Photographs by Megan Varner, Derek White, Elijah Nouvelage, Marcus Ingram, and Paras Griffin, via Getty Images.
I’ll never forget the day, during the spring of 2016, when I witnessed Atlanta’s Black misleadership class firsthand. Members of the Housing Justice League, a resident-led organization borne of the Occupy movement, delivered public comment on the proposed development of an area surrounding a football stadium to the Atlanta City Council. City Hall was packed with students, elders, and families, many of whom had resisted the city’s callous destruction of their neighborhoods for years. I watched my mentors Sherise Brown, Alison Johnson, and other elders speak with passion about their love for their community and the history of extractive so-called development that they endured. When Bertha Darden, who was in danger of losing her home to eminent domain, came to the mic and choked up with tears, the majority-Black City Council looked back at us with careless expressions of boredom. (Mrs. Darden recently passed away; of the many brilliant activists I’ve known, she stood apart for her commitment to getting this city to do right by the people.) Keisha Lance Bottoms, who would become mayor in 2018, was on her phone when it was my turn to speak.
Far from being a glib insult, the phrase “Black misleadership class,” popularized by the journalist Glen Ford, is essential to understanding the dynamics playing out in Atlanta today. “Cop City” is the derisive name local activists have given the $90 million (that we know of so far), 85-acre urban warfare practice facility schemed up via a collaboration between the Atlanta Police Foundation and the city’s business class in the wake of the 2020 uprisings. And who would sell Cop City to the people? First Bottoms and then her successor, Mayor Andre Dickens, and other Black Democratic officials who have aligned with corporate interests and Republicans — Brian Kemp, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Mary Norwood — to wage war against the multiracial, intergenerational, grassroots struggle to abolish Cop City. Cop City would not exist without the lie that the Black people who “run” this city are a part of my community.
But the movement challenges the Black misleadership class and the way it provides cover to Cop City. The protest technologies we built, borrowed, and shared among our comrades across the country and around the world in 2020 primed our imaginations for the strategizing required to destroy Cop City and transform Atlanta.
Atlanta’s Black Democratic elites, committed to the so-called Atlanta Way, have proved to be an antagonistic, extractive force time and time again, from the local government’s continued lies about the scope and cost of the facility to its bad faith “public engagement.” The Atlanta Way describes the destructive collaboration between Black political elites and white economic elites in service of racial capitalism. In exchange for their pacification of radical potential from the Black underclass and for championing projects and policies that harm ordinary Black people, Black political elites are rewarded with legacy political positions, backroom deals, and lucrative career advances. This collaboration lends respectability to racial inequality because Black political leaders are the face of it, helping endear Atlantans to a political ecosystem they would otherwise reject. In Atlanta, the phrase “Black faces in high places” takes on a new meaning.
Every Black politician in Atlanta is implicated by the Atlanta Way, because it is the only path to political success. Former mayor Kasim Reed — whose tenure was marred by corruption scandals — tweeted, “The Atlanta Way is alive and well,” after the victory of his successor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, under whom the plans for Cop City would be announced. As part of this collaboration, the Black misleadership class directs our anger back into “suitable” (read: ineffective) channels for “expression” — the voting booth, the entertainment industry, respectable public forums — in exchange for political and financial success.
After voting in favor of Cop City and against the hundreds of Atlantans who came to City Hall in June 2023 to oppose the complex, City Council member Michael Julian Bond (son of civil rights legend Julian Bond) told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the ensuing protest ran “afoul of ‘the Atlanta way’ that people are used to for protesting.” Whether it’s Andrew Young calling us “unlovable little brats” in 2016 because we took to the streets to respond to police violence or John Lewis’s “good trouble” identifying acceptable types of “protest,” the Atlanta Way and the Black misleadership class’s role in it prop up a city where the working class is under constant threat of police terror while corporations and upper-middle-class white communities enjoy the capital and social benefits of “the city too busy to hate” (a phrase coined in 1955 by Mayor William Hartsfield, an early proponent of the Atlanta Way).
The Atlanta Way isn’t limited to local politicians; it extends to anyone who benefits from the power of such a large Black voting bloc. Raphael Warnock’s 2020 Senate campaign was framed as a monumental opportunity for Georgia residents to change the trajectory of our country. Warnock called Atlanta “the city too busy to hate” during his eulogy at the June 2020 funeral for Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by the police officer Garrett Rolfe. Warnock suggested that “rather than trying to destroy one another, maybe God wants us to use Rayshard’s tragic story and this dark chapter to move us toward turning the page.” Although Atlanta is no stranger to protest, the uprisings after Brooks’s killing, including the burning and occupation of a Wendy’s, expressed decades of compounding hurt.
