The Collapse Of Criminal Legal Reform In The Black Mecca
Photo by Dustin Chambers/Getty Images

Atlanta, dubbed “The City Too Busy to Hate,” may actually be the city too fearful to dream. It has fallen from leading on criminal legal reform to peddling the same rhetoric that ushered in mass incarceration decades ago. A look into the curious alliance between the state’s conservative governor and the supposedly progressive policymakers at Atlanta City Hall reveals Black leadership caving to racist tough-on-crime fear mongering and police pressure— a reality that could devastate generations of Black and poor Atlantans. 

I remember the day organizers and activists were invited to hear from then-mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms about building her progressive platform.  I couldn’t attend the meeting, but promised to work with comrades to ensure that whoever was elected could implement critical policy changes. Since that time, I have either served on or led several committees, commissions, and councils to further a criminal justice reform agenda. 

Yet, in 2021, it feels like the twilight zone. Black politicians forced Black organizers already toiling to get out the vote to simultaneously fight harmful proposals criminalizing Black people. At times, they were cajoled by failed mayoral candidate Mary Norwood (who incidentally signed an affidavit attempting to help Donald Trump steal the election). Norwood ally Council President Felicia Moore (now a mayoral candidate with the largest block of GOP support) lobbied state legislators to enhance criminal penalties for street racing and expand civil asset forfeiture. Ultimately, Gov. Kemp joined forces with Atlanta to pass these laws with little to no regard for subject-matter experts or impacted communities. 

When Mayor Bottoms took office in 2018, her first legislative act was to pass bail reform, in response to community organizing and threats of litigation. Prior to this ordinance, hundreds of mostly Black Atlantans were being caged each night in the Atlanta City Detention Center for things like jaywalking and panhandling, simply because they could not afford to pay bail. Under the new law, unless accused of an act or threat of violence, people are booked and released when arrested for city code violations. Within its first six months, bail reform saved our community $3 million dollars in bail money that could instead be used for rent, food, entertainment, and other needs. 

Though bail reform passed unanimously, it became immediately apparent that prominent Black politicians like Councilmember Michael Julian Bond (the son of civil rights legend Julian Bond), would work overtime to frustrate our efforts by peppering media coverage with jabs at the law, despite him having voted for the measure.  Bond routinely rattled off talking points about bail reform leading to failures to appear in court despite raw data allegedly substantiating the claim never being made publicly available. 

Around the same time that bail reform passed, Mayor Bottoms established Progressive Agenda Working Group (PAWG) committees to fulfill one of her campaign promises. I co-chaired the criminal justice reform committee. We submitted our short, mid, and long-term goals over a period of weeks and at some point agreed to write a letter to the mayor in support of the work of Women on the Rise to close the city’s extra jail and build a community equity center in its place. The jail— built for 1996 Olympic Games to hide our poor and homeless in cages— held less than 5% of its capacity and at a price tag of $33 million annually was a tremendous waste of resources and space. The Mayor signed a resolution to establish the Task Force to Re-Imagine the Atlanta City Detention Center in May 2019 and I was honored to serve. 

After six months, our PAWG committee grew tired. Mayor Bottoms’ team did not always embrace our vision, becoming less and less accessible. Beyond initial proposals, the city took sparse action. We knew that without true investment, reforms would be attacked, perhaps successfully. Our inability to get on the same page with city leadership eventually led us to stop convening meetings. One silver lining, I felt, was that the jail task force was still meeting and doing good work. 

Then came 2020. Atlanta was burning. COVID-19 and the related nationwide rise in gun violence began to strangle the public safety narrative.  We warned officials that Reagan-era messaging was poisoning the well but our words fell on deaf ears. When uprisings against state violence swept Atlanta, we were disgusted by the scale of mass arrests under so-called progressive leadership. We didn’t understand why the mayor would implement a curfew and ask the governor to deploy the National Guard during a pandemic that would fill already overcrowded jails. 

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 As co-chair of Mayor Bottoms’ Use of Force Advisory Council that summer, we issued dozens of recommendations to address state violence, including one that APD eliminate their quota-based performance evaluation system in favor of incentivizing alternatives to arrest made possible by another community-powered program—Policing Alternatives & Diversion initiative

Around the time of the Advisory Council’s first meeting, Rayshard Brooks was killed by Officer Garrett Rolfe. City Council later listened to thousands of public comments in favor of Rayshard Brooks Bill which would hold police funds until certain reforms were implemented. They voted down the proposal. Mayor Bottoms eventually rolled out executive orders around the Advisory Council’s recommendations but after officer sick-outs protesting the arrest of Brooks’ killers, messaging still overwhelmingly centered “officer morale” instead of the suffering within communities. 

Today, four years after we heard the promise of Mayor Bottoms’ campaign, we are nearly back at square one. A new slate of candidates have presented their agenda for the “Black Mecca,” and nearly every one of them is running on a law-and-order platform opposing jail closure and promoting increased policing. 

What do the candidates support? A police and fire department training facility to be built by destroying 350 acres of green space roughly the size of Georgia Tech’s campus. The facility is set to be larger than similar facilities in Los Angeles and New York

On September 8, after nearly 17 hours of public comment overwhelmingly opposing “Cop City,” City Council–with some urging from Gov. Brian Kemp–approved the $90 million project 10-4, cementing the hard truth that the Atlanta Police Department and its foundation have ransomed public safety. Councilperson Joyce Sheperd, a Black woman, authored the legislation.

Every branch of city government has turned its back on Black Atlantans in favor of caving to alarmist politics either driven by white fear or capitalizing on inadequate violence intervention resources within Black communities. As Mayor Bottoms leaves office, the extra jail looms large and mostly empty, thousands face eviction, police budgets continue to rise, hundreds of protesters for Black lives have experienced the trauma of arrest and jailing during a pandemic, and the city is taking orders from seditionist sympathizers and the corporate Atlanta Police Foundation.

The perilous web woven by Atlanta’s Black misleadership class, white wealth, and law enforcement leaves justice-seeking communities weary. Yet we are determined to harness the power we have built until the day our leaders’ courage matches ours. 

Tiffany Roberts is an attorney-organizer in Atlanta, GA whose work focuses on community-based policy solutions to mass incarceration & state violence. She is currently Community Engagement & Movement-Building Counsel at non-profit law firm Southern Center for Human Rights and Chair of the Social Justice Ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

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