The Contours of Atlanta’s Policing Debate

Why most of the city’s Black council members shot down a proposal to defund the police.

Janet Lane Martin. Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept
Janet Lane Martin poses for a portrait on August 11, 2020. Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept

In July, the Atlanta City Council was given a test.

Protests had rocked the city since June, when the nation reacted to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Then, Atlanta police killed a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, after a DUI stop at a Wendy’s drive-thru. According to footage from body cams, Brooks was running away from the officers, one of whom shot him twice in the back.

The next day, protesters blocked the interstate. That night, arsonists among the demonstrators set the Wendy’s on fire.

More tear gas from police. More flash-bang grenades in the street. Sonic cannons dispersed crowds in the blackest of Black Atlanta and posh gentrified neighborhoods north. The embattled district attorney levied charges against two officers for Brooks’s death: Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan.

And then the cops went on strike, more or less. They pulled back from street work. For a few days, calls to service met radio silence. Cops mostly refrained from making arrests for anything less than a shooting with injuries. “You want a defunded police department?” they seemed to say, “This is what that looks like.”

Seizing the moment, Antonio Brown, an outspoken, young, Black city council member, proposed to sequester about a third of the police budget — $73 million out of $218 million — and reallocate it to social services. This is what activists were really calling for: a “defund the police” strategy with robust support network to replace it. Holding back the money would give financial space for leaders to argue through what a proper reform might look like, Brown said.

The 15 members of the city council met over Zoom to discuss the proposal and hear feedback. The meeting stretched over two days, because the city had 18 hours of public comment to air.

And then Black city council members shot it down. The vote was eight to seven, with five Black council members voting against it.

After already-massive street protests had escalated, the vote left demonstrators wondering what the hell it’s going to take to change the police department.

If change were uncomplicated, it would have already happened. And Atlanta is complicated. Black voters are a lot more complicated than people new to politics realize, generally. There’s no consensus in the African American community here about what to do, even now, even after all of this.

“There’s oftentimes this general misunderstanding in terms of how Black people think. … We’re not monolithic thinkers,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told me in July, after the vote. (Bottoms did not offer an opinion on the proposal itself.) “In many issues, we can be the most conservative of conservative people. … When you speak of older communities, they ask for more police, not less. They’re the same ones who take honey-baked hams and turkeys over to the zone precincts at Christmastime and Thanksgiving, and they’re constantly checking in on them and showing their appreciation.”

Atlanta’s Black middle class produced Bottoms. The mayor is the child of ’60s soul singer Major Lance, a boxer turned musician who opened for the Beatles on their first American tour. Lance struggled later in life — he was sentenced to a four-year prison term in 1978 for cocaine distribution — but his daughter went on to law school and to work as a prosecutor in juvenile court. She served two terms on the Atlanta City Council representing the westside neighborhood of her youth before being elected mayor.

The people Bottoms described are the ones she grew up around. And while Atlanta is famously filled to overflowing with transplants, almost all of her old neighbors are still right there.

Consider the Peyton Woods neighborhood in southwest Atlanta. It’s old — more than 4 in 10 households has someone over 65 living in it, the highest proportion of elderly residents in the city. Black people bought into the subdivision when it started in the ’60s. By and large, they’ve stayed there and they’re going to die there. Atlanta is gentrifying, but Peyton Woods remains almost exclusively Black and resolutely middle class. The folks who live there, for the most part, are long-retired school teachers and postmen and social workers, with some retired judges and lawyers and clergy sprinkled in. It’s not just a quiet neighborhood: It is a neighborhood that demands quiet. Persistently.

There’s no consensus in the African American community here about what to do, even now, even after all of this.

Janet Lane Martin moved into Peyton Woods in the early ’80s after graduating from Spelman College and still thinks of herself as one of the new people. “Police reform … is one of these complicated issues,” Martin said. “You look at it from how you should see it, and then from the reality you’ve experienced. My daughter and I see the world completely differently, even though I raised her. Older people would put their money on the police. But you know what? Black people don’t call the police unless their backs are against the wall, and that doesn’t matter what socioeconomic class you are.”

