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The contradictions of Atlanta sports and ‘Cop City’

Even in the African American mecca, we ignore the reality of death and destruction for the illusion of reform

Atlanta. The A. It is singularly recognizable and brilliant – an African American mecca. It’s the heart of the civil rights movement and ground zero for modern-day political struggles.

I think the A stands for ambivalence.

It is as much a Black haven as it is Black hell, evidenced by the city’s income inequality gap, the largest in the nation. The local pro sports teams contributed to this ambivalence, such as when the Atlanta Falcons released Michael Vick and in 2009 and the Atlanta Hawks stunned Dominique Wilkins with a trade in 1994.

On this hallowed battleground, this capital of contradictions, there is a notable police proposal. “Cop City” is what folks are calling it – an 85-acre police training facility that will cost $90 million. The proposal isn’t just a child of contradiction, it is a child of compromise, a byproduct of the language of reform.

An image of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. is projected onto the Philips Arena court before the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 19, 2015, in Atlanta.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Atlanta’s sports teams also speak this same language. Nearly 55 years after the Falcons hatched in Atlanta, the franchise responded to the nationwide protests that rose up from George Floyd’s murder by police with its participation in a Black Lives Matter march. Most notably, two historically Black churches were displaced to build the billion-dollar stadium, but lost in the discussion was a working-class neighborhood known as Lightning, as described in an article in The Bitter Southerner:

One of Atlanta’s earliest communities, Lightning hosted church revivals in the ’30s and moonshine alleys in the ’40s; an industrial boom in the ’50s and the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. Although it was surrounded by prestigious institutions, from Georgia Tech to the historically black colleges of the Atlanta University Center, outsiders frequently associated Lightning with the least of Atlanta, in part because it was among the city’s last communities to get paved roads and electric power. Following a slow decline in the 1980s, fueled by the disinvestment and destruction wrought by urban-renewal efforts, the state targeted the land on which Lightning stood to build the Georgia Dome.

In 1968, the same year civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the Hawks became Atlanta’s basketball team. It was fitting, then, that the team’s 2020-21 City Edition jerseys and court were curated in his honor, and the State Farm Arena floor also served as a reminder of King’s legacy and service.

How did the Hawks respond to the 2020 protests? Steve Koonin, the team’s CEO, made pointed remarks.

“Silence is cowardly …Stop hiding behind your badges, stop breaking parents hearts, and stop pretending this isn’t happening,” Koonin tweeted. “Start….loving each other, start listening to each other, and start celebrating our differences.”

In an ironic twist, the Hawks’ online biography of Koonin also reveals his affiliation with the police – he is a member of the board of trustees for the Atlanta Police Foundation.

Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha (center) leaves the courthouse after attending his trial in New York on Oct. 7, 2015. Sefolosha was charged with resisting arrest and other crimes during a confrontation with police officers outside a Manhattan nightclub in April 2015.

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Reform is the language of compromise, and its words quiver in the face of brutality. Thabo Sefolosha, a former player for the Hawks, knows this all too well.

Sefolosha was attacked by five New York Police Department officers during his arrest outside a nightclub in 2015. He suffered a broken fibula and ligament damage during his arrest, and he missed the remainder of the regular season and the Hawks’ playoff run to the conference finals.

Floyd’s murder five years later didn’t ignite the language of reform in Sefolosha. It ignited cultural distrust.

“People talk about a few rotten apples,” Sefolosha said in a 2020 interview with The Associated Press. “But you know, in my experience and from what we’re seeing, I think it’s deeper than that as a culture that’s deeply rooted in it, to be honest. That’s just my honest opinion. I think it’s really … part of a culture where it’s deeper than just a few bad apples.”

The “Cop City” proposal sounds a lot like how we view police in this country – we ignore the reality of death and destruction for the illusion of reform. We go from the language of “defund” to pouring more money into police departments. Corporations co-sign such policies because “serve and protect” are reserved for the wealthy, not the people.

While sports provide a temporary escape and platitudes of unity, franchise owners side with the agents of police violence. We often ask players how they feel about issues of social justice. Why don’t we ask the majority-white franchise owners those same questions?

It can be hard to see class struggle within the framework of celebrity and entertainment, which is why activists and politicians alike are making those lines clearer. Atlanta’s most determined defenders today aren’t found in a defensive backfield or have the build of a Mount Mutombo. They are found in protest groups with the commitment to “Stop Cop City.” They are found in colleges, pushing back against the suggestions of the last two mayors.

Family members of environmental activist Manuel Terán visit a makeshift memorial on Feb. 6. Terán was shot and killed by law enforcement Jan. 18 during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility near Atlanta that activists have nicknamed “Cop City.”

CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images

There’s blood in the forest in Atlanta. The acreage that the city wants to use for Cop City is plantation land. It used to be a prison farm, which held activists such as Kwame Ture. The brutality repeats itself, most recently in the death of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán. The protests start again, the National Guard is called in. History repeats itself. Meanwhile, The King Center is owned by the National Park Service, which is to say, the government owns it. Our movement, our language, co-opted?

I miss 2020. I miss how the world came together in a justified uprising to say Black Lives Matter. We demanded more from corporations and franchises, from sports. We have forgotten about Floyd, about how the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks turned a portion of Atlanta into a separatist community. In our forgetfulness, our inaction, reform has reared its ugly head. There is no such thing as compromise with such high stakes – only progress or failure. Nature, like sports, abhors a tie. There is no resting on our laurels when it comes to civil rights, because the very fact that we have to petition for such freedoms is the backdrop for never-ending struggle.

Cop City won’t be enough. It will be Cop Country soon. It’s us versus them, forever. I see the brothas standing atop the CNN sign like I see the brothas on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly album cover.

Where some see unruliness, I see the cause and effect of harsh rulings. There is no compromise. We have given up enough.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.