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Cop City’s ‘Ivory Tower’: Georgia State University is ground zero for militarized policing

Originally published: Atlanta Community Press Collective on February 13, 2024 by Narek Boyajian (more by Atlanta Community Press Collective) (Posted Feb 15, 2024)

“WE NEED YOU HERE” reverberated through the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on Feb. 2, 2023, as Atlanta University Center (AUC) students took over Crown Forum, a mandatory weekly campus event that emphasizes social justice and students’ “dynamic humanity,” and proves to be a powerful space to challenge the institutional complicity over the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, or “Cop City” as opponents call it. Students demanded that Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University denounce and sever support for Cop City, highlighting the historical and continuous oppression faced by the AUC community, often at the hands of police. That same day, more than fifty Morehouse faculty released a letter calling to Stop Cop City, echoing the concerns and demands of AUC students. Throughout the semester, students at university after university around the Atlanta metro area released similar statements of solidarity with the Stop Cop City movement, calling for their universities to end contributions to Cop City and broader contributions to carceral systems.

While often perceived as institutions of knowledge and progress, universities actively contribute to the myth that policing and prisons keep us safe. They frequently use rhetoric about fighting crime to justify their own carceral enterprises, such as Cop City, including the accumulation of expansive campus police forces that often have jurisdiction beyond campus boundaries. By doing so, universities become complicit in the functioning of the prison-industrial complex (PIC), reinforcing the existing racial capitalist system and safeguarding the interests of those in positions of power, including their own.

The student movement to Stop Cop City responds not only to their universities’ active participation in the military-grade Cop City, but also broader collusion with the PIC. In one institution’s case, Georgia State, student resistance against its disturbing exchange with Israeli police predates the Stop Cop City movement by over a decade. This exchange program reveals the unsettling influence of Israeli occupation forces on U.S. policing. In Atlanta, the replication of mass surveillance is strikingly evident, as seen in its video integration center modeled after the system in Jerusalem, Occupied Palestine. Furthermore, Cop City—proposed in response to the summer 2020 protests—is unnervingly similar to the Israeli Urban Warfare Training Center (UWTC), which itself was established in response to the second Palestinian uprising against the illegal occupation.

Today, Cop Cities for urban warfare training are being replicated in the U.S. fromChicago to Atlanta. At the center of the drive toward constructing these facilities sits the interconnected nature of global policing as a tool of social dominance, the use of rhetoric about crime and terrorism to justify militarism and force, and the application of these militarized tactics to oppress and terrorize marginalized communities.

Despite universities’ evasion in acknowledging their role, they are at the heart of these troubling collaborations.

GSU and the PIC

The roots of Cop City can be traced back to the Israeli UWTC, nicknamed “Mini Gaza”. The UWTC, built with $45 million in U.S. aid, was designed to simulate “the modern battle-field” and features replicas of public and residential buildings in Palestinian cities, including mosques and schools. Frequent Israeli incursions and violent raids of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces escalated after the facility’s establishment in 2005. The UWTC serves as a platform for passing on military lessons learned from Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and refugee camps, and provides training to both Israeli forces and law enforcement from allied nations like the United States. This close relationship is sustained through a shared security apparatus among settler colonies like the U.S., Israel, and the UK. It involves collaboration and mutual expertise in urban warfare and repression which further strengthen colonial occupation and imperialism.

Georgia State University (GSU) plays a significant role in this interlocking security apparatus through its decades-old program, Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE). Training thousands of U.S. and Israeli police in topics like “border policing,” “urban policing,” and “drug interdiction,” the program promotes the exchange of security tactics used to combat “terrorist activities.” It is crucial to recognize the Israeli government’s long standing use of terrorism designations to delegitimize, brutalize, and criminalize Palestinian protesters. Since 1967, Israeli officials classified over 400 human rights organizations as “hostile” or “terrorist”. Between 2014 and 2019, the Israeli military courts convicted 1,823 individuals of “membership and activity in an unlawful association.” Unsurprisingly, there is ample documentation that shows GILEE spreads Islamophobia, brutality, and teaches racial profiling, mass surveillance, arbitrary detention, and militarized violence against protesters. Likewise, Atlanta’s replication of the Israeli surveillance system used in Jerusalem, Occupied Palestine, was pushed by former Atlanta Police Department Chief George Turner after he attended a GILEE program hosted by Israeli police.