Martin, 69, is a retired social worker. She’s bent the ear of half of the city’s administration at one point or another — about roads, about code violations, about trash. At one point, an Atlanta assistant police chief assigned a lieutenant to take her phone calls. She’s not thrilled with Atlanta’s police. But she doesn’t want fewer cops. She wants better cops.

“Most of those guys aren’t worth nothing,” she said. “What the police are good for is documenting. If somebody is coming at you, they’ve got to get here, and that can take a while. It’s quality.”

When the city floated a survey about police reform measures to the neighborhood association on a Zoom meeting, she didn’t bother to fill it out because she was too busy trying to flag down a police zone commander to help her look at an apparent sexual assault at one of the “new” houses, she said. “I got the community prosecutor to give me his email address. He said he would follow up with it.”

Peyton Woods fights. They know exactly how to register a complaint. Peyton Woods votes. And as Atlanta wrestles with police reform, the city government has to contend with hours of strident public commentary calling for police reform in one ear, and the quiet reservations of neighborhood leaders like Martin in the other. She is exactly the sort of person elected officials live in fear of, because she’s going to be around forever and can move half a neighborhood of reliable voters.

That is how you get a majority of Black city council people to vote against a police reform proposal.

Carla Smith voted for it, one of four white council members who supported it. Smith has represented an especially diverse swath of the city for nearly 20 years, and has counted on as much Black support in the Lakewood and Cornell neighborhoods of south Atlanta as she has in the increasingly posh and increasingly white neighborhoods of Summerhill and Grant Park.

She’s been reconsidering that vote. “The people who are upset are the ones who call you,” she said. A few days after the vote, Smith started fielding phone calls from Black neighborhood leaders, she said.

Carla Smith. Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept

Carla Smith poses for a portrait on August 14, 2020.

Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Intercept

She still supports the idea. But the messaging around it sucks, she said.

One conversation with a longtime friend struck her.

“She said, ‘Carla? Your folk are upset. They are pissed. They think you’re doing this to placate the white people.’” Smith said. “It’s mostly white people who are saying defund the police. She was like, ‘You know we need the police.’ In poor communities, you’ve got robberies and cars being stolen. You get into the affluent neighborhoods? They’ve got cameras. They go on vacation. We really went over some of this. It really made me think about this more.”

Marci Collier Overstreet is Black and represents the predominantly Black westside Atlanta City Council district formerly held by the mayor. She’s leads her conversations with “reform policing” and not “defund the police,” for exactly the same reasons Smith notes.

“My district is telling me that they just want to feel safe. They want law and order. They want a better relationship with their police officers, but they don’t want less police officers,” Overstreet said. “I don’t think there’s a broad stroke that can happen for policing throughout the city, where you can take away a full budget and you can take away half the police and change overnight the way the police do business. I don’t think I would be a good councilperson doing it that way. We have to get in and change some of the things we know are wrong.”

Some people in the rich, primarily white Buckhead neighborhood seem to want to split off entirely from the city. Inequality is highly visible, beyond the latest outrages of Buckhead Betty in a Bentley complaining about a confrontation with kids selling water on a street corner.

Separatism in Buckhead has no real hope of success, but it speaks to the anxieties of rich people about the way the city handled protests and an increase in street-level crime, said Council Member J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents much of the neighborhood and who voted against the proposal.

“The sentiment is here. How do we control our own destiny?” he said. “We in Buckhead overwhelmingly support the police. … It’s going to take a long time for us to build up a police force with as much morale and confidence and effectiveness as we had in the past. We have to change policing while at the same time as supporting the police.”

The city council members representing older districts are sharply at odds with what younger voters hear and see — and say. Council Member Antonio Brown spoke passionately about this disconnect when defending his proposal. “I’ve been in these protests, and I’ve been speaking to the young people,” Brown said. “These young people feel so disengaged from you guys. They don’t even know half of you.”

“I’ve been in these protests, and I’ve been speaking to the young people. These young people feel so disengaged from you guys. They don’t even know half of you.”

