Atlanta Is Trying to Crush the Opposition to “Cop City” by Any Means Necessary

Atlanta Is Trying to Crush the Opposition to “Cop City” by Any Means Necessary

Atlanta Is Trying to Crush the Opposition to “Cop City” by Any Means Necessary

Mass arrests. Trumped-up charges. Brutal violence. They’re all part of the city’s effort to destroy the movement against the infamous police facility.


In the early morning of Wednesday, May 31, a heavily armed joint task force of officers from the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided the Teardown House, a long-standing community center in Edgewood—a historically Black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta—that doubles as a home for community organizers.

The police arrested Marlon Kautz, Adele Maclean, and Savannah Patterson, three activists who help run the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a mutual aid and bail fund founded in 2016. Their arrests were predicated on allegations of “charity fraud” and money laundering—all connected, quite tenuously, to the effort to stop the building of the infamous police training center known as Cop City.

On Monday, Cop City took another step forward, as the Atlanta City Council voted 11-4 to spend an additional $30 million of public money on the project—bringing the city’s total funding to $67 million. The council did this after more than 14 consecutive hours of impassioned public comment against the project.

The one-two punch of the arrests and the vote can be viewed in tandem. The charges against Kautz, Maclean, and Patterson make a mockery of the notion of fair justice. They are so laughable that even the judge presiding over the three activists’ bail hearing pronounced himself skeptical about them. Similarly, the Atlanta government’s obvious contempt for its citizens makes a mockery of the notion of real democracy. And in both cases, that is the point: to send a message that anyone with the temerity to oppose Cop City will be crushed by the state, one way or the other.

For the better part of two years, a diverse group of Atlantans—from environmentalists to neighborhood groups to police abolitionists—have been organizing against Cop City, a massive, militarized so-called “Public Safety Training Facility” being built in the middle of the Weelaunee Forest. The forest is a critical natural resource, known as one of the four “lungs” of the city of Atlanta. The name Cop City reflects the project’s most ominous feature: a mock city where police will be trained to surveil, target, and kill citizens more effectively. The construction of Cop City would come at an enormous cost to Atlanta taxpayers and raze up to 381 acres of critically important forestland.

The dissent against the destruction of the forest is strong, but so too is the corporate and political heft behind Cop City. The Atlanta Police Foundation, the corporate-backed nonprofit that is funding much of the project, is widely viewed as one of the most powerful organizations of its kind in the country. When it tells City Hall to jump, City Hall usually asks how high. Elected officials have chosen to mostly ignore the widespread opposition, making the calculation that it will be easier to weather their constituents’ anger than risk running afoul of corporate and police interests. (It’s also easy to pose as above the fray if you know that the police and the legal system will do your dirty work for you.)

That Atlanta is gentrifying at a breakneck speed helps explain the fanatical insistence that Cop City be built. (It also explains the city’s hostility toward the Teardown, a bulwark of resistance that, among other things, gives out free food to its neighbors.) Since 1990, Atlanta’s Black population has decreased from 67 percent to 48 percent. In 2022, Money magazine named the city as the best place in the country to live. If you are Money’s target demographic, this is probably true. For everyone else, particularly Black Atlantans, it is a place of struggle and organized abandonment by the state.

The government’s escalating response to the movement against Cop City can be seen through this lens. Police protect capital and power, not ordinary citizens. A massive militarized police facility promises to quell dissent of the sort we saw grip the country in the summer of 2020. Cop City sends a clear message: Developers, your money is safe here; citizens, you are safe as long as you acquiesce to the demands of the police state.

Resistance to Cop City has been tireless and has been met with severe repression. In 2021, the Atlanta City Council ignored nearly 17 hours of public comment opposed to Cop City, voting in favor of funding the project. Police immediately arrested demonstrators outside of council member Natalyn Archibong’s home (the council was still meeting remotely because of the pandemic).

The state’s response has spiraled from there. On January 18, 2023, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, was shot and killed by a group of Georgia State Patrol officers. They were left to die with 57 bullet wounds in their body. Tortuguita was a forest defender who had been living in the trees they hoped to save when they were slain. Police immediately claimed that Tortuguita had been firing a weapon at them, but the government’s official autopsy found no traces of gun residue on their hands, and a family autopsy determined that they actually had their hands raised at the time of their death. No police officers have been charged in connection with Tortuguita’s death, nor are they likely to be.

In addition to Tortuguita’s killing, 42 people have been charged with domestic terrorism, three with police intimidation and stalking for placing Stop Cop City flyers on mailboxes. Now we can add the Atlanta Solidarity Fund arrests to that list. These charges all have two things in common: wild disproportionality and a virtually nonexistent foundation in real evidence.

