Cop City Is Not What Atlanta Needs

The controversy over building the proposed Cop City on 150 acres of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm on Key Road is fraught with false narratives, including those in a recent AJC op-ed by George Turner, former Atlanta chief of police. These narratives remain regurgitated by police, reinforce the misunderstood objectives of the City Council, and result in a distorted view of the urgency of law enforcement needs. Police attempt to control the narrative with cooperation by corporate media such as the AJC, whose parent company is paying for Cop City to be built.

Anti-Democratic Governance

The process for proposing this new police training facility has lacked transparency, democratic oversight, or any meaningful way for members of the public to voice their opinions. Thousands in Atlanta took to the streets last year to protest police brutality and were met only with further police brutality in the form of repression, tear gas, and the murder of Rayshard Brooks. Instead of responding to clear public opinion, the City Council has doubled down on policing by increasing the police budget to over $280 million a year and now proposing a police playground on the former site of forced unpaid labor.  

Many should question Atlanta’s so-called dire need for an updated police academy when the police department has received approximately a third of the entire city budget for decades. Each year, the Council approves more and more police spending while they have little to show in terms of results. Atlanta’s working people are not safer due to this spending, in fact, our lives and livelihoods are more precarious than ever. 

Why have they allowed their facilities to fall into such a state of disrepair despite being better funded than education, healthcare, housing, and public transportation? Where is all of this money going? Has purchasing the next wave of expensive gadgets and toys paid off? According to the current media narrative of an explosion of crime across the city, the answer is no. So why do we continue to fund the same tried-and-failed methods?

The City has allowed the police foundation to operate for four years without oversight and community engagement while looking for a site to build a massive militarized police playground. The Council was not involved until Council Member Sheperd brought forward the proposal developed behind closed doors by the police foundation and their private corporate donors. The public has not been involved even after the proposal was released.

The Council considered public involvement to be two “public listening sessions” where the public listened to the police foundation give a 30-minute pitch for the proposal followed by 30 minutes of cherry-picked questions for prepared answers that fit within their narrative. Since the public could not freely express their opinions for or against the proposal, community members chose to host our own town hall, where for the first time everyone was encouraged to speak their mind.

The True History of the Prison Farm

The Old Atlanta Prison Farm on Key Road has been owned by the City for over a hundred years and served as the site where people were incarcerated and forced to perform manual farm labor for no pay. Police now refer to the Prison Farm as the Honor Farm to mask the project as progressive and portray it as something nicer than what it was: convict leasing and forced labor. This tactic is being used once again to display the proposed facility as innovative, yet in reality it continues a long history of racial oppression.

Before the prison was built, the site hosted the prison’s predecessor, the plantation. Key Road is named after the plantation owner that practiced chattel enslavement of people ripped from their homes in Africa. Before becoming a plantation, the site was home to the Muscogee (Creek) indigenous peoples before Georgia removed them and gave away the land in a lottery. Soon afterward, the United States forced all remaining indigenous peoples in the area to move westward in the Indian Removal Act, initiating the Trail of Tears.

During recent decades, police have used the site to pollute the soil and the water of Intrenchment Creek via two firing ranges situated on the banks, firing towards the creek. This is in clear violation of the EPA’s best management practices for outdoor firing ranges. The EPA considers these firing ranges to have a very high potential for contamination, increased wildlife exposure to toxic chemicals, and increased lead dissolution into the water. The EPA states, “This is NOT an option for successful range location and may be more likely subject to litigation and governmental action if lead is deposited into water bodies.”

Explosion Exposure

The neighboring communities are well aware of the noise pollution as they endure hearing shots being fired in close vicinity on a regular basis. The proposal does not include any remediation of the existing firing ranges. No formal study has existed to determine how much pollution has accumulated on the site in the decades of police abuse. Instead, the proposal includes an urban farm where imprisoned people would be expected to perform manual labor for little to no cost on polluted soil.

The proposal also includes a new, more extensive firing range and an explosion testing site. The police foundation has proposed to place the explosion testing site right next to the existing prison for children, the Metro Detention Center on Constitution Road. The police foundation presents this location as a benefit for the neighborhoods, however, they deny the humanity of the imprisoned children by excluding them from consideration as a neighbor. There is absolutely no way that hearing the sounds of a war zone while being held in confinement could provide a single positive benefit to those children. There is no doubt that those children will be released from that hostile prison environment in a condition much worse than they were in before.

The juxtaposition of this proposed training facility to the existing prison for children highlights how police have been building cop city for decades. This new facility is only the next phase of construction, preceded by five other correctional facilities on Constitution Road alone. One only wonders what type of healing, rehabilitation, or correction can occur when being constantly bombarded with sounds of explosions and gunshots across the street.

Defend the Forest

The police foundation claims that the land, with development, will be open to the public as greenspace. But if explosions and gunshots aren’t good for the mental health of prisoners, they surely aren’t suitable for inviting people to use the facility as a publicly accessible greenspace. Neither are they ideal for visiting neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park and Constitution Park.  Here the police and Council ignore the people who have been organizing around preserving the existing forest located on the prison farm, which is part of the largest contiguous forest within the Perimeter: the South River Forest. The South River Forest coalition is comprised of concerned individuals and residents as well as twenty environmental, civic, and community organizations. They have worked at length with City Council to try to communicate the importance and value of the South River Forest, however, these community voices were disregarded when this facility was proposed.

