Activists unveil plan to stop ‘Cop City’ at the ballot box

Training center opponents want voters to decide
Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 5:45 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 7, 2023 at 6:10 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (AP) - Activists announced an effort Wednesday to force a referendum that would allow Atlanta voters to decide whether the construction of a proposed police and firefighter training center should proceed, in a potential last-ditch effort to halt the project that its opponents refer to as “Cop City.”

“Today we are here to let the people decide. The people need to have a voice in whether or not there is a Cop City,” said Kamau Franklin, community organizer against the project.

A day after the City Council rejected protesters’ pleas to refuse to fund the police and firefighter training facility, the activists returned to City Hall to file a referendum petition, hoping to take the fight to the ballot box. Under the proposed referendum, voters would choose whether they want to repeal the ordinance that authorized the lease of the city-owned land upon which the project is being built.

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In order for the language to get on the ballot, though, organizers must first gather the signatures of more than 70,000 Atlanta voters over 60 days once the city clerk approves the petition. They would also have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay canvassers to help them do that.

“The exciting thing about the referendum is that it’s a silver bullet,” said Alex Joseph, a local attorney who is helping to lead the legal effort. “If we win, it shuts down the project.”

Joseph said the campaign is modeled after a successful effort in coastal Georgia, where Camden County residents voted overwhelmingly last year to block county officials from building a launchpad for blasting commercial rockets into space.

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The Georgia Supreme Court in February unanimously upheld the legality of the Camden County referendum, though it remains an open question whether citizens can veto decisions of city governments.

In her ruling, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Carla Wong McMillian ruled Georgia law “plainly grants repeal and amendment powers to the electorate for ‘ordinances, resolutions, or regulations adopted.”

Emory law professor Fred Smith said further judicial clarification may be needed for the Camden County case was over a county ordinance and the fight in Atlanta is over a city ordinance.

“That’s the most important distinction between the Camden case and this particular case is that this case is not about a County it’s about a City,” said Smith, in an interview with Atlanta News First on Wednesday.

Opponents of the proposed training center say they need to gather the signatures of 15% of the approximately 469,000 city residents who were registered to vote in the last election, which would be 70,330 signatures. Among the groups backing the effort are the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Working Families Party.

Construction crews have already begun clearing wide swaths of the overgrown, urban forest in unincorporated DeKalb County ahead of the planned construction of the 85-acre (34-hectare) campus. Project opponents said they plan to seek a court order to halt the work pending the outcome of their proposed referendum.

City officials say the $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens released the following statement in response to the new effort:

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But opponents, who have been joined by activists from around the country, say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.

The “Stop Cop City” effort has gone on for more than two years and at times has veered into vandalism and violence, with protesters having been accused of throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at law enforcement officers.

More than 350 people signed up Monday to deliver impassioned speeches against the facility, with testimony inside the City Council chamber lasting so long — more than 14 hours — that the 11-4 vote in favor of funding the facility did not take place until around 5:30 a.m. the next morning.

Having been unable to convince the council to halt the project, Joseph said it’s time for activists to make the case to the larger public.

“Hundreds of us have spoken and yet (city officials) have moved forward with this project,” Joseph said. “To me, in the face of being ignored like that, this calls for direct democracy.”

As approved by the City Council in September 2021, the land is being leased to the private Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 a year. The proposed referendum would seek to cancel that agreement.

Atlanta native and local organizer Clara Totenberg Green said gathering enough signatures in time will be difficult, but she thinks it’s doable.

“There are hundreds, thousands of folks that are mobilized and ready to act,” Green said. “We can absolutely get the signatures. The challenge is the fast turnaround, but we can do it. People are ready.”