Before there was “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road”

In the 1980s, Atlantans came together to block a highway through Inman Park. Thanks to their efforts, we have the Freedom Park greenway trail

Before there was “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road”
In an undated photo from the AJC, a protester named Heitzso climbs down the tree to fetch food and drink for the other three tree sitters, John Michael, Danny Fieg, and Mike Ratel, who were protesting the proposed Presidential Parkway.

Photograph by Nick Arroyo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Last week, five people were arrested for chaining themselves to construction equipment as part of protests against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, dubbed “Cop City” by critics. It’s a long tradition in environmental activism: for many decades, protesters have been lashing themselves to equipment to stop construction projects—including right here in Atlanta. Back in the 1980s, decades before “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road,” when thousands of Atlantans came together to block the Presidential Parkway. Leading the fight were the Roadbusters, a ragtag group of activists whose protest stunts, like climbing trees and chaining themselves to construction equipment, made headlines across the city.

Presidential Parkway, the proposed multilane highway, would have cut right through historic Druid Hills, Inman Park, and surrounding communities. But local residents fought back, and won: the city settled for the gently curving Freedom Parkway instead of a major thruway, and Atlanta got the Freedom Park greenway and bike path. To fight the road, the Roadbusters climbed into trees, camped out on the disputed land, blocked the road, and got arrested multiple times. The towering trees and sheltered pedestrian paths of Freedom Park—the second largest park in the city—are an enduring reminder of that moment in local activism.

Before there was “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road”
The Carter Center during construction, 1985.

Photograph courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

A freeway fit for a president

By the mid-twentieth century, Atlanta’s suburbs had exploded, and commuter traffic in and out of the city was jamming arterial streets like Ponce de Leon Avenue. In 1958, the Georgia Department of Transportation proposed a traffic-easing freeway that would cut through several city neighborhoods, including Druid Hills, Inman Park, Candler Park, Poncey-Highland, and Old Fourth Ward. Officials expressed little concern for the homes and neighborhoods that lay in the proposed highway’s path: white flight and segregation had gutted the inner-city economy, and the residents left behind, largely poor and Black, were not high on their priority list.

Eager to appease wealthier suburban constituents, transportation authorities snapped up land rights to build the freeway. They cleared 219 acres of land, using eminent domain to bulldoze around 600 homes, businesses, and churches. But, to their surprise, the neighborhoods fought back. An eclectic mix of longtime residents and bohemian newcomers came together to protest the proposed “Stone Mountain Tollway,” and in 1972, then-Governor Jimmy Carter agreed to nix it. In its place, the city developed plans for a “Great Park,” a sprawling greenspace and cultural complex to rival Central Park. It would include a road, but no multilane highways—so promised Andrew Young, running for mayor in 1981

But then the President—the very same Jimmy Carter—came home.

After Carter left the White House, cities around the country vied to host his presidential library. Atlanta courted him furiously, offering a prime swath of leafy land in the new Great Park. Carter’s team agreed, with a condition: it had to be easy to drive to. Instantly, the multilane highway—now christened Presidential Parkway—was back on the table. Mayor Young changed his tune. In 1982, Atlanta City Council approved a four-lane, high-speed freeway from Ponce de Leon Avenue to the Downtown Connector, with easy access to the new Carter Center. 17 bridges would elevate the highway over the neighborhoods, and the playgrounds promised in the Great Park plan would be separated from the thruway by a fence. The road would be built—unless something got in the way.

Before there was “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road”
Danny Feig-Sandoval, in a Roadbusters T-shirt, speaks at a Stop the Road rally in 1988.

Photograph courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

“Stop the Road” becomes a movement

“I don’t really remember who had the idea for the nativity scene,” said Danny Feig-Sandoval. In the early 1980s, Feig-Sandoval was living in Old Fourth Ward, where he’d purchased a collapsing house for $18,000 and fixed it up himself. A longtime environmental activist, he’d joined the community organization that sprung up to fight the road. CAUTION—Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Older Neighborhoods—had united the ten affected neighborhoods and was waging an anti-road battle through public awareness, lobbying, and legal action. But lawsuits had faltered, and Carter was adamant his library had to connect to a major road. By late 1984, bulldozers were rolling in.

Feig-Sandoval, who learned civil disobedience tactics as an anti-nuclear protestor, decided it was time to step up the pressure. In December, he and a few other activists gathered to plan a direct action, and someone suggested a bit of protest theater. “So we went out in the Parkway, right at Moreland Avenue, and built a little manger!” he said. They pasted “Stop the Road” signs around wooden cutouts of Joseph and Mary. The next day, a photo of their manger appeared in the Atlanta Constitution. “A wooden replica of the Nativity . . . mysteriously appeared Sunday on the construction site of the Presidential Parkway,” the Constitution reported. 

“And that’s kind of how it all started,” Feig-Sandoval said.