This proposal poses a direct threat to all 150 acres of the forest included in the plan, whether or not there are developed facilities to be built in a particular area. Take, for example, the 41 acres of trees that will be cut down. The soil will be disturbed for use as an empty field. The forest helps cool down the surrounding neighborhoods, an essential public service to our city while global temperatures rise and urban heat islands form locally.

In the most recent public listening session, the police foundation made outrageous claims such as “each hardwood that gets cut down will be replaced with 100 hardwoods” while simultaneously saying that the property is “devoid of hardwoods.” If there is room to plant even just 100 new hardwood trees, there would be no need to destroy 150 acres of trees for a new facility. The APF has stated that there are “invasive species such as Loblolly Pine [and] Boxelder,” but these species are, in fact, native to Georgia and Atlanta. Making the bold claim that there will be “completely native species only” again shows a lack of basic ecology, as non-native species often spread early and rapidly after disturbances. Every park throughout Metro Atlanta is host to non-native species, yet we do not use this as justification to plow them down for explosives testing.

If the police foundation is so confident in the study performed by the arborist they paid for, they would have no problem having it released to the public and cross-checked by any of the local environmental groups. Instead, they keep the people in the dark so that they can continue making false claims about their schemes for the forest, such as “any trees that are destroyed by construction will be replaced.” In a slap in the face to Mother Nature and the local ecologists that study her, the police foundation claims they would establish “a tree canopy that has simply never existed there” by removing 41 acres of trees for a field. All of these are bald-faced lies!

The site has not been so securely sequestered or strictly cordoned off as they would have you to believe. Although the dilapidated and neglected prison farm buildings remain fenced off due to environmentally dangerous construction materials, this public land has been accessible for decades. There are many documented hardwoods throughout the site of varying sizes and ages. There are many old-growth remnants that have survived decades of abuse and deforestation and they likely date over 200 years old, as well as many younger trees of various species. The biodiversity of species in this forest is incredible as it hosts many different kinds of life like plants, animals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects, fungi, and many other microorganisms unseen to the eye.

Piedmont Park is 189 acres for reference of size, and the training facility for the entire NYPD is just over 30 acres for New York City, a city with 17 times the population size of Atlanta. The police foundation tells us they need over 100 acres of land. Despite their current plans, the City Council is still leasing all 380 acres to the police foundation to do with as they please in the future. Once the police foundation has secured the lease, they could double the amount of development at any point when they stumble into a surprise cash injection from more private corporate donors to their slush fund.The police foundation continues to cite the “current crime wave” as a reason to rush into building the proposed facility while ignoring the needs of the residents. The police foundation seeks to appeal to people’s emotions easier than reason in order to manufacture fear and hysteria through the media. Despite claims that they care greatly about tree cover, clean air and water, and public access to green space, they still justify the destruction of the forest and all of the living things in it with sensationalized media fear-mongering.

Defund the Police, Refund our Communities

Continuing to build Cop City on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm site is not even close to a holistic solution to the needs of our city’s communities. Here’s what the residents of Atlanta and Dekalb County actually need:

1.     Homes – We need housing during an eviction crisis! Millions of working people have been left unemployed during this pandemic recession, and we are struggling to make ends meet! Millions of people across the country and thousands right here in Atlanta were almost evicted when the moratorium wasn’t extended. When someone doesn’t have access to housing, they become exponentially more vulnerable to all kinds of harm, including the transmission of the coronavirus! There are homeless people sitting on the steps of City Hall literally at any given moment. How many permanent housing options could be built with these $80 million of philanthropic funds?

2.     Healthcare – We need healthcare during a pandemic! Poor people are being left out of our for-profit healthcare system and left to die! Middle-class people are being taken advantage of in our for-profit healthcare system that traps them in crippling debt! We could be using 80 million dollars of philanthropic funding to help people survive a pandemic and a for-profit healthcare crisis!

3.     Infrastructure – We need a significant expansion of our public transportation system so that people can access healthcare and employment during this pandemic and recession! These are things that actually keep us safe and thriving, not police. How many more buses could be added to an expanded MARTA system with $80 million of philanthropic funds? How many more sidewalks and secure pedestrian infrastructure projects could be built across Atlanta with $80 million of charitable funds?

4.     Seat at the Table – People in the community know what their communities need. Why do we keep asking police what they think the solution should be when they always give us the same answer? Don’t we see that imprisonment doesn’t solve our issues? Don’t we see that incarceration destroys people’s mental and physical health? Don’t we see rising rates of recidivism? The solutions to our problems are clear – we need a government that works for working people, not the billionaire elite!

We need different solutions than the violence imposed by imprisonment. We need other solutions that provide life-affirming care! We need different solutions that humanize the people who need help instead of dehumanizing prisons! The Council’s actions make it clear who they serve, and unfortunately, it is not the residents that elected them.

Over the past months, we in Atlanta DSA and our campaign to Defund APD and Refund Communities have been hard at work campaigning against this proposed development by organizing together with residents and working people in affected communities. If you agree with investing in our communities instead of incarceration or you’re interested in getting more involved, sign and share our petition to tell City Council to #StopCopCity!