color photograph of an outdoor protest in support of black lives matter. in the center, a black woman holds up her fist as she looks down at the ground
Charie Pittman of Berkeley holds her fist up on Thursday, during a moment of silence on the steps of the Hall of Justice for Michael Brown and other African Americans killed by police. (Photo By Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

As efforts to stop Cop City in Atlanta amplify on a national scale, other local governments across the country are pushing forward with funding similar paramilitary police training centers—while also criminalizing resistance. In the San Francisco Bay Area, San Pablo is proposing a similar structure that residents have named “the Cop Campus,” a $43.6 million investment used to train both local and outside police departments across the state. As plans to build the structure progress, local grassroots organizers are drawing parallels to Atlanta’s Cop City and the potential harms in building a structure in such close proximity to low-income communities of color.

Following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, there were nationwide calls to defund the police and to re-allocate those funds to social services. But cities like Atlanta and San Pablo invested even more into policing and surveillance. 

The San Pablo City Council approved funding for the Cop Campus in February, with $28.8 million coming from lease revenue bond proceeds, $10 million from the city’s general fund, and $4.3 million coming from COVID-19 American Rescue Plan Act funds. The Cop Campus would establish a two-story, 42,000 square-foot headquarters for the local police department and regional training facility, which includes a K-9 holding and training area, a 20-lane gun range, a virtual reality simulator, a drone technology deployment, and mental health crisis station. The Cop Campus alone is 65% of the $66 million budget the city spent last year.

The San Pablo Police Department received a new headquarters and training center in 2019, but by October 2021, the city released plans to build the new $43 million campus with a timeline to finish construction by February 2025. Officials claim that the intention of the facility is to reduce crime—despite a downward turn in crime rates in the past decade in San Pablo—but there is an added revenue incentive in training officers regionally and across the state. The training center would be in close proximity to three public schools and a public library, which activists say poses harm to youth being in such close proximity to a shooting range. It also borders Wildcat Creek, potentially threatening local wildlife and native plants. 

“There’s been a consistent, decades-long effort to militarize police agencies across the country, and we pay the consequences, the community pays the consequences,” said James Burch, the deputy director of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project. 

But local criminal justice advocates say the new police training campus isn’t the first time local governments have profited from militarizing public safety. Alameda County, just south of San Pablo, received federal funding through the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative to host the annual Urban Shield expo, citing a budget shortfall, to ensure necessary public safety training. The global weapons expo was created in 2007 and took place every year until it was struck down in 2018 by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

In 2015, the city of San Pablo was forced to close Doctors Medical Center because of an $18 million deficit, calling into question why, instead of funding crucial life-saving services, we are investing more in policing.

“What could that $42 million of investment in the people of San Pablo have done? Investment in jobs programs, investment in public infrastructure investment, investing in building back the health care facility—there’s so many things that could have been done. But instead, it’s being spent on a militarized training center,” Burch said.

The city of San Pablo published a community survey in July to gauge people’s support for the campus and public safety. Of the more than 300 respondents of the survey, 80% were supportive of the new campus, but it is unclear if those results accurately represent the city. Senior citizens and college degree holders were over-represented in the survey, accounting for 26% percent and 33% percent of residents, respectively, while those over 65 only account for 10% or the population, and degree holders at 15%. Latinx residents are also underrepresented in the survey, making up 39% of those surveyed in a city that is 58% Latinx.

Activism in Atlanta

The San Pablo Cop Campus isn’t getting the amount of pushback organizers are seeing in Atlanta. The city of Atlanta first introduced Cop City to the public in 2021 and immediately received opposition from a broad coalition of community advocates. Their aim is to build a $90 million public safety training center and a large film soundstage for Blackhall Studios on hundreds of acres of the Weelaunee Forest (on stolen land of the Muscogee Creek people), which the Department of City Planning has named one of the “lungs of Atlanta.” The forest is one of the largest remaining green spaces in Atlanta and is also in close proximity to DeKalb County, a predominantly working-class Black community, who have overwhelmingly opposed the construction site. Placing Cop City in the forest would have deep ramifications for local residents, not only through ongoing deforestation and the impacts of climate but also increased surveillance of the most marginalized communities, who have little to no say on what happens on the site. 

Despite pushback from the local community, Atlanta’s Cop City has amassed a combination of both public and private support to fund its creation. The Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the private nonprofit pushing forward with the measure, plans to raise half of the cost from corporations. One of the founders of Inspire Brands, the owner of fast-food restaurants Arby’s, Dunkin’, and Jimmy Johns holds a seat on APF’s board. Board members also have ties to companies such as Waffle House and Equifax. This largely undemocratic process has given corporations and private equity groups free range in determining the future of the city, leaving out the most vulnerable communities who will be most impacted by these decisions. 

Forest defenders have occupied the land since 2021, and in August, the Fulton County Superior Court indicted 61 people with RICO charges, a law meant for organized crime. This and other actions by the government, critics believe, have been used to restrict free speech and further criminalize dissent. On June 7, Stop Cop City organizers announced a public referendum to reject APF’s lease, giving organizers until Sept. 25 to collect 75,000 signatures to appear on the March 2024 ballot. 

San Pablo activism

Some San Francisco Bay Area residents are inspired by the activism in Atlanta and hope to use some of those tools in their protest of the San Pablo Cop Campus. Cesar Garcia is a resident of San Pablo, he was previously arrested by the city and was able to successfully lower his sentence through his own advocacy. He is also a current student at University of California, Berkeley. Through canvassing and increasing public input during city council meetings, he hopes to plan an educational awareness campaign with other organizers in Contra Costa County to inform residents about the problems that could come with a new police training center. 

“I know that if people would have known what was going on, especially with what’s going on in Atlanta, which, you know, it’s similar but it’s different. But [the Cop Campus] would’ve been contested in City Hall,” Garcia said. 

Garcia said that there are more immediate concerns in the city, given the lack of health care infrastructure. 

“I know people that have to travel almost an hour in an ambulance to get help. And I think that’s not OK … I don’t really believe, as a sociologist, that more policing, more police structure is something that’s needed in a community that doesn’t even have a hospital,” he said. “My hope is that what comes from this [is] something that is created by the people in San Pablo to be able to have a better place to live in.”

The Stop Cop Campus Collective has also been active on this issue since late July. The collective organized a march on Aug. 10 protesting the canceled groundbreaking ceremony celebrating the facility. They organized a follow-up march on Sept. 30 with more than 200 attendees. They are against policing, and their aim is to prevent the campus from being built. In a statement, they shared that more policing won’t get to the systemic root causes of crime. 

“Community crime that police claim to respond to is most always a symptom of poverty and lack of access to resources,” the Stop Cop Campus Collective said in a statement to Prism. “We can reduce the occurrence of crime by divesting into community resources rather than further arming police who disproportionately target Black and Brown peoples.” 

Although both groups have different methods of building community support, Bay Area activists say the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta can serve as a guidepost for what consistent, strategic action can look like in San Pablo.