Saturday, August 12, 2017 1:00 am
Atlanta gym is proud to be 'cop-free zone'
For the year and a half that it has been open, the East Atlanta Varsity Barbell Club – a gym labels itself the “weightlifting island of misfit toys” – has been outfitted with cheeky, provocative signs.
The signs have jabbed at other strength training programs such as CrossFit, promoted the gym's slogans (”Lift weights, get high, smash capitalism”) and drawn attention to causes it supports, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
And always, the gym has advertised its controversial membership policy: no police or active military allowed. That rule has appeared on signs with varying wording, including “MAKE COPS ILLEGAL AGAIN” and “THIS IS A COP-FREE ZONE.”
But surprisingly, at a time in the country rife with tension over police conduct, the ban had never drawn much outside condemnation – until this week, when owner Jim Chambers updated the gym's outside sign with a simplified set of rules that included an expletive describing “cops.”
A military veteran reported the sign to NBC affiliate 11 Alive News, which aired a story Tuesday, according to the station. Chambers said he took down the controversial sign before the TV crew arrived. Nevertheless, he has received “hundreds” of death threats since the airing, he told The Washington Post.
On Thursday, Chambers said USA Weightlifting suspended the gym's membership.
“I don't apologize for the language,” Chambers said, explaining that his gym members are diverse and include people who have had “bad experiences with cops.”
Veterans aren't excluded from the gym, but Chambers considers active duty military members as part of a “sadistic and destructive force,” he said.
When business is thriving, some 30 to 40 people come through the gym doors on a weekly basis. It exists as a co-op, Chambers said, where members can donate money to work out there, volunteer to work the counter or even exercise free if they can't afford the “fancy gyms.”
“Without talking to the man, this appears to be hate for law enforcement and for what reason? Are you doing something illegal?” Vincent Champion, director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers southeastern chapter, told 11 Alive News.
Another local gym, East Atlanta Village Fitness, whose similar name drew enough calls and questions from customers that it decided to display its own confusion-quelling sign outside the entrance.
“We support our local police and military,” Tara Perry of Village Fitness told 11 Alive News. “We offer discounts for them.”
The Atlanta Police Department declined to comment on Chambers' “no cops” membership policy, but told 11 Alive News it wouldn't keep them from protecting gym patrons.
“Were we to respond to an emergency there, this sign would not stop us from lawfully doing our job,” the department told the TV station.
At least two Atlanta-area police officers, though, have responded to the gym's ban – and challenged Chambers to a charity boxing match.
“He seems like he might enjoy getting the opportunity to punch a cop in the face and I'd be happy to oblige him and give him that opportunity,” Tommy Lefever, a metro-Atlanta police officer, told 11 Alive News in an email.
The gym always displayed the sign, Chambers said, because he wanted patrons to know what kind of atmosphere they were walking into – a place that displays the Soviet Union flag, actively supports communism and wants a world without law enforcement.
Even so, Chambers said he wouldn't hesitate to call 911 if his gym patrons were in danger. “If a cop rolls up as part of that, they roll up,” he said.