By: Julian Rose, Scalawag
This story was originally published by Scalawag as a part of A Week of Writing: Stop Cop City. Click to listen to the recording of this interview, including extended audio.
This essay mentions state-sanctioned murder
In this interview, I speak with Bridgette Simpson, lead organizer with Barred Business, to probe her perspective on the connections between Atlanta’s persistent carcerality and the prison industrial complex’s creation of state enemies by criminalizing Black life and resistance. Most importantly—we contend with the ways in which Atlanta as a carceral apparatus has invented criminality to repress the #StopCopCity movement.
As an extension, we talk about Bri’s hard-earned lessons about organizing inside and outside of Atlanta prisons, and what implications these lessons have for the #StopCopCity fight and our broader movement.
In this Week of Writing, an effort to center on the ground organizers who are in a struggle to resist the expansion of the prison industrial complex and policing, reflections from ATL-based, justice-impacted Black revolutionaries can only strengthen our work. Justice-impacted and formerly-incarcerated Black organizers know the stakes of expanded policing far too well—and broader abolitionist organizing can learn much from their wisdom.
The #StopCopCity movement is an example of how the prison industrial complex criminalizes protest and dissent. The State is using this moment as an opportunity to create State enemies and bolster the prison system.
“The city of Atlanta prefers to invest in policing and further [harm] the Black communities where they’re building this base,” Bridgette explained.
Bridgette has been a critical force in abolitionist organizing in Atlanta for years—offering her brilliant leadership to campaigns like #CloseTheJailATL, Defund APD Refund Communities (DARC), Black Mamas Day Bailout, the Protected Campaign, and the Free Atlanta Abolition Movement’s bail foundation and stabilization work (Barred Business, FAAM).
“They’re actually neglecting the will of the people. That’s number one. I feel like I can’t move on without saying that because I came home [from prison] in 2018, and in 2019, I was screaming to stop Cop City right alongside Close the Jail ATL… They were like parallel fights.”
Close The Jail ATL is a movement fighting to close the Atlanta City Detention Center and repurpose it into a community resource hub. In 2019, the campaign won legislation to close and repurpose the facility, but Atlanta’s current City Council hasn’t honored their promise.
“The community was screaming for the City of Atlanta to actually defund the police in 2020… We were asking to defund the police, invest in communities, and to do something radical in the City of Atlanta. Imagine our disdain to learn that they were willing to clear out a forest.”
After the proposal to decimate the forest surfaced, community groups were immediately in opposition, especially those closely paying attention to policing and prisons in Atlanta. Defund APD and Refund Communities (Atlanta DSA & other groups’ campaign that mobilized abolitionists in the city around divest/invest frameworks) were among the earliest formations resisting this current proposal for the project. When it was brought to the finance committee as a first-pass, community was right there.
Previously, Keshia Lance Bottoms earned celebration from social justice groups—agreeing to close Atlanta City Detention Center and terminating Atlanta’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Toward the end of her term as Mayor, as she eyed federal political aspirations and backed APD through uprisings against them, her commitment to social justice policy wavered, to say the least.
“Keshia Lance Bottoms, that mayor who was promising to do something to reform policing, to reform this prison industrial complex that we were so embedded in—so much so that she closed the side of the City of Atlanta where we were accepting folks who are waiting to be to be deported, terminating the city’s relationship with ICE,” Bridgette reflected. “So it’s very disappointing to learn that she was just business as usual. She was nothing different, and what she was doing, in fact, was giving a smoke and mirrors, so she could help to set up Stop Cop City.”
At the end of 2021, with the election of the new mayor imminent, Lance Bottoms had a window of opportunity to use her political power as mayor to respond to demands to #StopCopCity. Instead, she celebrated Cop City’s approval and encouraged Atlantans to support as well. This decision would spread lies promoted by Atlanta Police Foundation and deepen the need for a counter narrative, especially among the mayor’s faithfuls. Something shifted. This primed the city to embrace the incoming mayor and the city’s plans to expand the reach of police.
“And that the mayor that came after her would further the work that she was doing. That was very, very disappointing.” Bridgette named this as a “desire to move towards fascism and really towards authoritarianism,” emphasizing the ways the state seeks to silence activists, abolitionists, and movement workers.
“[They] use the law to systemically silence [us] because we have been—we have the right to—peacefully protest. You know civil disobedience is how our ancestors have leapfrogged us, with the rights that we do have, into the future… People bled for this. People bled for us to be able to resist… We have the right to peaceably protest. It says that in the Constitution, but I notice that they are so down to make a slave, they take that part of the Constitution to heart, but they don’t want us to peacefully protest.”
One of the dominant strategies has been charging protestors with acts of domestic terrorism. “Now [they] have to label us as terrorists. So if we try to assemble even in a peaceful way. Now we have to not just worry about having banter with the police officer… Now it’s [also that we] are being charged with not just local charges… [But] Federal charges, and then to take it one step further, even if you’re not at the protest… but if you are a known activist or organizer, you can be charged with RICO.”
What Bridgette is referring to is the announcement of the intention to charge those involved in the #StopCopCity movement with domestic terrorism. This is not normal. These are federal charges that can permanently alter people’s lives when they attempt to protest. This comes after the murder of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán by Georgia State Police, their attempted cover-up, and the protests that ensued. One thing became clear: the State was prepared to criminalize and enact violence upon anyone that opposed Cop City. Since, dozens more who have attended Defend the Atlanta Forest events have been charged with domestic terrorism and held in jail without bond.
