One Elected Southern Politician's Struggle to Reverse Entrenched Racism and Police-State Mentality
On a summer night in July in Georgia, Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid was studying for her upcoming bar exam at a nearby hotel. She was friends with the owner, and had become accustomed to using the quiet space late at night.
That night she stayed until 1:30am, and as usual, an employee of the hotel walked her out to car for safety. She drove toward her home, which was close by. When she reached her subdivision, she noticed a car at the bottom of the street. The car, which had an apparently defective headlight, began to speed toward her car at the top of the hill. When she stopped at a nearby stop sign, the car approached her from behind, stopping almost close enough to hit her. She looked behind her, but the car's tinted windows prevented her from seeing who was inside.
Frightened, Cupid called 911, and the dispatcher directed her to a nearby QuikTrip gas station, where she waited fearfully in her car until a police officer arrived. The officer explained that the car that had been tailing her was an undercover police vehicle, and that she was being followed because she was in the vicinity of the hotel. He said there was increased surveillance around hotels due to a series of recent automobile break-ins.
The most telling detail Cupid received from the officer is that the pursuit ceased once the pursuing officer had her vehicle tag read and realized he was following not just any young black woman out late at night in Cobb County, Georgia, but Lisa Cupid, a county commissioner.
After that night, Cupid has been working to establish a procedure for citizens to review police practices and address the use of undercover and unmarked police units engaging people who have not broken the law. Yet at every step, from the local media to her fellow commissioners to the police themselves, the reaction she has received to requesting even modest reforms and accountability has ranged from trepidation to outright hostility. To understand why, you have to first understand Cobb County, Georgia.
A Changing County With An Unchanging Leadership
The story of Cobb County is much like the story of Georgia as a whole. The county, like the state, has always had a sizable white majority that has controlled most of the political, economic and social institutions. Traditionally the disenfranchised group has been African Americans; Georgia's role as a former slave state leaves it with the most black residents in the country. In recent years, Cobb's demographics have added a second sizable minority group: Latinos. In the most recent Census estimates, a quarter of the population is now black and 12 percent are Hispanic. In 1980, the county was 95 percent white.
This diversification comes in territory that has seen its share of civil rights strife. It was in Marietta, Georgia that Leo Frank, who was Jewish, was infamously lynched. In the same city, the Strand Theater—now newly renovated and reopened after decades of closure—had a blacks-only entrance; African Americans entered shows through a sunken stairwell in a side alley, away from the glitzy front exterior. In Kennesaw, you'll find Cobb's national park, the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, which was the site of fierce battles between the Confederate Army and Union soldiers a year before the end of the war and liberation of the slaves.
More recently, the county served as the organizing base for some of the Republican Party's rising stars. Newt Gingrich represented a portion of Cobb; despite the county elite's conservative politics (its official website is emblazoned with the slogan, “Low on taxes, big on business”), it was happy to rake in federal dollars. Think Progress reported that during Gingrich's reign, Cobb County received more “federal subsidies than any suburban county in the country," besides Arlington, Virginia and Brevard County, Florida.
But that taxpayer-driven wealth largely went to white-collar workers like those who worked on Lockheed-Martin's F-22. As Rebecca Burns has documented, Cobb's rapid growth has not been shared with all of its residents. One local charitable nonprofit, MUST Ministries, provided 247,087 lunches to kids whose families could not afford meals over the summer of 2013. Poverty from Atlanta has gradually spread out, with 40 percent of Metro Atlanta's poor now living in the city itself with 60 percent in the suburbs, many of them in Cobb County.
Though the county has diversified and there is increased demand for policies reflecting the needs of marginalized groups, institutions remain in the hands of an old guard. Cupid is the only Democrat among the county commissioners, and the only one who comes from a racial minority group. The other three county commissioners as well as the chairman are white Republicans, members of perhaps the most right-wing segment of an already right-wing party: Southern Republicans. The dynamics of this old guard's stronghold on power is best expressed through the lens of a recent decision that made nationwide headlines—relocating the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves are Atlanta's premiere sports team, having won the World Series twice. The decision to relocate their stadium from the heart of downtown Atlanta to suburban Cobb County came as a shock to many: how would a county with next to no public transit handle the challenge of hosting the state's top sporting events?
It didn't take long for one county power broker to share his view on the impact of the move. “It is absolutely necessary, the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east, from where most Braves fans travel from,” said then-Cobb County GOP chairman Joe Dendy, referring to counties that are further away from the state's capital. “And not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.”
The message was not quite explicit but easily received: Dendy was fine with other suburban counties bringing people to Braves games, but he was drawing the line at building transit so that poor African Americans from Atlanta would continue to come to Cobb, where their numbers have been steadily growing.
Interestingly, the one opponent of the Braves move was Lisa Cupid. Cupid was concerned about putting her constituents on the hook to pay for the stadium and surrounding infrastructure when there was little debate about the impact of the move. The rest of the commissioners were not so hesitant. In their minds, it may have been a sort of win-win: allowing constituents to go to Braves games without going into minority-heavy Atlanta, and with no decent public transit from Atlanta to the suburbs, they'd get a more homogeneous crowd than usual. The last big winners were contractors, who were awarded $250 million in contracts after the commission quickly approved the project.
