9/11, Militarization of the Police, and the Security Theater that is Cop City

September 11th always holds strong feelings for Americans. We cry, we remember, we wax philosophically about unity. I was reminded of both the hopefulness of the nation and the determination of not going down without a fight this year. I remember seeing pictures of Paris train stations flashing signs of “We are all Americans” and playing the Star Spangled Banner. While no one ever sets out to be a martyr, remembering the loss, inspires me anew to reflect upon my country, my freedom, my current existence with gratitude and further conviction.

It seems unique that the City of Atlanta chose the week prior to this tragic anniversary to decide to mortgage our city’s environmental future for some paltry money-making scheme for the Police Foundation. But I’m guessing they chose last week in hopes that the connectivity of America’s resilience in the face of tragedy would unify Atlantans more than the vote divided us. It’s not a poor PR strategy, although I have a fairly decent memory.

9/11 also is the line of demarcation for the militarization of our police. 

In the search for a newfound sense of security, Americans bought into the idea that beefing up our police would be helpful rather than harmful to us. I would wager this was led by folks who never had poor interactions with “the law”. Following that fateful day, the blue gloves of freedom greet us in every airport security line and our police now have tanks.

Is this safer?

This seems like a good point to discuss Atlanta’s kabuki theater of safety and what that means depending upon to whom you speak. My friends in Sandy Springs and Johns Creek think that means being able to call the cops on someone in their neighborhood and have someone respond quickly. This dial-a-cop mentality has played out in many ways online that are negative, and if you ever venture into Nextdoor territory you probably won’t be shocked at how many “suspicious looking” folks there are who turn out to be just Black and brown folks living life. I can’t speak for Black or brown folks, but even I cringe at this stuff and I could be besties with Casper. 

I’ve talked about my neighborhood. I’ve talked about PADs. The amount of APD vehicles I encounter on my road on any given day makes me sincerely wish for them to be redirected to Buckhead, where folks are so fear driven that it seems intelligent to secede from our city. I actually had an APD vehicle stop and ask me if I was ok while I was taking photos on the street in Grove Park (the actual name of what most people associate as Bankhead). I was fine, until I realized being a white woman walking on the street in Atlanta somehow made me so unsafe that the police took it upon themselves to inquire with me. That’s equal parts privilege and subordination with which I often forget I walk until it comes into stark reality and I can’t shake it. Some of my Black neighbors get hassled at the gas station. Some at work. It seems like an especially egregious harm to overly police a predominantly Black neighborhood with cops just hanging around. 

Please don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t hate cops. I don’t even think this foolishness is largely their fault. I think this is a systems problem again, namely a white supremacist one, but we’ll put that reality aside for a moment. It’s like the people who are making decisions are just looking for the quickest Bandaid they can find to parade to ensure their next electoral victory. I also know from experience that the government is slow to change systems, even when they don’t work. I also have the privilege of conversations with leaders in other cities to know about the fact that Atlanta uses a centralized method of dispersing calls for law enforcement vs a place based system to call the nearest officers to the scene. It’s my understanding that some of Atlanta’s neighboring cities use this place based system and have higher response times to actual crime vs. just patrolling areas. Seems like an area of opportunity we might consider exploring. Gone are the days in Atlanta when we had community cops, when we incentivized police officers living in our neighborhoods to establish a relationship with which to address needs as they arose. 

And what are those needs now, exactly? 

Much of Atlanta experiences some sort of vehicle theft- car break-ins to entire car theft. My husband and I both no longer own Jeeps because we had ours stolen (more than once) and learned to make other choices. What has been interesting to learn is that Atlanta doesn’t use license plate scanners like some of our neighboring cities do. These scanners make me feel like Big Brother is watching me, and for that reason, it is in fact easier to follow stolen vehicles. I don’t know if that’s a trade off I’m willing to make, but noting the rise in insurance rates across the city, it seems like it might be something we should try.

Training is a big discussion among activists and leos. I shared the fact that barbers in Georgia require more hours of training than leos do in my last piece. This discussion could be why the city decided a new training facility was a good idea. My cynicism tells me it’s more about money flowing to certain people or organizations, it could be as simple as this was what the Police Foundation suggested would get more police officers in Atlanta. I truly don’t know.

None of these things address the biggest challenge of policing in Atlanta, which is retention.

There are a lot of news sources that have discussed Cop City, the activists against it, the myth of wealthy Buckhead elites influencing the city council votes. I feel like unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve already heard that.

I’d like to talk a bit more about the politics and demographics of Atlanta as I live in and experience them, peppered with a bit of my background experience.

There seems to be some polling suggesting overwhelming support for Cop City. That may be, I haven’t seen it and even if I had, I would question the pollster and whether they realistically weighted for age and residency within the city. A prevalent idea I’m hearing is that older folks (Black and white) are in favor of Cop City because of its mythical correlation with more safety. There also seems to be some idea of correlation between the white folks moving into the city and predisposition for conservative lean in political identity. While not totally off base outside of the city, I don’t find this to be true in my neighborhood. Often, the young white folks are more liberal than the Black and brown folks in Mozley Park. I have some neighbors who identify as Socialists. 

