No. 2

How We’ll Know if Stop Cop City Won

The volume of new organizers who stick with the movement will be our victory.

Mariah Parker

Mariah Parker, former county commissioner for Athens–Clarke County, at the Drop the Loan rally at Cadence Bank during the 2023 Stop Cop City week of action. Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Hammer & Hope.

It took a man two minutes to kill Amy St. Pierre and shoot four other women in a hospital waiting room in Midtown Atlanta on May 3. Amy was a public health advisor at the CDC, a loving mother, and an outspoken critic of Cop City, the sprawling, militarized police training facility planned for the mostly Black neighborhoods less than 10 miles southwest from where she died. Even with the Atlanta police force’s expansive surveillance tech, it took multiple agencies eight hours to find the man who killed Amy. Two weeks later, Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat, wrote an op-ed that cited the Midtown shooting as a reason to build the complex Amy opposed, though he could not bear to uplift her by name.

Nor could he bear to name Rayshard Brooks, killed by police in June 2020 after falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot. The week after Rayshard was murdered and the Wendy’s burned, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) gave every Atlanta police officer $500 to boost their fragile morale. Through the “smart policing initiative” Operation Shield, the APF has installed thousands of security cameras across Atlanta, making it the most surveilled city in North America as of 2021. And since 2021, the APF has been the main driving force behind Cop City — a massive police training complex complete with shooting ranges, a racetrack to practice high-speed chases, and mock city blocks for practicing protest suppression and urban war — as an answer to the 2020 uprisings.

While a county commissioner in Athens, Ga., 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, I cheered on my Atlanta comrades with Defund APD, Refund Communities (DARC) as they canvassed neighborhoods to raise the alarm about the project and organized residents to give nearly 12 hours of public comment against its lease agreement in September 2021. When that failed to stop Cop City, militants began to occupy the South River Forest to defend it from the bulldozers. In December 2022, five were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for their alleged sabotage. In January 2023, during one of the final pushes to eradicate the defense encampment and salvage the APF’s construction timeline, police shot and killed Manuel Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, an Indigenous Venezuelan forest defender, while they sat cross-legged in their tent. Outrage initiated thousands of new people into the movement, but police repression has driven the movement into a strategic bottleneck by defining the central tactic — occupation — as a death wish. Now that contractors are already clear-cutting the site with brutal speed, it can feel like Cop City is already here. And after four years inside the government and almost a year outside it in labor and abolitionist movements, I spend a lot of time thinking: If we don’t stop Cop City, what is the best way to fail?

My four years as a county commissioner in the college town of Athens were peppered with spectacular letdowns. I never managed to disband our racist drug task force, rein in mega-landlords, or raise the minimum wage citywide. My election was a momentary win that in some ways became a loss. Yet a momentary loss in our struggle for municipal reparations became a gradual win when measured by the quality of the coalitions we built and what they lend the long haul.

My election to the Athens–Clarke County commission in 2018 was a near-death experience for the left of my small Georgia town. Then 26, I won my seat by a frog’s hair: 13 votes. Two weeks later, I was sworn in on the steps of City Hall with my hand on a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The local papers called the incoming class of commissioners the most progressive in the city’s history, including a bearded musician who allegedly used to dress up as Mr. Monopoly and thank the mayor and commission for their pro-capitalist policies at the City Hall podium; a native son of Black Athens who co-founded a green cleaning cooperative; a coarse-talking Gen Xer with a day job at a philosophy magazine; and me, a queer rapper who had until then been best known around town for having a giant afro. That any of us could win an election in such a stronghold of old white money as Brian Kemp’s hometown and the seat of the University of Georgia was once unimaginable. But the pall of Trump led to liberal panic, infusing fresh organizing energy into the Athens left that was still standing from Occupy. That led to electing a slate of local representatives committed to decriminalizing weed, abolishing cash bail, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and making the buses free. Our slate of candidates won all six of the 10 seats on the commission of the consolidated city-county government up for election. The progressive mayoral candidate won, too.

