Last year when I returned to Atlanta, I began participating in seminars, conferences, and public hearings. In many ways, the city I returned to looks shinier and hip. Yet, I find myself trying to make sense of Atlanta and why it operates less like a city and more like a corporate playground. As a practicing attorney, I often realized that the legal system is grounded in preserving the interests of the haves over the have-nots. In Atlanta, I see that the city’s actions and policies also have this same predisposition. Community activism and concern for the public good first took me to law school. It inspires me to write, advocate and elevate dissent to this day.
Regarding housing and public safety, I find myself woefully embarrassed by Atlanta, Inc. While Atlanta claims to be “a city too busy to hate,” this is essentially trite lip service. The former home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. overwhelmingly has forgotten the message of economic and social justice. In the decade since I have lived in the city, Atlanta housing has become increasingly expensive, police abuses have escalated, and corporations are continuously placated. Together, these concerns have brought me to re-double my activism in demanding more from city officials.
City Kick Backs to Corporates
While Money magazine concluded that Atlanta is the best place to live in its 2022 list, it also pointed out Atlanta’s failures in housing. At a multi-disciplinary seminar on Atlanta, I heard from globally renowned Urban Studies scholar and Georgia State Professor Dan Immergluck. His new book Red Hot City highlights various LOST opportunities to improve the availability of affordable housing in Atlanta. Consequently, over two decades, Atlanta has intentionally grown whiter and wealthier. Thanks to ill-conceived incentives for developers, Atlanta has deprived its public coffers. City leadership has lined developers’ wallets with unnecessary incentives like tax credits and kickbacks. To add insult to injury, Atlanta fails to tax commercial properties effectively. In doing so, they deprive the city of funding for well-publicized affordable housing promises. By and large, the product of these stupid policies has been to impoverish public finances, gentrify historically black neighborhoods, and intentionally attract only higher-end developments.
Georgia and the Love of Corporate Landlords
To make matters worse, the largely Republican-backed Georgia legislator is cozy with real estate interests. As a result, Georgia has some of the worst tenant protections in the country. As Georgia is considered largely landlord-friendly, it has attracted institutional investors looking for the easiest way to make money with the lowest overhead. Consequently, the Atlanta housing market has seen an uptick in displacement in neighborhoods targeted by out-of-state investors. Since local jurisdictions are pre-empted from rent stabilization and other tenant reforms, the state has one of the highest rates of evictions in the country. With the changes in the housing market post-pandemic, the situation has gotten worse. There are not enough units available at either affordable or gouging prices. Altogether, Atlanta is a tough rental market for a newly transplanted employee due to its costs and few tenant protections.
On Public Safety
Behind Bullets and Bullshit
George Floyd’s murder in 2020 brought a global reckoning for changes in policing. Not long after Black Lives Matter rallies were held across the country, in June 2022, an officer of the Atlanta Police Department (APD) killed Rayshard Brooks, a black man who was trying to sleep in his car at a Wendy’s. Atlanta erupted in righteous protest afterward. The Wendy’s was burned to the ground; the police chief stepped down. Such actions are not new. The APD has consistently eroded the public trust and undermined or neglected to provide for the safety of black and brown residents of Atlanta. Even regional policing authorities have used illegal tactics and excessive use of force without substantive consequences.
In the wake of Rayshard’s murder and the countrywide cries to reform policing, Atlanta responded to #DefundthePolice with the exact opposite. Through the Atlanta Police Foundation and corporate backers (see Mainline for an excellent summary of the Atlanta police-prison industrial complex), the creation of a police safety training center was announced. Behind closed doors, in an undemocratic and widely criticized process, police supporters and the Buckhead community agreed to a perverse plan to build this facility on a former prison farm and in a tract of lush forest. This project, dubbed ‘Cop City, ‘ would use millions of precious public funds to build a state-of-the-art facility without addressing how the police will remedy their abuses on black and brown communities.
Since Cop City plans were announced, a broad coalition has coalesced in contesting these plans. Environmentalists, abolitionists, and community advocates have taken to the forest to protect it from development. Tensions have escalated since the plan was announced in 2021. Police-led raids of the forest have intentionally destroyed a community kitchen, campsites, and a mutual-aid operation. In December 2022, a protestor was murdered by police in the Atlanta Forest. While some agencies wear body cameras, no agency has provided the public with body camera footage. Despite training and equipment, the police again have failed Atlanta’s citizens.
In response, Cop City protestors held a rally in downtown Atlanta. In one of the country’s most surveilled cities, the police grabbed up random protestors and charged them with being `domestic terrorists.` The state agencies charged and funded to protect the community are working to terrorize the public. While it is unlikely the domestic terrorism charges will stick, they may have quelled some first-amendment dissent. In light of the repeated failures of policing in Atlanta, it is comical that Atlanta police agencies should deign to train other police officers.
Atlanta: Rooms for Improvement
Atlanta has some new bikeable paths and a few posh multi-use developments. Still, it seems that the city is more interested in boosterism for developers and corporations than the fate of its public. Instead of falling into despair, I focus on hope and a vision to work on progressive changes in Atlanta. In my attempts to jump into opportunities to improve the city, I have found unique and exciting opportunities to contribute.
In my return to Atlanta, I found many more ideologically aligned organizations doing good work. These inspire me to collaborate and create a path for a better city. For example, the Housing Justice League does community empowerment training for eviction defense and follows legislative reform at the state level. Beyond that, Atlanta is rewriting its zoning code. This is just one of several steps to help solve the housing affordability issue.
On the issues of public safety, there is no good reason to build YET another police training facility. Various interests compound to illustrate why Cop City should never be built. Instead of diverting funding from police, my hometown wants to eliminate a precious green space for a corporate-funded police playground. To that end, numerous organizations are fighting for justice. Community Movement Builders, a group aligned with the dissent against Cop City, recently trained legal observers with the help of the National Lawyers Guild.
Advocacy for sound policy and justice requires the courage to lead and take chances. Atlanta has always been a city of hustle and corporate climbing. I am reminded that the premise behind governance is the public good. Occasionally our public officials need to hear the citizenry to remind them. Only in this way can we expect accountability for the work of providing for all its citizens.
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