A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

with an introduction by Joy James

Earlier this month, the Atlanta city council approved $67 million by an 11-4 vote to fund the controversial new police training facility nicknamed “Cop City.” The project, which was approved despite community protest, will destroy acres of forest to provide military-style training in assault tactics to Atlanta’s police.

The following is an open letter by Atlanta-based activist Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr. It is addressed to members of the clergy, but speaks to the challenges, principles, and strategies of activists opposed to the building of “Cop City.” It appears with an introduction by Prof. Joy James, a member of Logos’s editorial advisory board, which proves context for our publication of the letter.


Last March, I spoke at a University of Michigan conference, titled “Insurgent Research: Practice and Theory,” organized by Comp Lit doctoral students. The conference flyer showed a photograph of Atlanta protests against “Cop City” and a banner with the image of Tortuguita (Manuel Paez Teran), who was assassinated by Georgia state troopers in January 2023, while they sat unarmed with their hands in the air. After police forces slandered Tortuguita, falsely stating that they had shot a trooper in the leg, the traumatized family released the private autopsy: Troopers shot the meditating forest protector/communal caretaker 57 times. (People registered their concerns with Georgia State Patrol https://dps.georgia.gov/divisions/georgia-state-patrol.) My talk in Ann Arbor focused on resistance to (proto)fascism, from Mao’s 1941 statement on the “united front against fascism” through the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society 1969 attempts to fashion a united front against US fascism and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to the Black communities’ rights to self-defense today. As local police forces increased their use of lethal force and assassinations to derail freedom movements, a student conference table offered diverse literature and postcards for those swept up in mass arrests during and after the Atlanta music festival where police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) levied unsubstantiated “terrorism” charges against activists and advocates enjoying cultural events.

Several weeks after the conference, I travelled to Atlanta for an In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love book talk with beloved comrades working with ARC on reproductive rights and protections for LGBTQIA+ communities. In Atlanta, I met with forest protectors who knew Michigan students. At a café, over tea, Reverend Matthew (whose brilliant missive appears below), a young Black (fe)male anarchist, and I reflected how best to cope with and minimize tragedies inflicted by state violence.

During the conversation, I asked about security strategies for forest/community protectors and war resisters. I wondered aloud how to magnify concentric circles to protect the epicenter where risk-taking and Agape-driven actors hold space to shield Black working-class communities adjacent to the forest and gardens from a former prison farm and plantation (one would think that reparations due would allow the community to keep its communal lands). Activists are routinely brutalized or disappeared by predatory city/ county/state/federal police forces. While those devoted organizers hold the core, how might we as local, national, international communities and organizers increase our capacity to build rings of concentric circles that mobilize medical, legal, media and security to deflect state violence. Working to cushion the blows of predatory policing, how can I and my kin in outer rings deliver encompassing care and forms of security that radiate from the local community through the city, state, nation and international communities in ways that aid war resisters and deter predatory police forces. The proverbial ripples from the pebble thrown into the pond make legible movements that radiate beyond the spot in which the pebble drops.

Dishonor and torture by state violence will continue; so, we must provide security rings to deflect blows. We best face the predatory state by committing to encircle each other in care. Those who take the most risks to resist war should receive the most resources for self-defense. Conventional politicians— mayors and city councils— dishonor and endanger our lives, lands, and loved ones. Their mammon-like appetites for prestige and power— from payouts to pulpits and presidential politics —must be contained. Our devotion to the Beloved Community, despite our fears, will align with Agape — love as political will. We have capacity for struggles in diverse zones that interconnect caretaking, protests, movements, marronage, and war resistance. 

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his August 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta . . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Just as King saw it sixty years ago, this is an international struggle. The militarization of forests and gentrification of Black working-class communities reflect corporate and colonial ambitions. Police violence, arrests and executions disproportionately target Black/brown poor and working-classes. The militarization of society strips public funding for decent housing, education, food, employment, and culture and redirects funds towards entities such as the police foundations, and corporate entities. Black/brown compradors will continue to cash in on the colonization of cities until they are forced to stop their exploitation and greed. 

