As the clock ticks on the 60-day deadline to obtain over 70,000 signatures needed to put a referendum for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on the November ballot, opponents of “Cop City” hope a federal lawsuit can win them more time.
On Monday, four residents of unincorporated DeKalb County announced they’d filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia against the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia to challenge restrictions on petition-gathering at a press conference in front of the Historic DeKalb Courthouse in Decatur.
The four plaintiffs, Lisa Baker, Jacqueline Dougherty, Keyanna Jones, and Amelia Weltner, say the city’s requirement that any canvasser must be a registered voter in the city limits of Atlanta violates their First Amendment rights and those of all who live near the proposed DeKalb County site in the South River Forest, which is outside the Atlanta city limits, but have no say about what happens to it.
“Even though their own community bears the immediate impacts of the training center, ecologically and otherwise, plaintiffs’ only ability to directly impact the city of Atlanta’s decision-making process is through acting as circulators of this petition,” says their lawsuit.
During the July 10 press conference, the lawyer filing the suit, Jeff Filipovits of Spears & Filipovits, said the lawsuit asks that DeKalb residents outside of metro Atlanta be allowed to collect petition signatures and that the petition deadline be extended beyond Aug. 14, “so that plaintiffs and others like them can fully participate in the political process.”
A deadline extension would help the Cop City Vote Coalition—part of the larger Stop Cop City movement—who say their challenging two-month sprint to obtain enough signatures is hamstrung by the Atlanta residency requirement for canvassers and other restrictions: Only Atlanta residents registered to vote since Oct. 4, 2021, can legally sign the petition and all petitions must be signed while physically inside the city limits—which means no online signatures. What’s more, signatures must be witnessed by another registered Atlanta voter.
“We have a long way to go before we reach our goals. We need all hands on deck,” said Paul Glaze, a spokesperson for the Cop City Vote Coalition.
The coalition obtained just under 10,000 signatures after the first week but organizers have declined to say how many they’ve collected since then. The 60-day deadline just began on June 21, when Atlanta’s interim municipal clerk, Vanessa Waldon, handed over official copies of the petition, so organizers have compared turning a loose organization of activists and volunteers into an effective canvassing machine in a matter of days to “building an airplane while flying it.”
“This is a grassroots, mostly volunteer-driven effort,” said Britney Whaley, a senior political strategist for the Working Families Party’s Georgia chapter, who is serving as a “field anchor” for the coalition. (No one in the coalition has a formal title.) “If we could get the restrictions killed, we would be in a much better place because we would have a lot more bodies on the streets and folks energized continuing to bring other people in.”
According to Whaley, there are now hundreds of Atlantans collecting signatures. Over 30 neighborhood captains are collecting signatures from households in their areas and dozens of others are taking shifts in hotspot areas with a lot of foot traffic, such as the Beltline, farmers’ markets, and various shopping centers.
Mayor Andre Dickens’ Office declined to comment on the lawsuit filed by the four DeKalb residents. A spokesperson did say that the petition and referendum process “is outlined by city ordinance, which ultimately places the onus on the legislative branch.” When asked about the petitioning effort at a press conference last week, Dickens asked that the signature collection be done with “honesty and truth.” The mayor added that he did not think the coalition would be successful in getting 70,000 signatures if it is conducted honestly.
Keyanna Jones, a pastor and activist who has been an outspoken opponent of the Public Safety Training Center, compared Dickens to Donald Trump for how he’s using his power to squelch dissent to the $90 million project. “Mayor Dickens is intent on using everything within his power to not only suppress votes, but also make sure that he steps up in Donald Trump-like fashion to say oh, if [the petition] goes through, then this is voter fraud,” said Jones on Monday at the press conference.
Over the July 4 weekend, Dickens and the Atlanta Police Department blamed a “small, determined group” opposing the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center for a fire that destroyed eight police motorcycles. Gov. Brian Kemp called the behavior “tactics of organized criminals” rather than protesters.
Glaze, the Stop Cop City Vote Coalition spokesperson, said the coalition isn’t worried that the arson would affect Atlanta residents’ decision to sign the petition, citing the police killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an environmental activist, by shooting them 57 times during a raid on opponents camping in the South River Forest and the arrest of a 76-year-old protester at Home Depot last month.
“Compared to arresting 76-year-old women and shooting activists who had their hands up? No, we’re not worried about the motorcycles.”