Organizers have gathered enough signatures to put a deeply divisive plan for a new police and fire training facility, dubbed “Cop City,” on the Atlanta ballot in November. If confirmed, and if a majority vote “no,” it would stop the center being built. That would mark an end to a years-long struggle that has seen protests, arrests and even the killing of an activist, and has commanded national attention.
Ahead of an August 21 deadline, the Stop Cop City Vote Coalition said it had collected 80,000 voter signatures, well above the 70,000 required to place a ballot question.
“We have a massive network of volunteer support,” Hannah Riley, an organizer with Stop Cop City, told Filter. “There’s real saturation on the streets, we have canvassers everywhere. When I walk around my neighborhood, if I don’t see a Stop Cop City canvasser on a given day, I would be surprised. I usually run into four or five. There’s a very robust presence on social media. We’ve gotten a lot of individual donations, which has helped us get the word out and pay canvassers.”
Cop City, officially the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, is a plan formed between the Atlanta City Council and the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit, to build a large police and firefighter training facility with private and public funding. The site is located in the South River Forest, named the Weelaunee Forest by the Indigenous Muscogee people that inhabited the area. The City Council voted in June to allocate $30 million to building the facility, about one third of its estimated total cost.
“If you want Cop City or don’t, there’s agreement that the people should decide.”
A coalition of activists has spent years working to stop the facility moving forward. A central objection is the notion of building a facility where police officers will receive training in military-style tactics—in a city that saw the killing of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year old Black man who was shot by Atlanta police in 2020. Activists also oppose the destruction of forest habitat that building the center would entail, and anticipated impacts on temperatures, water quality and air pollution for local residents.
At the packed June City Council meeting, people gave testimony all day and late into the night, mostly in opposition to the project. Preliminary construction has reportedly begun on the Cop City site, meaning activists are racing against the clock.
Law enforcement has responded with raids aimed at removing protesters camping in the forest. In January 2023, one raid ended in the killing of Venezuelan climate activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as “Tortuguita.” And in May, police arrested three organizers of a bail fund for arrested Stop Cop City protesters, charging them with “money laundering” and “charity fraud” to support “domestic violent extremists.”
“The topline message that is landing,” Riley said, “is even if you want to see this facility be built, it has gotten contentious enough, and there is enough public money being put towards it without folks having a chance to weigh in, that it should be put to a vote. If you want Cop City or don’t, there’s agreement that the people should decide.”
But city officials, petition organizers say, have been working to undermine the effort. In June, the Stop Cop City Vote Coalition reported that the city had rejected its petition application because of “missing lines on the paper,” and would give them a decision in seven days on whether a new submission could be approved. A legal advisor to the coalition called this a delay tactic—under city law, the municipal clerk is responsible for properly formatting each petition, and the organizers simply provided a draft as a courtesy. On June 20, the coalition announced it was filing a lawsuit against the city to force it to approve the petition.
“A spokesperson for Mayor Dickens previously stated that he understood and would respect the referendum process, yet his Administration has illegally stonewalled the approval process for the petition forms provided for in Georgia law,” stated a coalition press release. “Atlanta residents and community members returned to the Clerk’s office diligently last week to follow up—having made the changes in spite of the Clerk’s legal obligation to do so—only to be turned away by representatives of the Clerk who attempted to convince residents that the Clerk wasn’t in office despite [interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon] answering multiple calls to her office phone from the residents she refused to see.”
The city then approved the petition on June 21. The coalition’s website listed two locations where residents could come to sign the petition, with late hours and weekend availability. The effort appears to have succceeded, although city officials must next certify the validity of the collected signatures.
Activists’ goal of stopping Cop City now seems closer to becoming a reality than ever.
But the legal battles haven’t ended. In July, four residents of DeKalb County, who previously or currently lived near the proposed construction site, sued the city of Atlanta in federal court for the right to help collect signatures for the campaign. The city required that only Atlanta residents could legally collect voter signatures, but the plaintiffs argued this infringed on their First Amendment right to political action, and that because of their proximity to the proposed facility, they have a stake in what happens. On July 27, a federal judge ruled against the city, allowing people without Atlanta residency to collect voter signatures for the petition.
The judge also reset the 60-day timeline for the campaign to gather signatures, while still allowing any signatures gathered previously to be counted as valid. The city appealed this decision, claiming that the judge was forcing it to modify a referendum process that had already begun, and that the court order conflicted with state law. But the judge rejected this appeal on August 14.
With no elections for city offices planned this year, the Cop City ballot question, if confirmed, would likely be put to voters in a special election. Until then, we can expect the legal wrestling over the petition process to continue. But activists’ goal of stopping Cop City now seems closer to becoming a reality than ever.
Photograph of Stop Cop City activists outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta via Twitter/Defend the Atlanta Forest