A security apparatus can protect not only lives but also international boycotts, recalls, referendums, primarying incumbents bought by corporations and military industries. Increasingly forced into marronage, with the theft of lands, waters and collective reparations, we mutate to better figure out how political kin and communities build concentric care and security. Officialdom marches the mass and communal caretakers into muddy waters. Through agency as Captive Maternals, we retain capacity to wade and evade the cesspools created by corporate donors and compradors. 


— Joy James, author of In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love, and New Bones Abolition: Captive Maternal Agency and the (After)Life of Erica Garner; her most recent article for Inquest is “The Rubik’s Cube of ‘Cop City.'”


A Letter of Concern to Black Clergy

Dear Siblings in the Faith,

I write to you during this Lenten season from my home in Atlanta. I write with a heavy heart, having lost friends to jail under false charges and one to murder, covered up poorly by police. I pray without ceasing for those who are still under arrest, denied bail, deemed a threat to the community for no good reason. I pray that the mother of the slain, Belkis Terán, a devout Catholic, know who her child truly was, despite the misinformation swirling around their death. Tortuguita was murdered, shot over a dozen times with their hands raised and their legs crossed. May the bullet holes through their palms, holy stigmata, be a reminder that their child was a servant of God. 

In Atlanta, we find ourselves in a struggle at the intersection of climate change, police militarization, racialized police violence, and environmental racism: The movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest and to Stop Cop City. I have never been so certain that Jesus is guiding my path, but that path has most often been far from the church. That is certainly not Jesus’s problem, nor do I believe that it is a me-problem. After much reflection and patience, I have come to believe that it is Atlanta’s well-established Black Churches that ought to examine themselves. After two years of protest, a year and a half of a forest occupation, over forty people arrested for domestic terrorism without one injury to a living being, and a murder by police, the only thing that stirred respectable Black Clergy to mumble a word was the destruction of property being used to flout the will of the people most affected.  Many others remain silent. 

In order to curry favor and privilege with corporate interests and Black faces in high places, Atlanta’s Black churches have been silent for decades of iniquity. Whatever they have gained is miniscule in comparison to the amount of wealth, opportunity, and life chances expropriated from the Black masses who continue to build this city. The time for silence in the face of systemic injustice in exchange for a few sterling examples of Black Excellence is over. I have been back home in Atlanta since 2019 before I chose to say one word of criticism.  

Atlanta’s racial consciousness exists with a profound cognitive dissonance. On one hand, we are proud to elect politicians, appoint government officials, and promote some corporate leaders from Atlanta’s Black population. On the other hand, we are not blind to the fact that these immense efforts failed to stem the tide of inequality and systemic injustice that maintain the largest racial income gap of a major city in the United States. While we do not want to call out our folk who “made it”, we begin to wonder whether these leaders are unable or unwilling to make the changes we need. While we hoped they would bring us closer to liberation, it too often appears that these Black leaders’ position, power, and status is predicated on their ability and willingness to keep the rest of us in line. 

Greater disparities in wealth and increasing state violence show cracks in this façade of peace and raise questions about the veracity of this oft-repeated claim of Atlanta as the Black Mecca. The long-standing unwillingness at the national, state, and local level to allocate resources to social programs now provide the justification for another policy decision that makes our world more violent. The wealthy and corporations see the development of a militarized police training facility as the only means to keep themselves and their wealth safe. The false scarcity and unresponsiveness to the needs of the people created by corporate greed necessitates the state violence required to maintain itself. This is the role that the police are being trained to fulfill. Continued investment in this cycle of violence will only perpetuate violence and the widening gap between have’s and have-not’s.  

In order to push forward these widely unpopular ideas, the wealthy and powerful send the Black Political Class and a host of pre-approved community leaders who are ingratiated to them. Whether it is for wealth, power, status, or for continued patronage of valuable community work, Black leaders often make political compromises deleterious to the Black masses in order to, at best, benefit a small segment of our people. After watching the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta mobilize so quickly on March 10th, following interfaith leaders gathering on March 6th in front of City Hall, and a Black activist-led mobilization on March 9th, it was dreadfully obvious what their role was. They came to stamp out opposition to a militarized police training facility in a Black neighborhood already feeling disproportionate impact of environmental degradation. 

