Atlanta ‘Cop City’ activists say they’re confident of getting 70K signatures. But big hurdles remain

Jul 29, 2023, 6:02 AM

Canvasser Sienna Giraldi, 26, right, talks to Atlanta resident Makela Atchison, center, Thursday, J...

Canvasser Sienna Giraldi, 26, right, talks to Atlanta resident Makela Atchison, center, Thursday, July 20, 2023, in Atlanta. Activists with the Stop Cop City Vote Coalition are trying to get the signatures of more than 70,000 Atlanta residents by Aug. 14 to force a referendum allowing voters to decide the fate of a proposed police and firefighter training center. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

ATLANTA (AP) — “Excuse me, are you a city of Atlanta voter? Do you know about ‘Cop City?’”

Clipboards in hand, canvassers Sienna Giraldi and Gabriel Sanchez approached shopper after shopper at a Kroger supermarket lot on a recent evening collecting signatures for a referendum over whether to cancel the city’s lease of a proposed police and firefighter training center that’s become a national rallying cry for environmentalists and anti-police protesters.

Most people kept on walking. Others said they weren’t registered to vote or didn’t live within the city limits, both of which are required. Many seemed to have no idea what “Cop City” was and weren’t interested in finding out. The fact that it began raining certainly didn’t help. By the end of a 90-minute shift, 21 people had signed.

“We definitely need to come back here,” Sanchez said. “I was on a roll before the rain started.”

Over the past month, hundreds of people like them — many volunteers, some paid — have spread out across the city of about 500,000, in hopes of persuading more than 70,000 registered voters to sign on to the petition drive. The deadline had been mid-August, but the effort got a boost Thursday when a federal judge extended it to late September, though significant logistical and legal hurdles remain.

Technically, organizers say, they need just 58,203 signatures by Aug. 14 to qualify for the November ballot — the equivalent of 15% of registered voters as of the last city election — but they set the higher goal knowing some will be disqualified. If that’s not reached until late August or September, the referendum wouldn’t happen until March, when a competitive GOP presidential primary could turn out conservative voters and hurt its chances. The city also could move forward with construction in the meantime, unless a judge intervenes.

As of July 25, the drive had collected more than 30,000 signatures, according to Paul Glaze, a spokesperson for the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition. And with the paid canvassing effort still ramping up, he expects the pace to pick up significantly.

“We’re confident of hitting our number,” Glaze said. “How much extra padding we’re able to get is still a question. … Our experience is that when you talk about this with people, when they hear the price tag, when you ask them if they would choose this or something else to spend the money on, the vast majority are against it.”

Organizers of the drive say Mayor Andre Dickens and the City Council have failed to listen to a groundswell of opposition to the $90 million, 85-acre (34-hectare) training center, which they fear will lead to greater militarization of the police and exacerbate environmental damage in the South River Forest in a poor, predominantly Black area.

Officials counter that the campus would replace outdated, far-flung facilities and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles, especially in the wake of 2020 protests over racial injustice. Dickens has said that the facility will teach the “most progressive training and curriculum in the country” and that officials have repeatedly revised their plans to address concerns about noise pollution and environmental impact.

In June, after hearing about 14 hours of public testimony that was overwhelmingly against the training center, council members voted 11-4 to approve $67 million toward the project. Outraged but not surprised, organizers of the petition drive announced it the next day.

Outside the Kroger, located in a majority-Black neighborhood a few miles south of a Wendy’s parking lot where officers fatally shot Rayshard Brooks in 2020, Giraldi chatted with Lee Little, a Black construction worker who stopped to talk despite the rain, his hands full of bagged groceries.

Little was working near the proposed training center in March and saw the helicopters and mass of armed officers that descended on the area after about 150 masked activists stormed the site and torched construction equipment. He hadn’t thought about it much since, but he signed the petition after hearing Giraldi’s pitch.

“She was just saying that City Council approved 60-something million dollars without listening to the taxpayers. Does that sound fair to you? That should be for the voters to decide,” Little said afterward.

Another who signed was Makela Atchison, who was wearing a “Black Voters Matter” T-shirt as she left the store with her two children.

“I’m not saying I’m for it or against it,” Atchison said, “but I want to be able to have my input.”

The signature drive is the most ambitious in terms of numbers that has ever been launched in a Georgia city, but it has precedent from last year in Camden County, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a planned launchpad for blasting commercial rockets into space. The Georgia Supreme Court in February unanimously upheld the legality of that referendum, though it remains an open question whether citizens can veto decisions of city governments.

In a recent court filing seeking to quash the Atlanta referendum, attorneys for the city said residents can’t force officials to retroactively revoke the lease agreement, which was made in 2021. They called organizers’ efforts “futile” and “invalid.” The state agreed with the city in a separate filing, though that dispute is on hold for now.

Still, activists see the referendum as the best remaining option to block the project. They’ve gotten support from numerous groups, including the Working Families Party and the New Georgia Project Action Fund, which pledged to get 15,000 signatures over the next few weeks.

Activist Hannah Riley tries to collect a handful of them whenever she is out in public, including on a recent afternoon as she worked remotely from Muchacho, a popular taco restaurant in the ultra-liberal Reynoldstown neighborhood. At the end of her table, she taped a sign that read: “Voter? Sign Stop Cop City Petition Here.”

“This is a bit of a Hail Mary, but it’s a Hail Mary that makes a lot of sense,” Riley said. “They’ve begun to clear-cut the trees. They’re getting close to pouring concrete. … Our options are quite limited right now, so this does feel like the most practical, effective next step.”

At the same time, a small number of activists have continued taking a more violent tack, including torching eight police motorcycles over the Fourth of July weekend, actions that canvass organizers have not condemned.

Curtis Duncan, 40, said the first day he went out canvassing, a man approached and accused him of being one of the vandals.

“I said, ‘Well, sir, respectfully, I wasn’t burning cars, and the majority of people within this movement have not been engaging in any type of violent actions,’” Duncan said. He added that troopers fatally shot an activist in the forest and that authorities have brought dozens of “very flimsy” domestic terrorism charges against “Stop Cop City” protesters this year — actions he considers far worse.

Sanchez, who works for a voting rights nonprofit, said that even if the signature drive falls short, it will have made an important impact.

“I feel like we’ve exhausted all the other options, aside from full-on revolution, which I don’t think we need for this,” he said. “There’s a lot of obstacles in our way. … If we only get to 50,000, I think that still shows a real warning sign for these politicians for the 2025 election.”

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Atlanta ‘Cop City’ activists say they’re confident of getting 70K signatures. But big hurdles remain