Atlanta activists hauled box after box into the clerk’s office on Monday — each one filled with signatures demanding a vote on “Cop City.” After months of hard work, they had finally gathered enough signatures to force a vote on the $90 million, 85-acre police training facility set to occupy the surrounding Atlanta forest.
“Today we go from ‘Let the people decide,’ to ‘The people have decided,’” said Britney Whaley of the Working Families Party at a press conference outside City Hall on Monday. “They’ve decided that environmental concerns won’t go unnoticed. They’ve decided that our democracy matters, and we should be a part of it. They’ve decided that we should have a say in how our public resources are spent.”
But their joy was cut short. Atlanta officials are now refusing to verify the over 116,000 signatures collected by activists, which far exceeds the 70,000 needed to force a referendum.
Officials argue that activists missed the Aug. 21st deadline to submit the signatures. The deadline was extended by a Federal judge but is pending based on a separate appellate court decision.
“The city is not in a position, does not have discretion, to choose to accept the petitions today, at least not to start the 50-day (verification) clock,” an attorney for the city, Robert Ashe, said at a virtual press conference, according to the AP.
However, critics of Cop City argue that this is just another example of the city stonewalling efforts to give voters a chance to weigh in on this massive project.
“This is yet another disgraceful push by the city to stonewall democracy, showing that Mayor Dickens and the City of Atlanta fear the power of their constituents,” the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said in a statement obtained by the AP. “The City was notified on Thursday of our intention to submit, yet was too cowardly to release any response, or even respond to our email, until after we arrived.”
In June, the Atlanta City Council voted to spend $31 million to build the massive training center in the woods surrounding the city. Critics have argued that the training facility would only increase the militarization of the police. They’ve also noted that the tens of millions of dollars being poured into the project could be used to combat the city’s other issues (i.e. its massive wealth inequality — which is among the worst in the nation). Activists also warned of the massive environmental harm resulting from the sprawling project. Now, despite having reached the signatures needed to call for a vote on the project, city officials are refusing to even tally the results.
The decision by city officials comes after a sweeping indictment — targeting protesters. Sixty-one people were indicted on RICO charges last week for protesting Cop City — including an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center who was observing the protests and providing legal aid. The indictment sparked out-cry from civil liberties groups, including the ACLU of Georgia, which argued that the state was weaponizing the RICO statute to “target those who disagree with the government.” People also noted that the indictment was dated to the death of George Floyd — signaling Georgia’s attorney general’s desire to go after the larger movement against police brutality.
The referendum is now in limbo until a decision from the courts. But despite the threats from the state and the city’s refusal to verify the signatures, activists don’t seem ready to back down anytime soon.