Making matters worse, if you are involved in a community organization, the State also threatens to charge activists and organizers with RICO charges (via the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ACT). RICO charges emerged in the 1970s as an expansion of the prison industrial complex in response to “criminal” community organizations, street tribes, or gangs. Promulgated to enable the government to fight organized crime, RICO charges used against activists and organizers are rare and a clear escalation of repression.
Bridgette remarked that this is “very similar to what they did with the Black Panther party—how they infiltrated it in that way. That’s why Sister Assata cannot step foot on this land while she’s in political exile.”
We can’t gloss over the fact that there are so many “Black faces in high places” at the helm of this repression of Black liberation efforts.
“They have Black faces that are giving out these promises of an integrated community for tomorrow. But we all know that it’s a crock of crap,” Bridgette said. “The worst thing [is] the Black Liberals, the Black Conservatives—those folks that are really making it very difficult for folks to really understand or get free… so now we’re at the point where folks like me [who are] justice-impacted have to think twice about how we participate in the #StopCopCity fight, or any other fight.”
The political spectrum is broad. In this country, major political parties will have you believe that Liberals, Moderates, and Conservatives capture the extent of political possibilities. However, radicals like those in the Black Panther Party operate on the left—dreaming beyond liberal conceptions. When Black liberals call for diverse police departments, Black radicals call for disbanding police departments. Black radicals understand that reforms can produce conditions that facilitate Tyre Nichols’ murder—that having Black police officers does not change the antiblackness of policing. Thus, Black people on the left (radicals and revolutionaries) are at times stifled by both Black liberals and conservatives in their efforts to bring about freedom. In Atlanta, Black liberals have been adamant about avoiding critiques of police and increasing police budgets.
“Justice-impacted people, those who are formerly incarcerated or otherwise impacted by the criminal justice system, we don’t get to get out. We don’t get to go home. A lot of us have very serious charges. A lot of us are working on our first chances where they don’t give out second chances. And the criminal justice system can fabricate whatever charges necessary to make sure of this.”
Between mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws, people who are repeatedly forced to encounter police and prisons can be trapped by the criminal justice system. After leaving prison, this can create perilous conditions for survival. In the context of Atlanta, there’s been a recent conservative push to increase sentences and surveillance for “repeat offenders,” as opposed to more progressive advocacy for more resources being granted to those who need stabilization. Returning community members have to navigate the world with these threats in mind incessantly. The Southern Center for Human Rights has launched a justice-based court watch effort to monitor how this conservative push is influencing sentencing.
“They can name it whatever they want to. They can name it a violent crime [or] direct domestic terrorism—and that could mean life for some people…They could make it up. They can say that that’s aggravated assault against an officer,” Bridgette explained.
As Bridgette pointed out, we saw an example of this kind of fabrication with Tortuguita. “Look at [Tortuguita]. They said that [Tort] shot at them. And guess what? Because of the system and how it’s set up… according to the police report [Tort] shot at him. But according to the autopsy, no, [Tort] did not.”
Tortuguita’s murder by state police has sparked rejuvenated outcries and uprising across the world. Official police reports, following a raid of an encampment in the forest, stated that Tort shot at officers and was killed by police in the “clash.” Terán’s family, activists, and organizers in the #StopCopCity movement never believed this story. Later, independent autopsies revealed that Tort had 57 gunshot wounds and was sitting on the ground with their hands in the air. These details of this tragic event shows, yet again, that the police cannot be trusted to keep us safe or even tell the truth. With the coverup unraveling quickly, organizers like Bridgette contend with the realities of criminalization, police control over local politics, and the mandate for our communities to respond to these threats.
This conversation with Bridgette really brings home the fact that those who create and enforce the law, those who have the power to systemically oppress us, can really make up anything they want to further oppress us. “[They] have extra-criminalized us, and [they] have even demonized us, because now we have the [official] narratives from the police,” Bridgette emphasized. And those police narratives name protestors as criminals.
“It puts us in a very disgusting space,” she continued. “Because some of the most radical folks still have children. They still have families. They still want to fight till tomorrow… The stakes are so much higher.”
In the end, she left me with these questions to think about: “What does that mean for people who are impacted by the criminal legal system? How do we interact now with direct action? How do we interact now with with just fighting for our people in general? How do we interact with that? How can we interface with our communities? How can we defend our communities if now the stakes are so high that we’re facing federal terrorist charges on top of the already (existing) criminalization?”
Julian Rose is a community organizer, educator, and writer originally from Hartford, CT and currently based in Atlanta, GA. His work focuses on Black Queer Feminism, abolition, and solidarity economy movement building. Julian’s political home is Endstate ATL. Other Atlanta organizing efforts he has been involved in include the Free Atlanta Abolition Movement, a Black-run bail formation, and Barred Business’ Protected Campaign.
Scalawag is a journalism and storytelling organization that works in solidarity with oppressed communities in the South to disrupt and shift the narratives that keep power and wealth in the hands of the few. Read more stories from Atlanta organizers featured in Scalawag’s A Week of Writing: Stop Cop City.
Contribute to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to support the legal defense of Forest Defenders facing domestic terrorism charges, and learn more about the ongoing fight to #StopCopCity and defend the Atlanta forest.