Let’s be clear: no matter how many Black clergy or politicians they put in front of this project, the wealthy private citizens, ownership of the corporations, and decision-makers of foundations that support this project are overwhelmingly White; they simply have the resources to buy off more influential Black people to put out front to mislead others. We cannot allow our elders to invoke the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s to disparage the struggles and tactics of a completely different time without scrutiny in the name of respectability. It is time we ask our heroes of yesteryear what they are doing now if they continue to act as representatives of our people in the present.

We often find a subtle contradiction among such senior clergy: while they speak about how long they have been involved in activism, they talk about the need for forging new relationships to transform the system. If you have been so deeply involved and connected to the system, how on Earth did things get so bad? If you have been so deeply involved for so long with things getting so bad, why on Earth should we believe that you are the people that will be able to do a new thing? My journey leads me to question the fitness of past generations to speak to the popular struggles of the past decade.

2 Timothy 2:15

I do not come to ministry lightly. By virtue of the assignment, being ordained implies that you accepted a calling to speak on behalf of the most powerful being in the universe, the most expansive being and thought that any being could ever conceive of. In order to take such an assignment you must be certain, arrogant beyond belief, out of your mind, or not believe that God exists. I am certain of that call, and I know that God Exists (I am open to arguments). I fully understand the assignment. I have worked for some time to prepare myself for it as best as I could. 

I am no “outside agitator”. I attended Morehouse College where I was President of the debate team and a coach of Grady High School’s speech and debate team years before God called me. My basis for understanding the world around me was firmly grounded in reason. When God spoke to me, I examined every other possibility of my experience. I spent years learning about the world around me and learning skills outside of church walls before graduate education to prepare for ministry. I received a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago and returned to Atlanta in the Summer of 2019. 

By January 2019, in Hyde Park, performing my morning prayers facing south, I knew God was calling me back to Atlanta. I faced significant harassment when I was in Chicago. This was not simply for political and theological beliefs; my real offence was my commitment to learning the requisite skills and competencies to actualize societal changes. I have been all too familiar with ministers who spoke to the concerns of Black people but lacked interest, capacity, will, skill, or knowledge to enact the changes they talked about. These people are not a threat to the system; they say all the right things but cannot execute any of them. I resolved to prepare as best I could to build a world in line with the vision of societal transformation Jesus cast. I have continued to learn, prepare, and practice in ways that are reflective of the world I want to see. I have tried my best to understand who Jesus was and find out how to follow his example; too many co-laborers spent more time building a platform to reach people without the foundation to know what to say.

When I returned to Atlanta in the summer of 2019, a local Pastor of a well-established Black Church, whom I knew from family connections, asked me to preach for him. He explained to me that a member whom he never knew to have means gave $25,000 on the Sunday I visited in the Spring. I sat by the man and we spoke that Sunday, and the pastor said that he saw me as a “good luck charm”. Although I was not yet convinced that this was where I should stay, I decided that it was where I would plant my feet as I discerned next steps in ministry. 

I began to seek pastorate positions in February 2020. The pandemic quickly paused that search, and I spent the next few months diligently supporting my current church community in many ways, including but not limited to teaching weekly bible studies. I also deepened my support of an organization primarily comprised of “far left” activists who were delivering food to families that were primarily working-class Black folks. This group did not have resources from the city or any other large organizations as many other churches did, but we delivered more groceries at the height of the pandemic lockdown than churches with much greater capacity. Meanwhile, the church I worked with shut down its food distribution program during this same period.  

I remember the Sunday after the George Floyd Rebellions started and I attempted to explain what I saw near the CNN Center. I saw police firing pepper spray indiscriminately, using violence disproportionately with no adequate response to people emboldened to protest their treatment en masse. Even if the reader believes that arbitrary violence against people is a reasonable response to property destruction, I left that evening before any police cars were set on fire. What I saw was wrong done by police that were panicked, but unlike other people who use violence when they are panicked, law enforcement officers are protected by the state and do not lose years of their lives in prison when they make such mistakes. 

I never got time to explain what I saw that day. As I began to explain, the Pastor quickly interjected in our Zoom service, and he messaged me that he would address the protests later. The only thing that he said in the moment was “people seem most worried about property destruction, but should be worried about the value of human life”. That was it. In the face of the largest demonstrations against state violence in recorded history, my pastor gave a quippy one-liner and moved on with his sermon as if the world was not burning all around him. Although I had been teaching Wednesday night Bible studies almost every week for the past two months of the pandemic, those weekly invitations disappeared. Perhaps we both knew that my assignment and this well-established church would not align. 

