color photograph of an outdoor protest against cop city in the woods. a line of protesters walk from left to right in the frame in the mid-ground. one protester on the right holds a smoking flare with a line of smoke floating over the heads of the other protesters
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MARCH 4: Environmental activists hold a rally and a march through the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest Atlanta that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, March 4, 2023, in Atlanta. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

One month after Atlanta’s City Council voted to approve funding for the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, activists are still fighting to halt construction of the 85-acre complex in the heart of the Weelaunee Forest.

On June 7, organizers announced a public referendum to repeal the Atlanta Police Foundation’s lease but faced their first hurdles early on. Interim Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon rejected the language of the petition twice before finally approving and releasing official copies on June 21, a day after organizers filed suit against the city.

To win a November ballot spot, petitioners must collect an estimated 70,000 signatures by Aug. 15. The challenge is steep as there are stringent requirements for who can sign the petition: only the signatures of current Atlanta residents registered to vote since October 2021 who sign the petition while they are physically in the city of Atlanta and have their signatures witnessed by another city resident who is also currently registered to vote will count toward the total. Moreover, while there are almost 500,000 residents in the City of Atlanta, just 71,020 people voted in the 2021 mayoral run-off.

However, activists say the task is not insurmountable. Rev. Keyanna Jones, a member of the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City, said that organizers have been inundated with volunteers, which has allowed them to mobilize daily canvasses, sending people to locations in the city where voters can sign official copies of the petition. Jones said even those not opposed to the center are interested in the petition because they also want the issue put to a popular vote. 

Another hurdle that has petitioners concerned is the impact of the arrests of #StopCopCity protesters and their supporters on those who might otherwise have supported the ballot initiative. Since December, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has charged 42 people with domestic terrorism.

During the week of action that concluded on July 1, police arrested several protesters at various demonstrations, including 76-year-old longtime Atlanta LGBTQIA+ and racial justice activist Lorraine Fontana. Fontana made bail with the help of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, whose organizers say they will continue their work despite the May 31 raid on their headquarters, which led to the arrest of organizers Marlon Kautz, Savannah Patterson, and Adele MacLean.

“Since 2016, we’ve been providing bail assistance to everybody in the Atlanta area who was arrested in connection with protesting or participating in a social movement, and we will continue to do that,” said Kautz. “The only thing that has changed is that we have to spend a lot more time now thinking about whether some malicious prosecutor might use anything that we do as an excuse to put us in jail.”

However, he said the arrests have had a chilling effect on people who are afraid that they might become a target by donating to the fund or otherwise associating themselves with the movement. “I think the fact that people are worrying about whether they can participate in something as clearly part of the democratic process as campaigning for a referendum shows that this kind of chilling effect is working.” Fortunately, he says, it hasn’t stopped support for the movement or the Atlanta Solidarity Fund.

Jones has also seen concern among those who want to participate in the petitioning effort, but she believes government repression is part of the legacy of political change in this country. “One thing that I have to remind people of is that if people did not stand up against the law when it was unjust, there would have been no Civil Rights Movement. If people did not stand up against the law when it was unjust, Black people would still be enslaved.”

On June 23, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston announced that she had withdrawn her office from all Cop City cases under the concurrent jurisdiction of the State Attorney General’s Office, citing differences in philosophy. In an exclusive interview with Atlanta’s WABE, Boston stated that proceeding with cases she doesn’t believe she can prove beyond a reasonable doubt is contrary to the values of her office. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation stated that Boston’s decision would have no bearing on its investigation.

Activists say Boston’s decision to distance herself from these arrests is proof that cracks are appearing in Georgia’s campaign against protesters. “When it comes from a district attorney whose entire job is to make the case for why people are guilty, it just makes really clear that there’s not a lot of doubt about the illegitimacy of this repression,” said Kautz. “The rhetoric being used to try to compare social movement organizing with organized crime and terrorism is incredibly over the top and designed to chill political speech and intimidate people out of participating in protest movements.”

At a July 5 press conference addressing several incidents of arson and vandalism across the city on July 4, for which an anonymous group has claimed credit, Mayor Andre Dickens said his office and Atlanta public safety officials support the rights of peaceful protesters. However, he warned activists about guilt by association. “These individuals mean harm, and you don’t want to be around them or associated with them. When you are, it makes it difficult to tell who’s who.” Of the referendum, he said, “we know this will be unsuccessful if it’s done honestly.” 

Activists say they are gaining momentum as controversy over Georgia’s treatment of protesters has increased. “It’s very clear to me that the pressure is building against Andre Dickens and the City Council. And they’re feeling it,” said activist Hannah Riley, who has been organizing with #StopCopCity since 2021. “The referendum is not going to be the last thing that happens in this fight.” 

Rev. James Woodall, a community leader and public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights, says while organizers can try for next year’s ballot if they don’t get enough signatures by Aug. 15, getting on this year’s ballot is crucial. “The sooner, the better because obviously, their plans are moving forward as we speak.”

Katherine Demby is a writer based in Queens. She covers law, race, politics, and culture. You can find her on Twitter at @kaye_demz.