I think this is important for a few reasons. First, I think city leaders thought all the younger white folks moving into the city meant the city might begin to lean conservative. While I think it is absolutely true I am living in the midst of the Black Mecca changing over to a whiter shade of pale, I think if Black city council members are betting on their white constituents to back them on the Gulch deal, the anti-Defund the Police vote, or Cop City, they aren’t as aware of their districts as they should be, sadly. 

Maybe that’s just my city representation. 

My city council member is Cleta Winslow. Despite her DUIs, her incredibly fraught ethics disclosures, and general lackluster constituent services, she has maintained her seat for 27 years. It has been interesting to listen to her discuss “diversity” in our neighborhood as she refers to growing up in Ohio with “Polish” folks and “Italians”. Her recent comments about Black folks at Clark Atlanta are troubling at least, make me question her ability to govern in modern day Atlanta at worst. It really puts a fine point on how dull her people skills are. But, she knows the Atlanta mechanism of securing votes- giving away free food, having some small community events that grandmothers providing kinship care can take their grandchildren to, and answering her cell phone calls herself. She does well with retail politics and that seems to be enough for the seniors among my neighbors. 

Fortunately, like her colleagues, the Old Guard of Atlanta City Council really bets on this low level of performance. Their ability to show up for pictures is strong yet their strategic thinking is weak. It really takes very little actual skill or knowledge to be successful in a city council seat, it’s just that for the salary that is currently paid and the amount of dealing with people, I think a lot of better qualified potential candidates sit it out. Believe me, I try every day to get some of my neighbors to run for office.

We haven’t heard how the training will be different at Cop City, nor have we learned whether this training facility will somehow better facilitate the rise in domestic violence in Atlanta, which is a specific subset of violent crimes that are escalating here. TBH, A recent trip on MARTA brought me face to face with this reality, and stirred me to no longer hesitate on the publication of this series. 

What seems to be very clear to me is that this vote was rushed. The Council was already decided upon this issue, and that leads me to ask the question of “why?”. What is it that thorough process and meaningful review would have revealed that the city council and Police Foundation are hiding?

No one in their right mind can assert that destroying the Old Prison Farm to make way for a mock city to bomb and shoot will train our leos to deescalate challenges they encounter vs teach them to be better snipers. 

Will this make us safer?

Did buying tanks make us safer?

What I do know is that come November this will be a defining vote for some city leaders in Atlanta who are still thinking that Millennials are in their 20s as I approach 40. The upcoming election will be a large shift as many of the council members aren’t returning and we’ll have a new Mayor (or, at least I hope so). Reed will never have my support.

Reed will presumably have Buckhead’s, or (more accurately) more conservative than me white people’s votes that are not limited to Buckhead. “Buckhead” is just the code name for affluent more than moderately conservative white folks in Atlanta. The reality of Buckhead is that it’s really rather small. There are anecdotal references to this being the area where Republicans around the state get their money- I’m here to tell you from personal knowledge that isn’t true. As the person who used to file the House Republican Caucus Trust ethics disclosures and was friends with the person who filed the ethics disclosures for the Senate Republican Caucus Trust- our money came from north Georgia, and GOOA, not Buckhead. There are wealthy Republicans in CD 6, no doubt. But they reside primarily in Sandy Springs, not in Atlanta proper. 

While LOTS of people say they live in “Atlanta” there are significantly fewer people who have the opportunity to vote in our elections. This is something that came up a great deal in my Facebook posts around the protests last summer. Literally everyone who was scared of things happening in Atlanta that commented on my page were from another city. I actually had someone who “does a few things for the Governor” tell me that it was really scary “here”. When I asked for further clarification, because I live in Atlanta and this person doesn’t, the comments ended quickly thereafter. This is the challenge of Atlanta, right? Lots of folks from outside want to tell us how to do things. And some have merit- I’m willing to hear that out- but not from a place of pearl clutching. I need folks outside my city to get out of your feelings. A lot of well intended suggestions don’t have merit because the scale with which they’re dealing vs the scale Atlanta leaders are dealing with are significantly different. Many of the suburban communities circling the city also don’t have to have infrastructure for the state to drive into every day and then leave. I would compare Atlanta somewhat more accurately with the Kia plant in Lagrange- tons of people come into the building everyday but they don’t stay overnight and they don’t pay the property taxes to build out transit, sewer and roads that are needed to facilitate those quotidian visits. We can argue over whether or not sales taxes, SPLOSTS, and whatnot cover those infrastructure costs, but I’ll save that for another post.

Back to Cop City and the ramifications of its aftermath…I am still undecided on the Mayoral ticket. I know; I thought I had decided, but foolishness really made me change my mind.