Shortly after Rayshard Brooks was murdered by Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, I met a young activist that was only armed with a megaphone at a protest that was headed toward APD’s Third Precinct. I gave him a respirator since the police liberally used tear gas during protests in those days, and told him that he could reach me if he ever needed support. We stayed in touch, and he asked me to come to Rayshard Brooks’ funeral along with him. As we sat in Ebenezer Baptist Church and watched speaker after speaker give their respects and proceed through the program, the young activist looked over to me and said, “Do you think they would have ever welcomed Rayshard here if he weren’t killed by the police?” He understood the deep class divide that existed in Atlanta’s most internationally known church, the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Such events were politically expedient while Rev. Dr. Warnock was running for office as a progressive, but his critiques of police brutality and militarism faded as Senator Warnock settled into office. That young activist named Antonio Lewis that spoke boldly against police brutality and Cop City on the campaign trail said nothing when he became Councilman Antonio Lewis. Garret Rolfe, the officer that shot Rayshard Brooks in the back, received backpay and was reinstated as an APD officer on his watch. Now Councilman Lewis spouts conspiracy theories about protestors sabotaging critical infrastructure as he supports Cop City, pads the pockets of police officers, and funds APF projects that further the surveillance of Black Communities. 

While Warnock and Lewis claimed that they would change things from the inside, they are the ones who changed. Police killings across America, the murder rate in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Police budget disproportionately were rising since 2020. Our communities are no safer, but Sen. Warnock and Councilman Lewis gained notoriety. I expect little from politicians, especially without strong checks from community voices that hold politicians accountable to what they said they would do before they got in office. I expect the most ardent advocacy from those who commit to the ultimate reality beyond this plane of existence, yet the clergy have let us down yet again in the fight against America’s modern, militarized policing apparatus.

Many of the people whom I have organized with over the past three years only learned that I am ordained Baptist clergy in the past few months. Over the past three years, I did not offer unsolicited feedback; I did not tell people how things should be done based on how things were once done; I did not rush to podiums or seek out interviews; I did not assume that I knew the answers simply because I was in a position of influence. Over the past three years, I helped and listened where I saw worthwhile work being done. I asked questions where I did not understand the situation. I waited to speak until we were facing unprecedented repression; I voiced internal criticism and encouraged holistic, critical thinking about our predicament when disagreements on tactics and strategy arose. This order of operations, based on discernment, empathy, and introspection is more in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ than an approach characterized by bolstering the credibility of worldly power, rash judgement of a movement with little to no research on policing or environmental impact, and a lack of scrutiny or calls for tangible policy change to advance systemic justice. The latter approach is the common characterization of clergy many activists held, informed by their personal experiences.

The ministers who gathered on March 10th in reaction to the Faith Coalition of Forest Defenders and the prior night’s Black-led protest to Stop Cop City should be embarrassed to only raise their voices about policing in the United States at this juncture. Atlanta’s Black leadership class became so obsessed with maintaining relationships with people in power, that they were willing to sacrifice their responsibility to speak truth to those powers. Thus, you end up with the Blackest city in America having the largest racial income disparity in the country, continually contaminated water supply, widespread displacement of legacy residents, and corporate outside agitators, bringing employees from elsewhere at far higher salaries with no tangible benefits to the neighborhoods they settle in, driving up the cost of everything. It appears outsiders only become agitating to our government when they are questioning the power structures that legitimate racialized capitalism. 

Do not expect me to publicly condemn property destruction of equipment being used to destroy public property against the will of the public. Furthermore, the destruction of this publicly owned land builds capacity for law enforcement that fails to respect the sanctity of human life and a commitment to nonviolence. Police routinely destroy and confiscate protestor-owned property and dole out unreciprocated violence as we wage the fight to Stop Cop City. However, many have deluded themselves into believing that this asymmetrical warfare against the public is justice, and this is reinforced in multiple facets of our society.

