The Cop City Shuffle
Everyone expects trouble this time, as protesters pledge another week of action over the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.
I missed getting tear gassed by about 90 seconds today, which is only slightly more useful than actually getting tear gassed.
“I saw them tear gas one of my disabled friends in a wheelchair,” said Adam Brunell, an Atlantan marching in protest. '“Another one of my close friends was tear gassed who uses a mobility aid. All of us practice nonviolence. All of us were unarmed.”
DeKalb police officers deliberately misdirected press who were trying to catch up to the Stop Cop City protests today. They had the road leading to Intrenchment Park blocked off, and told press they couldn’t enter it, even with protesters on the other side of the barricade. There’s a kind of malice behind the posture, as this video of a DeKalb County police officer playing games while I’m recording demonstrates.
This shouldn’t be about me. I’m one more pudgy schmuck chasing a story, and I have no more rights than anyone else walking on the street. Had he simply said “the path to the training facility is behind me, and we’re keeping people off of it,” I probably would have let it go. Alas, there’s no accounting for assholes with authority.
So, as an aside: I’ve about had it with DeKalb County’s police department.
I understand that they’re doing a difficult job under difficult conditions. They’ve had a massive recruiting problem for years, and as far as I can tell they’re still running about about two-thirds of the staffing they say they need. Violent crime is rising in DeKalb, even as it is falling elsewhere in the metro area.
No small part of that is because people who want to serve as police officers have options, and DeKalb does not look like the better option for the better recruits. Why would anyone join a department where this is considered reasonable behavior in front of a journalist? Not that this is the first reason anyone would look elsewhere.
I fear an adverse selection problem might be emerging within the department. To join the DeKalb County police department is to know that you’ll be working nonstop calls, with perhaps a dozen officers expected to respond to calls across a precinct with 100,000 residents. Pay is middling, benefits are middling to nonexistent, the top command lacks the respect of line officers and the department’s efforts to connect with the public and stave off the decline of respect for policing look like … this.
I mean. Really. “This is an illegal protest. Disperse or you will be arrested,” is some OCP-style nonsense under the best conditions, and a punchline when spoken to an Atlanta protest march. But there it is.
DeKalb trains cops for other jurisdictions at this point. I now have to wonder about the ones who haven’t jumped ship. Cities are in a bidding war for policing talent right now. Atlanta has been trying to poach aspiring cops in other cities.
Atlanta’s leaders believe a new training facility will differentiate the department enough from peer cities to attract recruits. At this point, intentionally or not, they’ve staked their political future on Cop City’s success.
For the moment, the city is sitting on the signature verification for a referendum petition to block the training facility, said Kamau Franklin, a lead organizer in anti-Cop City activities.
“The city clerk has sat on it. The city council sat on it. The mayor has sat on it,” he said. “And so now I suppose this deadline is in March. And so we're still executing a court case.”
Petitioners collected about 116,000 signatures. The question is how many will be considered valid. If about half of the signatures are legally legitimate, Atlanta voters will say one way or another if they think Cop City is a good idea.
That is, if the legislature doesn’t kill the referendum first.
The Georgia General Assembly will hold a special session in two weeks, to redraw legislative maps under a federal court order. Democrats are focusing on a probable congressional pick-up in Georgia’s 6th District around Cobb County, and the seven-to-ten state house seats which must have Black legislative majorities. Republicans will do what they can to draw those maps to replace white Democrats with Black ones, but that’s probably a stretch.
But note the second line of the proclamation calling for a special session. The call also permits the General Assembly to repeal or amend local laws “necessary to avoid unreasonable hardship or to avoid undue impairment of public function if consideration and enactment thereof is postponed.”
That’s being read as a predicate for the legislature to strip Atlanta voters of the power to initiate a referendum through petition.
Is that constitutional? Probably not, but it would force referendum proponents into yet another legal fight, further delaying the referendum. And all Atlanta needs is time.
“There's obviously a great amount of enthusiasm to let the people decide,” Franklin said. “But the politicians and the corporations don't want the people to decide.”
Protest leaders began the march with admonitions against trying to destroy construction equipment. APD chief Darin Schierbaum held a press conference later in the day showing bolt cutters, shovels and gas masks as evidence of ill intent. The bolt cutters, I get: they’re for getting through a fence. But the shovels were about planting trees. People marched five miles or so carrying little trees in little buckets and I didn’t get it until the cops described a shovel as some nefarious implement of urban warfare.
And half the press corps had gas masks, because we’ve all been here before. Others made do with what they could when the aspersion of tear gas began baptizing marchers.
“I also feel very proud of my tradition, being Jewish,” Brunell said. “When the tear gas came, I started to feel it in my eyes. I started to feel it in my throat. And I used my tallis (a prayer shawl) to cover my face and cover my nose and keep me holy. It was a very powerful moment for me. My grandfather’s tallis.”
That said, there is a meaningful chance that this protest will turn destructive, because it is in the strategic interest of protesters to do so. Every delay imposed on constructing the police training facility increases its cost, and every increase in cost also increases the possibility that it will not be completed before a referendum passes.