President Moore doesn’t inspire me, but she didn’t dodge the question on the Cop City vote like Farokhi. I’m rarely a single issue voter, but I really can’t abide by Council member Dickens’ vote for Cop City. I really appreciated his earlier panel on youth and crime in the city. I watched the entire thing and the topics discussed resonated with what I find in the kids who play in my backyard. I really was leaning toward him. For both of these candidates though, they seem like more of the same Old Atlanta- Black and white leaders who aren’t willing to acknowledge the complicated challenges of families within our city bounds. I (perhaps unreasonably) expected them to have more innovative ideas around how to address crime rather than the politics of respectability I feel they represent to me in the votes’ aftermath. This Cop City idea seems so much like so many of the ideas that Atlanta derives- sounds bold, but it’s really just the repackaging of the same old, same old when you get down to it. To me, Moore and Dickens both seem like a repackaging of the last 30 years. 

I know I don’t want that.

Councilman Westmoreland holds a special place in my heart- and not in a good way. I voted for him in his first run for my School Board representation. But I’ll never forget his vote in favor of that foolish $96K no bid contract in which APS engaged Erin Hames to protect them from the Opportunity School District debacle under Governor Deal- while Erin worked for the Governor and threaded the OSD through the General Assembly. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s departure was one in which I personally took great glee. I know a number of folks who like Westmoreland, and I respect them. But to me, he’ll always be the Princeton pretty boy who likes to talk big but never wants to get his hands dirty with difficult stances. His and Dickens fabled working behind the scenes of the Cop City vote is something of which I’d like to admire but my cynicism says it’s more of the same performative activism and status quo. Westmoreland is biding his time until he can run for a higher office. I assume this aim is for the Mayor’s office, but maybe it’s Congress. As the city demographics flow more in his favor, both aren’t out of the question and I’d take him over Congresswoman Nikema Williams any day of the week.

Councilman Farokhi is a mixed bag. People want to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s on parental leave. I don’t; think of me what you will. 

How cool would it have been to have a sitting city council member hold a baby in his hands as he voted “no” in preservation of his own child’s future? People love babies. Makes for good campaign ads. Also when directly asked about this vote on my Facebook page, Farokhi didn’t answer. I am NOT the arbiter of everything Atlanta by any means, but it also seems stupidly easy to just say where you stand, especially after the vote has been taken. I respectfully asserted it took him longer to type out a response to my post than it would have to click yay or nay. I really want to like  Farokhi. He has some visionary leadership that I think we are vastly lacking in Georgia. I went through Georgia Forward’s Gamechangers’ program (a statewide leadership class focused primarily on economic development with some social issues thrown into the mix for good measure). It, along with Central Atlanta Progress (that is the organization that backs it), seems like a good foundation for a future run for Congress or Governor except for its sticky challenge with localities that are essentially tone deaf to the diversity of the class audience. I may or may not have sent their board a letter following a particular speech on which I walked out. There’s new leadership of the program, and I have faith this will make some significant difference. 

To me, the Cop City vote reflects all of this. The security theater America has bought into with the Patriot Act, the city getting whiter but not more conservative and the council members who seem to not be aware of that fact. The vote reflects back to me how little process is paid attention to in this city, and how basic systems could really address some real challenges here. It’s like there’s a structure, but it’s both crumbling and being patched at the same time while it leaks profusely. Maybe our grandparents’ generation created a structure and we’ve just been patching it instead of reevaluating it as we go along. Every new council member says they’re going to do something different, but it’s really going to take all of them putting their egos aside, sacrificing the veils they hide behind, and working together to create a system that is consistent across issues.

Cop City is the hole that Atlanta has dug when they didn’t know when to stop.

I think after November we’re going to see what it’s like to stop digging. I hope this will mean instead of buying into the lowest common denominator Bandaids our city council will start analyzing what models of other cities we can follow. I need strategic vision to show up in a big way accompanied by process that is transparent. We have data. We have tools that can help us if we’re willing to invest in them and the wisdom of people who know how to use them. I hope we recognize that safety and security are part of the social contract with which we all take part. We can’t call everything in or contract everything out- we have to know our neighbors, and address the challenges we find among us, even as we fail forward in trying to address them. I’m not asking for perfection from my city. I’m not even asking for more money. I’m really just asking for some adults to show up who aren’t looking to use this as a ladder in their own socio-economic climb. I’m really just asking for some systems and processes to function at an optimal enough level for scalability. I’m also asking my city council to pay more attention to the folks in their districts than to whoever is funding their re-election campaigns outside of the district. This seems to be pretty straight forward. I don’t know why this is so hard in my city. What I do know is in the twenty years following 9/11 I don’t feel safer because my police have bigger guns or they follow me around in a nearby neighborhood. I recognize the ease of committing crimes rather than avoiding them in my city and the complexity of the challenges individuals face when they’re making decisions about how to feed and house their families. 9/11 was the line in the sand to move toward militarization of our police. I hope the Cop City vote will be the line that puts militarization to its necessary end. 

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