The Atlanta City Council voted overwhelmingly early Tuesday to fund a controversial police training center, a setback for racial justice and environmental activists that is exposing broad fissures within the Georgia Democratic Party over policing and public safety.
The 11 to-4-vote in favor of committing $31 million to build the campus, which critics have labeled "Cop City," followed more than 14 hours of emotional testimony in which most speakers adamantly opposed the project. But, at 5:30 a.m., the council voted to move ahead with the project, prompting jeers and chants from onlookers that "Cop City will never be built."
One angry onlooker lunged at the council dais, causing police to line up to protect council members.
The $90 million center — which will be partially funded by private donations — was supported by Atlanta’s previous mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, as she sought to rebuild the morale of city police officers after a wave of protests against them that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. The city’s current mayor, Andre Dickens, a Democrat, has continued the effort to push the project toward construction.
But a diverse group of community and political activists mobilized against the center, decrying the planned destruction of one of Atlanta’s largest remaining green spaces. Activists also say the center — which will feature a mock city for urban training for police, a shooting range, a training course for emergency driving, and an auditorium — will lead to a more militarized police force in a city where Black residents account for nearly half the population.
"To be certain, what you are voting on today is a military facility," R. Gary Spencer, the senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and an Atlanta resident, told council members during public testimony Monday. "The policing proposed by this facility will not make Atlanta safer. In fact, it will put our communities, particularly our Black and Brown communities, in significant danger."
Although the vast majority of speakers opposed the center, other Atlanta residents argued that the opposition to the center was an overreaction. In addition to supporting the police, the 85-acre center will be used to train firefighters and paramedics. Supporters of the project included Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, the son of the late civil rights leader Julian Bond.
"The kids are more afraid of some of the folks here than they are of 'Cop City,'" said Allen Lee, a community activist who criticized opponents of the project as using inflammatory language in their remarks. "We should not say this is about public safety if it's about trees."
The proposed law enforcement facility began drawing international attention last year, when environmental activists from across the country took their opposition into the forest, erecting tents and tree stands to try to block its construction in the South River Forest area of DeKalb County.
In raids on the forest in December and January, state and local law enforcement agencies charged a dozen protesters with state “domestic terrorism” offenses. In one of the January raids, police fatally shot Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, 26, an activist camping in the forest.
Officials say that Paez Teran fired at police first and that they returned fire. Paez Teran's family and activists have strongly contradicted that narrative. In March, the family released the report of an autopsy it had commissioned that found that Paez Teran had been sitting cross-legged with his hands in the air when he was shot. The official autopsy, released in April, found Paez Teran had been struck 57 times.
Law enforcement agencies' tactics came under further scrutiny last week when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three people on charges of money laundering and charity fraud for allegedly raising money to support those who had been detained on charges of domestic terrorism.
Several prominent Georgia politicians, including Senators Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both Democrats, have asked whether police have gone too far in dealing with the protest movement.
“These tactics, coupled with the limited public information provided so far, can have a chilling effect on nonviolent, constitutionally-protected free speech activities those of us in the fight for justice have been engaged in for years,” Warnock tweeted Sunday.
The divisiveness of the debate was on full display Monday and Tuesday. Police barricaded the city hall entrance. Hundreds of protesters packed into the chamber, carrying banners emblazoned with messages including "Stop Cop City!" Some 360 people of various political affiliations signed up to speak on the decision, many waiting in sultry conditions into the early hours of Tuesday.
As the comment period expired at 2:30 a.m., the council tried to move on to its meeting agenda, but public outcry prompted it to take more speakers, continuing until past 3:30 a.m.