“A lot of them are not opposed to the Braves,” said Cupid of her constituents. “They just want to be heard. They want to have confidence that their tax dollars are going to be used wisely.”
Cupid represents South Cobb, the poorest and most diverse segment of the county, and in a county where marginalized groups have grown in number but remain underrepresented in the halls of power, being heard is very, very difficult.
The county has often avoided dealing with issues facing the minority poor. Take the case of public housing in Marietta, Georgia. As Joe Cortright has documented, rather than trying to improve the lives of the poor, the city has simply been buying out public housing and demolishing it. So far, it has acquired around 1,300 apartments. “I go by Franklin Road as fast as I can everyday,” quipped U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) about the location of one of the complexes being destroyed.
The poor and minorities in Cobb County have little voice; the county's leadership prefers to ignore them at best or tries to rid itself of them at worst. It is this backdrop Commissioner Cupid faced, as she asked for the most modest of reforms.
Blaming the Victim
Immediately after her July incident with the police, Commissioner Cupid went to the County's Public Safety department (which operates the police force) and her own colleagues at the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. She didn't want to create a spectacle, she wanted to make changes so that the terrifying experience that happened to her wouldn't happen to other people. She took the most cautious and responsible path to make that change.
Cupid started by writing a seven-page memorandum detailing the incident and asking for a number of steps the commission could take to ensure that Public Safety acted with greater caution and oversight. The memo was meant to be private—Cupid was not trying to cause a media uproar. But it didn't stay private for long. The memo was leaked to the local media, and what was supposed to be an internal conversation about reforms and accountability quickly turned into a firestorm, with all sorts of stakeholders piling onto Cupid and berating her for even raising the questions.
“I don't call it profiling. I call it good police work,” said Commissioner Bob Weatherford, a 25-year police veteran. “The officer followed to see if someone had stolen the car or someone was doing something wrong. Got close enough to run her tag and then dropped back.”
Weatherford also seemed to justify harsher and indiscriminate tactics against Cupid and her constituents due to their geographic area, saying that South Cobb has 2 percent of the population but 22 percent of the crime.
Privately, commissioners were barely any more sympathetic to her. Through an Open Records request, AlterNet obtained emails between Cupid and her colleagues related to the incident in July. At one point, Commissioner JoAnn Birrell gave a statement to the Marietta Daily Journal seeming to blame Cupid for even objecting to how police had treated her.
“In light of the unfortunate incident that happened in District 4 with a fellow commissioner and our police, it's very disappointing when a fellow commissioner comes out with comments about our police force, and I would just like to personally thank the police and all of public safety and let them know that I'm behind them 100 percent for doing their job and for keeping all of Cobb safer. I appreciate the work you do for us day in and day out and throughout this entire county. Thank you and God bless you all,” Birrell wrote.
Cupid learned of this statement from Jon Gillooly, a Daily Journal reporter who emailed her the statement and asked for a comment. "JoAnn, Please re read your statement,” Cupid wrote to Birrell in a direct email following the inquiry from the newspaper.
Birrell responded: “Lisa. My statement below is not berating you. I am in the office most every day. If you would like to discuss. I am available if you are. Let me know. Have a nice evening. God Bless.”
The chairman, Tim Lee, offered a business-like response to Cupid, issued through a memoradum. In one sentence, he delivered a brief apology to Cupid for her treatment by Public Safety. He then launched into a lengthy legislative discussion in which he asked Cupid to compile a lengthy document detailing how a citizens review board, which she had inquired about following the incident, would operate.
Read Tim Lee's memo below:
In an interview with AlterNet, Lisa Cupid explained that at no point did any of the commissioners, including Lee, offer her any condolences in person for the incident or for their remarks to the media. “That's the only apology I received. Never verbally, never in person,” said Cupid.
Cupid also received a lengthy memorandum from Public Safety, responding to her inquiries in a terse manner. That memo was also given to the media. “I felt like it was more of a CYA memo...it was more of a media response. It was not responding to me,” she said of the police memorandum.
Since these events transpired, there has been little traction for the establishment of a citizens review board or any other type of police accountability. Cupid told AlterNet that Public Safety has actually been more receptive to her inquiries about accountability than her own colleagues on the county Board of Commissioners. The Public Safety department recently paid for her to attend a meeting of the National Association of Oversight of Law Enforcement (Public Safety's director was supposed to attend as well, but later canceled). And Cupid said she has received around two dozen complaints from citizens around the county about similar treatment from police.
All of this is happening as Cupid is working on her core priorities—bringing public investment and revitalization to her relatively poor and diverse South Cobb district. She explained to AlterNet that since she began her role as commissioner, she didn't want to be pigeon-holed as someone totally focused only on criminal justice reform or race issues; at the time, she was working on trying to get funding for sidewalks. The day before the interview, a student was killed outside South Cobb high school while crossing the road. Cobb's public transit system is notoriously poor, though the percentage of the population who is low-income and thus would benefit from public transit has increased.
Commissioner Cupid's incident with the police, and the harsh backlash she received for asking for impartial accountability of the police, demonstrates the growing pains of a county whose leadership is out of step with its increasingly diverse population. Those growing pains will last until Cobb County is able to be a place that can truly represent all of its citizens.
Read all emails from county commissioners related to the police incident in July: