The Atlanta city council early on Tuesday approved funding for the construction of a proposed police and firefighter training center, rejecting the pleas of hundreds of activists who spoke for hours in fierce opposition to the project they decry as “Cop City”.
Some Cop City opponents have faced unprecedented arrests during which police have accused them under a state domestic terrorism statute, prompting a legal challenge which argues that the protesters are being unduly targeted over their constitutionally protected free speech.
Tuesday’s 11-4 vote just after 5am is a significant victory for Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens, who has made the $90m project a large part of his first term in office, despite significant pushback to the effort. The city council also passed a resolution requesting two seats on the governing board of a foundation dedicated to raising funds for Atlanta police.
The decentralized “Stop Cop City” movement has galvanized protesters from across the country, especially in the wake of the January fatal police shooting of Manuel Paez Terán, a 26-year-old environmental activist known as “Tortuguita” who had been camping in the woods near the site of the proposed project in DeKalb county.
For about 14 hours, residents again and again took to the podium to denounce the project, saying it would be a gross misuse of public funds to build the huge facility in a large urban forest in a poor, majority-Black area.
“We’re here pleading our case to a government that has been unresponsive, if not hostile, to an unprecedented movement in our city council’s history,” said Matthew Johnson, the executive director of Beloved Community Ministries, a local social justice non-profit. “We’re here to stop environmental racism and the militarization of the police … We need to go back to meeting the basic needs rather than using police as the sole solution to all of our social problems.”
The training center was approved by the city council in September 2021 but required an additional vote for more funding. City officials say the new 85-acre (34-hectare) campus 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.
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. Protesters had been camping at the site since at least last year, and police said they had caused damage and attacked law enforcement officers and others.
The highly scrutinized vote on Tuesday also comes in the wake of the arrests last week of three organizers who lead the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has provided bail money and helped find attorneys for arrested protesters.
Prosecutors have accused the three activists of money laundering and charity fraud, saying they used some of the money to fund violent acts of “forest defenders”. Warrants cite reimbursements for expenses including “gasoline, forest clean-up, totes, (Covid-19) rapid tests, media, yard signs”. But the charges have alarmed human rights groups and prompted both of Georgia’s Democratic senators to issue statements over the weekend expressing their concerns.
The Democratic US senator Raphael Warnock tweeted that bail funds held important roles during the civil rights movement and said that the images of the heavily armed police officers raiding the home where the activists lived “reinforce the very suspicions that help to animate the current conflict – namely, concerns Georgians have about over-policing, the quelling of dissent in a democracy, and the militarization of our police”.
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