Over the past decade, activist Mary Hooks has witnessed Atlanta’s political winds shift considerably.

Hooks, 41, is the spokesperson for the Stop Cop City coalition and the national field secretary for the Movement for Black Lives. The longtime Atlanta resident says a radical Black left-wing movement didn’t really exist in 2012, when she joined Southerners On New Ground (SONG), an LGBTQ liberation group, that she later became the co-director of.

But when the Black Lives Matter movement emerged a year later, sparked by the acquittal of a self-styled vigilante for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, grassroots organizations once perceived as “fringe” started to gain ground in mainstream political discourse.

These days, nothing signifies that growing influence more than the Stop Cop City movement, a loose coalition of racial justice activists, environmentalists, and local neighborhood groups who are trying to shut down the city of Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center project. 

They’ve amassed more than 30,000 signatures so far in a long-shot, people-powered attempt to put a citizen referendum on the ballot. If voters concur, it could reverse the Atlanta City Council’s approval of the $90 million project – and thanks to a federal judge’s recent decision, they’ve got 60 additional days to collect the 40,000 signatures still needed. 

Atlanta Civic Circle spoke to Hooks for her perspective on the Stop Cop City movement and the potential power of grassroots activism in Atlanta.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved with social justice organizations in Atlanta?

I’ve been a resident of Atlanta for about 17 years, give or take. When I moved here from Racine, Wisconsin, I worked at Goodwill for a minute as a budding HR professional. That quickly ended after I became politicized through Southerners On New Ground. I joined as a member after they found my scrappy ass in a bar one night – and learned that you actually could do something about what’s happening in the world. And so I left my HR work and began organizing.

Have you had any negative experiences with the police personally?

It was April 2014. The police beat me up because I was recording them making a hostile arrest of some Black women for sitting at a gas station. It led to a fractured elbow – and the skin was burned off my forehead from the polyester of the officer putting his knee on my head to hold me down. I was charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice. 

Essentially, they said that I was standing too close. They only approached me when I began yelling out to the folks on the ground about their rights. They threw me in jail and tried to say that they found crack cocaine in my car. Eventually, a movement lawyer here was able to work my case. They got the video and found that I wasn’t obstructing justice the way the police said. 

By the fall of 2014, I was still out on bond. And that’s when the Ferguson Police Department murdered Mike Brown. And so I channeled my hurt, anger, and everything into that fight. Many people have stories. I don’t think I’m special in that regard. 

(Photo: Albrica Tierra of Albrica Tierra Photography)

What was the political landscape like for grassroots movements in Atlanta ten years ago? And how has it changed?

There wasn’t necessarily a radical Black left here. But what happened with the Trayvon Martin case, and then when [St. Louis police officer] Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown, it shifted everything politically. Policing and criminalization issues began to be more mainstream. Now we see a greater desire for folks to mobilize and actually learn what it means contending for power and confronting power in the city. 

I think COVID-19 was an interesting time in this city, in addition to the 2020 uprisings [after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin], because I believe the pressure from right-wing conservatives who had amassed much power was beginning to make demands of quote-unquote Democratic cities. They were like, ‘Control your black people; control your crime.’ 

These [Democratic urban] mayors wanted to stay in their good graces, while also trying to appease us—they were playing this weird middle role that didn’t serve anybody, especially those who needed it the most. And so there were a lot of promises that were left on the table.

So we’ve seen more Black electeds in the city continue to toe the line around placating the right-wing conservatives controlling Georgia. I think with the “Atlanta Way,” there have always been deep relationships with corporate interests, and we see this with Cop City.

It’s disheartening when there’s a leadership in the city that lacks the political will to actually take a radical approach to shift how we understand harm and violence in our communities. All the statistics point to addressing poverty, housing, and food insecurity as root causes. Many of our leaders lack either the courage or they just desire to climb the political and corporate ladders and satisfy the private interests and the right-wing conservatives at the statehouse.

Didn’t the COVID-19 pandemic also mute some political activism after the racial justice protests faded away in 2021?

I wouldn’t say the activism got muted. We also had to contend with the shifting conditions, especially given that the city council was no longer meeting in person. Instead of marching, we did mobile actions where everybody got in a car, and we’re going to drive around the block and hunker down. It made us more creative in the ways in which we confronted the state.

People are becoming more aware of Cop City. When I’m out canvassing, I’m still surprised at how many people ask what Cop City is. As organizers, we ask where people are getting their information. You got people hitting us up all the way from Australia in solidarity – but you got folks right here who don’t know what’s happening. It’s like, where’s the disconnect? 

Why is there so much more attention on Cop City now than in 2021, when the Atlanta City Council approved the contract to lease land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for a new training center?

It’s unfortunate, but the murder of Tortuguita, I think, radicalized some people. [Police shot environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán to death in January during a multi-agency raid on a forest-defender encampment in the South River Forest, near the 85-acre training facility site. -Ed.]

When there’s a body on the line, and a body on the ground, many people are like, ‘Oh, snap, shit is real bad!’ This doesn’t necessarily lead to a systemic analysis, because people are enraged about Tortuguita, rather than about the process and the lack of transparency of the money. 

But even with the excitement and the juice for our cause, we’re the underdog in this fight. We know those who support Cop City – our mayor, the administration, and the police unions – that they are gung ho about this and do not want a referendum to come on the ballot in November. They will do everything they can to dissuade people from signing the petition.

But it’s a very interesting time in the city politically. 

You’ve accused the city of borrowing the GOP’s playbook in terms of voter suppression. 

It’s not just Trump and the GOP that like to claim false elections and spread a narrative of outside agitators [for opponents to “Cop City”].

I’m not surprised that Democrats would do this. I live under capitalism and understand the petty bourgeoisie. Their interests often align more with the GOP than everyday people, especially where money and profits are concerned.

The Atlanta Police Foundation? They’re not accountable to the public at all. It’s sad to see the city continue to privatize things that should be kept in the Commons – in the public discourse to be debated publicly and decided publicly. 

With the Stop Cop City movement, there seems to be an internal divide between anarchists and people who want to work within the system.

It is beautiful and important to see people charged and energized around engaging in direct democracy. We need all types of strategies and tactics. Everyone has a role in advancing the liberation struggle.

One thing that I always remind folks to ask is: Why are we putting this on the ballot, and why are we using the electoral process? We don’t always have to agree on every tactic to be a part of the shared movement together. There are definitely those who say, ‘I’ve been burned too many times by the electoral process.’ And just hold deep grief. Disappointment in the electoral process results makes total sense to me. I get it. I’m with you. 

I’m an organizer who also believes that if many Black people engage in the electoral process, that’s at times the only way we have some level of civic engagement. I am of the opinion that I must engage in it, because that is where my people are. Not that I have a grand amount of faith in it, but direct action, marches, mutual aid, creating joy, and doing concerts to raise awareness on an issue—all of it is necessary.

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