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Not just Cop City, referendum team threatens the Atlanta Way

by: Matt Scott

UPDATE: Late Sunday night, the Cop City Vote Coalition announced it will not be submitting its signatures tomorrow. The post promised additional updates would come Monday.

The Stop Cop City Vote Coalition says it hopes to turn in on Monday over 100,000 signatures on the petition to add a November ballot question asking voters to decide whether to overturn the 2021 ordinance authorizing the lease of 381 acres in Atlanta’s South River Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, more widely known as “Cop City.”

The success of the massive signature campaign combined with dozens of hours of public comment about the training center at City Council meetings over the last two years marks what opponents of the facility feel like is a sea change moment in Atlanta’s political history.   

For nearly a century, political decision making in the city largely happened through the vehicle of the Atlanta Way, a mid-19th century governance approach in which originally white politicians and Black community leaders gathered behind closed doors to determine the path forward for Atlanta. Over the years, shifting demographics in the city led to the rise of Black political leadership, but the Atlanta Way continued, driven by a coalition of Black and white political, business and community leaders working together to improve conditions for business interests in the city, believing that economic development would bring about racial equality.

It is the Atlanta Way that Cop City opponents say is the driving force behind the training center. Activists believe that their fight against Cop City is also a fight against the Atlanta Way and, as community organizer Micah Herskind wrote, “a battle for the future of Atlanta.”

Where the Atlanta Way centralizes decision making to a small group of individuals, the Stop Cop City Vote coalition seeks to open decision making to Atlanta residents themselves.

Wall Decor at the Cop City Vote Westside Office

“Let the people decide,” is the central slogan of the coalition.   

The ballot referendum format is not perfectly representative – not all those who would be affected by the training center will have a chance to vote on the project, including residents from unincorporated DeKalb, unregistered voters, non-citizen immigrants, justice impacted individuals and youth – but it will give opponents a chance to show that city leadership is at odds with desire of residents on the issue.   

I sat down with Mary Hooks, tactical lead of Cop City Vote Coalition, at the halfway point of the initial 60-day signature gathering window. Hooks and I talked Barbenheimer, injunctions, national movement networks and her hopes for what more representative processes may come after the referendum vote.

How goes the South, so the nation goes    

Hooks and I sat on her front porch in Capitol View on July 27, the day U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen granted injunctive relief to the five plaintiffs from the Cop City Vote coalition allowing anyone to collect signatures for the referendum. Cohen found the city violated the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs by adding an additional line to the referendum petition that required a current city of Atlanta resident to attest to witnessing that signatures were gathered within the physical territory of Atlanta.   

“Let’s go motherfucker, let’s get some signatures.” 


My own expectations about the referendum leading up to that day had dimmed over time. Early counts for signature gathering prior to the ruling were lower than needed if the coalition were to hit its then-goal of 75,000 signatures. At that time the campaign had around 30,000 total signatures. While the actual number of valid signatures needed to put the referendum on the ballot is 58,203, the coalition knew the total number of signatures needed would be far higher. Given the delay in validating the original petition by Atlanta Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon, the expensive legal maneuvering to fight the referendum in court and outright antagonism toward the campaign by some Atlanta elected officials, it is likely the city will seek to invalidate as many of the referendum petition signatures as possible.   

“I’ve been telling people all the time,” Hooks said with a laugh, “I’m like, ‘please, write your best handwriting print,’ because I don’t want them to deny on some bullshit.”  

The Atlanta City Council is set to pass legislation Monday authorizing the Municipal Clerk to hire outside legal counsel to assist with signature validation.   

Opening participation in signature gathering to anyone who wanted to participate altered the dynamics of the campaign.    

“People are energized, super charged,” Hooks told me. “Like ‘let’s go motherfucker, let’s get some signatures.’”  

In addition to allowing anyone to gather signatures, Judge Cohen also ordered that the coalition be granted an additional 60 days for signature gathering starting from the day the municipal clerk returned new petition sheets without the line requiring that a city of Atlanta residents attest to witnessing the collected signatures. The referendum coalition originally filed their petition on June 7. Under Georgia law, the municipal clerk is required to validate a referendum petition within seven days, but it took 14 days and the filing of a lawsuit against the clerk before the petition was returned to the coalition.

The municipal clerk’s office returned the new petition sheets within hours of Judge Cohen’s ruling.

