Protests of Atlanta "Cop City" Show the Politics of the City's Elite Put the People LastHistorians in the News
tags: Atlanta, urban history, policing, cop city
The struggle to Stop Cop City is not just a battle over the creation of a $90 million police urban warfare center. It's not just a fight to protect the 381 acres of forest land, known as one of the "four lungs" of Atlanta, currently under threat of destruction. It's not just a conflict over how the city invests the over $30 million it has pledged to the project, to be supplemented by at least $60 million in private funding.
The movement is all of those things. But even more fundamentally, the struggle to Stop Cop City is a battle for the future of Atlanta.
It's a struggle over who the city is for: the city's corporate and state ruling class actors who have demanded that Cop City be built, or the people of Atlanta who have consistently voiced their opposition and demanded a different vision for the city. It is a fight over who the city belongs to; over who Atlanta is run for and who it is run against; over who is welcome to live and enjoy life here, and who is expected to simply labor here for low wages and under constant surveillance.
Making sense of the drive to build Cop City requires understanding the shifting dynamics of class and racial domination in Atlanta, marked by organized abandonment: the state's retreat from the provision of social welfare and the interrelated build-up of policing and imprisonment to manage inequality's outcomes. Or, as abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore put it: "profound austerity and the iron fist necessary to impose it."
Cop City is the Atlanta ruling class' chosen solution to a set of interrelated crises produced by decades of organized abandonment in the city. As Gilmore explains, crisis means "instability that can be fixed only through radical measures, which include developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions out of what already exists." These crises included the threat and reality of mass uprisings against police violence, extreme and racialized income inequality and displacement, corporate media narratives in the wake of the 2020 uprisings that threatened the image of the city as a safe place for capital investment and development, and a municipal secession movement that threatened to rob the city of nearly half of its tax revenue following the uprisings.
How did we get here? Atlanta has long been home to what is known as "the Atlanta Way"—the strategic partnership between Black political leadership and white economic elites that work in service of corporations and upper-class white communities and to the detriment of lower-income Black and working-class communities. While historians such as Maurice Hobson, Adira Drake Rodriguez, and Dan Immergluck have documented the long history of the Atlanta Way throughout the 1900s, we can begin with the leadup to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a key accelerant of the Atlanta Way. As Immergluck notes, the decisions made in preparation for the Games "effectively set the stage for long-term gentrification and exclusion in the city, focusing primarily on making the city more attractive to a more affluent set of prospective citizens."
Atlanta underwent a fundamental transformation in its effort to attract the 1996 Olympics. As Hobson has documented, city and corporate leaders worked together to fashion an image of the city that "had it all: the citizens, the dynamism, and the charm along with an economic and social robustness that made it one of the world's most vibrant new cities." This meant infrastructural upgrades and new Olympic stadiums, but it also entailed a redefinition of who the city was for. As geographer Seth Gustafson has argued, the reshaping of Atlanta was tied to the goal of reshaping the demographic image of the city as "one without the homeless, public housing residents, and other low-income Atlantans who were also predominantly racial minorities." Through new (and publicly subsidized) Olympic infrastructure, the destruction of public housing, and the displacement of low-income residents, Atlanta worked to "create an image of itself as a prosperous, authentically global city."