Atlanta—She’s a lawyer, but outside of a courtroom, Alex Joseph is not particularly confrontational.
When she approaches strangers to ask them to sign a petition, the “Stop Cop City” grassroots movement’s 35-year-old legal whiz opens with friendly banter. She often starts by complimenting people on something they’re wearing—usually a hat or shoes—or sometimes she’ll let her custom tote bag do the talking. “Excuse me, do you want to…,” she says while gesturing to a beige L.L. Bean bag slung over her shoulder with a patch that reads: “Stop Cop City.”
These days, the words “Stop Cop City” are plastered on T-shirts, flyers, stickers, graffiti walls, and, yes, totes in liberal-leaning neighborhoods in Atlanta and left-wing spaces nationally. It reflects a surge of dissent against the $90 million police training center in a forest southeast of Atlanta’s city limits. The project has spurred opposition from many Atlantans who decry its massive size, environmental impact, and the undemocratic way it’s been bullied into existence by officials who’ve squelched opposition.
Outrage and media attention reached new heights in January after the police killed Tortuguita by shooting them 57 times during a raid on protesters in the forest near the site of Cop City. It was the first time in US history that the police had killed an environmental activist. An autopsy report found Tortuguita’s hands were raised when he was shot and no evidence of gunpowder residue, contradicting the police claim that the 26-year-old activist fired first and they acted in self-defense. The medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide. Dozens of other activists have been arrested and held on spurious domestic terrorism charges, including attendees of a Stop Cop City music festival.
“We’ve seen folks from all over the country take an interest in this because it’s been a wild, wild fight,” said Mary Hooks, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter Atlanta and organizer with Stop Cop City, a decentralized coalition of racial justice activists, environmentalists, and local neighborhood groups. But also because of “what it means for Atlanta to construct the largest police training center in the country with [cops] literally trained in urban warfare tactics, which we know has deep impacts on Black and brown communities.”
In mid-June, Cop City’s opponents appeared down and out after the Atlanta City Council voted to spend more money on the project, following a marathon 16-hour meeting that saw hundreds of people voice their objection.
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The movement is now scrambling to get the Cop City question put on the November 7 ballot to let voters decide the project’s fate. It’s a radical experiment in direct democracy, one in which thanks (or blame) lies in no small part with Joseph and what she describes as an “Ocean-11’s team” of behind-the-scenes lawyers using every trick in the books to reverse the city’s grand plan.
“They say you can’t fight city hall,” she said. “But here we are.”
On paper, Alex Joseph is not a likely candidate for this battle.
She’s a self-described privileged white woman, one whose headshot appears on 40-under-40 lists. Her mother is author/stylist/influencer Annette Joseph—Atlanta’s answer to Martha Stewart. In 2016, Alex’s parents purchased a medieval Italian fortress, La Fortezza, where Annette holds upscale retreats for GOOP reader types. (“I’m out here collecting signatures while my mom is in an Italian castle,” Alex joked.)
To top it off, Joseph worked as a federal prosecutor under President Donald Trump as recently as 2019. That’s not to say she’s a conservative. If anything, she’s loosely followed in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton, who also attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts and was a young Republican before eventually swapping ideologies and parties.
After law school, Joseph aimed to become a reformist prosecuting attorney, one who could disrupt the corrupt criminal justice system from within. But after four unsatisfying years as an assistant district attorney prosecuting sex crimes in South Carolina and northern Georgia, she realized how naive she was. “I was sending people to prison, and just the quantity of bodies that were going through the system every day really got to me,” said Joseph. “Every day, I became more crushed by the system, more convinced that it couldn’t be reformed.”
She left in 2018 to take a job as an assistant federal prosecutor in Georgia, thinking, she said, that it meant going after “the real evil geniuses, the power brokers at the top of the pyramid.” Instead, she ended up prosecuting low-level offenders and handling forced deportation cases. “I was now actively part of a system that was deporting people, tearing them away from their homes, jobs, the only family they’d ever known,” she said.
Disillusioned, Joseph quit prosecuting to join a civil litigation firm while also volunteering as chair of the DeKalb County Ethics Commission. She resigned from the ethics commission in February, citing a lack of transparency and her being bullied and subjected to sexist remarks from “old boys club” members. That’s when Joseph finally felt empowered to volunteer for Stop Cop City, a movement that she said she felt ambivalent about initially.
She not alone in this. Many mainstream Georgia Democrats have publicly equivocated on the issue. While polling in Atlanta shows a relatively even split in opinion on Cop City, establishment liberals have generally been mum on the issue, in part because it’s essentially a battle between the two wings of the Democratic Party—centrist and progressive.
Atlanta’s telegenic political stars have been unwilling to buck the party’s recent trend of awkwardly backtracking from criminal justice reform. Cop City was unveiled in mid-2021 by ex-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who packed her bags soon afterward to work for the Biden White House. Before losing her gubernatorial bid in November, Stacey Abrams loudly proclaimed that she wanted to fund, not defund, the police. Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff? They’ve mostly sat on the sidelines. The only presidential candidates who’ve spoken out against Cop City are the insurgent leftist candidates Cornel West and Marianne Williamson.
