A Case Study in Manufacturing Consent

Last week, Fox 5 Atlanta interviewed two leaders of Atlanta DSA, including a lead organizer of the chapter’s recently started “Stop Cop City” campaign opposing the Atlanta Police Foundation’s plans to demolish 300 acres of public forest land. While it is refreshing to see a mainstream news station platform socialist organizers, the nature of the coverage and the interview reveals the way our corporate-funded media attempts to influence public opinion in the name of objectivity.

The first paragraph of the written article states “The group behind ‘Stop Cop City’ argues that the facility would be a waste of land and resources. Meanwhile, other residents say police need all the help they can get amid a surge in violent crime across the city.”

The contrast the article lays out is pretty clear. The “group” takes one stance against the training facility, while “other residents” are decidedly welcoming towards the development. Throughout both the article and the televised interview, Fox 5 exclusively uses the terms “critics” and “activists” to characterize opponents of Cop City, while reserving the titles of “residents” and “homeowners” for supporters.

“Activists” vs “Residents”

There have been no opinion polls conducted among members of the nearby neighborhoods, let alone the city at large, showing any kind of grassroots support for the police academy. This has not been enacted through any kind of public referendum. This was not put forward by a neighborhood association or NPU. Yet another Fox 5 article on this topic makes the bold claim that “Atlanta homeowners call for new police training facility”. The article was published a full two months after the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private organization whose board includes the executives of Home Depot and Waffle House, unveiled their proposal.

It is true that at times, activists can misread the political environment and material conditions of their situation. The state of modern American capitalism has resulted in massive degrees of cultural stratification, particularly along levels of education, geography, and ethnicity. As important as it is to voice a clear, independent political line, we must avoid the mistakes of “Activismists”, as dubbed by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti.

But does this situation characterize the current effort to Stop Cop City? Far from voicing outrage for the sake of it, Atlanta DSA has put community engagement and mobilization at the heart of its strategy. Since declaring this priority campaign, chapter has engaged in weekly flyering and canvassing, drawing turnout levels unseen since the chapter campaigned for Bernie Sanders.

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Turnout to ATLDSA’s July 17 “Stop Cop City” canvass

It is telling that none of the “residents” quoted in the Fox 5 interview in favor of the training facility are residents of the neighborhoods most immediately affected. When critics pointed this out on twitter, the author responded with the defense that “Buckhead is part of the larger Atlanta community”.

The focus on Buckhead represents another tactic Fox5 has used to mislead about the ongoing issues.

A Crime Wave?

In the televised interview, the reporters reference a “spike in crime in Buckhead” that made “national headlines”. Leaving aside whether the voices of an affluent, isolated section of the city representing one seventh of Atlanta’s population should have such a dominating presence in policy discussions, this description is a misrepresentation of existing statistics. 

It must be stated first that the category of “violent crime” is an artificial and misleading grouping of several different types of offenses. While term creates the specter of incidents such as murder, rape, and assault, these represent a tiny portion of what is considered by law enforcement to be “violent crime”. The vast majority of these offenses refer to incidents such as burglary, larceny, robbery, and auto theft.

But even accepting this flawed category, a closer examination shows that Fox 5’s description of the situation in Buckhead is missing important context. Looking at APD’s official crime statistics for Zone 2 (which includes Buckhead), we find that while crime has seen an increase compared to the similar period from 2020, the number of violent crime incidents is actually down slightly from 2019. In fact, Zone 2 in its year-to-date violent crime levels stands at near a nine year low, despite a growing population.

Source: Atlanta Police Department

Of course, any level of violence is unacceptable. And it should be of no surprise that at a time when 9.5 million Americans are unemployed, after a pandemic that has massively worsened wealth inequality, that we are seeing contradictions begin to unfold. But we must ask why local and national media have devoted so much attention to this issue when crime rates remain below pre-pandemic levels.

In any case, the notion that a police academy represents any solution to  combating violence represents another misleading framing of the issues – particularly when one in twelve homicides are from police. Atlanta DSA’s website for it’s Defund APD, Refund Communities (DARC) campaign lists a number of policies outside the scope of policing to combat violence, such as crisis workers, civilian traffic patrols, rehabilitation services, and investment in basic public services like housing, healthcare, and education.

Moreover, the lack of historical context towards the violence and policing situation in Atlanta serves to mask some of the larger problems at hand with the city’s lack of funding for public services.

What’s the need for a “Cop City”?

During last week’s public comment period, the city’s fire and police chiefs voiced their reasons for needing a new training facility.

Officials credited the deterioration of the current police training facility located in an old elementary school to the building’s structure and age, noting that the city does not own the space and instead leases the building from Atlanta Public Schools.

Both the police and fire rescue training centers have been “deemed inoperable and abandoned at this point,” said Atlanta Police Foundation Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman. Presenters said the fire rescue training center, for example, is mold-infested.

The city, leasing from its own public school system, has failed to even properly provide the services it has committed to. We see that the privatization of Atlanta’s public lands represents only the latest stage of austerity the city has enacted under the modern era of neoliberalism. 

Perhaps if Georgia turned away from its grossly regressive tax structure, city leaders wouldn’t feel the need to outsource our public services to organizations like the APF. And perhaps we could avert supposed “crime waves” by fulfilling the basic needs of the community. If we prioritized dealing with food deserts, providing basic transportation infrastructure, and giving shelter to the 2000 Atlantans sleeping on the streets every night, we might be able to achieve real and sustainable public safety.

But until then, we must be wary of the messaging from the corporate-funded media, and headlines that work to mislead the public.