Stop Cop City SXSW
“Andre Dickens, G.O.P. Stooge, Stop Cop City,” banner unfurled at SXSW session. Photo credit: Kit O’Connell / Instagram

In Austin, TX, to discuss city-state government conflict, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens was forced to flee the popular convention after protesters chanted, unfurled a massive banner, and distributed flyers demanding an end to “Cop City.”

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Earlier this month, a group of protesters at a conference in Texas challenged the mayor of Atlanta over the city’s ongoing plans to build a massive training center for police and other law enforcement agencies, eventually forcing Andre Dickens to leave the event entirely.  

The direct action took place at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual conference, film, and music festival in Austin, TX, at a ballroom of the downtown Hilton hotel (one of several sites where the conference occurs). The panel discussion was intended to be about conflict between city and state governments. Instead the audience received a very different lesson in civic engagement, as the Austin chapter of the Weelaunee Defense Society, an activist group devoted to the national “Stop Cop City” movement, would soon dramatically change the agenda.

In addition to Dickens, other panel guests included Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval and Tishaura Jones, mayor of St. Louis. Christian Menefee, the progressive county attorney from Harris County, acted as the panel’s moderator. After introducing himself and the other panelists, Menefee asked the mayors to discuss some of the challenges they have to navigate in working with sometimes hostile governors. But the protesters began their action just as Dickens began to speak, standing up one by one to interrupt him with demands that he halt the construction of Cop City, or to chant or just make noise. One accused Dickens of murdering Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, an environmental activist shot 57 times and killed by Georgia State Troopers during protests against Cop City. 

“I’m a murderer?” Dickens could be heard exclaiming, seemingly taken aback by the sudden reference to the killing. 

At first, Dickens attempted to respond to the protesters, or continue to answer Menefee’s question, but it was soon too loud for him to be heard at all, as more and more activists stood up from the crowd, with about a dozen having successfully infiltrated the event. Access to the SXSW is normally heavily restricted, and tickets cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. 

Since 2021, protesters in Georgia have attempted to block the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, popularly known as Cop City. Despite the protests, construction has begun on the 65-acre facility, which is being built in the South River Forest, a massive urban forest just outside of Atlanta in DeKalb County.

Prior to the forced removal of tens of thousands of Native peoples through the so-called Trail of Tears, the Muscogee-area residents referred to the region as Weelaunee, or “place of brown water.” The site is also the former location of a prison farm. The anti-Cop City actions have brought together those who seek to reform or defund the police with environmental activists horrified at the destruction of one of the largest urban forests in the United States. In February last year, Alex Ip, publisher of the online science publication The Xylom, systematically refuted Atlanta’s claims that the Cop City project is sustainable or represents good land stewardship.

As the protest escalated, the Defense Society members scattered flyers explaining objections to the training center, while chanting “Stop Cop City,” “Viva Viva Tortugita!” and “Free Jack!” The last is a reference to the arrest of activist John “Jack” Mazurek during a police raid of activist houses in February. Mazurek is being held without bail, accused of participating in arson attacks on Cop City construction equipment. But activists say the raids are part of escalating repression of the protests.

Currently, dozens of activists and organizers in the movement face RICO charges, an almost unprecedented use of this law originally meant for dismantling organized crime.  

As SXSW organizers and security tried in vain to stop the disruption, protesters upped the ante even further by unfurling a massive banner that completely blocked the view of the panel stage. It read “Andre Dickens, GOP Stooge, Stop Cop City” in black painted letters. It was about this time that Dickens left the conference room. Activists followed him, marching up and down the halls as Austin Police officers quickly arrived, but they also failed to stop the protest and did not make any arrests. 

When Dickens left the conference room, he found about a half dozen more protesters waiting to greet him in the hallway outside. 

“I think it went really well, we expected a much heavier security presence,” one of the protesters told me via the encrypted messaging app Signal. (I’ve agreed to refer to her just as “L,” in order to protect her from police repression). 

“It was really funny watching Andre Dickens scramble outside, only to find more angry voices,” she said. “It was also really refreshing to be approached after the protest by a bystander who supported our message.”

“It appealed to me because I’ve lost a family member to state violence,” the Austin resident told me, when I asked why she’d gotten involved with the Stop Cop City cause. She said dozens of other American cities, including Dallas, are planning similar police training centers

“Studies have shown outdoor gun ranges cause heavy metal pollution to whatever lands they’re build on,” L said. “Cop City is not only a threat to the people, but it is also an environmental threat.”

Neither SXSW nor Andre Dickens’s communications team had responded to emailed requests from Deceleration by deadline.

This story by Kit O’Connell was originally published by Deceleration and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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