It was a warm Saturday in June, the kind of lazy day that many Atlantans who came to the West End’s bustling Lee + White development spent basking in the sun, while sipping craft beers or eating tacos.

Not so for the group of volunteers I shadowed that day. About 40 Atlanta residents had met in Grant Park and—clipboards and fliers in hand—scattered across the Westside to collect signatures for the Cop City Vote Coalition. At that point, opponents of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center had just coalesced around an effort to put the controversial facility for training police and firefighters on the ballot for a voter referendum.

It was an unprecedented moment in Atlanta's history, with the odds stacked against it. Yet, here were everyday people spending hours in the summer heat talking to and, at times, negotiating and debating with their fellow citizens to persuade them to sign the petition.

For me, it was an up close and personal reminder that democracy takes many forms. It’s far from dead, I’ve seen here in Atlanta, even if it’s often messy, unglamorous, and isn’t always successful. Democracy isn’t like a self-driving car; as we’ve been reminded this year, vehicles on autopilot don’t work correctly either

Ryan Zickgraf

If you listen in on the national conversation, you’ll hear that democracy is dying in America. A startling number of Americans, 83%, believe our country’s democracy is under threat, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour poll from 2022. It’s one of the few beliefs these days that’s bipartisan—yet everyone blames the other side: 49% say Republicans are the biggest danger to democracy, while 45% say it's Democrats.

That may be more a symptom of our polarized social media conversations and the media’s penchant for sensationalism and doomerism than a reflection of reality. Just last week, a trailer for the film Civil War depicted an America in which 19 states have seceded and resorted to violence to fight for a fractured United States.

But as boring as it is to say, there’s not much evidence of our democracy’s impending doom here on the ground; Georgians continue to vote in elections all the way from presidential races down to municipal school boards. Our local governing bodies are stable, and elected officials continue to legislate without any political violence.

There’s not to say that there’s no strife and contention. We’re still sorting through former President Donald Trump’s contestation of the 2020 election in Georgia, whether through countywide examinations of voting systems or in the courts, as with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ wide-ranging RICO prosecution of Trump and his associates.

Here in Atlanta, the battle over the Public Safety Training Center has at times been violent.

Yet, some level of conflict is natural. Democracy isn’t just about national elections; it’s supposed to be a system through which “the people” exercise power, whether it’s the power to distribute resources, to create and amend laws, or to build and maintain institutions. These powers touch nearly every part of our lives—from how much tax we pay, the kind of schools we send our children to, or whether our sewers are functioning properly. Any exercise of this power by “we the people” is bound to come with disagreements, and some can be passionate and intemperate.

As Al ilmu’s Democracy reporter, I had the privilege to witness this kind of local, often inconspicuous democracy in action all year. I spoke to voters who scrambled before work or on their lunch breaks to cast ballots in Mableton’s cityhood elections–or for local school board candidates who barely drew a mention in most media.

I had illuminating conversations with poll workers overseeing elections at the most hyperlocal levels. I listened to citizens who weren’t afraid to ask elected officials hard questions about their budget priorities for MARTA, the Atlanta Beltline, or corporate tax breaks.

It’s impossible not to be a little bit inspired when watching members of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition in action. The popular stereotype of Gen-Zers is that they’re a generation stuck behind screens, too busy scrolling through TikTok to engage in boots-on-the-ground politics. But I watched the GYC youth at work in the Georgia statehouse during the last legislative session, sharing their own perspectives with elected officials on divisive issues, like a proposal to divert public school funds to private vouchers. It didn’t pass.

None of this is work that will one day be depicted in Hollywood blockbusters. At the movies, we pay to watch our biggest dreams and worst nightmares projected back at us on the screen. Right now, the fear is that democracy is dying.

All year, I’ve been reminded in dozens of different ways that it’s very much alive in Atlanta.

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