Brown is the first openly gay Black man elected to the city council. Roughly 1 in 7 Atlantans identify in the LGBTQ community. Atlanta has become a magnet for young gay people of color across the South who need to find escape from religiously intolerant homes. And this community has a particularly fraught relationship with Atlanta’s cops over abusive policing. The problem, Brown noted, was how little the rhetoric of reform and addressing inequality matches the reality for young people in Atlanta.

“Rayshard Brooks is not the first unarmed Black man to die in Atlanta,” Brown said. “We’ve had so many opportunities to put forth legislation to address the egregious incidents that have occurred in public safety. We’re all responsible for the deaths of these lives. This isn’t about pointing fingers. It’s about taking accountability for our collective lack of action. …. What’s important about this resolution is that it’s no longer about talking about the changes we need to make; it’s about allowing our actions to be a reflection of the things we’re saying.”

People who are following Black Lives Matter posts online, watching the protests unfold in Portland, Oregon — and in their own city — aren’t participating in the same information network that older Black voters rely on. Social media is no gauge for measuring Black neighborhood sentiment, Bottoms said.

“If I want to communicate with my 60- and 70-year-old constituents, the quickest way to ensure that they will not see it is to put it up on Instagram,” Bottoms said. “Those seniors aren’t glued to their cellphones. They still have landlines. They’re a silent majority and they’re not on social media. Literally, they’re not out with the megaphone and this elevated platform at their disposal, but they are certainly speaking when they gather around in church basements and getting together in [community] meetings and sitting in the window of McDonald’s with their coffee in their morning chat groups.”

The logic behind shifting money to social services is evident to anyone who has tried to help someone experiencing homelessness in an Atlanta neighborhood. And the push and pull between older Black voters and young voters demanding change isn’t unique to Atlanta. New York City Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. in Brooklyn described the police defunding movement as “political gentrification” in the New York Times. Philadelphia’s city council introduced a package of reforms aimed at diversifying its police force and rejected a budget increase, but have not reduced police services. Detroit is adopting many of the NAACP’s policy language, but there, too, officials representing high-crime neighborhoods push back against the “defund” language. “I can tell you, residents aren’t asking to defund police — they want police accountability for sure, but what they’re asking for is actually more police,” said Detroit Council Member Scott Benson to the Detroit News. “Historically, crime is what drove people away from the city. … We need to take a long, hard look at this before we start talking about defunding a police department that’s already underfunded.”

But the “how” of change — how to spin up something new or expand something in place, and how to do it without creating new problems — isn’t immediately apparent.


As Calls to Defund the Police Grow Louder, Joe Biden Wants to Give Them More Money

A week after the first reform vote failed, the city council unanimously voted to adopt Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” proposal. The proposal, among other things, bans chokeholds and requires deescalation before use of force. “8 Can’t Wait” doesn’t cut it with many protesters, but Bottoms vetoed the bill on technical grounds, saying that it would not pass constitutional muster in its current form. The city already bans chokeholds as a policy and has adopted most of the measures, she noted.

“It takes an enormous amount of discipline not to buy into the noise,” Bottoms said. “It doesn’t mean that the noise is right or wrong, but you have to know that what’s before you might not be reflective of the whole. Even when you begin to get emails, you have to know your community and the areas you represent.”

The city has taken some tentative steps since the votes failed. It increased funding for the city’s prearrest diversion program. The city council resubmitted the “8 Can’t Wait” proposal as a resolution. The city formed an advisory council in the days after the Brooks shooting to recommend changes on the Atlanta police’s use of force. The council returned 10 recommendations last week, which include overhauling the police use of force continuum to emphasize deescalation, mandating immediate drug testing for officers involved in an incident in which serious injury or death occurs, and conducting more exhaustive background checks and additional screenings — including mental health and implicit bias assessments and looking at social media history — for police applicants.

Now begins the tedium of governance: hours of city council meetings and committee meetings and community meetings that lead to policy change. The burning of the Wendy’s provided spectacle. But the complexity of the law, and the complexity of the politics, are the enemy of instant solutions.

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