Illustration by Narrative Initiative
Illustration by Narrative Initiative

Disability Justice and the Movement to Stop Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, Marianne Dhenin shows us why police violence and militarization are disability justice issues.


Marianne Dhenin


21 May, 2024

Since the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center was first announced in April 2021, the project has been a source of intense conflict. Dozens of Atlanta, Georgia, and area community groups have been organizing to stop its construction. Better known as Cop City because it features a mock city for urban police training, construction is now underway on the facility on an 85-acre plot of land owned by the City of Atlanta in the Weelaunee Forest. If completed, it would become one of the nation’s largest police training centers

The movement known as Stop Cop City is a diverse coalition. Alongside abolitionists, racial justice groups, Indigenous leaders, and climate change activists, disabled organizers have been a vocal contingent.

“We are trying to make sure that the disability community has a voice on Cop City because it really disproportionately impacts our community,” says Atlanta-based Dom Kelly, co-founder, CEO, and president of New Disabled South (NDS), a disability justice non-profit working across fourteen states in the US South.

Destroying acres of forest, we know that is going to have an impact on our climate and ultimately [on] the marginalized communities who live in the area"

Disabled people have shown up at direct actions, spoken to Atlanta City Council, and taken a central role in the Cop City Vote campaign, an effort to force a ballot vote on Cop City. The organizers say that the referendum campaign offered opportunities to disrupt the historical disenfranchisement of disabled voters and pursue a more inclusive democratic process.

This isn’t just an Atlanta-based issue. At the heart of the opposition are concerns over Cop City’s environmental impact, the allocation of public funds to support its construction, and its potential to further militarize police across the US. More than 40 percent of the training on-site will be for out-of-state officers. Each of these issues affects disabled people in unique ways. 

“Destroying acres of forest, we know that is going to have an impact on our climate and ultimately [on] the marginalized communities who live in the area,” says Kelly. “When there are more weather emergencies, you have folks who live in the area who can’t afford to have things like backup generators [to] maintain their [electricity-dependent] medical equipment.” 

Disabled people are too often left behind in climate emergencies and are more vulnerable to adverse effects from other climate change-related issues like air pollution. Police violence also disproportionately harms disabled communities. “Disabled people are one of the groups most impacted by over-policing and police brutality,” says Kiana Jackson, director of data and research at NDS.

According to data from the Survey of Prison Inmates, 66% of those incarcerated in the United States report having a disability. While disabled people comprise about 13% of the nation’s population, they represent as many as half of those killed by police.  

The stakes are even higher for people of color. Black people are three times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than white people, whether disabled or not. According to a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, more than half of disabled African Americans have been arrested by the age of 28 — twice the rate of their white disabled counterparts. 

Kelly says that police violence against disabled people is inherent to the institution. “It has so much to do with compliance culture and surveillance culture in policing.” 

A training facility like Cop City is likely to exacerbate police violence against disabled people rather than address it. Research indicates that police training initiatives aimed at mitigating implicit biases against marginalized communities do not improve police interactions and that the militarization of the police disproportionately harms already marginalized groups

Many high-profile police killings across the United States in recent years have been killings of people with physical, developmental, psychiatric, and/or mental health conditions. However, victims’ disabilities are usually little more than a footnote in reporting, obscuring the ways that disability intersects with other identity categories to render some individuals more vulnerable to police violence. For example, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died as the result of a spinal injury inflicted on him during a “rough ride” in the back of a police van in 2015, was developmentally disabled. Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old Black woman with schizophrenia who was shot and killed in her home by a New York City Police Department officer in 2016, foreshadowed her own execution in a 2012 essay, writing, “We are all aware of the all too frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead.” 

Like Danner, many with disabilities know that they are at high risk of police violence. For disabled folks in the Atlanta area, this knowledge has motivated their involvement with the Stop Cop City movement. Many also argue that the $31 million in public funds allocated for Cop City could be better spent on improving the city’s crumbling infrastructure, making its public transportation more accessible, or investing in alternative first-response programs and mental and behavioral health resources. 

“That money that is being used to build Cop City could be used to create resources in the community for mental health purposes or create more recreation [opportunities] for youth,” says Jackson. Rather than spending on policing, the money could be used to “breathe life into the community.”

New Disabled South Rising, the political arm of NDS, backed the referendum campaign when it launched in June 2023 as one of two fiscal sponsors. The organization also provided guidance on making canvassing and outreach efforts inclusive of disabled community members. 

Marisa Pyle, an organizer with the Cop City Vote Coalition, said the campaign got creative to reach disabled Atlantans. “One of the big things that we focused on is not just going to spots that were very popular,” she said. “We were trying to send people all over the city where people actually are.” Besides door-to-door outreach, canvassers collected signatures at public transportation hubs, retirement centers, and assisted living facilities. 

By September 2023, the referendum campaign had gathered and submitted 116,000 signatures to City Hall, far surpassing the number required to get Cop City on the ballot. However, the City of Atlanta has since made efforts to disrupt the validation process.

One of the City’s tactics, using signature matching to validate collected signatures, is familiar to disabled organizers. “Signature matching … has long been understood to be an ableist tool of voter suppression,” says Kelly. 

For those with degenerative diseases, periodic symptom flares, low vision, or other disabilities, it can be a challenge to sign the same way twice. But if their original voter registration does not match subsequent ballots or referendum petitions, it may lead to their signature being thrown out during a matching process. The American Civil Liberties Union has brought a series of lawsuits challenging the practice over the past several years. 

On February 5, 2024, the Atlanta City Council adopted an amended version of its proposed rules for the petition validation process, which still includes signature matching but also grants important concessions demanded by organizers, such as a cure period, which will allow those whose signatures are at risk of rejection a period of time to re-verify them. 

Kelly says that as the referendum campaign moves toward the ballot, NDS plans to be involved in get-out-the-vote efforts and help ensure communications are inclusive. He anticipates other disabled Atlantans will continue to play a vital role in the struggle.

“This is a cross-movement issue and a cross-movement coalition of organizations that are working to make sure Cop City can’t be built,” he says. “It is critical for us to be able to bring [a disability justice] lens.”

Marianne Dhenin is a disabled journalist and historian covering social and environmental justice and politics. You can read their recent work in The New Republic, Teen Vogue, and Yes! Magazine.