Since 2021, a loose coalition of environmentalists, anarchists, and left-wing nongovernmental organizations has fought an uphill battle to prevent Atlanta’s municipal authorities from completing construction of a 150-acre police megaplex in unincorporated DeKalb County. The movement calls itself “Stop Cop City.” The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, activists argue, is the linchpin of the city’s expanded effort to “target black and brown communities” with a newly militarized police force. Halting the police academy was the first domino to be toppled along the long-term goal of abolishing Atlanta’s police and prisons.

But what began as a parochial concern has become a rallying cry for progressive radicals in cities across the world. On a mild day in November, dozens of protesters from across the country assembled in a patchy forest southeast of Atlanta’s city limits, intending to march on Cop City. Organizers such as the Brooklynite podcaster and OnlyFans model Jamie Peck had embarked on a nationwide promotional tour targeting bookstores in select blue cities to recruit activists to gather in East Atlanta. The grand plan, called “Block Cop City,” had occupation in mind. About 1,000 activists would march two miles to the training-center worksite, break through the chain-link fence, and then end construction by … well, the next step was unclear.

The promotional material seemed to suggest that gardening and doing artsy stuff would do the trick. “By shutting down construction, we will open up new possibilities,” read the website for the march. “Machines will become murals, the clearcut wasteland will be filled with art and music, and we will take the first steps of a long healing process by planting trees wherever they've been cut.”

Reality had other plans.

Local police and authorities, who had reflexively overreacted to threats of violence from Stop Cop City all year, had come prepared, as if facing an armed insurrection. Dozens of DeKalb County officers outfitted in riot gear lined up on Constitution Road just outside the training-center site, along with a militarized armored car nicknamed “The Beast.”

“The promotional material seemed to suggest that … doing artsy stuff would do the trick.”

There, the riot police briefly clashed with what appeared more like a Mardi Gras parade troupe than a dangerous militia. Riot shields collided with giant handmade puppets and banners held together with PVC pipes, and the activists, some with potted tree saplings in hand, began to waver and then retreat to nearby Gresham Park, notably after a flashbang grenade and tear gas were tossed into their midst.

No one was arrested or reported injured, but the effort was entirely blocked, which seemed to deflate those expecting something like magic to spring from the ground and transform the hole in the ground into a communist utopia, as Mother Nature had always intended.

The day after Block Cop City failed, I found myself standing in line for Chick-fil-A nuggets behind a longhaired journalist-activist who had livestreamed it all on Instagram. “Personally,” he said after we had introduced ourselves, “I think it’s time to burn shit.”

Perhaps uncoincidentally, that night, several cement trucks belonging to a contractor hired to lay concrete for the Cop City project went up in flames as the movement’s de facto leadership celebrated on social media. In a blog post titled “Make Contractors Afraid Again” on the Anarchist Federation website, an anonymous group took credit, reporting it had used incendiary devices to destroy the vehicles and encouraging others to join in: “Sneaking around at night is fun, and burning shit is cool.”

Stop Cop City won’t say if planting flowers one day and committing felony arson the next is part of a coherent strategy. It claims no leadership or formal organization and views all oppositional tactics as equally valid. The movement “supports all forms of protest and organizing and makes no distinction between good/bad or legitimate/illegitimate protest or action,” per the website.

It’s a relatively new form of protest movement in Atlanta, but it’s old hat to those who have observed similar movements around the world. In his incisive new book, If We Burn, international journalist Vincent Bevins takes a 30,000-foot-view of the mass protests era, which he pegs roughly from 2011 to 2021. The author describes rebellions worldwide that are all spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized, and leaderless. He argues that these movements are good at getting attention and blowing holes in social structures but also lack the vision to fill political vacuums with something else. Power is something to be broken, not wielded.

Bevins boils down the oppositional approach employed in modern protest movements to five steps:

  1. Protests and crackdowns lead to favorable media (social and traditional) coverage.

  2. Media coverage leads more people to protest.

  3. Repeat, until almost everyone is protesting.

  4. ????

