Atlanta Republicans Want Separate City and Police Force for Wealthy

One of Atlanta's richest and whitest neighborhoods is moving to secede from the city and incorporate its own community amid what hardline Republicans have described as a direct response to the city's crime rate.

On Monday, a Republican-led committee in the Georgia state Senate voted 4-3 along party lines to support a measure to decide whether the community of Buckhead—which represents about 45 percent of the Atlanta's property value—can secede from the city.

Local reporters said the proposal—which is opposed by local officials and primarily backed by rural Republican lawmakers—is unlikely to pass once it reaches the Senate floor. But the symbolism of the vote is significant.

"This is the first major milestone," Bill White, leader of the Buckhead independence movement, told Newsweek.

A view of the Atlanta skyline from Buckhead, with the Georgia State Capitol dome pictured in inset. One of Atlanta's richest and whitest neighborhoods is moving to secede from the city and incorporate its own community amid what hardline Republicans have described as a direct response to the city's crime rate. Seth Herald/Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images

For its supporters, Buckhead's independence means a police force it can control, more say over the community's development, and the ability to have greater sway over its destiny. But for others, Buckhead's prospective secession is one steeped in the city's racial history, and could become a hot-button issue in Georgia's U.S. Senate primaries in 2024.

The Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs—another white, wealthy conservative enclave whose existence was closely tied to the fight against integration in the 1960s—successfully moved to secede from the city in 2005 in the belief that its tax revenues were being unevenly redistributed to less wealthy and more racially diverse areas of Gwinnett County.

Other suburbs followed suit and, in 2016, the predominantly Black and middle class community of South Fulton voted to separate from the city as the white communities' secession contributed to an increasingly smaller tax base for the entire city—and efforts by Atlanta officials to annex even more of the area's neighborhoods.

The story of Buckhead, however, has emerged as the latest example of a new brand of racial politics in the modern South.

Census data compiled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution show Buckhead's population is 11 percent Black, with a reported median household income of approximately $140,500. Including Buckhead, Atlanta's Black population is 51 percent and the city has a median household income of $60,000.

In addition to crime, opponents of the proposal are against zoning changes that would bring more affordable housing into the area, raising concerns about declining property values.

That dynamic has already raised questions of how much was motivated by crime itself and about race. In Mississippi, for example, state lawmakers recently voted to place the predominantly white neighborhoods of the predominantly Black state capital, Jackson, under a separate law enforcement jurisdiction, raising comparisons to South African apartheid by Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

After a 77-year-old woman was killed in her gated community in Atlanta in December, White—who has publicly feuded with local officials like Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis—sent appeals to residents fundraising for the area's independence movement, the website Rough Draft Atlanta reported, while others have called the issue oppression of conservatives by an urban, liberal regime.

"A vote against Buckhead city is a vote FOR crime," Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene—whose largely rural district includes a small portion of the Atlanta suburbs, tweeted ahead of Monday's vote.

"A vote for Buckhead city is a vote FOR freedom," she added. "Should be an easy one for a Republican-controlled legislature. Can they stand against the Democrats who want to keep all the taxes taken from Buckhead (which is a lot) in the city of Atlanta or will they vote to free Buckhead and their hard-earned tax dollars to be able to run their city safer and better than the city of Atlanta. It's so simple and obvious to everyone outside the gold dome."

It could also play a major factor in future races. A non-binding advisory question on Buckhead secession became something of a wedge issue in the 2022 Republican primary for governor between incumbent Republican Brian Kemp and his Donald Trump-backed challenger, former Senator David Perdue.

"The fact that these elected officials in the Statehouse are denying those people the right to vote for their own destiny is un-American," Perdue told the conservative news outlet Breitbart at the time. "I mean we do live in a democratic republic. Where's our governor been on this thing? This is what gets people elevated. That's what gets me elevated. This is nothing but corrupt politicians trying to protect their careers."

However, opponents claim Buckhead's exit could be potentially destabilizing to both communities.

While Buckhead's exit would prevent its tax dollars from going to support other areas of city services, it would also need to cope with financing its own services like police and fire at a time when Atlanta is growing and continuing to attract businesses.

According to estimates by the Committee for a United Atlanta, which opposes the secession effort, water and sewer rates in Buckhead could increase by as much as 20 percent from their current levels, with a higher cost of services for other parts of its economy.

It would also pose issues for Atlanta officials, who would need to find ways to provide a continuum of service for a significant population with fewer dollars to work with.

"Buckhead City proponents have a strategy—say as little as possible about it and try to ram it through the legislature," Democratic state Senator Jason Esteves, who represents Buckhead in the statehouse, tweeted after a committee meeting on the bill this month. "It's their best shot. The more people learn about the proposal, the clearer it becomes that Buckhead City is a terrible idea."

Others have argued that their plan for a new Buckhead city could be feasible. One study from proponents of the secession plan argued that the city could actually expect to experience a $113 million surplus under current conditions, even after forming its own police force.

"The feasibility study makes clear that any reduction of tax revenues to the City of Atlanta resulting from the formation of Buckhead City would be offset by the reduction of responsibility for police, roads and parks," White said in a statement. "Those involved in the Buckhead City movement love Atlanta, and we're certain that this incorporation will make the entire metropolitan region safer and more prosperous."

However, some polls suggest that the concept is already highly unpopular, particularly after the proposal's failure at the ballot last winter. A survey from opponents last summer showed that more than 60 percent of Buckhead voters did not want the community to secede from the city, though White contested at the time that the exact opposite was true and that, in their view, few of the city's claims will hold water if enacted.

"There is a very concerted effort by the city of Atlanta to get all the Democrats to start putting out this misinformation on our bills," White told Newsweek. "[...]I encourage our Democratic senators to actually read the bills. They're not very long."