Still on the campaign trail, Warnock claimed that protesters wanted “police reform,” but the demand from the streets was abolition of the Atlanta Police Department. While he acknowledged that Rayshard Brooks wasn’t just running from the police but rather “a system that too often makes slaves out of people,” when it comes to Cop City, we have little more to show than a statement that the senator opposes defunding or abolishing the police and another criticizing police repression against Stop Cop City activists.
Black Atlantans were told that we “saved” American democracy after grueling election cycles in 2020 and 2022, securing the U.S. Senate for Democrats. That feat earned us a proposed police terror complex in a Black community made possible by the Black misleadership class in a stunningly undemocratic process.
As the movement against Cop City prepared for another week of action in the summer of 2022, Stacey Abrams shared her plan to raise pay for law enforcement as she campaigned again to be the Black voice in the governor’s office. Recently, Abrams has been silent about Black Democrats’ efforts to quash a referendum on Cop City’s lease, even though Republicans wielded some of those same suppression tactics against her campaign when she ran for governor in 2018.
The failure of Abrams, Warnock, Nikema Williams (John Lewis’s successor), and other Black Georgia Democrats to oppose the facility is a slap in the face; but as the Black faces lending “respectability” to the Cop City project, they are simply performing their role in the Atlanta Way bargain. The fact that many of them fell over themselves to offer “solidarity” when Tennessee Republicans expelled two Black elected officials from the Legislature shows they play the game as they have been instructed for decades: make nominal nods to the importance of justice and democracy, and no more.
Mayor Andre Dickens positions himself as both the spokesperson and arbiter of Black culture in the so-called Black Mecca. He and his administration have worked hard to present the militarization facility as something that Black Atlantans overwhelmingly desire. The mayor insists that Cop City answers Black Atlantans’ demands that police stop killing them. To Dickens, the Atlanta Police Department needs the training facility to learn how to not murder us. We know that no training can transform the inherent nature of policing. City Council member Antonio Lewis cheered Dickens for uplifting the Atlanta Way after approving his 2024 budget, which allocated about 30 percent of the general fund to the Atlanta Police Department, despite voters’ consistent calls to shrink the police budget.
Through several hijinks — from giving a press conference with a group of Black men in ill-fitting suits in the background and honoring local elders with community awards to making videos exclusively featuring Black residents who claim to favor the training facility — the mayor has spun a false narrative that Atlanta’s Black residents support Cop City. Most egregious of all the hijinks were the mass arrests at a music festival on March 5. Activists on the ground noted that most Black people or people with Atlanta addresses were released, while many white activists were charged with domestic terrorism. The mayor and other Black council members falsely insist that mostly white people oppose the project. At one point, Antonio Lewis said, “If Black and brown people were out there, I’d be out there leading them. This is not that. This is anarchy.”
Black people recognize that their presence in this struggle disrupts the mayor’s attempts to push Cop City through without resistance. That is why Atlanta University Center Consortium students and alumni, along with community faith leaders and organizations like Community Movement Builders and Black Voters Matter, have taken every opportunity to name the ways Cop City will harm Black Atlantans and describe how our most pressing interests (housing, food sovereignty, health care, etc.) are being pushed aside.
This was best demonstrated at one of the largest Black-led marches in the protest against Cop City, which Black radicals coordinated on March 10 in response to the strategically applied domestic terrorism charges; the murder of Manuel Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita; and the incessant lie that white “outside agitators” make up this movement, not everyday Black Atlantans. Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders, called the mayor’s bluff when he said, “Mayor Dickens, is this enough Black folks for you?” and added, “Do we have enough people from Atlanta here for you?” That march and the many other actions led by Jasmine Burnett, Keyana Jones, Mariah Parker, Matthew Johnson, and other Black organizers challenge Dickens’s attempts to manufacture support for Cop City through false racial narratives about both the movement and Black voter preferences. We refuse to let him tell a story where Black Atlanta accepts his smooth gospel.
