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This week, in the wake of Norfolk Southern’s disastrous train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, community groups reported that the Atlanta-based railroad company is also a funder of the controversial Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, also known as Cop City.
A September 2022 Atlanta Police Foundation board of trustees meeting report shows that Norfolk Southern donated $100,000 to the APF’s Public Safety First campaign. According to the APF’s website, the Public Safety First Campaign is raising $30 million toward the $90 million police training facility in the Weelaunee Forest. (The APF has pledged a total of $60 million; the public will foot the rest.)
A local activist coalition vehemently opposes the sprawling police training ground, which will include a mock city block and an area for high-speed vehicle chases. Opponents say it will further militarize an already-overfunded police department, and that razing 85 acres of forest will endanger a crucial watershed and especially harm the surrounding majority-Black neighborhoods. Violent police repression, including the killing of 26-year-old protester Tortuguita, has drawn national attention to the cause and its slogans, Stop Cop City and Defend the Atlanta Forest.
The Atlanta Community Press Collective (ACPC), a movement education and government transparency group opposed to Cop City, tweeted a link to the board report on February 16. ACPC member Vera (members use pseudonyms to avoid police repression or harassment), says to In These Times, “This [donation] raises an important question: what does Norfolk Southern stand to gain if Cop City is built?”
Some APF donors, like construction contractors Brasfield & Gorrie and Brent Scarborough & Co., have seen “major remuneration in the form of lucrative contracts to build Cop City,” Vera alleges.
Asked for comment on the APF donation, Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker points to the company’s “broad support for local first responders.” Norfolk Southern’s corporate giving foundation donates to police departments and foundations throughout the Eastern United States.
Spielmaker also notes that the APF’s Public Safety First Campaign funds “youth initiatives and community policing efforts” in addition to the training center. (At $30 million, however, the training center is by far the campaign’s largest project.)
Since facing heightened public scrutiny after the George Floyd uprisings in 2020, police foundations have restricted external reports of corporate and individual contributions. Groups like ACPC work to make this information accessible to the public. In a 2021 investigative report, civil rights organization Color of Change and watchdog group Little Sis wrote that corporate donations to police foundations “raise multiple potential conflicts and enable corruption — including donations from companies doing business or seeking to do business with the cities or departments involved, and the risks of preferential treatment for donors versus the general public.”
Little Sis also points out that such donations cement a relationship between police and capital in which police prioritize protection of businesses and property. In Atlanta, for example, the APF’s Operation Shield, a mass surveillance program in the city’s central business district, offers protection to businesses through a central CC-TV connection site.
Railroad companies have long depended on the collaboration of local and federal police agencies in order to operate. Post-Civil War, railroads employed agencies like the Pinkertons and founded their own railroad police departments to act as strike-breakers. Railroad companies mobilized massive police forces to violently repress railroad workers as was the case in the Pullman strikes. Today, most railroads still have their own police forces with the same powers as state police.
But railroad police run with little state oversight. According to a 2015 New York Times report, railroad police officers have been accused of racial profiling and physical assault in neighborhoods where trains intersect. Railroad police have also been investigated for harassing railroad workers.
Norfolk Southern operates one of the largest railways in the United States. Its history is one of mergers and acquisitions. In total, the company operates nearly 20,000 miles of railroad in the Eastern United States. With its competitor CSX, it owns all of the railway east of the Mississippi.
The company has its own private police force, the Norfolk Southern Police Department (NSPD). As of 2015, the NSPD had more than 200 members operating across 22 states, “including 11 K-9 units, a Special Operations Response Team trained in special surveillance and investigative techniques,” according to a company report. The force is headquartered in Atlanta and often collaborates with the Atlanta Police Department, as well as other local departments throughout the Eastern United States, and boasts membership in the FBI’s Counterterrorism group.
The NSPD’s stated mission is to “[protect] employees and railroad property, customers’ freight and citizens in railroad communities.” The company reports thousands of arrests each year. In Chicago, the NSPD was criticized for setting up a bait truck operation with the Chicago Police Department, purportedly in response to train yard thefts. Community members called it entrapment, pointing out that the bait trucks were set up more than a mile away from the train yard. Norfolk Southern initially defended the operation but later apologized.
Norfolk Southern officers often attend trainings by local police departments. Cop City, if completed, will not just service the Atlanta Police Department; it will also be a training site for other local and federal agencies.
One of Norfolk Southern’s train lines runs right along the border of the proposed Cop City site. In a court case fighting an injunction on construction, the Atlanta Police Department filed an affidavit listing alleged vandalism, violence and property destruction related to Defend the Forest actions. The affidavit includes a record from November 2022: “Arson to Norfolk Southern dump truck, trailer, and bobcat on old Constitution [road]”, the place where Norfolk Southern abuts the forest site. The affidavit adds: “Norfolk not affiliated with the public safety training center”. The ACPC’s Vera points out that Norfolk was in fact affiliated with the training center, calling the statement “another piece of misinformation … [that] functionally obscures the corporate interests behind the project.”
Groups working to halt the construction of the Atlanta training center have increased public pressure on Cop City funders and contractors to divest or end their contracts with the police foundation. The revelation of Norfolk Southern’s involvement in funding the training center drew swift criticism from Cop City opponents.
“Norfolk Southern’s investment in Cop City is further evidence that the project is a reflection of backroom corporate interests,” the ACPC’s Vera told In These Times. “The companies that want to see the Weelaunee Forest bulldozed in Atlanta to increase police militarization are also willing to sacrifice entire towns in the American Midwest if it means turning a profit.”
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Hannah Bowlus is an intern at In These Times. She has also written for The New Inquiry.