‘Cop city’ backers and opponents battle for public opinion over $90m project | Atlanta

Nearly two years into protests against a controversial $90m police and fire department training center in Georgia known as “Cop City”, recent weeks saw the first academic, Atlanta-area public opinion poll about the issue.

Top-line results of the recent Emory University poll included: more white residents are for the project than against it, and more Black residents are against it than for it. The numbers add up to a portrait of a city divided in the face of a protest movement – still stunned by the shooting death of one its members at the hands of the police – that has created global headlines.

Several days after the survey was released, a local attorney with a decade’s experience defending Georgia cities and counties published a legal analysis of the city of Atlanta’s contract with the Atlanta Police Foundation to build Cop City.

Results included: if Mayor Andre Dickens decided going forward with the center was not a good idea, he could legally cancel the contract, without penalty. This gave ammunition to local media to press Dickens on whether he would consider this option if opposition continued, or grew.

The two events are part of a recent, steady drumbeat on the ground in the Georgia capital, as the city and police, opponents of the project and outside experts seek to inform or influence public opinion on the issue.

Many days in recent weeks have included one or more public forum or online statement, adding up to what Nolan Huber-Rhoades, a film-maker documenting the diverse movement seeking to defend the forest south-east of Atlanta, called multiple, sometimes dueling efforts over “narrative power”.

Local and national protests against the project have caught worldwide attention after police killed Manuel Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita”, who was camped in the forest near the planned training center, during a law enforcement raid on 18 January – the first such incident in US history. Officials have said Paez Terán fired first, and a Georgia bureau of investigation report on the incident has yet to be released.

Alex Joseph, the attorney who researched the Cop City contract, said she decided to wade into the public conversation on the issue after local elected officials kept saying the “moment had come and gone where the project could be stopped”.

“I thought, ‘Any written contract can be broken,’” she said. Joseph added, “I was frustrated … because of the lack of transparency and misinformation” about the training center.

Similarly, Michael Leo Owens, Emory University political science professor and an author of the poll, said that “most people have been skeptical about the methods and conclusions the city is using about support for the project” and that he and a colleague “can be seen as honest brokers”.

The city of Atlanta released its own survey around the same time as the Emory survey was released – but it was done on Survey Monkey, a platform anyone can fill out, and included premises that didn’t reflect the broad opposition to the project such as, “Opponents of the facility say that better training for police isn’t possible and want to defund the police instead.”

Opposition to the project has included local and national environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, who point to the heightened ecological importance of the South River Forest, where the center is planned, given climate change.

Other attempts in the last two weeks to inform or influence public opinion in Atlanta on Cop City have included the first visits by Dickens to several of the neighborhoods surrounding the forest where the training center is planned and the mayor’s “State of the City” speech. Those have been matched by a “People’s State of the City” panel and a Black-led, packed “town hall” on Cop City.

Journalist Will Potter, who studied environmental movements in his book, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, has been following the situation in Atlanta closely. “You get the feeling everybody is talking about this; everybody knows it’s going on. It’s like the issue has saturated the public discourse; it’s permeated everywhere.”

Potter noted that “most movements don’t break outside the activist bubble” – but in Atlanta right now, “different efforts are allowing people to access information in different ways – and people are engaging with a public issue that is complex and nuanced.”

Last Saturday Mayor Dickens announced a new, 42-member taskforce meant to include community members and experts in plans for the training center, with an eye to preserving as much of the forest as possible. This allowed careful observers such as one local reporter to note that another committee meant to engage the community had already been “beset with transparency and ethics problems”.

The Atlanta Community Press Collective, a local outlet covering Cop City, then obtained an email through open records requests in which an Atlanta Police Foundation spokesman wrote of the new taskforce: “We’re confident it will underscore what is already wide community support” for the training center – before the taskforce had even met.

A spokesman for the mayor replied: “It would be counter to the taskforce’s support purpose if we presuppose the outcomes related to community support.”

Then, on Tuesday, Dickens’s State of the City speech at Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis signaled his intention to move forward with the training center, citing the need for the “state-of-the-art” facility given the outdated sites in use.

Immediately afterward, community organizations working on issues such as gentrification, human rights, police abuses against transgender residents and legal support for arrested protesters held their own “State of the City”. The issues they addressed included: “At least half the city opposes Cop City, but Dickens only listens to the Atlanta Police Foundation …”

A written summary of the panel’s points also mentioned: “The AJC [Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the city’s daily newspaper] is owned by Cox Enterprises, which donated $10 million to Cop City and whose CEO is fundraising for Cop City.”

The AJC reported on the panel the following day, in the same story where it noted the mayor’s remarks.

People protest agains the controversial ‘Cop City’ project in Atlanta on Friday.Pin
People protest agains the controversial ‘Cop City’ project in Atlanta on Friday. Photograph: Cheney Orr/Reuters

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of Black-led groups – including Atlanta-based Community Movement Builders – held a town hall in an Atlanta Baptist church. Pews were packed with a diverse crowd that ranged from toddlers to seniors – including a Lithonia, Georgia, resident who was attending a Cop City-related event for the first time and goes by the name “Hellcat”.

The school kitchen prep cook described being “hesitant to get involved where cops have been harassing and murdering people” – meaning the forest where Tortuguita was shot, and where dozens of “forest defenders” have camped for more than a year. “But, I also want my children to have a beautiful world,” the mother of two said in explaining her decision to attend.

The 34-year-old learned some facts at the event about the training center’s size and the results of Paez Terán’s family’s independent autopsy, and was interested in keeping up with the issue.

Author Will Potter, who has written about the crackdown on environmentalism in the US, observed: “Officials have been making a spectacle of transparency and democracy [regarding the training center]. But what you see now is that the process wasn’t open, and didn’t include a chorus of voices interested in the issue.”

Potter said a heavier crackdown on information about Cop City could be in store. “As the opposition grows, so officials will attempt to restrict information – because they see it as potentially dangerous.”

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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