The effort to let voters decide the fate of Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center appeared to be in trouble a month ago. 

But thanks to key victories in court and a massive signature collection push, the “Stop Cop City” organizers are more confident that they will successfully meet the Aug. 21 deadline for submitting the requisite 70,000 signatures to their petition for a ballot referendum.  If they do, the question will be put to voters on whether to reject the city of Atlanta’s $90 million police and fire academy.

Construction has already begun on 85 acres of city-owned land in the South River Forest in unincorporated DeKalb County.  The referendum would allow Atlanta residents to vote “yes” or “no” to repeal the Atlanta City Council’s ordinance that authorizes leasing the property to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

“I think it’s a 50/50 chance,” said Kamau Franklin, the founder of Community Movement Builders and a “Stop Copy City” organizer. ”As long as the courts stay true to a democratic process and follow the law themselves, then it should be on the ballot. But I’m not overly confident that will be the case. The city will continue in its efforts to knock off this petition before the people even get a chance to vote.”

What happened?

Atlanta’s city clerk approved the petition on June 21. By mid-July, the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition was struggling to stay on pace with the massive task of gathering enough signatures to successfully petition the city of Atlanta for a referendum. Getting 70,000 registered voters to sign by the 60-day deadline specified in the Georgia constitution meant collecting nearly 10,000 signatures a week. 

It was a tall order – made more difficult by restrictions that limited who could sign the petition (Atlanta voters registered as of 2021) and who could collect signatures (registered Atlanta voters only). What’s more, signatures had to be collected in person, not online.

Four DeKalb County plaintiffs who live near the training center site filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the residency requirement for canvassers on First Amendment grounds. It faced stiff opposition from the city’s attorneys, who called the petition “futile” and “invalid.”. They argued that resetting the deadline to accommodate additional canvassers outside the city limits would “cause chaos and unnecessary expenses for the petition process.”

But U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen ruled in favor of the DeKalb residents on July 27, allowing people living outside the city to collect signatures and ordering a 60-day deadline extension, effectively resetting the clock. 

On Monday, Cohen denied the city’s motion to delay his decision: “It is the plaintiffs, not the city, who could suffer irreparable harm by the failure to permit them to gather signatures for the sole reason that they are not city residents,” he said in the Aug. 14 ruling.

“This is an important ruling,” said Alex Joseph, a volunteer lawyer for Vote to Stop Cop City. “A federal judge feels confident that he made the right decision, chastised the city, and strongly suggested we are right about the validity of the referendum.”

“The people want a voice”

The Vote to Stop Cop City coalition may not need the extra 60 days after all. Last month, an estimated 600 volunteers were joined by dozens of paid full-time canvassers, funded by donations. Significant funding came from James “Fergie” Chambers, a Cox family member who has reportedly donated $600,000 to the “Stop Cop City” movement. The charitable arm of his family’s company, Cox Enterprises, is a backer of the training center. Cox also owns the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

As of Aug. 15, Vote to Stop Cop City said they’ve collected over 80,000 signatures. They’ve celebrated that on social media as greater than the total votes cast in the 2021 mayoral runoff election. They aim to secure 100,000 signatures by the Aug. 21 deadline to submit them to the municipal clerk’s office.

“People are signing this because they really haven’t had a direct choice on Cop City, and they want a voice,” said Marisa Pyle, a Vote to Stop Cop City spokesperson. “I think the argument that this issue should be on the ballot is pretty compelling to most people.”

The coalition gained a critical show of support last week from the King Center. CEO Bernice King quoted her father Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1957 speech “Give Us the Ballot” in a letter calling on city leaders to “put it to a public vote.” 

“The participation of the people must be welcome. Atlanta cannot be a city that closes its ears to its most vulnerable residents, who have been made so by historically discriminatory, destructive, and undemocratic policies and practices,” she wrote. 

On Monday, about 20 activists marched to Fulton County Courthouse where Donald Trump was set to be indicted to protest against “Cop City.” (Photo: Ryan Zickgraf)

What’s next?

A referendum is still far from a slam dunk. First, Vote to Stop Cop City is validating the signatures collected by its canvassers before the Aug. 21 submission deadline.

Then, the city has 50 days to conduct its own validation review. Neither Mayor Andre Dickens’ office nor the city council’s president, Doug Shipman, responded to a request for comment over how the city will do that. 

“They have not been forthcoming on that front, so we don’t really know what their interpretation of what that process will look like is,” said Kurt Kastorf, an attorney for the referendum organizers. “Right now, it’s a little bit like reading tea leaves.”

The Vote to Stop Cop City coalition expects the city to try and invalidate enough signatures to quash a referendum. “It’s obvious to us, based on statements and actions by the city – and particularly Mayor Dickens, that the city is completely opposed to allowing democracy to take place and to letting the vast majority of Atlanta decide whether or not it wants this referendum – or whether or not it wants Cop City to be built in the first place,” said Franklin of Community Movement Builders.

Even if the city does ultimately validate the signatures, coalition members believe city officials will delay vetting them to push the referendum from the November general election to next March’s presidential primary. Assuming the city starts vetting signatures on Aug. 22, it would have until Oct. 11 to certify them, using all 50 of its allotted days. 

Next year’s presidential primary on March 12 is considered less favorable for a “yes” vote against the training center, because the Democratic candidate, President Joe Biden, is expected to be renominated, while the Republican primary will likely be hotly contested. That could mean much higher turnout from Republican voters, who’re considered pro-police and are far more likely to live on the north side, far from the contested training center south of Atlanta.

Meanwhile, the city is pushing ahead with its plans for the Public Safety Training Center. Earlier this month, Dickens announced that his office is reviewing recommendations from the city’s newly formed South River Forest and Public Safety Training Center Community Task Force. 

The task force, the mayor said in a press release, “shows that we can have an open and transparent engagement process with citizens to create inclusive and community-driven recommendations about a topic of great importance, not only for the residents of the South River Forest community, but for all Atlanta residents.”

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