The coalition, however, was determined not to use the extra time. Once signatures are turned in, the City Council has 50 days to validate all the signatures, a process that must be done by Oct. 10 if the coalition wants to meet the deadline set by the Secretary of State’s office to add an item to the Nov. 2 ballot. With the alternative being the March primary election, one which will potentially skew heavily toward Republican turnout as there is not likely to be a Democratic presidential primary, the coalition needs to turn in their signatures by Aug. 21.  

“March is the GOP primary, and we know that’s not when our people are turning out,” Hooks said. “Many people are like ‘OK, November’s when you’re gonna vote for a thing.’”  

“And secondly, I think that it’s about the momentum,” Hooks continued. “If we draw this all the way, people are gonna be like ‘we’ve been collecting these signatures since last June. You know what I mean? Nobody wants to be doing that shit for that long.”  

Barbenheimer T-shirt Graphic. Courtesy of Tommy Martin

Getting to November, however, was going to be no small feat. The coalition developed plenty of creative ways to gather signatures including bike rides, bar crawls and my favorite, Barbenheimer.   

“They had t-shirts,” Hooks told me when talking about the canvassers who set up outside of local theaters in the weeks after the Barbie and Oppenheimer movies released. “They had a whole thing going on.”  

Those first five weeks, while hampered by the residency requirement, were marked by strong community participation.   

“People are just getting in where they fit in,” said Hooks, “finding people who share the same weird interests and turning it out for good.”  

To make the ballot, however, the referendum needed a boost. Hooks, who also serves as national field secretary for the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) told me that the coalition had a list of DeKalb residents ready to be activated and that the national M4BL network began preparing to send members as soon as Cohen’s decision to strike the residency requirement was announced.

 “Somebody from Philly emailed me like, ‘Can I come?’” Hooks said. “People are like, ‘Can we come now? We’ve been willing to come.’”   

These were experienced organizers coming off recent electoral wins who understood the importance of the fight against Cop City. Hooks explained, “in Minneapolis for a charter referendum, these groups did heavy lifting in a short timeframe. We had folks there for like four solid days. I think we knocked out 68,000 doors, something like that.”  

Hooks provided a bit of history for social movements in the South, explaining most fights in the South have been won because, “we’ve been able to leverage folks outside of the South to come help, to come support.” That support comes in the form of people power, not financial. The South, she said, “gets less than 5% of most monies, when people move money to causes.”  

For the coalition, the residency requirement that blocked outside support in the form of signature gathering for the first half of the referendum was like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. “So, our relationships,” Hooks said, “being able to pull people to come down here is part of how we’ve been able to move and bring about progressive change in the South. So, to not do that it antithetical to how I know and understand movement building, how we make change in the South, and how we understand the South and how it’s positioned.”  

“How the South goes, so the nation goes,” Hooks concluded, evoking W.E.B. DuBois.    

Folding chair energy

On a Friday morning two weeks after my conversation with Hooks, I pulled up to the secret headquarters of the national M4BL canvassing teams a few hours before crews started to arrive for their second day of canvassing. While I was there, I was asked not to take any pictures or disclose the actual location of the headquarters for security reasons.

As we sat outside the entrance, the national M4BL leaders started preparing the day’s itinerary. The small group ran through the plan, including which song to start the intro session with to set the tone. They chose a simple refrain that went, “Grateful, I’m so grateful, ready I’m so ready, happy I’m so happy.” Organizers discussed the first night’s signature totals. Only one person hit their quota, but no one was worried. “Folks shouldn’t be anxious, numbers will go up over the course of the week,” said Karissa Lewis, the national field director for M4BL.   

“They understand the implications when we talk about a Cop City in Atlanta, they fully understand what it means to be pushing an agenda that continues to drive the narrative that all we need is more training when we see our people being killed in the streets, when we see our people being charged with domestic terrorism, when we see our folks being denied their first amendment rights, and more importantly when we see our folks being over policed and victims of institutional racism and violence at the hands of the State”

Britney Whaley

Most of the national groups travelling to Atlanta planned to canvass for five days, starting the Wednesday prior to my arrival at the headquarters, and ending Sunday, Aug. 13, the day before the referendum coalition initially planned to turn in the collected signatures. The sixty or so individuals who came as part of the M4BL blitz were broken into teams of four, each giving themselves and name. The crowd favorite was “white chair energy,” referencing the solidarity displayed in Montgomery after a group of white people started attacking a Black boat captain. 

As the national teams started to arrive for the day, the space became filled with energy that can only be described as joyful militancy. There was an air of determination as groups broke off and to discussed plans for the day. At the same time, there was dancing, singing, laughter and a few games of dominoes and cards.   