MARTA Police Chief and GILEE graduate Scott Kreher is featured on the GSU program’s testimonials page sharing that Israeli and Atlanta police are “strikingly similar.” Kreher is later quoted, expressing his pride that the “thin blue line stretches across the Atlantic Ocean to the State of Israel.” This university-sponsored program facilitates U.S. military, police, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents training with occupying Israeli forces that subject Palestinians to a cruel system of apartheid and settler colonialism, while Israeli police learn from U.S. forces that weaponize policing tactics against Black and Brown people. To some, this enmeshment of policing and white nationalism may come as a surprise. However, an institution that originated in the U.S. as the “slave patrol” and presently exists to control, criminalize, and repress marginalized populations seeking human and civil rights will undoubtedly reify its white supremacist mission, regardless of police reform or cultural sensitivity training. Inevitably, police will deploy tactics that enact racialized violence, the very core of protesters’ concerns over the increasing militarism that will only fester if Cop City is built.

GSU’s investment in policing extends far beyond GILEE. The GSU Police Department (GSUPD) is one of Georgia’s largest campus police forces with a disproportionately high number of officers per student. The university’s leadership collaborates with external entities, including corporations like Georgia Power, and law enforcement agencies such as the Atlanta Police Department (APD), Georgia Capitol Police, and various campus police forces, to bolster surveillance and policing capacities. These frequent collaborations have led to the integration of hundreds of surveillance devices around campus as part of Operation Shield, which grants Atlanta police officers access to university cameras.

Instances of GSU PD’s oppressive policing have drawn significant criticism. Just last year, a GSU professor called police on two Black students for arriving minutes late to class. Although administrators claimed that police de-escalated the situation, students reported that the police threatened to charge the students with trespassing if they did not leave the classroom.

During a week of action to Stop Cop City in March, GSU coordinated with multiple law enforcement agencies, including APD SWAT, to respond to groups of activists and canvassers in the downtown area. Police used heavy repression and intimidation tactics, such as threatening arrest and tailing activists and journalists after the group disbursed.

GSU also faced significant backlash for its role in gentrification and the displacement of poor and working-class communities of color. The 2017 joint venture between GSU and private developers to purchase and redevelop Turner Field received criticism from students and the surrounding historically Black neighborhoods. These communities already experienced the disruptive effects of highway development decades earlier. Community members tirelessly advocated for a community benefits agreement (CBA) to ensure GSU’s development included provisions for affordable housing, job training, and employment opportunities for the neighborhood. However, then-GSU President Mark Becker refused to entertain the CBA, leading to a sit-in in front of his office where four students were arrested. GSU’s response shifted responsibility for addressing gentrification and property tax rates onto the city, neglecting to acknowledge the university’s key role in the development and its impact on the community. Subsequently, residents and activists staged a 63-day occupation known as Tent City, which was violently raided and destroyed by GSUPD.

The university also formally maintains a historical relationship with city, business, and other university leaders invested in the prison industrial complex through the Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP). GSU President Brian Blake sits on the board of ACP, which is self-described as a public-private partnership of the city’s “top business, civic and academic leaders, and the Mayor of Atlanta.” A clear driver of Cop City from its inception, ACP includes leaders of several corporations serving on the Atlanta Police Foundation board or funding Cop City and has a track record of facilitating PIC expansion for the sake of economic gain and power. ACP’s aim to “accelerate Atlanta’s competitiveness for attracting residents, businesses and investment, with a high priority on public safety” shows a clear investment in policing and gentrification that disproportionately impacts poor and working-class Black residents, and GSU’s participation in ACP solidifies its commitment to Cop City and related initiatives that promote excessive reliance on policing and punishment. Unfortunately, like many other universities, GSU’s focus on economic power prevents the institution from reimagining campus safety and fostering a safe learning environment for its students.

An open records request uncovered a connection between GSU and Cop City via GSU-affiliated donors of the APF. Notably, one of the donors involved in supporting Cop City is the GSU Foundation. The request sought email communications between the APF and GSU domains using keywords related to Cop City and revealed that numerous GSU professors and staff members donated to the APF. The records also showed that GSU provided direct financial support to the APF by revealing the university’s Criminal Justice Department previously sponsored the APF’s annual event, “A Night in Blue.”

