is cooked up for them by the government-corporation complex. It’s also a rural community fighting Rivian. It’s Camden County residents fighting a spaceport – the direct inspiration for the “Cop City” referendum effort.
But there is something distinctive about the Atlanta dispute. The CPD’s Martin says that “Cop City is at the intersection” of a wide variety of concerns and issues, from police abolitionists to redirection of funds that could go to affordable housing or better roads. Also galvanizing protesters, Martin says, is the controversial police killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán and domestic terrorism charges against many more – all of which highlight the potential national impacts of the policing debate.
Some of the political roots go back to 2020s nakedly partisan dispute over policing and crime (and pandemic responses) between Black Democratic Atlanta and white conservative state government. The training center’s political momentum came directly from a backlash that also included another would-be referendum effort in the form of the since-failed Buckhead cityhood battle.
The heavy-handed police response to the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” and “Cop City” protest movements has started to spark criticism from some state and federal Democrats, including Georgia’s U.S. senators. Another likely spur is the referendum campaign, which involves many activists who helped elect them – including WPF and Kelly, who was an advisor to the gubernatorial campaign of Stacey Abrams. CPD’s local affiliates include the formerly Abrams-led New Georgia Project.
As independent journalist George Chidi of the Atlanta Objective has noted, the referendum campaign seeks to get signature approval from at least 20,000 more voters than the 50,000 who put Dickens into office. That’s a measure of how much municipal politics is driven by lack of public engagement and how influential “Vote to Stop Cop City” could be.
Whaley at the WPF said her party’s involvement in the training center issue is rooted in the 2021 municipal elections, when it worked on the successful campaigns of Liliana Bakhtiari, Jason Dozier and Antonio Lewis. (All three in June voted against the training center public funding ordinance.) Criminal justice reform was a pressing issue that emerged from a town hall WPF held at that time, she said, and the training center is the culmination of many of those concerns.
Some of the referendum effort’s communications are being handled by New Deal Strategies, a Democratic political consulting firm involved in national races and whose team includes several advisors to last year’s successful campaign of Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. John Fetterman in a nationally watched race. But organizers say that mainstream Democratic support has not materialized.
Whaley says local and state Democrats are at best issuing “statements that are kind of playing it safe” in skepticism of the training center and not coming close to 2020’s rethinking of police culture changes. She noted that Dickens recently was named to a national advisory committee for President Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign.
“I have a lot of curiosity around why, in this moment, when we’re having this kind of fight, our mayor would be selected to be part of an advisory committee,” Whaley said. “I think that we’re gonna have some interesting dialog. I won’t say fights.”
Parker says that while City Hall Democrats are “trying to stonewall this,” some state Democratic officials “see the writing on the wall of, ‘Uh-oh. When I’m up for reelection, do I want this fired-up base that is knocking on thousands of doors…?’ I think folks are getting a little frightened in that way.”
Kelly says he is disappointed that more national and state Democrats haven’t gotten involved in the opposition more strongly or at all in the wake of such incidents as Tortuguita’s killing and the arrests of bail-fund operators. He calls it “a missed opportunity for our electeds to be on the right side of history.”
“I think that our state Democratic electeds are going to have to really look at where they stand on this issue,” says Kelly, “and also realize that this is a powerful movement and this is going to have an impact on their ability to be elected moving forward, wherever they come out on this or don’t. I think this is going to shift things in Atlanta. It’s my hope that it will. Because this is a broad base.”
Even if organizers get enough valid signatures – which must be from City residents who were on the voter rolls in 2021, when the original lease passed the council – there could be legal challenges, quite possibly from the Democrat-led government itself. And even this populist act has an involuntary undemocratic twist, as the training center is outside City limits in unincorporated DeKalb County, where immediate neighbors are ineligible to vote – yet another consequence of the secret selection of a site in part because it lacks political representation.
For the “Vote to Stop Cop City” activists, big-D Democrats aren’t necessary in the referendum’s focus on little-d democracy. “I think no matter what, the win will be talking to tens of thousands of people” about public safety policy and community-building, says Parker.
“It would be a huge boon if we had major politicians or elected officials or even celebrities, what have you, speaking in favor of stopping Cop City. That would be great,” says Martin. “But in the meantime, our goal is to connect with people in their homes and in their communities and understand from their perspectives what their concerns are about Cop City – and what their needs are beyond Cop City.”