In March 2023, for instance, during a Stop Cop City Week of Action, a group of individuals burned construction equipment destined to destroy the forest. A family-friendly music festival was happening a half mile away. Instead of consolidating their resources on the fire, police raided the music festival, tackling and arresting attendees indiscriminately, far from the blaze. Police reportedly pointed their assault rifles inside a bouncy house where children had played. They also arrested a legal observer. After detaining 35 people, 23 were charged with domestic terrorism and sent to the notoriously violent DeKalb Jail.

The evidence against many was shockingly thin, and in many cases absent entirely. At a bond hearing that I attended on March 23, prosecutors laid out their paper-thin evidence. Some activists were accused of intending to commit crimes because they knew the phone number for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (“He was familiar with the jail support line, which in my mind shows he knew he was going to be arrested,” one lawyer said). “Wet legs” or muddy shoes were enough to get some ensnared. Wearing black was enough to get others accused of being “part of the team” and “wearing the uniform.”

The warrants for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund arrests were also sloppy, betraying the arbitrariness of police power in this new iteration of state overreach. The desperation of the police to overcome popular opposition bleeds through every word of the warrants—which, disturbingly, contain clear falsehoods, obvious to anyone with access to the Internet. Instead of being rejected, they were signed off on by Judge Shondeana C. Morris, an appointee of Governor Brian Kemp.

Kautz, Maclean, and Patterson, the warrants allege, misled donors to ASF by “using funds collected…through…Network for Strong Communities (NFSC) to fund the actions in part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.” In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has done no such thing.

The warrants also misapprehend the Georgia money-laundering statute. The alleged activity does not constitute criminal wrongdoing. Maclean’s warrant, for instance, notes that she was reimbursed $37.11 from the Network for Strong Communities for supplies to build yard signs. Money laundering must include the proceeds of illegal activity. Reimbursements for money spent on an organization’s core activities do not fit any interpretation of the statute’s prohibitions.

At the three organizers’ initial bond hearing, the weakness of the state’s case became painfully obvious. Judge John Altman, who mere weeks ago upheld the spurious domestic terrorism charges for some of the people arrested at the music festival, was skeptical throughout the hearing, saying he did not find the charges “real impressive.” Assistant Attorney General John Fowler called for the pretrial detention of the three organizers, focusing on their “extremist, anti-government views” and their “virulent, anti-establishment beliefs,” rather than the charges themselves. He went so far as to claim that police had found a diary of one of the organizers in the trash outside of their residence in which they discuss “radicalizing liberals.” Though there is no evidence that the diary exists, the argument is frightening: a state actor claiming, in court, that legitimate political organizing is a threat worthy of incarceration. In the end, all three activists were released on a $15,000 bond.

It’s important to be explicit about what happened last week without the sterilizing gloss of state language. Three community organizers were stolen from their home at dawn by a militarized police force with a glut of deadly weapons. The police acted with a judge’s imprimatur, issued only through a total abdication of her judicial role. The organizers—political prisoners–were taken to a notoriously dangerous jail, where even a short stay can mean death. Maclean is disabled; at the bond hearing, her lawyer said that she had been placed in solitary confinement without access to medication. And in the final affront, to buy their interim freedom, they were each given a $15,000 bill. In plain terms, the arrest of people organizing to help their community flourish in ways that threaten the current capitalist power structure is a terrifying escalation of state repression.

The activists’ arrests were galvanizing. On Monday, hundreds of Atlanta residents took time off of work, school, child- or eldercare responsibilities, and other obligations to come to City Hall for the vote to send more money to Cop City. (I was one of these people.) The city tried everything in its power to repress democracy—at first not allowing people into City Hall (a public building), then banning liquids or gels, then refusing to allow every person who showed up to sign up for public comment. A phalanx of police officers lined the second floor of City Hall, overlooking the citizens in the atrium.

The testimony started at 1 pm on Monday and ended at 3:38 am on Tuesday. In the end, the council backed Cop City, just as it has done all the way through. Every arm of the state is in alignment to crush the people’s dissent. (It should go without saying that the dissent will not be crushed and that the movement will continue.)

While the struggle to stop Cop City is unfolding in Georgia, the implications radiate far beyond the Atlanta forest. As the climate crisis worsens, as resources are further consolidated in halls of power, as authoritarian movements flourish and capitalism continues its brutal regime of extraction, there is an increasing awareness that police will be there to brutalize, cage, or kill us whenever we fight for a better world—or for a livable world at all. And police do not exist in a vacuum. Their repression is legitimized by the state—by prosecutors, by judges, and by the elected officials who choose to align themselves with state power instead of the people who gave them that power. The descent into fascism can be difficult to see clearly in real time—let Atlanta be a bellwether.

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