Blaming Atlanta "Cop City" Protests on "Outside Agitators" is Familiar and ShamefulRoundup
tags: civil rights, Atlanta, civil liberties, Police, Protest
Benjamin Stumpf is a doctoral student in political theory at the University of Connecticut-Storrs researching counterinsurgency and abolitionist organizing in the post-2020 period.
Popular resistance to Atlanta’s “Cop City” is growing. The proposed 85-acre police militarization compound, whose construction would destroy the city’s valued Weelaunee/South River Forest, has been consistently challenged through creative protest, education, and community organizing since local activists became aware of the city’s plans in 2020. Stop Cop City and Defend Atlanta Forest activists have deftly argued that the battle over the future of one of the nation’s largest urban forests “is not a local issue,” not only because the destruction of the Weelaunee Forest would set precedent for the destruction of other valued natural spaces in gentrifying cities across the United States, but also because Cop City would train police departments across the country (and possibly security forces around the world) in protest suppression and urban warfare techniques. This is no doubt concerning for many across the country, especially Black and Brown communities subjected to police brutality, as well as those moved to action by the Movement for Black Lives’ critique of the carceral status quo.
Facing increased repression following the state’s assassination of Forest Defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, Atlanta activists called for a “week of action” and mass convergence in the city and forest from March 4 – March 11, 2023, which would kick off with a music festival in the forest’s public park. But as activists, journalists, music lovers, and concerned citizens left for Georgia, the political and economic elites backing Cop City sought to discredit this resistance by returning to an old and familiar trope of counterinsurgent propaganda: the outside agitator.
The figure of the outside agitator haunts state stories about militant anti-racist protest. When we examine the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the 2020 George Floyd Uprising, or the current fight against Cop City, we see an effort to paint radical protest and dissent as driven by outsiders who come from out-of-town to stir up trouble. When protests have exceeded whatever bounds governing authorities have deemed acceptable, blame is often placed on an outsider figure in order to delegitimize and discredit protest as inauthentic and non-local. This is the outside agitator, a figure conjured and shaped by counterinsurgency and the racial regimes of US power.
The sun had begun to set on Sunday, March 5, 2023, when multiple heavily armed police agencies descended upon the family-friendly South River Music Festival and began to make arrests. In the ensuing chaos, 34 festival goers were detained, but 11 were released: all Atlanta locals. The remaining 23—21 of which were from out of state—were charged with domestic terrorism, supposedly in relation to acts of property destruction that occurred over a mile away from the festival where they were arrested. The attempted framing was clear: it is not authentic Atlantans who oppose Cop City, but troublesome outsiders who came here to be destructive. Indeed, “for months,” Madeline Thigpen writes, “politicians including Mayor Andre Dickens and Gov. Brian Kemp have characterized the Stop Cop City movement as being composed of ‘outside agitators.’”
Such framing recalls the criticisms leveraged against Civil Rights activists who traveled across the United States and crossed state lines to combat racial oppression in the struggle against Jim Crow apartheid. Consider Martin Luther King Jr., who during the 1950s and 1960s, traveled around the South to organize nonviolent, often illegal, demonstrations against segregation, inciting the ire of local authorities, who branded his disruption as outside agitation.
The representation of King as an outside agitator was a deeply racialized construction. It was meant to drive a wedge between militant Black activists like King and local Black residents—who were implicitly constructed as apolitical until King’s appearance. For example, in an open letter to King signed by eight Alabama religious leaders titled “A Call for Unity,” the authors denounced the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign as “a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders.” They claimed instead to agree with unnamed “certain local Negro leadership” who felt that a “facing of issues” should occur only among “citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro” and through the “proper channels,” rather than through collaboration with outsiders like King. King’s actions, they claimed, “incite to hate and violence” and ought to be rejected by “our own Negro community.”
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