People fighting for a better tomorrow with no sanctioned power to defend themselves are consistently faced with moral purity tests in the media while people who have a state-sanctioned monopoly on violence are never asked to commit to non-violent strategies. The people who have no protection under the law are expected to act with unflinching pacifism while militarized police forces, each receiving millions of dollars to learn to not use excessive force, are constantly given the benefit of the doubt when they do. We are accustomed to the asymmetry of asking people who are part of decentralized movements to justify the tactics of people whom they have no control over, while politicians such as Andre Dickens and Antonio Lewis go without questioning on Garret Rolfe being rehired and receiving backpay from APD after being elected to their current offices. Both supported measures to reallocate police funding and condemned the murder of Rayshard Brooks when it was politically expedient. A government, corporate, media, or clerical apparatus that reinforces such asymmetry has no moral authority to condemn the Movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City.

When we see Atlanta City Council and consecutive mayors vote in favor of this training facility and/or refuse to speak out, despite widespread opposition, I have no empirical evidence that the electoral process will reflect the will of the people rather than monied private and corporate influence. When we have seen Ryan Milsap continue work on contested public land after a Dekalb County Stop Work Order, David Wilkinson push forward with a land disturbance permit despite an appeal to Dekalb County, and judges deny bond to protestors with no evidence to deem them a threat to the community, I have no empirical evidence that our judicial system will protect the will of the people. I have personally dealt with police harassment and repression without committing one crime. I have no empirical evidence to tell activists and organizers that widely accepted means of protest or their innovative strategies will shield them from excessive force or repression. It is not reason, it is not faith, but a failure of nerve, delusion, or preservation of privileged access that leads clergy to mention systemic injustice in general but condemn individual “sins” of protesters in particular. Such rhetorical strategies work to discredit movements that contain multitudes, while people called to be mouthpieces of God use their moral authority to ingratiate themselves to worldly powers, failing to speak truth to them as they were called to do.

Ecclesiastes 4:13

Despite deep concern with the patterns of engagement I have seen with clergy cozying up to power and privilege rather than investigating these facets of society with a critical eye, I have not directly criticized  clergy, especially our elders, affording grace and patience in things that I may not see. Granted, there are many things that I may still not understand, but I have seen enough to know that many of our elders speak out of a lack of knowledge and desire to be associated with power and prestige. I will focus here on conversations I had with Rev Dr. Gerald Durley and the speech I watched Rev. Timothy McDonald give on March 10. Both are well-esteemed members of the community and members of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, and from their comments, I believe that these elders could benefit from research and self-reflection.

I have spoken with Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley three times in the past year or so. Once at a fundraiser in Spring 2022, once shortly before the March 4-11 Week of Action, and once on March 25th. I initiated the conversation each time. In the first conversation, I explained to him the importance of supporting local, grassroots organizing to instill a sense of agency in everyday people to effectively create political change, the second conversation I just listened, and the third time I explained the environmental impact and racism that the Cop City project furthered. The first time Rev. Durley explained to me how he was working with Rev. Warnock’s campaign, the second time we spoke he told me of how the Mayor came to speak with the Concerned Black Clergy and mentioned his recent engagement with President Biden and Rev Warnock, and in the last conversation he spoke to me about his association with important people who were also in support of Cop City as he called claims I made from credible research “erroneous”. I think it worth mentioning that the one common thread in the conversations is Rev. Dr. Durley emphasizing his relationship with important people rather than what these relationships yield for the people. I hypothesize that he confused the means as the end in political relationships: rather than using esteem with political power to provide access for the people, it seemed that Dr. Durley has leveraged esteem with the people to access political power as the end goal.

I was not sure whether or not he knew it, so I explained that I had been involved with the movement to Stop Cop City. I noted that I was not able to watch the entire press conference, only a portion that was primarily Rev. McDonald speaking. I noted that there were some things he said that I did not find disagreeable at all. I noted that I would like to have a deeper conversation with the Concerned Black Clergy, because if we cannot have a reasoned dialogue based on the information, who can? He did not respond to this request but instead questioned me on why I opposed the project. I explained to him the environmental impact and the history of the court cases with the Stop Cop City and Stop the Swap coalitions. He asked where I got my information from. Before I could go into detail about the research I have been doing for two years, he cut me off to tell me the claims I made were “erroneous”. He then explained how he worked with groups such as the Sierra Club and GreenPeace. I then explained to him that both groups publicly supported the movement to Stop Cop City. He then mentioned other respectable individuals that are supporting the project to which I responded, “I am not a respecter of persons, but I do my research”. He then explained that he had to go after he initiated a conversation that I only hoped to schedule for the future. 

