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Stop Cop City: The Fight for a Forest and the Future of American Policing

Issue 278

The effort to save a forest in Atlanta from becoming the country's largest police-training facility has become the latest flashpoint in the struggle over the future of policing.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 17, 2023

What is known today as Atlanta used to be a thriving trade hub for Native Americans. In 1821, the federal government began to force the Muscogee tribe out of what Atlantans now call the South River Forest in the southeastern part of the city.

In March, during a week of action to save the forest from being cleared to build a massive police-training facility commonly known as “Cop City,” ceremonial Muscogee leaders returned to their ancestral homelands. They performed a stomp dance on behalf of the South River Forest, known to them as the “Weelaunee” forest — meaning “brown water.” They also entered the Atlanta Regional commission on March 8 to deliver an eviction notice and call for an end to construction of the training facility. “Georgia is the birthplace of oppressive policing that originated with the Trail of Tears and the capture and enslavement of African descendants seeking their freedom,” said a Muscogee leader as Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens quickly exited the scene. 

The Muscogee aren’t the only ones converging on the Weelaunee forest, a network of connected green spaces across parts of Atlanta and DeKalb County that surround the tributaries of the South River. 

Since September 2021, when the Atlanta City Council approved the Cop City plan, it has faced widespread outcry. The “Stop Cop City” or “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement is made up of neighborhood associations, established environmental groups, local schools, racial-justice and police-accountability organizations and more. “Forest defenders” from Atlanta and elsewhere also began a protest encampment in the fall of 2021, living in treehouses and on the forest floor in parts of the woods near the planned project until this winter, when they were forced out by police in a series of violent raids. 

The slain protester’s mother sat on the ground with her legs crossed and her hands up in the air at face level to demonstrate the position her child was in when they were killed.

During a raid on the morning of Jan. 18, the police shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel Paez Terán, known as “Tortuguita,” in their tent, making them the first environmental activist to be killed by police in U.S. history. Protests have ensued in more than 40 cities, including New York. What began as a local controversy has become a national story and the latest flashpoint in the post-George Floyd reckoning on the future of policing in America. 

“Atlanta is important in part because it links the issues of land use, climate change and aggressive policing,” said Professor Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing and coordinator of Brooklyn College’s Policing and Social Justice Project. 

WEEK OF ACTION

In response to the fatal raid, Stop Cop City activists called for people across the country to join them for a week of action in the Weelaunee Forest March 4–11. The movement uses a diversity of tactics and refers to itself as “decentralized and leaderless.”

Matthew Johnson, director of Beloved Commune, spoke at a rally to kick off the week of action. “There are many things we do not agree on,” Johnson began, “but we all came here to what?” he continued. “To stop Cop City!,” the crowd yelled in response. A group of roughly 300 then marched to Intrenchement Creek Park — referred to by protesters as Weelaunee People’s Park (WPP) — the part of the Weelaunee forest that was most recently occupied by forest defenders. 

As participants in the convergence arrived at the site, some went to set up camp in the woods while others chatted in the shade along the forest’s borders. In a large field separated from the entrance by a short stretch of forest, the Sonic Defense Committee built a stage and bar for a free two-day music festival. Later that evening, people would set up a vigil for Tortuguita with candles and flowers. A shuttle ran hourly throughout the course of the week taking people to and from the forest. The park’s owner* demolished the concrete trail and gazebo in the entrance and cut down trees back in December to deter protest activities, but Cop City opponents had painted pieces of broken concrete and used them to create a path through the parking lot. A woman wearing a Poor People’s Campaign shirt nursed a cigarette in a folding chair on the path. Two older men with bicycles ate sandwiches on the forest floor, and a baby in a backpack curiously observed the commotion. 

The re-assembled entry path to Intrenchment Creek Park/Weelaunee People’s Park. Bina Cristan

“As a local activist, trying to get people to move on the issue of saving the trees is like going through mud, so this whole effort to save the forest to me is like a shot in the arm — it’s just fantasic. It’s galvanizing. Activity creates more activity,” Stephanie Coffin, an internationally-certified arborist, told The Indypendent. 

During the week of action, multiple events were held each day in the forest while others took  place throughout the Atlanta area. This included daily forest tours, a capoeira training, a Purim party, a press conference of faith leaders in opposition to Cop City, a mass demonstration in downtown Atlanta on March 9, a protest in front of Dekalb County Jail, a children’s march and much more.

