Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said this week that he wishes to “err on the side” of ensuring residents are heard in their effort to hold a citywide vote on the construction of a $90 million police training facility — even as his own administration refuses to move forward with the process of verifying signatures gathered in support of the referendum.
Dickens’s comment came in a letter to Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who had written to the mayor in mid-September and raised questions about the city’s use of signature verification — a practice Georgia Democrats have previously criticized as “problematic” — to validate the referendum.
On September 11, organizers submitted around 116,000 signatures supporting a referendum on the police training facility, double the number needed to get the referendum on the ballot. The deadline for submitting the signatures is the subject of an ongoing legal battle in which the city has argued that the entire referendum effort is invalid. City officials have said they cannot start the process of verifying the signatures until a federal court makes a ruling, which may not happen until November.
In his letter, Dickens, a Democrat, wrote that the city “will err on the side of ensuring that Atlanta voters who desire to bring this issue to a vote will have that opportunity.” The mayor recently attacked a council member in a group chat for talking to the press about concerns surrounding the project, dubbed Cop City by residents and protesters, and disparaged the referendum effort as a whole, saying that “we know that this is going to be unsuccessful, if it’s done honestly.”
“Mayor Dickens has been trying to prevent a vote on Cop City from the very beginning. Now that he is being called out for it, he’s hiding behind a court appeal that he filed,” said Vonne Martin, deputy chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy and a Cop City Vote organizer. “He can’t have it both ways. If Mayor Dickens actually believes in democracy and respects the voices of his constituents, he should simply drop his appeal and begin counting the petitions.”
Dickens’s office does not see itself as having it both ways. “The City has not stood in the way of anyone seeking to follow the process as defined by state law and city code,” a city of Atlanta spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “If the Court allows the verification process to proceed, and it is determined that the petitioners have reached the 15% threshold, then the Mayor will support placing this question on the ballot.”
Dickens, in his letter to Warnock, dismissed the referendum as “not an election” and argued that by building the facility, the city is actually pursuing a comprehensive vision toward public safety.
“This is not an election,” the mayor wrote. “Not yet. People are not and have not been asked to vote. We cannot allow people from either end of the political spectrum to conflate this effort with an election. Standing in front of your local grocery store to collect signatures from customers who may be residents, while commendable, is vastly different from registering to vote and casting a ballot.”
In September 2021, Atlanta’s city council — after hearing 17 hours of public comment, much of it opposed — voted 10-4 to approve a land lease for the facility to the Atlanta Police Foundation. Opposition has only grown since, as has the police crackdown against protesters. In June, the council held another hearing, prompting another 15-plus hours of public comment and mass protest. Still, the council approved $67 million in taxpayer dollars for the facility, inciting Atlantans to launch the referendum effort.
On July 6, Atlanta organizers filed a lawsuit, challenging a requirement for signature collectors to be Atlanta residents. On July 27, a federal judge ruled that requirement unconstitutional and extended the deadline for collecting signatures by 60 days. The court rejected the city’s appeal of the ruling, so the city took it up with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the city argued that the entire referendum effort was invalid because, if passed, it would impair the city’s already-authorized contract with the Atlanta Police Foundation and that the court did not have the authority to extend the signature collection timeline this close to an election. On September 1, the circuit court ruled in favor of the city, issuing a stay and freezing the federal court ruling. While organizers submitted the signatures within 60 days of the July 27 ruling, the city now argues that the actual deadline was August 21, making the signatures invalid.
“The City is simply defending itself against the suit brought by the petitioners which sought to change the process in the middle of the original timeline,” wrote the city spokesperson. “The City is obligated to adhere to state law, and in this case, must receive legal guidance from the Court.”
The 11th Circuit Court is expected to decide on this issue later this year.
In his letter, Dickens attempted to draw a distinction between the referendum process and actual voting, both democratic processes. “Equating the petition process to voter suppression minimizes actual instances of voter suppression,” Dickens wrote. “This petition process provides an option for those who disagree with the decisions of their elected leaders, in this case a veto proof supermajority of the City Council who approved the project twice, to have their voices heard. That process is difficult because it should only be used in extraordinary circumstances.”
Dickens wrote about the “risk of petition fraud” when “hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) are spent by out of state interests to influence the process.” He cited a tweet announcing fundraising for groups dedicated to supporting Black communities and arrested protesters, comparing it to instances of QAnon and GOP-affiliated petition fraud. (He had comparably little to say about the millions of corporate dollars funding the Atlanta Police Foundation’s efforts for the facility.)
The Atlanta mayor also wrote significantly about public safety, juxtaposing the police murders of George Floyd and others with “a spike in violent crime.” “Do we achieve public safety through more officers, or more training, or investing in addressing the root causes of crime? The answer to all of those is yes,” he wrote. Dickens pointed to the city council’s recent reforms, like banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation tactics, and expanding the authority of the Citizen Review Board as positive developments (seven of the board’s 16 positions are currently vacant, including the chair).
The Cop City Vote coalition raised a number of counterpoints in an annotated version of the mayor’s letter. While the mayor lauded recent police reforms, the activists noted that the reforms have not resulted in comprehensive accountability for the Atlanta Police Department. For instance, the police department refuses to release body camera footage from an August encounter that led to 62-year-old deacon Johnny Hollman’s death. Hollman called 911 after getting into a car accident. When officers arrived, they deemed Hollman at fault, according to Atlanta police. He asked to see a sergeant, and the officers threatened to arrest him if he didn’t sign a ticket, per Hollman’s family, who have seen the footage. According to them, Hollman said he’d sign the ticket, but the officer still grabbed him and began tasing him. Hollman apparently told the officer “I can’t breathe” up to 16 times, the family said. Hollman was taken into custody and pronounced dead at the hospital.
While Dickens wrote that “people feel safe when they know we are investing in criminal justice reform and non-policing alternatives,” organizers pointed to a multimillion-dollar violence prevention initiative that has floundered over the past year, losing its executive director and leaving millions of dollars untouched.
And though Dickens stated that “people feel safe when they have a secure roof over their heads,” organizers countered that the city let go of $10 million in emergency rental assistance funding after it didn’t provide the money to needy residents before a deadline. “Innovative collaboration,” Dickens wrote, has enabled the city “to ensure that people could remain in their homes.” Still, as the city’s Covid-19 eviction moratorium was lifted earlier this month, an estimated 12,000 area residents were said to be facing or soon facing eviction.
“We could address the inaccuracies, misinformation, and incoherence of this letter — and we did — but the bottom line: We’re not falling for it,” said Mary Hooks, tactical lead for the Cop City Vote coalition. “The mayor says he doesn’t believe we have the required number of petitions. OK. Get out of the way, withdraw your unnecessary and expensive legal appeal, and start counting. We’ll bet your political career that we’ve got the numbers.”