As it turns out, Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley accepted a seat on the new Advisory Committee for Cop City before we had this conversation. Also, I understand why Dr. Durley would be so quick to dismiss the claims of environmental degradation. The same EPA administrator, Daniel Blackman, who was unresponsive to the South River Watershed Alliance’s demand that the Clean Water Act be enforced is on the Board of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta. The future of a city and Black People are at stake. I have the impression that Dr. Durley has not done his research. When an honest man is faced with the truth, he must change or cease to be honest. 

Rev. Timothy McDonald’s speech reflect talking points that the City of Atlanta has brought forth without ever being subject to scrutiny. There are also some points that Rev. McDonald brings up that are in line with the values of the people protesting Cop City, however, there are some preconceived notions that the Reverend holds that are inaccurate. I quote Rev. McDonald from March 10— “Rev James Orange would always say Look out for Antifa. . .” — to raise questions about the premises of these arguments. Rev. McDonald explained his unwillingness to stand up for the people that have been arrested under domestic terrorism charges, painting them with a broad, uninformed brush. Antifa means Antifascist. He fails to acknowledge that there has been virtually no evidence tying any jailed individual to violent crime or property destruction. Given his stance on Cop City, Rev. McDonald does not hold local and state law enforcement and government to the same moral standard whereas they have destroyed evidence, property, and have a long-standing history of assaulting and disappearing activists. People identifying themselves as Antifa have been most active protecting Civil Rights protests, far-right counter protests, and LGBTQIA events. This caution from Rev. Orange is a bit out of place. Rev James Orange, God rest his soul, died in 2008. If this is the most recent example that Rev. McDonald can think to reference clergy concerns during street protests, he should cede the microphone to clergy better in touch with organizers and activists from the past 15 years.

“I see [the training facility] as an opportunity for the community to make a template of how we can do law enforcement. Imagine, if you will, the city of Atlanta working with the faith community, working with community organizers, with community leaders, sitting down with law enforcement, and talking about how training ought to look!” 

What have the Concerned Black Clergy been doing when sitting down with the City of Atlanta thus far? Why should we believe that a training facility whose infrastructure is geared toward militarized training in real-world cityscapes is needed in order to have conversations with community stakeholders? And if there is already a blueprint for the facility made, what leads Rev. McDonald to believe that they have not already determined what the priorities for training are? That’s like having a discussion of what you envision for your home after the blueprint and layout is finalized. Furthermore, community organizers and voices of opposition have never been invited to these conversations.  The major point of contention is whether this project should move forward, and the conversation is presupposing that it should and will happen. In other words, the only conversation that the Mayor and the City are willing to have inherently rejects the majority opinion.

“You do not need a gun in every situation.” 

This statement calls for reforms to public safety. However, police literally bring a gun in every situation. This statement is precisely what people have been saying about overinvestment in police. Police are consistently asked to involve themselves in situations that have nothing to do with their training. We need groups of people with training in other fields to handle these situations, rather than someone with a gun and the threat of force as their primary means of engagement.

“The God that we serve is getting ready to do a new thing.”

Rev. McDonald, I could not agree more. However, all the things that Rev. McDonald mentions are piecemeal reforms that many people with close ties to government officials from the Black Community promised before, and it never amounts to anything. Meanwhile, police budgets have ballooned, the equipment has become more militarized and expensive while we are no safer. Spending more and more money on policing is not a new thing. Investing in communities and new and creative ways to keep our communities safe is new. That is precisely what we are proposing. Rev. McDonald, is supporting the old system that continues to fail us while promoting reforms people have been promised around the country to no avail.

“This is not just about the police. Our fire training facility has been condemned.”