The most widely-attended event in the forest was the South River Music Festival. Hundreds of mostly younger people swayed to folk music, moshed to punk and listened intently to experimental noise sets. Up-and-coming young rappers that are popular in Atlanta’s underground plugg rap scene performed; there were late sets of drum and bass, house, and techno. At one point, a hardcore group’s lyrics rang out throughout the surrounding forest: “Conquest of love… it’s a spiritual war…” The festival stage was decorated with a banner that read, “In the eyes of the State, all who resist white supremacy, colonialism, environmental racism, gentrification, and police militarization are Domestic Terrorists.” 

Late in the afternoon of the second day of the festival, a group of around 300 protesters clad in black and camouflage outfits concealing their identities marched about a mile’s distance from WPP to the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where construction on Cop City began in December. They chanted “Stop Cop City” and “Viva, viva tortuguita.” When a passing car was forced to stop as the group crossed a road, the upset driver asked what people were doing. A marcher replied, “They killed our friend!”

“Oh,” responded the driver, softening a bit. 

Protesters crossed onto the land being leased by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), and tore down part of the 12-foot chain-link fence topped in barbed wire that encircles the area where construction is underway. Scores of protesters entered that area, throwing fireworks to keep the police at bay, and set fire to two construction buildings, a bulldozer and other equipment used to clear the forest. Then, they quickly disappeared into the woods. 

Atlanta authorities claim that the March 5 civil disobedience by forest defenders resulted in $150,000 in damage. Bina Cristan

Police monitored the protest during its entirety, but they did not move in on the protesters once they crossed into APF property, broke down the chain-linked fence, set fire to machinery or began to retreat.

Instead, about an hour later after the property-destruction occurred, they encircled the festival as Faye Webster, a well-known Atlantan folk-pop artist, played for a crowd of nearly a thousand people. Tensions quickly escalated into open conflict and the cops ran into the woods, grabbing antagonists as well as some people at random. Thirty-five people were arrested altogether, 23 of whom were charged with domestic terrorism

“One attendee received death threats from intruding officers. Another was beaten, concussed, and rushed to Grady Hospital. Another reported that an officer drew his side arm and fired over their head as they chased them into the woods,” reported the Atlanta Community Press Collective. 

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Click here to read the story of Priscilla Grim, a longtime NYC activist who was swept up and arrested in the March 5 police raid of the festival at Weelaunee people’s Park.

A performer on the scene told The Indypendent that dozens of police wearing camo and military vehicles slowly moved in toward the stage around 9 p.m. The remaining crowd of around 100 people linked arms and chanted “Let us go home!” and “We have children!” After a brief negotiation with a small group of festival attendees, the police agreed to give people 10 minutes to leave. They left together, arms still linked. 

Convergence-week events continued the next day and faced varying levels of police harassment. A group of around 15 people leafleting on downtown Atlanta sidewalks was ordered to disperse by Atlanta police, dozens of which were present, along with a SWAT vehicle. Police also pulled over a journalist that had just covered a protest. They searched a community center that was supportive of the protests, destroying campsites of protesters staying on private land there. 

On the final day of the week of action, a memorial ceremony was attended by Tortuguita’s family, friends and fellow tree sitters. It was held at the site where the young forest defender was killed, which is marked by a colorful rope and a banner that reads, “GSP (Georgia State Police) assassinated a forest defender, comrade, friend, lover.”

“Spreading ashes in the place that has so much damage and needs so much healing, I really felt that, ‘Yes, Cop City will never be built.’ Not on Tortuguita’s grave,” said an acquaintance of Tortuguita who asked to remain anonymous.

THE BACKSTORY

The history of the Weelaunee Forest is as tortured as that of the state and the country it is located in. 

“Would you want this in your backyard? So what makes you think that Black people, other marginalized area residents — any people — want this in their backyard?”

After the Muskogee were forcibly removed to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears, the western edge of the Weelaunee Forest was acquired by Lochlin Johnson, who was said to own the “finest plantation in the county.” During the Jim Crow era, the plantation became a prison farm  — a place where thousands of prisoners were sent for petty crimes like public drunkenness and forced to work the plantation — and stayed that way until 1990. Black-Power champion Stokely Carmichael was held there for several days on charges of “loitering” at the height of the civil-rights era. Over the last three decades, a natural reforestation process has occurred on what was farmland.