We had won our campaigns but in a way that left the movement brittle, its big players either elected, sick of this organizing shit, or both. Liberals in the rank and file had sighed with relief at our electoral victory and began exiting with a Thank God y’all got it from here, while a toxic miasma of burnout and infighting plagued the die-hards. Lacking new Mr. Monopoly guys to call us out at the podium, we struggled to live up to our many promises. County attorneys, duty bound to shield the government from legal liability, swatted down our ambitions. Their confidential memo told us decriminalizing marijuana wouldn’t fly, and it took us three years — and the pressure of UGA’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy and their allies — to overcome their dissuasion on this wildly popular issue. Raising the minimum wage citywide was out because of state preemption. That warning stifled all creativity on the issue until the county library employees organized to demand paychecks they could actually live on, devising a new payscale for themselves that brought the base pay for library staff up to $15 an hour, which we passed.

That’s where I was — stalled, frustrated — when I first met Ms. Geneva Johnson. She spotted her commissioner in the parking lot of a Quick Pantry and flagged me down to tell me about Linnentown, the working-class, largely Black neighborhood that had once existed in downtown Athens. Linnentown had bordered the University of Georgia campus and was home to many of the cafeteria ladies who doled out meals to students and the maintenance workers who trimmed the campus lawns. In 1961, Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault became the first Black students to attend the university amid violent protests from the all-white student body; in 1962, the university, with the help of the city of Athens, won a federal contract through the Federal Urban Renewal Program to demolish Linnentown and replace it with student dormitories. The city of Athens declared the neighborhood a slum and seized its properties by eminent domain. Many families had scrimped and saved for years to own the homes that they were now being asked to leave for as little as $1,450. The city burned vacated homes to the ground and revved bulldozers at night until even the holdouts took the money and left. Now in her 70s, Ms. Geneva was just a child when her father had their home in Linnentown lifted off its foundations and moved to East Athens, a working-class Black neighborhood cut off from downtown by the Oconee River that was part of the district I represented.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead poses for a portrait on the campus of the University of Georgia, the site of the former Linnentown neighborhood, which was razed in the 1960s to make room for dorms. Photograph by John Bazemore/Associated Press.

For Ms. Hattie Thomas Whitehead, the loss of her childhood home in Linnentown unraveled her whole family. Unable to purchase a new home with their meager check from the city, her family moved into public housing, where Ms. Hattie grew up. Her parents divorced, and many of her six siblings were split up among relatives. Another Linnentown descendant remained housing insecure for decades, including the years we worked together, frequently battling with their landlord to keep lights and warm water running in the apartment they struggled to afford.

The descendants didn’t know how much generational wealth had been lost in the destruction of Linnentown, but they knew that the land and its improvements, including UGA’s dorms, had been valued at $76 million in 2019. They wanted the local government to hire an economist to calculate how much money their families had lost in the deal, and then they wanted the city and the university to pay it back. They wanted Linnentown’s history and legacy memorialized with an on-site Wall of Recognition. And they wanted us to call Linnentown’s fate what it was: white terrorism. They wanted reparations.

I got on board and put some finishing touches on the legislation they had already written. I brought copies to my fellow commissioners and penned their thoughts in the margins over coffee or beer. Meanwhile, the descendants and their allies held lunchtime panels to raise awareness among historic preservation enthusiasts and rallied student radicals to occupy the steps of City Hall, brandishing banners, singing “Rich Man’s House,” and booing the elected officials who claimed to be allies as they dared to climb the steps to talk of compromise.

By February 2020, a coalition had come together. The chambers of City Hall were packed. Linnentown descendants led Occupy townies and university folks — militant student organizers; scholars of geography, history, and historic preservation; and leaders of CWA Local 3265 of the United Campus Workers of Georgia — in demanding that the Linnentown resolution be added to the commission’s agenda and passed during Black History Month. When the meeting drew to a close, signaling it was time for commissioners to respond to public comments, my colleagues praised the idea of reparations but balked at the words “white racism and terrorism.” They shrugged demurely at the county attorneys who insisted that the gratuities clause of the Constitution of the State of Georgia outlawed reparations and that nothing illegal had happened to Linnentown.

A month later we shut down the city to protect it from Covid-19. Ten weeks after that, the Floyd uprising had begun. I got Covid at the first protest, the only one where the cops used tear gas; after that, Ms. Yvonne Roberts let us rent out the Black radio station and fill the airwaves with protest jams interspersed with calls to action on the nights we shut down traffic with our cars. I worked with Rachelle Berry, a Black grad student studying geography and a member of the Linnentown coalition, and we came up with the 50/10 demand: defund the police by 50 percent over 10 years, starting with reappropriation of the funding for positions that had gone unfilled year after year. Unlike most elders I lobbied, Ms. Hattie got on board and met me downtown one afternoon to record her support on video.