  5. A better society.

That tweet-sized playbook has been replicated by Stop Cop City as well as countless other movements going back to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. On paper, Block Cop City sounded like a sequel to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, Seattle’s months-long failed experiment in anarchist occupation during the George Floyd protests of 2020. Squint hard enough, and it’s possible that it could have been a bizarro-world Jan. 6, with Antifa types and radical environmentalists storming a state-controlled site only to harmlessly partake in arts and crafts, instead of MAGA types assaulting cops, taking selfies, or crudely smearing their own shit on the walls. (Indeed, on Feb. 5, a handful of activists angry at the Atlanta City Council were arrested after occupying members’ seats immediately following a meeting.)

“The New Left reimagined struggle as the work of creating zones of free expression.”

While Bevins documents a fairly recent and discrete phenomenon, this brand of protest has been a feature of progressive movements in varying degrees since the 1968 New Left supplanted the vertically organized Old Left. Instead of instilling a class consciousness in workers and mobilizing organized labor to challenge capitalism’s oppressive structures, the New Left’s college-educated radicals used the working class as a rhetorical device, rather than the subject of politics. The New Left reimagined struggle as the work of creating zones of free expression, whereby a rioting and occupying force would create an enlightened new society that would eventually spread like wildfire to the masses. What’s been called “horizontalism” is part utopian, part anti-utopian. It combines a vision of a communal society with skepticism of all institutions with political power, which means it has more in common than it would admit with Darwinian free-market fundamentalists.

The problem? These “bubbles of freedom,” as writer David Graeber once called them, never really work—a fact that some perceptive leftists recognized 50 years ago. “The idea of structurelessness … has moved from a healthy counter to [hierarchical] tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right,” wrote Jo Freeman in The “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” her prescient critique of the women’s liberation movement published in 1972. Freeman concluded that New Left movements are good at communicating ideas but ultimately leave people “with no concrete place to go, and the lack of structure leaves them with no way of getting there.”

Perhaps, as one Egyptian human-rights activist observing the failure of Tahrir Square in 2011 told Bevins, structure and institutions aren’t so bad, after all. “We thought representation was elitism, but actually it is the essence of democracy.”

Well into 2023, Stop Cop City’s unlikely attempt to halt the police center appeared on the verge of a breakthrough. The movement is mainly correct that the city’s ambitious police-HQ project was ill-conceived from the start. The city of Atlanta—which is controlled by elected Democrats—dumped it in the public’s laps in 2021 after the dust had settled on the chaotic George Floyd protests. It was the brainchild of former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is now a minor Biden administration functionary.

Bottoms called the current aging police academy “a buzzkill” for local officers. What would cheer them up? Apparently, spending $90 million on a supersized campus on 150 acres of land on the site of a former prison farm (unsurprisingly, the price tag has since ballooned to $109 million).

Don’t worry, it wouldn’t be paid for with taxpayer money alone, Bottoms noted soothingly. She billed it as a public-private partnership with the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit whose corporate backers include the city’s biggest employers—UPS, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, and Coca-Cola (that last is so enmeshed in Atlanta politics that Coke sponsors the current Mayor Andre Dickens’s annual “State of the City” address). It’s hard not to see the new training center project as Atlanta corporate bosses’ expensive overreaction to the Floyd protests and the wave of post-Covid violence that’s now on the wane, with the city government nodding along to their marching orders.

“Stop Cop City itself was internally divided about using the state’s electoral tools.”

The tide of public support began to turn against the training center plan on Jan. 18, 2023, the day Georgia state troopers killed a “forest defender” camped out near the training center site, a Venezuelan eco-activist who went by the nickname of Tortuguita. Officers claimed they were acting in self-defense when they unleashed a hail of bullets on Tortuguita. But an autopsy report found that the activist’s hands were raised, palms out, while sitting cross-legged inside a tent when police shot him.