On July 27, Dickens complained about the “noisy people” who had gathered 30,000 signatures in support of a referendum to cancel Cop City’s lease (more than the number of votes he received in the general election that led to him becoming mayor) and warned, “Atlanta is a group project where government, nonprofits, businesses, schools, faith-based organizations, and citizens all support the project or suffer the consequences.” Instead the movement forces Black politicians to suffer consequences. What 2020 asked us and what the struggle against Cop City answers is: What if we took the mechanism of accountability for the Democratic cause into our own hands? Now the tactics and strategies to stop Cop City can be used to challenge the power of the Black misleadership class and the Atlanta Way.
The frequency with which Black Democrats of Georgia weaponize the rhetoric of “the Atlanta Way” and “good trouble” suggests a fear of the legacy of the 2020 uprisings. It threatened the Black misleadership class’s comfortable position within the power matrix of this city. The fact that the fervor of protest from 2020 has flowed into and focused the organizing against Cop City is an escalation of that threat. The uprisings also signaled that the era of viral videos and hashtags was coming to an end, and from those ashes we could usher in a new era of spontaneous, tactical, and protracted engagements with the state to demand much more than “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
We got some early practice at a decentralized resistance strategy in 2020, scattering the Atlanta Police Department’s ability to respond to the number of disruptions across the city. We developed and strengthened mutual-aid networks for everything from jail support and bail funds to rideshares and homeless support that spanned the state, country, and beyond. Collectives came together to research and then teach strong protest strategy, drawing on support from comrades in Chicago, Baltimore, Palestine, Chile, and Hong Kong. Elements of that work have shown up in the many efforts against Cop City — the result of careful and intentional efforts among our communities to connect the current moment to all the ones that led up to it.
In the 2022 report “Big Brick Energy,” the communist collective Unity and Struggle argued: “By popularizing militant tactics, maintaining infrastructures to sustain resistance, and hampering law enforcement’s ability to coordinate, we set ourselves up for tactical successes. By keeping factions of the state at odds, cultivating citywide collaborations across different communities and class layers, and defending the legitimacy of Black street militancy, we lay the basis for strategic momentum.”
Yet the collective also notes that gains have been lost. Most cities failed to reduce police budgets, much less abolish them. And the liberal institutions that grandstanded about racial justice have all but walked back their commitments while attempting to co-opt the energy and fury from the streets into the Democratic Party machine. In other words, the shift toward electoral democracy weakened the protests.
It was unbearable to be in Atlanta in the fall of 2020. That October, I got a text from an unfamiliar number: “Hi, I’m a volunteer w Black Lives Matter. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor can’t vote, but you can. From the protest to the polls, find where to vote here.” A friend showed me a screenshot of a text message from another organization that read “Black lives won’t matter unless we vote.” In Atlanta the institutions that make endless bids to steal power from us — nonprofits, civic society organizations, and of course the Georgia Democratic Party — shifted from promises of transformation to demands that we get out of the streets and fall in line at the voting booth. (Throughout the hours of impassioned speeches on June 5 of this year demanding that the mayor and the City Council reverse progress on Cop City, people alluded to the fact that should the people we elected not bend to our will, they would be replaced. Yet the current City Council and mayor are already just replacements for the previous City Council and mayor.)
Now the movement has added another tactic: gathering signatures for a referendum. While this has made opposition to Cop City more accessible to those who have yet to find a place for themselves in this struggle, it has not yet stalled construction. Meanwhile, the talented coalition behind the referendum has had to jump over hurdles placed in front of them by Black Democrats who otherwise fetishize the right to vote. When we are closer than ever to cohering a mass of people who understand that we are at war with the state, the effectiveness of sabotage over all other tactics cannot be overemphasized. As my friend Micah Herskind has written, the constellation of tactics employed by radical Atlantans includes everything from encampments and agitprop to direct sabotage of the facility. These tactics are not only in line with a long legacy of strategies against environmental destruction; they have also led contractors to drop out of the project and delayed construction by over two years. The movement against Cop City has forced the Black misleadership class to push its claim that state-sanctioned protest is the “true” Atlanta Way while decrying sabotage and direct confrontation. But how could the destruction of construction equipment or the occupation of a forest ever compare to the killing of our comrade Tortuguita? How could confrontation with the police compare to disappearing our people into the bowels of jails and prisons for indefinite amounts of time? The struggle against Cop City represents an opportunity for Atlantans to flex their own power and build mechanisms for reclaiming influence and social capital from our Black misleaders.
Eva Dickerson has developed mutual-aid projects and supported abolitionist coalitions on the streets of Atlanta, while working alongside very bright young people in gardens and farms across the city.