The final budget hearing took place remotely on June 16, 2020, our faces projected in the City Hall chamber for the public to address. The 50/10 plan was met with a moderate compromise that nixed any discussion of police funding and instead focused on issues like minority contracting and unspecified redress for urban renewal. For more than four hours, members of the public gave testimony to the commission, calling for more police, less police, better police training, even no police, and a range of life-affirming social services, with the tally tipping gently in favor of defund. Nonetheless, when the budget vote came, the conservatives and moderates quietly passed their compromise in a 7–2 vote. As with Linnentown, my convictions had blinded me to the reality that we would lose until the moment we did.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead, a descendant of the Linnentown neighborhood, shows where her family lived before the community was razed. Photograph by Alyssa Pointer/The New York Times via Redux.

At that same meeting, the mayor formally convened the Athens Justice and Memory Project, a task force to study redress for urban renewal, to be co-chaired by Ms. Hattie. Assigning an issue to committee is generally capital punishment, meant to deprive activism of hype — the air it breathes — until it dies. I joylessly opened Webex on Wednesdays for the Justice and Memory meetings as obligated. Every week we had to wait 15 minutes for Webex to let the elders into the meeting, then wait for them to turn on their cameras or mute themselves if they were somewhere loud. We took notes and passed minutes about how to overcome the university’s opposition to building the Wall of Recognition anywhere near its grounds. We kept arguing with lawyers about the gratuities clause. Like clockwork, Ms. Hattie texted me once a week, usually the morning before the meeting: When can I call you? We talked about the commission’s meeting cycle, when we would get a hearing on this matter, who was the appropriate person to ask that question. I kept it up not just for the mission but because I had come to love Ms. Hattie. I needed to see her win.

A year passed. The county attorneys remained stalwart about the illegality of reparations and the legality of Linnentown’s destruction. The Linnentown coalition, inside and outside the committee, landed upon a solution: a process whereby the descendants could direct spending toward public goods that would repair the harm of urban renewal. A team of university geographers had studied decades of maps, deeds, and property tax documents and determined the Linnentown families had been underpaid for the homes by more than $4 million, in today’s dollars, and had lost nearly $1 million in appreciation value.

On Feb. 16, 2021, the new version of the Linnentown Resolution passed unanimously. It called upon the University of Georgia to recognize the history and legacy of Linnentown and its descendants through the installation of an on-site Wall of Recognition. And it still called Linnentown’s erasure “institutionalized white racism and terrorism.” In late 2022, shortly after I resigned from office, the city-county voted to allocate $1.25 million to affordable housing preservation and home down payment assistance and $1.25 million to the buildout of an Athens–Clarke County Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures, under the direction of the Athens Memory and Justice Project.

Government committees are still quicksand for human genius. Yet the kind of social routines that a committee calls for helped roots in the struggle grow deep, making us capable of outlasting fleeting wins and losses (as well as stable conditions like boredom that erode our will) to continue the work of liberation. Just as tree roots anchor the soil of a riverbank, multiple community formations anchored a radical social current that delivered material wins for the people. With patience, our momentary loss became a win. And with time, we developed and calibrated a model organizing ecosystem that others could replicate and perfect. Black elders working with student organizers, historic preservationists, and university researchers can make an empirical case for municipal reparations and win them. Understanding this mundane work as improving a model, not merely winning a campaign, can serve as the glue that holds us together.

A mega-landlord from Florida bought up several blocks of duplexes in the working-class Lexington Heights neighborhood of my district in Athens. Many units were crammed with multiple families unable to afford rent on their own. Others were home to fixed-income seniors who had lived there for decades. The new management company gave folks 60 days to sign leases for as much as twice the rent in the summer of 2022 and declared that housing vouchers would no longer be accepted. When I canvassed the neighborhood, one young woman told me she had gotten some kind of notice but wasn’t sure what it meant.

