On June 5, 2023 – the day that would have been the 30th birthday of both Breonna Taylor and Tyre Nichols – hundreds of Atlanta activists organized to make 11 hours of public comments at the Atlanta City Council vote regarding a proposed ‘Public Safety Training Center’ colloquially known as ‘Cop City.’ All of the video clips throughout this column come from comments made at this council meeting. There were decades in age between some speakers and others. They comprised a diversity of ethnicity, faith, and embodied experience. At least 300 people were registered to speak that day, while hundreds more were turned away due to council-determined capacity limits.
Despite the record turnout, Atlanta City Council approved the funding for Cop City in an 11-4 vote.
Cop City is a proposed 85-acre, $90-million police urban warfare facility, to be located in Atlanta, GA. The construction of the facility would involve clearing 381 acres of the Weelaunee Forest – land stolen from the Muscogee peoples. The intended site is also the former location of a slave plantation and subsequent prison farm. The neighbourhoods surrounding the area are more than 75 per cent Black. City documents have previously referred to this area as one of Atlanta’s “four lungs.” The project has the support of several major corporations, including Wells Fargo, Koch Industries, AT&T, Mercedes Benz, Equifax, UPS, Delta Airlines, Chik-Fil-A, Coca-Cola, and Georgia Power.
In January, a coalition of two groups – Stop Cop City and Defend Atlanta Forest – organized to set up an encampment near the area planned for clearing and construction. Among this coalition was Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a 26-year-old Indigenous Venezuelan queer and non-binary environmental activist who used the name ‘Tortuguita.’ In addition to environmental activism, they had experience coordinating mutual aid, and were trained as a medic. In a December 2022 interview, Tortuguita had voiced explicit commitment to non-violence.
On the morning of January 18, 2023, a multi-agency force of personnel from the Atlanta Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, DeKalb County Police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and the FBI conducted a raid on the encampment. In the course of this operation, Tortuguita was shot dead by law enforcement. One law enforcement official was also shot. Initially, police reported that the killing had been in self-defense – that Tortuguita had shot first, and that law enforcement only returned fire.
Body cam footage released in February first cast doubt on law enforcement’s claims, with the footage suggesting that the police official had been shot by another member of the multi-agency force. However, it was not until April that the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office released its official autopsy report. The autopsy found no gunpowder residue on Tortuigita’s hands, further refuting police claims that they had fired first. The autopsy reported that police shot Tortuguita with 57 bullets, with exit wounds through both hands strongly suggesting their hands were raised when they were killed.
In the course of disrupting protests against Cop City, Atlanta law enforcement has charged more than 40 people with domestic terrorism, including many arrested after attending a music festival in the forest. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund – a member of the National Bail Fund Network – was providing mutual aid support for activists in the area, as well as accepting donations to bail out those who had been arrested.
On the morning of May 31, a ‘special enforcement’ team deployed by Atlanta police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations arrested three board members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. The three organizers were charged with money laundering and charity fraud. The arrests were widely condemned by activist and civil rights groups as a dangerous violation of constitutional rights. Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp defended the arrests, stating “These criminals facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism with no regard for others, watching as communities faced the destructive consequences of their actions.”
What is it that they say? ‘In every accusation, a confession’?
The roots of Cop City
Dedicating $90 million to build a police complex in the middle of a Black neighbourhood has precedent. January of this year saw the opening of a ‘public safety training academy’ in Chicago, first proposed in 2017.
Perversely, the project stemmed from a federal consent decree imposed upon the Chicago Police Department following the 2014 police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a Black youth shot 16 times by a CPD officer. Investigation later found that at least 16 CPD officers conspired to cover-up the shooting. When police dashcam video of the killing was made public in November of 2015, 13 months after the killing, many alleged that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel – former chief of staff to President Barack Obama – had suppressed the video until after Chicago’s February 2015 mayoral election.
A Justice Department investigation initiated after the killing found that Chicago police were excessively violent, and that they regularly violated the rights of Black residents and residents of Latin descent. This led to a federal consent decree mandating that Chicago police provide ‘better training’ to officers and upgrade police training facilities. The $90-million ‘Cop Academy’ that opened earlier this year – opposed by more than 100 community organizations – is that ‘upgrade.’
Federal investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department following the brutal murder of George Floyd similarly found widespread racial discrimination. As in Chicago, Minneapolis police have agreed to federal oversight by way of a consent decree. It would be fair to suspect that outcomes will be similar. It’s also worth noting that some analysis has found that both police killings and racial disparities therein have increased in Seattle since a federal consent decree was imposed on Seattle police in 2012.
The roots of Cop City specifically stretch back decades in Atlanta politics, and are an overt expression of the particular ways violent anti-Blackness, classism, and capitalist interest manifest in that city. However, the proposal, and the extraordinarily violent police actions in support of it, demonstrate the broader political implications.
In 2020, the widely shared video of the murder of George Floyd triggered mass demonstrations against police violence. This murder of an unarmed Black man by police was inevitably surrounded by the spectacle of Black death which perpetually occupies social media and news channels. The length of the video, however, was uncommon, perhaps making the consideration and intent within the fatal violence inescapable.
Mass protests took place across the US – more than 10,600 in total, and occurring in at least 40 per cent of the nation’s counties – in what many have estimated is the largest sustained protest in the country’s history. The protests were likely intensified by decreasing patience with pandemic restrictions. Research later found that nearly 95 per cent of these protests were wholly peaceful.