The death of Tortuguita and the draconian, anti-free-speech tactics of local and state authorities against Stop Cop City galvanized a sizable contingent of liberal media, Democratic elites, and even normie Atlantans. Run-of-the-mill Democrats may not want to abolish the police. Still, they aren’t thrilled with the idea of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp quelling dissent by sending in the National Guard or local prosecutors charging 61 protesters as domestic terrorists for as little as attending a music festival near the Cop City site (the sketchiest things I witnessed at that fest were an underinflated bouncy castle and a plethora of talentless punk bands).

By June, a team of sympathetic lawyers from outside the movement, led by a former federal prosecutor named Alex Joseph, had convinced Stop Cop City to petition the city to place the issue on the ballot as a referendum, following the lead of tiny Camden County, where residents had overturned a plan to build a spaceport in rural coastal Georgia.

The race to gather over 100,000 signatures in 60 days was a relative success. The public was engaged, and the petition-gathering earned vocal support from the King Center (MLK’s nonprofit), a faction of the Atlanta City Council, and progressive elected officials, like some members of The Squad. There were even rumors that the Carter Center—Jimmy Carter’s nonprofit—would oversee the counting of the 114,000-plus petitions turned in.

However, Stop Cop City itself was internally divided about using the state’s electoral tools. The movement’s anti-state ideologues saw it as “selling out,” which is likely why the voting tactic was ghettoized as a separate endeavor called “Vote Against Cop City.” One Stop Cop City insider explained to me: “There’s a lot of historical tension between the anarchists who put their physical safety on the line and the electoralists who do nothing to help get things started then show up after anarchists have died and take credit for everything.”

That tension built after the city intentionally stalled the petition effort after signatures were submitted and the courts appeared in no hurry to rule on an appeal. Stop Cop City, already restless, decided that the movement could no longer wait for the system to rule in its favor. That’s when the activist blockade became the next front in the war on the police academy. The anarchists had won the battle but—but in all likelihood—lost the war.

On Jan. 18, the anniversary of the death of Tortuguita, Stop Cop City held a funeral procession in the form of a steady stream of cyclists and cars that journeyed from a park near the Atlanta Zoo to the forest. One particular chant that rang through the air was “APF [Atlanta Police Foundation], IDF, KKK, they’re all the same!”

Since the fall, it’s clear that Stop Cop City has had its eyes fixed on a different war, this one waged thousands of miles away. The conflict that’s roiled in the Middle East has captured the attention of the entire American left to the point that there appears to be little room for any other struggle. Notably, more protesters marched in downtown Atlanta on behalf of Gazans in November than the Block Cop City march. Meanwhile, everyday Atlanta citizens once fired up by the petition drive have slowly dropped out of sight (“It’s kind of dead, right? To me, it’s lost,” one former volunteer told me).

To stay relevant, Stop Cop City appears to have been co-opted by its own makers. Their activism is no longer tied to a physical facility in Atlanta on behalf of a specific group of overpoliced people. It’s been subsumed into a more significant international battle, not only against the Israel Defense Forces and American foreign policy, but the nebulous forces of “colonization.”

What’s most galling about Cop City, the narrative now goes, is that some Atlanta police brass are trained in urban tactics by Israel’s IDF. Likewise, “From Atlanta to Palestine” is a popular, if rather meaningless, slogan on social media, and an increasing number of activists come to Cop City protests wearing keffiyehs and waving Palestinian flags. In December, James “Fergie” Chambers, the rebellious communist heir to the Cox family fortune who donated some $250 million to the Stop Cop City cause, tweeted that he was converting to Islam. Now, he’s living in Tunisia and pouring money into fighting Zionism.

What’s next is “A Nationwide Summit To Stop Cop City” in February—to be held, far from the Atlanta forest, in Tucson, Ariz. It is doubtful whether activists in Arizona will stop a police academy in Atlanta. Then again, it isn’t clear that’s even a tangible goal anymore. Cop City has become untethered from a specific place; it’s more of an idea. It’s Israel, it’s Trump and Joe Biden, it’s settler colonialism, it’s white supremacy. Will you plant a tree, or is it time to start burning shit?

Ryan Zickgraf is a Compact columnist based in Atlanta.


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