I sat down with Britney Whaley, Southeast regional director for Working Families Power, to learn about who was coming to help and how the referendum campaign had grown since Judge Cohen’s decision.  

“We think right now we’re at about 71,000 signatures, and we are still counting,” Whaley said as an update on Aug. 11. “We have daily drops where we’re trying to input all the data and doing validation, understanding that we’ll be met with some challenges by the city, and that they’re turning up the heat.”  

Over the last two weeks, the referendum coalition also turned up the heat. “We got folks who are throwing down going to events,” said Whaley. “We still have people who are doing the farmers market, the grocery stores, the bus stations. You name it, we’re there.”  

Whaley went into more detail about the coalition’s plans for that night. “I have a whole tracker,” she said. “We have probably about 15 or so events we’ll hit. It’s Friday night in Atlanta, there are also few notable concerts, including Beyonce. Wherever people will be, we will be. So, we got a team on Beyonce. We got a team at Reggae Fest. We have folks who are doing some of the happy hours and hitting some night life. And we have our regular stuff in rotation, so this is addition to what we have been doing for the last few months. We have more people and have more capacity, so we’re able to hit more stuff.”

I caught up with a team canvassing H.E. Holmes MARTA station for signatures from the thousands of people headed to see Beyonce perform Friday night. The team I followed had flown in from Los Angeles and New York City and had experience in collecting signatures for referendums. Before heading to the MARTA station, they told me they had set up outside a nearby Walmart to gather signatures and collected a few before an Atlanta Police Department officer arrived to tell them to leave at the request of Walmart management. At the MARTA station they split into pairs, two bought tickets to go up to the platform and talk to concert goers waiting for the train to arrive, while the other two set outside the turnstiles to talk to commuters exiting the station. “Oh, is that the petition for Cop City?” said one woman wearing a sequined top and cowboy boots on her way to see Beyonce. “Yeah, I’m with you,” she said with a grin.

People set up with “ask me about the Cop City petition” signs like this one outside Taproom Coffee have been frequent sights over the last 60 days. Photo courtesy of Cop City Vote Twitter

All the national canvassers I met were excited to be in Atlanta and quick to talk about the importance of the fight against Cop City. “These are people who are deeply aligned with our politic,” Whaley told me, “they understand the implications when we talk about a Cop City in Atlanta, they fully understand what it means to be pushing an agenda that continues to drive the narrative that all we need is more training when we see our people being killed in the streets, when we see our people being charged with domestic terrorism, when we see our folks being denied their First Amendment rights, and more importantly when we see our folks being over policed and victims of institutional racism and violence at the hands of the State.”  

“When they come in, they come in to not just to stand in solidarity,” Whaley continued. “They’re ready to work, they’re ready to hit the doors, they’re ready to be at the schools, in the streets and do anything they can to stand up in this moment. Because they understand. These are folks who are fighting some of the same conditions in their states and municipalities and they see our fight as their fight. Likewise, when they’re in the thick of it and they need us to come through, we see their fights as our fights, because we see the connection.”   

By Sunday, the combined forces of the local and national teams pushed the official signature count over 80,000. That equaled over 2,000 signatures a day. “It feels like love for our people, for our shared vision,” Whaley said with a smile, “having people do six hours and come back and say, ‘hey I need more petitions because we’re gonna hit the streets tonight.’ It’s a beautiful feeling and it reminds us that this is rooted in love. Love for our people, and love for our community.”   

I came back to the secret headquarters Sunday morning to find a different scene. A sign on the door read, “masks required, no exceptions.” Outside canvassers were taking tests for COVID-19. One of the national team members had tested positive for COVID that morning. M4BL leadership instituted coronavirus safety protocols, which mean that after someone tested negative, they went inside and waited until there was a group of four, then those ad hoc teams were deployed immediately to limit the number of people inside the building at any time.   

This was the last planned day of the blitz and luggage began to pile up next to the door by noon. Then, rather anticlimactically, the blitz came to an end. News of a second positive COVID test led to organizers immediately calling field teams to come back to the headquarters. Organizers placed value in community safety above all else. As each field team came in, they were given the same news: the work done in the preceding days put the referendum within a few thousand signatures of the coalition’s goal, but a second positive test meant the end of the blitz. Local organizers thanked national members for their solidarity and offered the same when fights arise in their own cities. 