The neighborhood activists, who named themselves “Roadbusters,” became the unofficial civil disobedience arm of the Stop the Road movement, complementing CAUTION’s legal efforts. In January, they began climbing into trees to stop them from being cut down. The first four Roadbusters, including Feig-Sandoval, were arrested that month. By late February, 50 more had been hauled off by police, pulled from trees, tents, and chains they’d used to lash themselves to construction equipment. That month, a tent city cropped up in Shady Side Park, one of several parks slated for demolition to build the road. An orange Volvo station wagon, chained to a tree, stored supplies and posted information for protestors.

Dramatic arrests and theatrical stunts provided a crucial supplement to CAUTION’s methodical legal action: great headlines. Newspapers began devoting front-page stories to the Roadbusters and the Presidential Parkway. “We couldn’t even make it past the obituary page before that!” Feig-Sandoval recalled.

Before there was “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road”
A “Stop the Road” protest on the corner of North and Moreland Avenues in 1988.

Photograph courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

In February, the Atlanta Journal profiled Elsie Gore from Druid Hills, who had refused to get up from under a crane and was charged with criminal trespass. “The worst part was the ride in the paddy wagon,” the 66-year-old said primly. In July, reporters flocked to a construction site where Mary Jane Newsom had chained herself to the top of a crane; it took three hours to get Newsom down and arrest her, the Journal breathlessly reported the next day. [Though nearly a hundred people were arrested in the Stop the Road movement, no one was ever prosecuted; a DeKalb County judge dismissed the cases.]

With Atlantans fiercely opposed to the road, local politicians jumped in to protest alongside their constituents. DeKalb County Commissioner Sherry Shulman got arrested at a rally, and Atlanta City Councilman John Lewis delivered a thunderous speech in Goldsboro Park. In February 1985, Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 to halt the road, though the resolution was vetoed by Mayor Young.

Meanwhile, CAUTION was busy lobbying local and federal officials, filing more lawsuits, and fundraising thousands of dollars for the movement. With the help of their combined efforts, construction on the Presidential Parkway ground to a halt.

Before there was “Stop Cop City,” there was “Stop the Road”
Georgia State Rep. Peggy Childs (center) speaks alongside CAUTION spokesman Richard Ossoff and DeKalb County Commissioner Sherry Schulman during a 1986 press conference about CAUTION’s federal lawsuit against the proposed Presidential Parkway.

Photograph courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

The Freedom Parkway compromise

The legal fight over the Presidential Parkway raged for five years. In 1985, CAUTION, led by longtime Inman Park resident Cathy Bradshaw and attorney Richard Ossoff (father of Senator Jon Ossoff) won an important case in district court, which blocked the Georgia Department of Transportation from using Atlanta parkland to build the highway. But GDOT fired back with appeals, while state lawmakers passed new laws making it easier for GDOT to take city property. Meanwhile, former President Carter still insisted that his library needed a highway. At the 1986 inauguration of the Carter Center, houses could be seen in the background, draped in signs that read, “This is an endangered neighborhood.”

But CAUTION and the Roadbusters refused to give in, and by 1989, they had won over enough state and local politicians to shift the balance of power. Mayor Maynard Jackson, newly elected for his third term, declared, “It is the public policy of this city to preserve parkland for the pursuit of happiness of the citizens of Atlanta.” The City Council withdrew its support for the road. In 1991, GDOT threw in the towel, agreeing to sit down with the City of Atlanta and CAUTION to mediate a compromise.

That compromise is Freedom Parkway as we know it today, now named the John Lewis Freedom Parkway in honor of its enduring defender. Instead of a highway, a four-lane surface street connects Ponce de Leon Avenue to the Downtown Connector, encircling the Carter Center along the way, with a design speed of 35 miles per hour. East of Moreland Avenue, Olmstead Park was saved, becoming Freedom Park, through which runs the Freedom Park trail. The design preserved all existing parkland and kept the neighborhoods intact. The Stop the Road movement had succeeded: the day the new plan was unveiled, dozens of local residents gathered near the Carter Center to celebrate, popping bottles of champagne.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” one resident told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A Roadbuster looks back

Danny Feig-Sandoval lives in Colorado now; last year, he and his wife retired and sold the Old Fourth Ward home he’d purchased back in 1977 (“I won’t even tell you how much we sold it for,” he laughed). He said he’s proud of what the Stop the Road movement accomplished. The Roadbusters stirred the pot to get attention—getting arrested, camping outside, and climbing in trees—but he believes their civil disobedience was justified.

“If you can’t stop it in the courts, and they’re building the road, what are you going to do?” Feig-Sandoval told me. “I think back on all of it, and I think it was the right thing to do.”

The large-scale movement that attracted front-page headlines and successfully blocked a highway, he noted, started as a handful of Atlantans who believed in their neighborhoods at a time no one else did. “We were just a ragtag bunch of people organizing this thing,” he said. “I think we’re all really proud of what we did together.”