The city of Atlanta is signaling its intention to preemptively invalidate a referendum campaign to stop the construction of a vast police training facility — “Cop City” — on Atlanta forest land.
A federal court filing late last week, made on behalf of the city by attorneys from elite Atlanta law firm Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, calls the effort to put a Cop City referendum on the November ballot “invalid” and “futile.” Meanwhile, organizers are still gathering the necessary 70,000 signatures to move forward with the petition.
The city’s filing is not a direct challenge to the entire referendum campaign, but it makes clear that Atlanta officials will act to nullify the democratic effort in court, should organizers succeed in getting Cop City on the ballot.
The Vote to Stop Cop City coalition launched their campaign a day after the Atlanta City Council voted to approve $67 million in city funding for the facility — more than double the original estimate — after at least seven hours of overwhelmingly negative public comment.
While success is a tall order, the referendum petition is an attempt to formally capture the public opposition to Cop City that has again and again been voiced in City Council hearings and protests, particularly by working-class, Black residents who live nearest to the planned complex.
The referendum would ask voters directly whether they want to repeal the 2021 ordinance that authorizes the lease of the city-owned land to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the corporate-funded nonprofit organization behind Cop City. The city filing argues that even if voters choose to revoke the authorization, it would not invalidate the lease agreement itself. In other words: It’s too late.
“Repeal of a years’ old ordinance cannot retroactively revoke authorization to do something that has already been done,” the city’s attorneys said in the filing.
“It’s clear that Atlanta leadership knows how unpopular Cop City is, and they’re scared.”
“For a city that spends a lot of time talking about its commitment to democracy, I’d say responding to a referendum effort by attempting to fully shut it down via the courts looks pretty bad,” Hannah Riley, an Atlanta-based organizer who has been involved in the referendum effort, told me. “It’s clear that Atlanta leadership knows how unpopular Cop City is, and they’re scared.”
The city’s court filing came in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of residents of DeKalb County. Like the proposed site for the cop training complex, the residents in the lawsuit live in unincorporated parts of the county, outside of Atlanta’s boundaries. As non-Atlanta residents who are directly affected by Atlanta’s Cop City decisions and subjected to the violence of the Atlanta police, they are suing to be able to officially collect signatures for the referendum petition, even if they cannot sign themselves.
The DeKalb County residents’ lawsuit asked the court to prohibit the city from enforcing residency restrictions on the plaintiffs. They requested that the city clerk reissue copies of the referendum petition removing the residency restriction and restart the time frame in which the signatures for the referendum petition must be collected. The city clerk, after numerous delays, granted the original petition approval on June 22, after which point organizers have 60 days to gather signatures.
In their response to the plaintiffs, the city’s attorneys not only argued against changing residency restrictions on the signature collection, but also dismissed the entire referendum as invalid, even if it were to succeed without allowing DeKalb County residents to sign.
The pattern is a familiar one, especially for those involved in the two-plus-year fight to stop Cop City: Activists seek to use official channels — including City Council hearings, appeals to politicians, and ballot measures — only to be stonewalled by political forces committed to serving corporate interests and seeing Cop City built. For this very reason, the Defend the Atlanta Forest/Stop Cop City movement has wisely never relied on one set of tactics or shied away from targeted direct action and confrontation.
The referendum effort is just one among an array of tactics — from rallies to protests, to politician appeals and call-ins, to encampments, to blockades and property destruction — that activists in Atlanta and beyond have deployed to defend the forest and oppose the police facility.
In turn, protesters have been met with extreme police violence, including a deadly multiagency raid in which police shot and killed activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, riddling their body with 57 gunshot wounds. Excessive, ill-founded charges abound: Forty-two people face state domestic terror charges on the weakest of police claims, while three others face felony charges for distributing flyers that named a police officer connected to Terán’s killing.
Police violently cleared the protesters’ long-standing Weelaunee Forest encampment in March, but the movement has remained nimble and resilient. Organizers host “weeks of action” to raise awareness and maintain a visible presence, while supporters in Atlanta and beyond have engaged in pressure campaigns at the offices and homes of corporate funders and contractors involved in Cop City’s construction.
According to movement participants, these direct, confrontational actions have led to Reeves Young Construction, Atlas Technical Consultants, and Quality Glass Company all stepping away from the project. In corporate statements, however, the companies each said that their work had simply concluded with the Atlanta Police Foundation, claims which movement researchers viewed with skepticism. In a press conference earlier this month, a journalist asked the chief of the Atlanta Police Department, Darin Schierbaum, whether he believed the pressure campaigns had influenced contractor decisions to back out of the project, following Atlas’s announcement. He replied, “Imagine someone tried to intimidate you from being a journalist. Would you go into work?”
“Because their contractors keep backing down due to pressure, the city government feels that the courtroom is one of the last battlefields left to manipulate in their favor,” said Jack, a resident of Decatur, a city northeast of Atlanta, and longtime movement participant. He asked to withhold his last name for fear of police harassment.
Whether or not the pressure campaigns can claim victory in subcontractors stepping away from Cop City, it’s clear that a continued commitment to tactics beyond the ballot box will be necessary. With Atlanta’s political machine firmly set against the movement, reliance on conventional political mechanisms alone will be insufficient.
“From delays to intimidation and now this, it’s clear that the city will go to any lengths to ensure that every day Atlantans have no recourse when they disagree with city decisions,” Mary Hooks, a lead organizer for the referendum, said in a statement.
The fight to stop Cop City, like every struggle against environmental decimation and structural anti-Blackness, requires finding any and every recourse against a power that says there is none.