In 2017, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously in favor of The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community, a holistic, long-term plan for Atlanta’s development that included the creation of a 1,200-acre park that would incorporate the Old Atlanta Prison Farm.  

“It was so good to see that the planning department had given real thought to development around communities, the environment and people,” says Dr. Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance. “Because neither Atlanta nor DeKalb County has ever put any real emphasis on protecting the people or the environment in southeast Atlanta or South Dekalb County.” 

In May 2020, Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin killed Geoge Floyd, setting off a nationwide uprising against police brutality. A month later in Atlanta, police shot Rayshard Brooks as he ran away with a taser he had taken from them, sparking additional protests in the city. In the wake of these murders,support for police reform grew. In June 2020, Atlanta City Council considered a plan to withhold a third of the APD’s $217 million budget; it was defeated 8-7.  

By September 2021, the national script had flipped — defunding and reforming the police was no longer popular; people who espoused those ideas were considered radical or dangerous. Additionally, some posit that then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms wanted to get back on the Atlanta Police Department’s good side after firing the officers who killed Brooks. 

There was more than 17 hours of public testimony on a new plan to build the police-training center on the site of the old prison farm in which opposition was expressed by a more than 2-1 margin. Nonetheless, the Council voted 10-4 to go forward with Cop City in the belief that public opinion overall was shifting in favor of more policing, not less. 

The City owns the prison farm’s 297 acres, 85 of which have been officially leased to the Atlanta Prison Foundation. These 85 acres contain the footprint of buildings that are spread over 171 acres, the total acreage of the future “Cop City.” The restoration plan for the area envisioned in Aspiring to the Beloved Community has been shelved. 

The Atlanta Police Foundation is expected to provide $60 million in funding for the new campus. The remaining $30 million will be covered by the City. The APF receives financial contributions directly from many of the area’s largest companies — including Delta, Bank of America, Home Depot, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Georgia Pacific, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo — and many of those companies’ executives serve on the foundation’s board. 

“Police funds and foundations put a lie to the myth that policing is a public good designed to benefit all,” Alex Vitale said. “These privately-controlled entities lack transparency and accountability and are designed to provide protection and political access for major corporations and real-estate interests.”

Not long after the September 2021 pro-Cop City vote, the forest defenders took to the woods. At the occupation’s height, there were likely more than 100 people camping on site. 

A police raid of a forest-defender campsite back in May left the tree-sit site empty for a few hours. Colin Monahan

The forest consists mostly of young pine trees. The ground is a soft carpet of pine needles where moss grows too. Parts of the forest have foot-trails but it’s a dense area with a tall, thick canopy that you could easily get lost in. During this time of year, wisteria blooms, filling the woods with an intoxicating smell when breezes pass through.

“I took a walk around the woods and it was just kind of beautiful. I was like, ‘I need to spend more time out here,’” said a forest defender who started going to the woods in April 2022. “Many in Atlanta didn’t know about the occupation at that time,” he added. “It was a fringe thing. Mostly anarchists were there.” 

He and a group of friends became the first to organize a large music event in the forest, a rave attended by more than 300 people. “It wasn’t ticketed,” he explained. “We just had a bunch of QR codes taped on trees around the woods asking people to donate money to the Atlanta Solidarity [bail] Fund.”

During the nearly year and a half that protesters occupied the Weelaunee forest, they hosted skill-share workshops, community meals, concerts and music festivals, and four previous weeks of action.

“I’m not an adrenaline junkie. … I don’t crave conflict. I’m out here because I love the forest. I love living in the woods. Being a forest hobo is pretty chill,” Tortuguita told reporter David Peisner while they were living in WPP. “When there are no more cops, when the land has been given back, that’s when it’s over. …I don’t expect to live to see that day, necessarily. I mean, hope so. But I smoke.”

Once a permit was finalized for the project in mid-December 2022, law enforcement launched a series of raids to clear the forest defenders from the land. Police reportedly used tear gas, pepper balls and rubber bullets to dislodge activists from tree-sits. They cut down treehouses while people were still in them. Most forest defenders were gone by the time Georgia State Police shot Tortuguita on Jan. 18.

At a press conference held by Tortuguita’s family on March 11, Belkis Terán, the slain protester’s mother, sat on the ground with her legs crossed and her hands up in the air at face level to demonstrate the position her child was in when they were killed, according to an independent autopsy the family commissioned. “Are you scared of me if I am like this? So, what happened? What happened?! We’d like to know! Nobody from the authorities is receiving our lawyers,” said Terán to a crowd of supporters. 