In addition to the US demonstrations, more than 40 countries and 100 cities globally saw similar racial justice protests, both in solidarity with US activists and against racial oppression and police violence in their own communities.
US police response to the protests was extraordinarily violent, with nearly 1,000 instances of police brutality caught on camera. Well over 100 instances of police attacking journalists were also recorded. Instances of the police initiating and escalating violence were widely reported, with countless videos of brutal, unprompted, and disproportionate police violence against protesters – and against Black people in particular – shared daily.
In the years since the 2020 protests, police budgets have continued rising. Alongside the increase, police in some jurisdictions have been granted additional powers to arrest, charge, and use force against protesters.
The state and revolution
In The State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin speaks of the state as exclusively a structure of oppression and exploitation, controlled in its present form by the propertied class. The formation of this state – and entity above the people – requires the hoarding of what had previously been ‘public power,’ and its conversion into a ‘special power’ which services as the enforcement of class and hierarchy. It is thusly, Lenin writes, that the armed and self-directed organization of the people – i.e., public power – is replaced with “special bodies of armed men,” jails, prisons, and other such punitive and carceral institutions.
Such is the role of police in our society. No government, even one openly incapable of providing for the public, would ever willingly relinquish legitimacy. Should societal conditions worsen – if, for example, food, water, and healthcare become dramatically less available – governments will assert their legitimacy by deploying police forces to maintain ‘order.’ After all, police already serve this function. That police enforce order, as opposed to justice, is evident in their role breaking labour strikes, disrupting rent actions, and displacing homeless people. We must remember, it is illegal to steal food from a store even if you are starving, but it does not violate the law to hoard food and sell it for profit while countless others starve.
Police also facilitate the targeted criminalization and incarceration which depresses economic prospects in specific neighbourhoods and communities, thus creating and entrenching long-term and concentrated poverty, provoking an increase in crime, and so justifying more policing. Police are a fundamental component of structural racism. They do not contribute positively to society. Research has found that police do not regularly solve crimes, and that increasing police funding does not reliably reduce crime. In fact, some analysis has found drops in crime corresponding to withdrawal of police.
All justice struggles in the world are intimately linked, in that all justice struggles in the world act against the same system. It has, of course, disparate functions and expressions. It is white supremacy. It is capitalism. It is sex and gender oppression. It is ableism. It is hundreds of migrants intentionally left to drown by European coastal authorities. It is carrying out – or profiting from – apartheid and ethnic cleansing. It is legally shielding mining companies from the violence and despoiling they commit abroad. It is all digital hardware in the world relying upon the labour of exploited and near-enslaved Africans of all ages. It is confining asylum-seekers to prison barges, or caging them in life-threatening heat, or pushing them into a river laden with razor wire traps.
It is Cop City. The council vote approving funding for the facility did not deter the Stop Cop City and Defend Atlanta Forest movements. Atlanta activists filed to have a city-wide referendum on the proposal, to be held in November. Both Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens, and city officials have argued that the referendum results would be immaterial, and would not impact plans to construct the facility. Nonetheless, on July 28 a federal judge ruled that the city had placed unlawful restrictions on the petition effort, thus repealing those restrictions and restarting the deadline counter – giving the movement another 60 days to gather the 70,000 signatures required for a successful petition. At the time of that ruling, they reportedly had more than 30,000 signatures.
I cannot claim with any certainty that the 2020 protests were genuinely a radicalizing moment, or even that they represented earnest international solidarity. I can hope, which will have to serve. I can say with certainty, however, that a future of justice, equity, and collective well-being does not include police or prisons, just as it does not include militarized or enforced borders. Abolition is a must, and nothing less will do. Cop City represents all that we must liberate ourselves from; policing, militarism, carcerality, Eurocoloniality, white supremacy, and the foul, rapacious behemoth of capitalism. The struggle against Cop City is a struggle for the lives of the people of Atlanta, but it is part of the struggle for our own lives as well.
In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor makes plain the cycle of progress and backlash that characterizes racial and liberatory politics in the US. Post-civil war reconstruction was rebuffed with white-supremacist terrorism, mass murder, lynchings, and Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement and urban uprisings of the 1960s were suppressed with the Southern Strategy, with COINTELPRO, and with Nixon’s racist, hard-right malice enacted through the War on Drugs. Structural analysis indicting the US as systemically and violently racist and classist were countered with both conservative and liberal discourses about Black people’s supposed inherent or developed inferiority, deficient culture, and dearth of character and integrity.
As Taylor writes, this phenomenon persists today. Though the man himself was hardly an anti-racist campaigner, the election of a Black president provoked an increase in the number of organized white-supremacist and hate groups in the country. Endless police killings of unarmed Black people, including children and seniors, led to the emergence of a new Black radical movement, which in turn accelerated the increase of police violence and militarization. From this perspective, Cop City is a response to the mass mobilizations that took place in 2020, bolstered by the corporations and capitalists for whom police provide a serrated edge.
Taylor writes of the fundamental interconnectedness of capitalism, police violence, and white supremacy, such that none could be eradicated without eradicating the other two. She notes specifically that capitalism is contingent upon the unfreedom of Black people, and all else who fall outside its order. While Taylor argues (or concedes) that protest alone cannot uproot and abolish these systems, she writes of the generative and regenerative nature of struggle.
“Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty, hunger, and all of the ways in which oppression and exploitation express themselves is critical to people’s basic survival. But it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize, and build movements and organizations. It is also how our confidence develops to counter the insistence that this society, as it is currently constructed, is the best that we can hope to achieve…It is the struggle itself that can compel people to push for more.”
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