The county attorneys said it was a shame but legal. Desperate, I implored residents to take direct action — march on the landlords, go on rent strike — but absent strong community organization, the plea came across as batshit. My next wild idea was to declare the housing crisis a public health emergency and use it to halt evictions while we negotiated a deal with the landlord. My fellow commissioners, even the more radical ones, were suspicious. That’s when I realized that leaders are needed in the streets to help build new mass movements insistent on a level of transformation that far transcends what we can deliver as commissioners. I wrote as much in my resignation letter a few weeks later.

A protester on the Atlanta BeltLine at “Slow Roll for Tort” during the 2023 Stop Cop City week of action. Hosted by the Weelaunee Coalition, the event honored Manuel Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, who was killed by a Georgia State Patrol trooper during a raid of the Stop Cop City encampment on Jan. 18, 2023. Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Hammer & Hope.

My friend Nolan frequently talks about how in their early Cop City canvassing efforts with DARC, they would encourage folks to come to City Hall and give public comment, knowing full well that the land lease would likely be approved anyway. Telling folks that the system is broken and demanding they join the revolution wouldn’t work. They have to try and lose for themselves to grasp the necessity of radical solutions.

Two years on, the Stop Cop City movement has grown not only larger but also wiser. Thousands of Atlantans who might once have been satisfied with compromise have now experienced City Hall’s intransigence and deception firsthand. They have felt bafflement as the plans and promises for Cop City continue to shift and frustration as their access to democratic channels of civic action keep narrowing. Neighborhood associations representing 20,000 city residents have passed resolutions decrying the project. Parents, teachers, and children have used the struggle and the forest as their classroom. Environmental groups who have long fought to protect the South River Forest have found allies in the abolitionists. Incisive independent journalism from the Atlanta Community Press Collective and other groups has continued to shock this widening base into action and inform sharper strategy amid tightening police repression. As the mirage of democracy flickers, everyday folks have come to understand the desperation of the young radicals who knocked on their doors to invite them to a free class on mushroom identification and who may also believe in sabotaging infrastructure as self-defense.

As with Linnentown, the organizing ecosystem is calibrating itself to include all kinds of life and anchor a radical social current. After the Atlanta City Council coldly rejected 15 hours of public comment against Cop City on June 6, a coalition of electoral groups and abolitionist mainstays announced a referendum campaign to bring the question of Cop City to the ballot citywide. Theoretically, if we are able to collect 58,203 verified signatures from Atlanta residents (representing 15 percent of registered voters), the people of Atlanta will get to decide whether or not the Atlanta Police Foundation can keep its lease for the South River Forest. On August 21, the coalition announced that it had collected 104,000 signatures — for scale, current Mayor Andre Dickens garnered only a little over 50,000 votes in the last election — but would continue the signature drive through September to ensure that the city’s onerous signature verification process does not invalidate so many that the threshold isn’t met. Still, it’s a risky strategy: the city could stall the vote long enough to build the facility. We could make it on the ballot and lose. And if we lose in these ways, what will endure?

Our strength lies in our invitation to contribute whatever people have to give — music, food, plant identification skills. As with Linnentown’s deeply unsexy study committee, the familiarity of voting has invited passive supporters to be part of the halting, awkward, but necessary spadework of movement, perhaps for the very first time. Everyday folks are discovering new forms of political agency — tabling at their neighborhood farmers market, phone banking, painting clipboards — and are taking part in the mass normalization of frank conversations around police supremacy and direct democracy. And if we fail, we fail together: as with DARC’s canvassing in 2021 and our first-round loss with the Linnentown resolution, processes like these expose newcomers to the inane cruelty of neoliberalism and hold potential to root everyday people into the radical ecosystem. Thus this season of the fight might just speed up the evolutionary process of the movement, building out formations capable of anchoring the radical social current against whatever fascism looks like next — and that remains true even if we do not stop Cop City.

Whether we win or lose this or other stepping-stone fights ahead, the movement has already won nearly two years of delay on the project and a sizable shift in the civic imagination in the United States and even internationally. Victory or defeat will be measured not merely in stopping Cop City but in the volume of new organizers who stick with organizing and the depth of organization sustained after the referendum has come and gone. Victory, lasting victory, will be found in whether and how we advance a model ecosystem that can be regrown wherever cop cities are planned and perfected so that they are never built. I believe our Cop City will never be built. But if it is, this is how you should fail.

Mariah Parker is a Southern organizer, educator, and hip-hop artist. They served as an Athens–Clarke County Commissioner from 2018 to 2022.

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