Is anyone arguing against the fire department having a new training facility? No. The lion’s share of Cop City is allocated to the police. If the fire facility building is condemned, then why can’t a new facility just be built where the previous one is condemned? Why do we need this tacked on to the wildly unpopular training facility proposed for the police? It’s called Cop City for a reason. The mock city that will be used for urban warfare drills is larger than the entire facility that will serve the needs for the fire department. 

“How are you going to have people come in internationally and tell us Atlanta, tax payers, what to do?”

 This is a statement regarding two people arrested under domestic terrorism charges from outside the US. However, this is precisely what happens with international corporations in Atlanta, endangering our natural resources for their profits. Atlanta was named the most overpriced housing market in the country, prices driven up by investor-owned rental companies, extracting wealth where Black Families could be building it. Their aggressive strategies to buy up real estate in Atlanta has increased the burden on the taxpayers in Atlanta, but these issues that do harm to Atlantans are not what Rev. McDonald holds a press conference to address. These corporate interests have undue influence in our legislation, maintain flat wages for working class Black families, and pump money into law enforcement foundations that invest in a more punitive, surveillance state rather than social services, receiving tax credits for doing so. International corporations continually work to undercut our social safety net and efforts to secure livable wages while patting themselves on the back for donating a penance of what they have pilfered through policy back into well-meaning nonprofit organizations. In fact, the most common form of theft in the United States is wage theft by employers, but that is not treated as a serious criminal offense. 

Police are the frontliners to reinforce these social injustices that rich and powerful private interests reify by expenditure in government and law enforcement. Eliminating basic scarcity of community resources proves a far more effective crime reduction strategy than militarized policing, but that is not as profitable as cheap labor and imprisonment of the poor. The reason why people have such hostile feelings toward the police is an understanding that they are not being mobilized to keep people safe but more so to protect ill-gotten private property and enforce a legal system that devours the poor, setting them up for continued exploitation.

“These men and women are not afraid to stand for justice, to stand for truth, and stand against the powers that be. . . . I’m glad we got a mayor that listens, and we’re going to make sure that he listens, he has a faith liaison that’s a part of us that’s going to make sure that he listens. . . “

Rev. McDonald, my brother in Christ, you are accommodating the powers that be. The mayor listens because the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta are telling him what he wants to hear. Despite the immense social problems aforementioned in Atlanta, the most significant mobilization from this group was called to shout down dissent against Cop City. The Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta are supporting a project that increases capacity for militarized police training while they give no tangible reason to believe that they will impact the curriculum for police training. Furthermore, Rev. McDonald’s speech failed to address any of the systemic issues that lead to so many of our Black Children getting stuck in the system from their teenage years. The Atlanta Police department uses a point system to evaluate job performance in which answering service calls count for a quarter of a point while arresting a juvenile counts for five points. Why on Earth would clergy want people to support a facility that will better train police in a system that heavily incentivizes incarcerating children over arriving orderly where people actually ask for police presence? Georgia incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on the face of the earth, and before any policy changes, the people who represent God blindly say: “Yes, we need more resources for the people doing that!” Essentially, these clergy are assuring the community that the bullet wound that is policing in America will heal because the Mayor promised them a band aid.  

Rev. McDonald cites the mayor’s advisory committee, which is the second iteration of a committee that presupposes the continued development of a project whose very existence is the contentious issue. In the initial Community Stakeholder’s Advisory Committee (CSAC). The one person with qualifications to assess the environmental impact of the militarized training facility, Lily Ponitz, left the committee because of her concerns with the project. Another person who remained on the committee, Amy Taylor, filed the appeal for Dekalb County’s Land Disturbance Permit. Yet, the project continues to move forward. There is no reason to believe that their recommendations or outcry will make a difference in the Atlanta Police Foundation’s decisions for the project. We have heard these empty promises for police accountability that are rarely pursued at all by committees packed with folks that would choose acquiescence rather than risk their status by holding powerful people accountable. 