Atlanta Democrats—including the current mayor, Andre Dickens—tend to depict opposition to Cop City as the work of violent anarchists and “outside agitators.” There’s an element of truth to that: A July 4 arson of eight police motorcycles is the latest in a string of vigilante acts by masked protesters aimed at gumming up the works of Cop City. But many Democrats have exaggerated the destruction and used it as a talking point to condemn any resistance to it as illegitimate. Keyanna Jones, a pastor who is among a group of religious faith leaders opposing Cop City, compared Dickens to Trump for how he’s using his bully pulpit to dismiss organized dissent: “Mayor Dickens is intent on using everything within his power to not only suppress votes, but also make sure that he steps up in Donald Trump–like fashion to say oh, if [the petition] goes through, then this is voter fraud.”
At first, Joseph was convinced by this kind of framing. “I thought, these are some radical people living in the forest, using their bodies to stop construction, marching the streets, and that’s not me,” she said. “I did the Women’s March with the pussy hats after Trump was elected like everyone else, but by and large, I am not a radical activist. I am a narc. I am a former prosecutor. I’m a lady who owns two corgis.”
But what she says she’s discovered since she joined the movement is that she had it backward: The Stop Cop City folks, not the politicians at Atlanta City Hall, are the reasonable ones.
Searching for a solution out of the city’s commitment to the project has been the legal equivalent of finding a way out of an escape room, says Joseph. Since March, Stop Cop City’s rotating cast of activist lawyers have scoured local and state law to find a backdoor route out of the city’s 2021 lease agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation. “This contract involves the city charter, and we were getting original copies of the city charter from the Atlanta History Center,” said Joseph. “It was fun—like we were literally doing law archeology.”
Yet nothing they unearthed could halt the project. That is, until they heard from Will Harlan, southeastern director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Harlan flagged a case in nearby Camden County, Ga., in which everyday citizens successfully rejected county officials’ delusional plan to build a spaceport to lure the Elon Musks of the world, despite warnings that rocket launches meant pollution and fire risks.
Spaceport opponents employed “Home Rule,” an obscure clause added to the state Constitution in 1965, to petition for a referendum. In March 2022, nearly three-quarters of Camden voters said “no” to the launch pad. The county commission fought the result in court, but the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of voters, but not without reservation. In a minority opinion, two justices worried that the decision could “usher in a frightful season for local governments in Georgia.”
“Frightful” isn’t the word Harlan uses. In an e-mail to Joseph, Harland called home rule “a silver bullet.” Joseph agreed and convinced Stop Cop City’s lead organizers to pursue it, despite some reservations from activists suspicious of using the tools of the system to fight the system.
“It gives me chills to talk about, but none of this would have been possible a few months ago,” said Joseph of the February 7 state Supreme Court decision. “But I truly believe the facts are so similar, and what happened with [Camden County] can happen here in Atlanta.”
But obtaining the 70,000 signatures needed to get a Cop City referendum on the November ballot in 60 days is a monumental task—one made more difficult by stringent restrictions: Signees must have been registered within the Atlanta city limits since 2021; the signatures must be collected by another registered voter; and online signing isn’t allowed.
“This is a grassroots, mostly volunteer-driven effort,” said Britney Whaley, senior political strategist for the Working Families Party’s Georgia chapter. “If we could get the restrictions killed, we would be in a much better place, because we would have a lot more bodies on the streets and folks energized.”
Organizers also say the city has blatantly stonewalled their petition. On June 7, Joseph filed a motion to compel the city clerk’s office to take action to certify the group’s signature petition form—a run-of-the-mill request, says Joseph, and the clerk’s office was supposed to fulfill it within a week. But on the day of the deadline, the clerk said the paperwork would be delayed another week because of missing signature lines on the paper.
Hooks and other volunteers visited the clerk’s office in person on the morning of June 16 to inquire about the status of their signature petition form and were told it would be ready that afternoon. But when they returned at noon, they discovered that City Hall’s doors were locked for the day without notice. A flier posted on the doors stated that the municipal clerk’s office had closed “due to the early release and closure for the Juneteenth Holiday.”
“We were giving the city clerk’s office the benefit of the doubt, but now it looks like they’re intentionally using delay tactics,” Joseph said.
Stop Cop City secured 10,000 signatures after the first week of canvassing, but since then, the coalition has stayed quiet about the total count. On July 12, four DeKalb County residents filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge restrictions on petition gathering to get the August 14 deadline extended. On Monday, the city responded by asking the court to dismiss the motion and strike the petition effort down entirely. “The request is untimely and would disrupt a process that is already well underway,” the city’s lawyers wrote.
Joseph has seen enough positive energy that she has faith the effort will succeed regardless of the challenges. She brandishes a clipboard with petition forms everywhere she goes—from colleagues’ birthday parties to pub trivia nights—and has talked over 500 people into signing.
She’s intent on beating the Atlanta Police Foundation, a pro-police nonprofit funded by private equity and the region’s most powerful corporations that’s been the engine driving the Cop City project.
“They’re the big bad wolf of our challenge,” Joseph said.
Except in this case, it’s Stop Cop City that is desperately trying to blow the house down on Atlanta’s police and oligarchs.