Further, GSU helped create and coordinate the Atlanta Police Leadership Institute (APLI), a joint program with the APF and the Atlanta Police Department to develop law enforcement leaders. APLI’s connection to Cop City emerged in the summer of 2020—almost a full year before the center was first publicly announced—when APF President and CEO Dave Wilkinson sent an email condemning protester “violence.” In this message, Wilkinson shared that the APLI program “is part of a broader initiative that APF and APD are working diligently to realize: a city and statewide regional Public Safety Training Center for first responders.” APLI’s stated objective of facilitating strategic placements in police departments across the U.S. and the link between APLI’s training program and Cop City aligns with the anticipated 43% of out-of-state trainees at Cop City.

In June 2023, a 20-member delegation of police participated in a GILEE-sponsored trip to train with the Zionist occupation forces, including director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, Atlanta and Gwinnett public school police chiefs, and Michael Register, Director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), a participant agency in the raid that resulted in the brutal killing of forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán in January 2023. Afterward, the GBI blamed Terán for shooting an officer and intervened in an open records request filed by the family. Previous GILEE delegations included a captain of Georgia State Patrol, the law enforcement department responsible for Terán’s death, and Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis Police Chief who faces criticism after the police lynching of Tyre Nichols by Memphis officers. Davis is another example of law enforcement leaders engaging in GSU-backed training programs. Credited with helping establish APLI during her tenure in the Atlanta Police Department, Davis also trained with Israeli police and graduated from GILEE. GILEE and APLI partnered to host a delegation of Israeli occupation forces in Atlanta in May 2023. These interconnected programs facilitate the learning and adoption of brutal, repressive, and deadly militarized tactics, serving as the predecessors of Cop City.

GILEE facilitates racist, extremist rhetoric that propagates perpetrators of genocide and the world’s most enduring system of apartheid in Occupied Palestine, which in turn takes root in Atlanta. Activists know the history of the danger of militarized and urban warfare tactics and the impetus for insisting on Cop City. We already experienced the impacts of other Cop Cities, which weaponize police against marginalized communities and to squash social unrest. People are brutalized, imprisoned, and murdered at the hands of police, and Atlanta’s Cop City is not even built. In the process of protesting the spread of militarism under Cop City, those who resist this state violence are criminalized using baseless domestic terrorism charges.

These police exchanges enable dangerous tactics and practices to spread globally, particularly in partnership with oppressive governments like the Israeli settler colony and others known for civil and human rights violations. This highlights the alarming pattern of demonizing marginalized communities and using militarized policing to oppress them, while denying their oppression and normalizing the violence of Zionism and apartheid.

Universities and the PIC

Despite the opportunity for universities to reimagine campus safety and reject ‘rising crime’ tropes, colleges are at the forefront of expanding policing and militarism in the U.S. This investment in policing positions education institutions as visible models of urban renewal where campus law enforcement facilitates and protects schools’ real estate and housing developments. Universities also have strong carceral ties that extend campus boundaries through initiatives like police and military recruitment, partnerships with war-profiting companies like Raytheon, and police exchanges like GILEE. These integrations with the PIC directly shape students’ experiences and whether or not they are steered into or away from carceral systems. However, college mission statements and tours do not typically advertise their own roles in criminalization and recruiting students for the military.

Active participation in carceral systems undermines universities’ professed commitments to justice and equity and arguably the educational capacity of the institutions themselves. But facilitating militarization and amassing large police departments serves universities’ interests, especially if their increasing economic and real estate power flies under the radar. In the ongoing fight to Stop Cop City, students, staff, and faculty at numerous universities are examining their institutions’ contributions to expanding the PIC. The carceral paradigm of “campus safety” is unraveling as students push back. Will universities perpetuate historical systems of marginalization they claim to offset with student success metrics, or will they join students in reimagining and rebuilding campuses that truly address public safety needs and reflect our shared humanity?

