The Trump arrest overshadows a more important fight for justice in Atlanta 

Former President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departure from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

When one party’s idea of justice includes excusing police murder, the denial of the First Amendment right to protest and the militarized surveillance of the Black community in Atlanta, is that justice legitimate? Georgia Democrats seem to think so. But understanding why requires a look at the biggest news of the week. 

Americans were met with the intense grimace of former President Donald Trump on Thursday when Fulton County Jail released his mug shot following his and 18 of his associates’ arrests on anti-racketeering, or RICO, charges. The charges, which allege him of interfering in the 2020 presidential election by attempting to alter election results in Georgia, are the most recent of four total indictments against the former president and his staff, the subject of which range from conspiracy to incite an  insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021 to mishandling classified documents. All in all, Trump has had an incredibly busy year, likely only to get busier as he prepares for his arraignment in Atlanta in September. 
Democrats in Georgia and around the country, of course, have made merry over both Trump’s arrest and the ensuing mugshot. The likes of Democratic New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar have taken to the newly-Christened platform X to share their ridicule of the president-turned-“thug” who, for them, was able to break the law and threaten democracy with near impunity. As Bowman’s jubilant exclamation of “we got you” represents, the Trump arrest may feel like more of the Democratic party’s work than that of Fani Willis, the Fulton County District Attorney responsible for presenting the case at hand — and is facing removal by Georgia Republicans, for that reason. As the party takes ownership of the arrest and eventual fate of Donald Trump and company, they style this historical moment as a watershed event for justice — or as Georgia State Rep. Nikema Williams put it in an Aug. 15 press release, this is proof that “we apply the law equally to everyone — even failed former presidents.” 

But in spite of the Democrats’ revelry, justice is not truly the victor in Georgia, nor will it be as long as state and local officials continue to ignore one of the existential struggles facing Atlanta and its residents: The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, also known as Cop City. As I wrote in my last column on the subject, “Cop City,” as it is known by its opponents, is an initiative funded by the private non-profit Atlanta Police Foundation to destroy 85 acres of Weelaunee Forest in the south of Atlanta. Not only is this a majority-Black community, but a watershed forest that environmental activists credit with “protecting the area from storm runoff, cleaning the air, and providing shade in Atlanta’s hot summer months.” 

In June, the predominantly Democratic Atlanta City Council voted to authorize $31 million in funding for the construction of Cop City in spite of 16 hours of public comment from 400 speakers opposing the militarized training compound. The brazenness of the city council’s unilateral move is heightened by the new revelations surrounding the death of forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, who was killed by Atlanta police in January, supposedly due to firing at police with a handgun. A second autopsy on Teran’s body later showed that they were shot 57 times by Atlanta police while in a seated position with their hands up; furthermore, their hands showed no gunpowder residue, suggesting they did not fire at Atlanta police as had been previously reported. 

Members of the media line the road as the motorcade of former President Donald Trump arrives at the Fulton County Jail, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Protesters arrested and arbitrarily charged with committing domestic terrorism for the act of protesting in Weelaunee Forest continue to be embroiled in expensive legal battles, even though their cases have largely been decried as politically motivated attempts to quell protest — it’s in this light that Rep. Williams’ previous quips on equal treatment under law should be called into question, when charges pointed at forest defenders make president Trump’s “conspiracy” charges look like playtime.  
Despite the behemoth of state repression working against them, Stop Cop City activists continue to pursue means to prevent the project’s completion — this time, by the ballot. Activists have already succeeded in amassing over 100,000 signatures to make the continuation of Cop City a ballot initiative in March. At the same time, however, voting away police militarization is fraught with various logistical and conceptual problems. For one, city officials have committed to a widely discredited “signature checking” method that would compare each signature on the petition to names on the Georgia census. According to civic journalism outlet Atlanta Civic Circle, signature checking results in “signatures getting thrown out over minute discrepancies,” granting the state great leverage to disempower the Vote to Stop Cop City coalition. Although, a poll floated by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens indicated majority support for Cop City is statistically unreliable due to a low response rate, activists still have to contend with massive state and private interests in making Atlanta a fruitful zone for capital accumulation — as well as their own effective propaganda apparatus — at the expense of its constituents. 

While Georgia Democrats gloat over the arrest of Trump, their party operatives in Atlanta have OK’d numerous repressive and underhanded methods to sideline protesters and erase their civil rights for political purposes. While the Trump case may set a precedent that sets procedural guardrails for those few who occupy the most powerful office in the world, the completion of Cop City demonstrates that states can overlook murdering protesters and making dangerous changes to the natural environment with virtually no democratic input. With stakes like these, activists and public figures must refuse to let a mugshot overshadow the existential fight against Cop City. 

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