US city approves funding for ‘Cop City’ after months of protests

Atlanta City Council voted in favour of funding for large new law-enforcement training facility after 14 hours of public comment.

An Atlanta activist holds a sign demanding justice for environmental activist Manuel Teran, killed by police in Atlanta, US
A demonstrator holds a sign commemorating environmental activist Manuel Teran, who was shot and killed during a police raid to clear the site of 'Cop City' in January [File: Megan Varner/Reuters]

Local authorities in Atlanta, Georgia, a city in the southern United States, have voted in favour of a controversial new law enforcement training facility that critics have dubbed “Cop City”, despite concerns about police violence and the site’s environmental impacts.

In a vote on Tuesday, the Atlanta City Council approved the $90m project by an 11-4 margin, following 14 hours of public comment, much of which denounced the facility.

“A vote today for this paper is a public endorsement of war, of human rights abuse, of militarised streets in our city,” said Reverend James Woodall, a former president of Georgia’s branch of the civil rights group NAACP.

He called the council’s vote on the police facility “immoral and undemocratic”.

Tuesday’s approval comes after years of organised opposition by social justice groups who protested the creation of the sprawling new police training facility. They argue it will encourage trends of police militarisation and devastate a local forest they call “the lungs of Atlanta”.

Supporters, meanwhile, say the facility will help the city recruit and retain police officers and better serve the public. The facility will include a mock city for police and firefighters to train in and driving courses.

As part of Tuesday’s vote, the Atlanta City Council also approved $31m in immediate public funding for the project, as well as a lease-back arrangement that will pay the Atlanta Police Foundation $36m over 30 years.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mayor Andre Dickens said the vote was a “major milestone for better preparing our fire, police and emergency responders to protect and serve our communities”.

But opposition to the project united environmental, racial justice, Indigenous rights and leftist political groups across the country, who pushed back against what they characterised as the prioritisation of policing over other public needs.

“We’re here to stop environmental racism and the militarisation of the police,” said Matthew Johnson, the executive director of Beloved Community Ministries, a local social justice nonprofit. “We need to go back to meeting the basic needs rather than using police as the sole solution to all of our social problems.”

The protests gained further attention in January after police shot and killed environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, a 26-year-old who had joined other demonstrators to occupy the project’s future site.

A number of activists have been arrested since protests began. In March, a judge charged 22 people with “domestic terrorism” for their role in the demonstrations, sparking concerns over free speech and the right to protest.

Last week, police also arrested three organisers who led the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provided bail payments for those arrested during protest actions.

Prosecutors have accused the group of fraudulently financing protest actions. The Associated Press reported that the arrest warrant cites expenses such as “gasoline, forest clean-up, totes, COVID rapid tests, media [and] yard signs”.

Human rights groups have expressed alarm over the arrests, which were carried out by a group of heavily-armed police officers. Even US Senator Raphael Warnock weighed in on Twitter.

“While we still don’t have all the details, as a pastor who has long been engaged in justice work, I am concerned by what we know about last Wednesday’s show of force against the organizers of an Atlanta bail fund,” the senator from Georgia wrote.

“The images of the raid reinforce the very suspicions that help to animate the current conflict — namely, concerns Georgians have about over-policing, the quelling of dissent in a democracy and the militarization of our police.”

The facility will be built on 85 acres (34.4 hectares) of city land in unincorporated DeKalb County. It was given initial approval in September 2021.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies