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In Atlanta, Police Violence Ties Together Protests for Gaza, Stop Cop City

Emory University students and others gathered to pitch tents at 7:30 a.m. on April 25. Within minutes, university police arrived on the quad, but the students were undeterred. One tent, then two tents, went up in quick succession. Within an hour, more than a dozen tents had been pitched, and at least 100 people had gathered on Emory’s quad, with more on the way. The first ominous signs of police engagement loomed, as police could be seen on walkie-talkies, gathering near the administration building.

Students unfurled banners reading “No cop city,” “No genocide,” “Defend the forest,” “Gaza solidarity encampment,” and began recording social media messages. They were not surprised when the Atlanta police arrived on campus, just as they had barely a year before to clear a similar encampment protesting Cop City. 

However, the students did not expect Georgia state troopers to appear alongside Atlanta police. All of this police power, called in by the Emory administration and the Emory police, was intended to silence student demands that Emory divest from apartheid Israel and to quash students’ constitutional right to protest against the United States–funded genocide of Palestinians by Israel.

Less than three hours after students established the camp, the police struck. They sprayed pepper balls at students and supporters. Police violently arrested students as well as faculty who had gathered to observe and support students’ First Amendment rights. Four of the first seven arrests were students from historic Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who had joined the encampment. To those of us watching the police response, it was obvious that these students in particular were targeted for being Black and on Emory’s campus.

One protester was tased, and another was put in a chokehold. After 45 minutes, student tents were dismantled and their banners ripped apart. In all, 28 people were arrested that day. The encampment was over, but the protests continued. For several days, students and community members from across Atlanta gathered at Emory to hold marches, festivals, speak-outs, and teach-ins to keep the momentum going.

This grit by students and others did not appear overnight. For the last two years, Atlanta students—at Emory and elsewhere—have been actively involved in the movement to Stop Cop City, preparing for moments like this when the police would be called in to demolish their civil rights.

Students understood that the role of the police was to protect the university’s property. The police did not care that the demonstrators were speaking out in the name of the 40,000 people killed in Gaza. The police showed no interest in reason, despite demonstrators’ efforts to make clear that dropping U.S.-made bombs to destroy hospitals, universities, and apartment buildings has nothing to do with protecting Israel and everything to do with the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians for their land. The students in Atlanta understood the connections between militarism, war in foreign lands, and militarized police in southwest Atlanta.

In the past few years, Atlanta’s student movement has matured with struggle both on and off Emory’s campus, and lessons were already learned that helped create the collective conviction, which has led to continued protests. That day, students reminded the police that their conviction cannot be put down by one act of brutality.

When the Emory encampment was cleared in late April, it was the fastest and one of the most brutal responses against campus protests spreading across the country. But in the context of the history of Atlanta, the universities, and the city’s response to protest, this violence—and the resistance required to withstand it—is hardly surprising.

Of the many prestigious colleges and universities in and around Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse represent some of the leading HBCUs in the country. Georgia Tech is Atlanta’s engineering and technical hub, and Georgia State is considered an entry point for working-class students seeking to advance their career goals. Emory stands out as the elite university, known as one of the “Southern Ivies,” a group of schools in the South that are comparable to their northern counterparts in prestige and selectivity. Emory’s endowment is the 12th largest of any university in the U.S.

Each of these Atlanta institutions has its own history of student protest, but none has gained a reputation for being an incubator for radical student movements. However, radical student activity in Atlanta has gained strength in recent years as it has increasingly focused on the struggle against police violence. Students at the Atlanta University System (the HBCU hub of Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, and Clark universities) were involved in the George Floyd uprisings in 2020. On May 20, 2023, two Atlanta University Center students were violently pulled from their cars and arrested by Atlanta police. The encounter was captured on a video that went viral. None of the six officers involved in the incident were charged, though two were fired.

The 2023 killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a forest defender killed by the Atlanta police, led to widespread attention on the Stop Cop City movement. Morehouse and Spelman students organized a protest denouncing the military-style training center at a Morehouse campus event. This led to a hastily planned event by the mayor of Atlanta and the Morehouse administration, in which the mayor, police chief, and other administrators tried to convince Black students at Morehouse that military-style trained police were good for the Black community. The event was interrupted several times by students, one of whom called the mayor a “sellout.” Following these early protests, students across Atlanta began to organize together, linking their struggles across campuses and the city.

These events have given students a more radical and intersectional understanding of their struggle. It also solidified a view that police, military, and capital development are working together to control resources, people, and property. Students began to see the fight to Stop Cop City as not merely about a singular facility, but a fight with national and international implications.

The encampment at Emory, similarly, illuminated the connections between the ongoing Palestinian genocide funded by the U.S. and the militarization of U.S. policing. Teach-ins and signage highlighted the training program between Israeli police and the state of Georgia. Known as GILEE, the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange program promotes training and strategic exchanges between Georgia and Israeli police.

Emory students not only called for a cease-fire and divestment like those at other college encampments, they also offered an analysis based on a historical understanding of settler colonialism. As such, Emory students at the encampment vocally and explicitly supported Palestinians’ right to self-determination and their struggle for their land. Atlanta students who had participated in Stop Cop City efforts were already grappling with class and race consciousness, imperialism and colonization, capitalist economies, and police militarization. They were well-prepared to include a wider political lens, exposing the deceptive narrative by the U.S. and Israeli government and corporate media.

The students at Emory and across Atlanta had already created a network from their Cop City activism. That network extended across several campuses, and students decided that creating a single encampment in the city could concentrate their efforts and be a stronghold for students across the area. The existing student networks, along with relationships with non-student organizers, allowed for a fast mobilization in the wake of the demolition encampment. They also understood that this encampment was not just a student protest. 

When the Emory encampment was set up, there was no distinction between students and non-students. At the same time that administrators and politicians across the country deployed violent police forces to quash campus protests, they have also attempted to draw divisions among protestors by using the old segregationist trope of the “outside agitator.” 

But for the students, this messaging fell flat from the start. That’s because students understand that the struggle taking place on campus is not limited to the university—it is one frontier of a movement that must collectively struggle for a free Palestine, and against militarized police and state violence.

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Oren Panovka is a student at Emory University.
Kamau Franklin is the founder of Community Movement Builders. He has been a community organizer for more than 30 years, first in New York City and now in Atlanta.
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