Cop City

Citywide opposition to the proposed training center goes back to the summer of 2021 when public plans for the at-minimum $90 million facility emerged. Set to be built in the Weelaunee Forest (South River Forest), this project is devastating one of Atlanta’s largest greenspaces, labeled one of the city’s “four lungs.” Named “Cop City” by activists for its focal mock city, the compound would also include components like shooting ranges and explosives testing areas, and sit between a youth detention center and a federal prison in a predominantly working-class Black neighborhood. The city of Atlanta promised the nearby residents usable greenspace in place of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm ruins in 2017. Just years later, the city backpedaled in the wake of 2020 mass mobilization and leased the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 per year. APF presented something more enticing to the city’s leadership than doing right by Black residents or preserving critical tree canopy during a climate crisis: power and profit.

Atlanta Way

This pattern of reliance on the prison industrial complex to accumulate power and wealth is historical. Guided by the “Atlanta Way,” Black political leaders and white elites position the city for capital accumulation by serving the interests of corporations and white elites at the expense of poor and working-class Black communities. This approach is made possible by coordination between actors who simultaneously establish, expand, and utilize the punishment system to enhance their power and generate profit. This web of PIC players includes city, state, university, media, business, and law enforcement leaders.

The Atlanta Way dramatically changed the city by appealing to developers and facilitating rapid gentrification, systematic demolition of public housing, increased policing, and public subsidies for private real estate development. Geographer Seth Gustafson, who researched the city’s policies of displacement, jail construction, and illegal arrests leading up to the hosting of the Olympics in 1996, explains that these changes were strategic. Atlanta redefined its demographic image by making the city unlivable for homeless, poor, and working-class Black residents.

This city governance strategy is not palatable as described and thus is coupled with a carefully crafted story of racial harmony and functional democracy. Corroborated by corporate media, Atlanta’s Black political leaders cling to the image of “the city too busy to hate” while over-policing the residents who resist pushout or, more forebodingly, threaten to cut through the veil of respectability through mass demonstrations. Recent social movements have called out this duplicity, especially as city officials celebrate civil rights activists while simultaneously replicating the conditions that previously criminalized them and repressed the movements they participated in. As the city pushes for Cop City relentlessly with brutal crackdowns and pervasive repression of protesters, this contradiction becomes abundantly clear.

Further, Atlantans recently endured nationwide uprisings in 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and decades of organized abandonment. As described by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, organized abandonment refers to the deliberate withdrawal of state support and resources, particularly social safety nets, resulting in increased reliance on policing and imprisonment to manage the consequences of inequality and maintain control over marginalized communities. Despite the efforts of city leaders and Atlanta’s corporate elites to maintain a narrative that Cop City will have positive effects, the detrimental impacts of state abandonment expose the falsity of their claims and reveal the underlying motives for increased power and capital.

Abolishing Campus Police and Militarism is Critical

Education institutions across the country must reevaluate their ties to the prison industrial complex and redirect their resources toward initiatives that prioritize social responsibility and the well-being and success of their students. Evaluating GSU’s active investment in the PIC and recognizing the interconnectedness between law enforcement shows there is an urgent need for continued resistance and solidarity in the broader fight to abolish carceral institutions and invest in true public safety infrastructure. Universities are uniquely positioned to prioritize transformative change over economic interests. The case of Georgia State and Cop City serves as a powerful example of the urgent need for all universities to abolish policing and militarism on their campuses.

Universities are institutions dedicated to education, knowledge production, and intellectual development. They play critical roles in shaping the minds of students and producing innovative and life changing research. As such, universities are responsible for providing inclusive, supportive, and transformative learning environments. They should be accountable to their educational mission, impact on society, and commitment to student success and well-being. While students, faculty, and community members cannot force institutions to be accountable for these things, we can certainly use our knowledge and skills to reveal the global ramifications of projects like GILEE and Cop City. From clearcutting the forest during a climate crisis to arming law enforcement to brutalize those fighting for a free and livable world, Atlanta influences everything. And these carceral influences impact us all.

As academics, forest defenders, and community members, we must respond to the pressing need for universities to prioritize social responsibility and the well-being and success of their students. We must expose the troubling duplicity of our institutions’ entanglement in the prison industrial complex and their alleged commitments to diversity, academic success, and students’ safety. This transformation can only be achieved through divestment from policing, militarization, and punishment while actively investing in life-giving alternatives. We are on the side of freedom, and our universities are long overdue to transform their campuses to reflect our shared humanity. Through their actions, they will answer: what side are you on?

Narek Boyajian is a queer Armenian American community organizer, student, and educator based in Atlanta, GA. They are committed to abolitionist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movement work.

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