Since the beginning of fall 2016, student organization United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) members and a group of Turner Field residents from the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition (TFCBC) have picketed Georgia State University President Mark Becker’s office to protest the redevelopment of the brand new Georgia State stadium – aka Turner Field.
The protesters have adopted slogans like “Gentrification State University”, made their way through the Homecoming Parade, dressed up as Becker, and ghosts with blood on their hands, interrupted Student Government, Atlanta Town Hall and City Council meetings, and have been speaking out against the displacement they say will inevitably take place with the redevelopment.
Painting Becker as the “gentrifier-in-chief”, the group says he simply does not care to advocate for those communities. But The Signal sat down with the president, and he said that’s simply not the case and that, these groups are simply dishonest.
“Very few students. Very vocal. Very active but they do not represent the larger interest of the student body,” he said.
The fight for a CBA
Protesters have been urging President Becker to sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), claiming it’s legal and the “right thing” for him to do and promising to continue protesting and causing havoc until he decides to bring out the pen.
The 29-paged document proposes funding commitments to the neighborhoods for a total of $22.1 million, made by either Georgia State’s real-estate partner, Carter development or Georgia State itself, to go towards education, scholarship funds, arts, services and advocacy programs in those communities. A responsibility, that Becker said is not the university’s.
“Where does the university get money to give to give to neighborhoods to better the community? Do you pay tuition so that we can give it to another neighborhood to better a community?” Becker said. “Programs that we have in the communities are completely in concert with our larger mission for the university – education and research programs for the institution. We cannot pay for something that is not a university activity.”
In his last “Conversation with the President” video, Becker said he is also “constitutionally prohibited” from signing a CBA, a statement which USAS criticized as false.
“The constitutional prohibition is, we just can’t give away money,” he told The Signal. “When we allocate money, we have to allocate money for the purposes that was intended and it goes through a BOR (Board of Regents) process. There’s something in the Constitution called the Gratuities Clause, which [states] we can’t just go giving you state money or our tuition dollars without there being an appropriate university use for that activity. And giving money away to organizations external of the university is not an allowed activity. We don’t make donations, we don’t make contributions.”
Becker has been meeting with elected neighborhood organization leaders to discuss what they are already doing for the communities and what they can do in the future. He said that in those meetings, there have often been TFCBC representatives as well. Meetings according to USAS member Patricio Rojas that were often done in secret, without TFCBC knowing.
But, according to Becker, TFCBC might not actually represent the communities they claim.
“Don’t believe for a second the TFCBC speaks for those neighborhoods. It is a self-interested group of people that have their own personal agendas, that have historically been able to line, in some cases, their own pockets through money that looks like it’s going to an organization you can never track,” he said. “There’s a long history of that.”
“It goes back to when the original stadium was built, that people were paid off and there had been payments going into these organizations — supposed orgs that you can’t track, for decades. And this has been a tactic to be very loud and very vocal for a long time to try to extort money. And we’re not going to be part of that,” he said.
And that’s just one of the reasons Becker has no intentions of signing a multi-year legally binding agreement.
Asma Elhuni, USAS member, claims that while signing a multi-year CBA may not be allowed under Georgia law, signing an annually renewable one poses no problem.
“But we’re not going to do that with a group that’s been ingenuine, misleading, continuously disrupting university events. These are not honest actors,” Becker said.
Adding to the Community
“The CBA is a specific legal document. We’re not going to do that. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to find ways to work together. In the main, everybody wants the same thing. Nobody wants the flooding to persist. We all want to find solutions to that. Now that’s going to be primarily Carter. In terms of wanting to bring resources into the community – I was one of the first people to publicly say there needs to be a grocery store,” he said.
That grocery store would be one of the first in the area, an area in dire need of such resources. The proposal came from Carter & Associates as part of their Turner Field redevelopment.
Grocery stores have been missing in Downtown Atlanta and most areas south of Midtown for many years. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) created an interactive map depicting exactly which parts of the city are food deserts – communities located more than one mile from the nearest grocery store – and Georgia State sits dead in the center of one. The nearest supermarket: Publix, located 1.4 miles from campus on Piedmont Avenue.
Rodney Lyn, associate professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in Georgia State’s School of Public Health, has conducted research on food deserts in the Turner Field neighborhoods of Mechanicsville and Peoplestown. He was recently involved in a project to add fresh produce to the communities’ corner stores.
That’s just one of the issues, along with workforce housing and stormwater runoff management, that Georgia State and Carter have promised to address through the development.
“There is a lot of complexity to it, but primarily what neighborhood residents want, not this Benefits Coalition, the neighborhood residents, what Carter and Georgia State wants to do, are aligned,” President Becker said.
“What they’re telling you is, this is a poor neighborhood and we don’t want it to get better we want it to stay poor and we just want you to put money in there to keep it the way it is,” he said.