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Ares founder Tony Ressler contributes to controversial Cop City project

July 26, 2023

As Ares Management’s housing investments drive gentrification in Atlanta, Ares founder Tony Ressler contributes to controversial Cop City project

Founded in 1997, Ares Management is a private equity firm that had $360 billion in assets under management as of June 2023. One of the firm’s co-founders is Tony Ressler, who served as CEO of the firm for several years before his 2017 transition into his current role as Executive Chairman. Ressler is well-connected within the private equity industry, and also co-founded the private equity firm Apollo Management with his brother in law Leon Black.  Ressler’s brother Richard Ressler is also a co-founder of the CIM group, a private equity firm headquartered in Los Angeles that is currently in the process of gentrifying the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ares Management is headquartered in Los Angeles, with an office in Atlanta. 

With an estimated net worth of $6.9 billion, in addition to his role at Ares, Ressler is also the Principal Owner, and Chair of the Board of Directors for the Atlanta Hawks, the city’s basketball team. Ressler purchased the team in 2015 for $850 million after the previous owner became embroiled in a scandal over racist emails. After the murder of George Floyd, numerous companies and institutions launched initiatives to address racism or past wrong-doings. Ressler’s Ares participated in this wave of public atonement for systemic racism, along with other firms contributing $90 million to historically Black colleges based in Atlanta. In a 2020 statement Ressler also stated “this is a time when all of us need to focus on this critical and all too pervasive human issue-systemic racism.” Explicitly stating “Black lives matter,” Ressler also named that as members of the Atlanta community, the Atlanta Hawks were determined to be part of the solution.

Despite acknowledging the pervasiveness of racism and police brutality in our society, Ressler is also a supporter of the Cop City Project. According to records from the Atlanta Police Foundation, Ressler has donated $1 million to the Public Safety First Campaign, which is the official campaign used to fund a large portion of the Cop City Project. 

As profiled in a recent Private Equity Stakeholder Project report “PE Profits from Destroying the Atlanta Forest: Uncovering Private Equity Connections to Cop City and Blackhall Studios, the fight to #StopCopCity has created a movement that is rapidly spreading throughout the country and world. Initially sparked by the Atlanta Police Foundation’s plan to build a $90 million police training facility in Dekalb County, Georgia, the #StopCopCity organizers have drawn the connection between an ever-growing police state, and ongoing fights in defense of climate and environmental justice. Through a controversial public-private partnership between the Atlanta Police Foundation and the City of Atlanta Government, the project would demolish upwards of 85 acres of land in an area that was previously determined to be an important ecological site for the health of local residents. When multiple people on the Atlanta Police Foundation board have connections to private equity, the private equity industry stands to make a profit if #CopCity becomes a reality. 

After Atlanta City Councilmember Joyce Shepard introduced a proposal to build the police training facility in June 2021, the city council hosted public comment sessions about the proposal. Despite negative feedback from 70% of the people who testified, the lease for the site was approved in September 2021. Prior to the City Council vote, #StopCopCity/Defend the Atlanta Forest organizers began hosting educational and art events, and providing tours of the forest. They also led protests with the aim of spreading awareness about the movement and recruiting new supporters. Eventually, forest defenders began occupying the land where the city planned to build Cop City using tents and various camping supplies to sleep on the land overnight. Throughout their time organizing, forest defenders clashed with police, who used surveillance tactics and military gear to intimidate the organizers. In May 2022, seven forest defenders were arrested for fighting back against their removal from the land. 

In December 2022, five more forest defenders were arrested and later charged with domestic terrorism after protesting against attempts by the city to clear land within the area. Also in  December 2022, tensions came to a head after the police murder of an Indigenous nonbinary activist and community organizer named Tortuguita Terán. An autopsy showed that not only did Terán not have any gun powder residue on their hands, but their body was covered in at least 57 gunshot wounds including their head, torso, hands, and legs. The medical examiner ruled their death a homicide. The mourning of Tortugita’s death eventually began a rallying cry across the globe, with activists and community members beginning to utter the refrain “cop city will never be built.” 

Proponents of the police training facility argue that it is needed to help with police retention in the city, and will help keep community members safe. As Atlanta experiences a massive wave of gentrification, the city hopes to maintain itself as an attractive spot for people relocating to the south. Longtime residents argue that the training facility will destroy the natural environment, increase the surveillance of marginalized communities, and contribute to the militarization of the police. A recent City Council hearing on the budget for the proposed project brought out hundreds of protestors, and resulted in over seven hours of public comment, with nearly all of the testimonials being against the building of Cop City. Regardless of where one stands on the proposed project, the project’s intersection with the private equity industry cannot be denied. As profiled in the recent PESP report, private equity firms such as Silver Lake Management, and Roark Capital are very connected to  the creation of Cop City along with a proposed sound studio development close to the training facility. While not profiled in the report, Ares Management’s Executive Chairman Tony Ressler is another private equity figure with ties to the project. 

Atlanta protestors led an action outside of the Atlanta Hawks headquarters to raise awareness about the basketball team’s connection to the proposed project. Also in March, activists for the Weelaunee Defense Society Los Angeles released a public letter demanding that Ressler denounce the Cop City project and withdraw his support. Organizers also protested at Ares’ headquarters in LA, and raised the point that Ressler currently sits on the board for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics. 

Atlanta is not the only place that residents have been impacted by Ares’ Management’s practices as a landlord. In 2020, the private equity firm acquired Front Yard Residential, a single family rental company. Based in Georgia, Front Yard has been accused of eviction filings that disproportionately impacted Black residents. During the CDC eviction moratorium, Front Yard filed  to evict more than 460 tenants in majority-Black counties. Of those tenants, 163 were based  in Dekalb County, the proposed site of Cop City. Black residents in North Minneapolis also are feeling the weight of Ares Management’s practices. The Twin Cities tenant organizing group United Renters for Justice/Inquilinixs Unidxs (IX) has found 273 complaints from tenants including water damage, infestations, black mold, and withholding of security deposits. 

Ares’ Tony Ressler is also set to benefit from the ongoing and rampant gentrification of downtown Atlanta, which will push longtime Black residents out of the city to make way for newer and wealthier Atlanta transplants who work in lucrative industries such as tech. Ressler, working in tandem with the CIM Group, have invested in a $5 billion redevelopment of an area of downtown Atlanta known by residents as “The Gulch.” The Centennial Yards project is adjacent to the Mercedes Benz Stadium, with the project moving quickly as Atlanta prepares to host the 2026 World Cup Soccer games. Gentrification perpetuates the idea that investment in a community means stripping it of its history and cultural landmarks. 

The behavior of Tony Ressler and Ares Management lays bare the hypocrisy that exists within the field of private equity. Private equity firms are able to capitalize on popular social justice issues, or even further their brand reputation, through partnerships with local and national nonprofits. Yet when it comes to the impacts of their projects, marginalized groups are forced to bear the burden of the harm that private equity facilitates. Private equity investors such as pension funds, university endowments, insurance companies, foundations, and others should scrutinize the the impacts of their investments in private equity and potential headline risk, especially given the growing social movement around #StopCopCity and the expanding focus on companies funding and profiting from the project.

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