Matthew 6:21

The questions still remain: How did things get this bad with these same ministers being so cozy with power? I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it is a lack of knowledge that inhibits them from speaking truth to power. Perhaps they do not know how derelict the government has been in its duties. On the other hand, it may be to maintain their own positions and institutional benefits. Many organizations and churches receive benefits from the city, foundations, and corporations because of their willingness to turn a blind eye to rampant corruption. Or perhaps our leaders are so enamored with having a seat at the table they dare not make any demands, lest they will lose their dinner invitation. I have often witnessed pastors speak far outside of their depth and fail to do the research necessary to speak wisely. There is danger in pastors using their pulpit to address wide-ranging issues without broad based study and understanding. This is what I encountered speaking to Rev. Dr. Durley and listening to Rev. McDonald. This is not to disparage the ways that they contribute to the community otherwise. This is to address where they spoke without the requisite information to have an informed opinion, and they were too proud to listen to other voices. If they had previous knowledge about the project, why did they wait until now to say a word? It was not when people were being charged for domestic terrorism for nonviolent existence in a public park, it was not when there was a murder at the hands of police, but when people set fire to private property of corporations. 

What should this lead me to believe about their values?

If the March 4-11 Week of action was the first time they heard about Cop City, it is simply more evidence of how out of touch they are in the first place. If they heard and stayed silent, which I will not assume, it is damning to their moral fiber. I can no longer mince words. Seniority in the church does not exempt you from criticism. It was the elders who killed Jesus in his thirties because he was too disruptive to their cozy existence in Roman-occupied Palestine, and we should never forget that.

The ultimate concern I have is not the disappointing engagement of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta; they are indicative of a wider trend. Many of the most esteemed and well-established Black pulpits across the country cannot discern the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Mainstream Democratic (and sometimes Republican) talking points. They believe that this accommodation to the powers of this world is wisdom when it is akin to idolatry. Overcoming the current conditions of Black America requires astute political analysis. We must determine our own political goals rather than doing what is comfortable or advantageous for short-term resources and political positioning.  The Realm of God on Earth will not have a Cop City. The ultimate aim of our work ought to be creating a world less dependent on militarized policing or policing of any kind to keep one another safe. Cop City is a step in the wrong direction. We must protect the environment in Black Communities for the generations to come. Cop City is a step in the wrong direction. We cannot fly the blood-stained banner of Jesus Christ (or any prophet or deity I have ever heard of!) to support a project that goes against all generations of social justice organizers and activists who have fought for the past decade. Cop City is a step in the wrong direction. 

Engagement in the real world requires nuance. However, the world’s systems of power and distribution of resources isare too far out of balance to think that furthering the capacity for state violence will address our problems. We must seek new ways to address social problems. If more gear and more money for police were the answer, we would have solved the problems by now. Many pastors are afraid to speak out because of ties to the criminal justice system and law enforcement that sustain their church. However, if a pastor is qualifying what he/she/they say about injustice to accommodate the powers that be from the pulpit, they already lost their moral authority. Continued accommodation simply leads to the Church becoming a well-meaning organization with compromised interests just like so many other nonprofit organizations without a commitment to one of the most radical thinkers of a new society that ever walked this Earth: Jesus Christ of Nazareth. 

If someone wants to run a nonprofit organization that is able to provide resources to the Black community because they do not offend the powers-that-be, be my guest! Just don’t call it a church. To invoke the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to advocate for a training facility that allocates an inordinate proportion of its space for further militarization of police is a mockery of the pursuit of the Beloved Community. Let us honor Atlanta’s Prophet and the Savior of the World by joining the fight to Stop Cop City.

Your Brother in Christ, 

Rev. Matthew V. Johnson Jr.

Matthew Johnson is a minister and organizer in Atlanta, GA. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Morehouse College in 2011 and a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago before returning to Atlanta in 2019. Before returning to graduate school, Matthew worked as a consultant, studying economic development and politics in developing countries with a specific focus in Subsaharan Africa. Currently, Matthew serves as a minister for the Church of the Common Ground, serving Atlanta’s houseless population in the City Center, and Interim Executive Director of Beloved Community Ministries.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

By Zillah Eisenstein: Newest Misogyny/Ies

By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

By Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr: A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

By Benjamin Shepard: On Cities Of Friends And Riots: Between Conflict, Solidarity, And Struggles For Recognition

By Sabby Sagal: REVIEW ESSAY: Dostoevsky as Political Agitator: Alex Chistofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

By Mario Kessler: Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke. New York: Polity Press, 2023

By Warren Leming: Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster 2022)

By Kurt Jacobsen: John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.