After Cop City

At the end of July, hitting 100,000 signatures seemed like a reach, but with renewed confidence after Judge Cohen’s ruling, I asked Hooks what she saw as the next steps in the fight against Cop City after the signature turn in for the referendum.    

“Part of our strategy is to do community engagement, political education, help build people’s analysis, so they understand that it’s not just about this, beloved,” Hooks said referring to the fight against Cop City. “You need to understand racial and gendered capitalism, militarization and the carceral state.” The referendum is just a starting point for a lot of people in Hook’s eyes. “This referendum was a low bar for entry, you feel me?” she continued. “It’s not enough for you to be progressive. We need to radicalize you. Because if not, you got all these people who are like ‘I’m a liberal,’ and then you’re going to push on white-ass police reform.”   

“Another eight can’t wait campaign,” Hooks said after a moment, “yeah, that bullshit.”  

Hooks sees political education as a path to alter how more mainstream groups view fights against the State and a means to prepare people for the likelihood that even if the referendum wins, Atlanta political leaders will still try to build Cop City. “I think political education should be a pathway for people to understand and have a lens,” she said. “It’s like regardless of whatever the State does, we’ve made a commitment to each other. We’ve made a commitment to a liberation struggle that is less about them – though we know that they’re obviously our arch enemies – but it’s more about us, it’s more about people’s power, and it’s more about a people’s struggle and committing your life to a thing.”  

Hooks (third from left) speaking at a press conference for the family of Johnny Hollman who was killed by APD Officer Kiran Kimbrough Aug. 11

I asked Whaley if the coalition continued to develop political education plans when we spoke in August. “You should very well anticipate that there will be community engagement that we did not see from the city and our mayor,” Whaley said. “We’ll be continuing to educate people around this issue, but also around the issue of how this all connects with mass incarceration, state sanctioned violence, First Amendment rights. All of that will continue because that’s the work of the organizations that make up this coalition.” The fight does not end with Cop City for coalition organizers. Cop City is just the beginning, as Whaley told me, “this project is what we’re focusing on, but the intersection of the issues that what we want to dig into and continue to bring people in around.”  

Hooks and I discussed another short-term goal of the campaign. The chance for an injunction to halt construction and the proposed training center site until Atlantans could vote on the project was one of the selling points for the referendum amongst the anarchist wing of the Stop Cop City movement. Before my conversation with Hooks in July, the coalition’s steering committee determined it was necessary to focus on signature collection, but with the coalition turning in signatures on Monday, the injunction should come in the near future. “We’ve been talking about it,” Hooks said, “and the thing was we have less than 20 something days, let’s fucking get these petitions and [after] we turn those in, let’s go get the injunction.”

Atlantans may or may not decide to cancel the lease when the question is placed on the ballot, but should they decide to Stop Cop City, that serves as a beginning for a new conversation in Hooks mind. “I don’t want to see the [city’s elected officials] decide how this should go down,” Hooks said. “If the police need fucking training – even though I’m very clear that police training don’t mean shit because you can’t train white supremacy out of an institution – what would it look like to run a charette process?”   

The charette system, according to Hooks, allows both sides to determine that, if a police training facility must be done, how can it be done in a practical way that will not harm the Earth, take resources away from communities or privatize what is currently public resources. It functions as a peoples’ assembly, a more democratic process than referendums, City Councils or the Atlanta Way. “A charette brings different people from both sides of an issue together over several days,” she said. It would likely be a messy process. “These different communities have to come together and create a plan that makes sense,” Hooks told me. “And in there there’s dialogue, there’s discourse, there’s debate, there’s struggle. Some people might walk away, some people come back.”   

“Like these fuckers in their patriarchy, I think are hell bent on one of the biggest [training centers] in the goddamn country. You know what I mean?” 

Mary Hooks

Hooks thinks that through the dialogue of the charette process, Atlanta can overcome entrenched beliefs about policing and community safety. “What I do believe is that if people are able to really sit and grapple with these views,” she said, “particularly those that are abolitionists, people will see this shit don’t serve our fucking people, our communities, they actually won’t be holding on so tight to their values and beliefs around Cop City and that they too will shift.”  

Ultimately, Hooks believes the only path forward is to let the people decide.   

“That’s what I see as the possibility around that in terms of next steps. Because I don’t think we should trust the city at all to make another plan that’s actually not going to emulate some sort of manifestation of Cop City. Like these fuckers in their patriarchy, I think are hell bent on one of the biggest [training centers] in the goddamn country. You know what I mean?” 

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