Forest shrine: A memorial to slain forest defender Tortuguita was set up during the Stop Cop City week of action March 4-11.
Bina Cristan

‘OUTSIDE AGITATORS’

“Maybe half of the people I talked to weren’t from Atlanta,” said the forest defender who organized the rave. “People quit their jobs and loaded their friends into a truck and drove out to Atlanta. They get that this is a cause beyond Atlanta.” 

Atlanta law enforcement, elected officials and corporate media have emphasized the presence of “outside agitators” taking over the Stop Cop City movement to sow chaos. There have even been multiple reports the police may have aided this narrative by refraining from arresting people with Georgia IDs during their March 5 raid on the festival that netted 35 arrestees. 

Interestingly enough, the Atlanta Police Department told the Atlanta City Council that it intends to recruit 43% of its trainees at the planned facility from out-of-state police departments. Many forest defenders have traveled from New York and other cities where the George Floyd protests were violently suppressed; they see Cop City as a continuation of that kind of policing.

“We all drink the same water and we all breathe the same air,” says Stephanie Coffin. “Look at the civil-rights movement, how many ‘outsiders’ — how many people — did we have coming down during that era?”

It is widely rumored that due to a partnership between Georgia State Police and the Israeli Police, Israeli cops will provide training at the center. 

There have been Stop Cop City solidarity actions held in at least 40 cities nationwide with a notable uptick since Tortuguita’s killing. Here in New York, there have been a host of solidarity events in recent months. Hundreds of people marched from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-Manhattan to JPMorgan Chase headquarters at 270 Park Ave on March 9 chanting “Stop Cop City.” 

“This world is just one; whatever fight we let pass will affect us all,” says Milpa, a New York City mutual-aid organizer who has spent time in the Weelaunee Forest and supported Stop Cop City solidarity efforts.

There is also a vibrant opposition movement anchored in Atlanta. At a March 6 press conference, Rev. Keyanna Jones of the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City said, “While we certainly appreciate the solidarity here in Atlanta and around the world, this is an Atlanta fight and we are in it all the way.” 

THE LOCAL COMMUNITY

The southern part of Metro Atlanta near the Weelaunee Forest is home to one of the largest Black enclaves in the country. 

“Would you want this in your backyard? So what makes you think that Black people, other marginalized area residents — any people — want this in their backyard?” Dr. Echols asked. 

Both of Atlanta’s rivers are included in the Aspiring to the Beloved Community plan, with entirely different outcomes. The Chattahoochee River project, where a more affluent population lives, is moving ahead, while the South River project, where neighborhoods are home to poorer and more marginalized people, has been abandoned for Cop City, according to Dr. Echols. “Atlanta would not be talking about building this particular facility anywhere else other than where they are proposing it, because it would be dead on arrival,” she says.

This reporter spoke with a handful of locals living in the neighborhoods nearest the Weelaunee forest to see whether they supported the police training center. Most of the residents  agreed that police need better training, but don’t necessarily want it to occur in their backyard. 

They are surrounded by six landfills, five prisons, two demolished public-housing sites and industrial warehouses. There is already a police shooting range nearby, and many of them are bothered by the regular sounds of gunfire. One woman, María, said she doesn’t feel safe having so many police in the neighborhood. An elderly Black man sitting on his porch didn’t have much to say other than that Cop City is “creating a lot of trouble.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Jan. 18 was the first time an environmental protester was shot by U.S. police. (It is also the first time any U.S. protester has been killed by cops in five decades since the 1969 assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the 1970 Kent State massacre of four anti-war protesters.) The law enforcement response to the Stop Cop City movement reflects an increasingly harsh and militarized stance toward protest. It indicates that people who associate with the movement might expect harsh legal ramifications or bodily harm. Those that actively promote it now fear death. 

In addition to the 23 who were slapped with domestic terrorism charges on March 5 and have remained in jail without bail since, 18 other Stop Cop City protesters were hit with the same heavy charges in January — 12 who were swept up in the December police raids of the Weelaunee Forest and six more who were at a Jan. 21 protest following Tortuguita’s killing where a cop car was set ablaze and Bank of America windows smashed. These are the first instances in which Georgia has charged protesters with domestic terrorism, a charge that carries five-to-35-year prison sentence. 

All protest arrestees from the day when the police car was burned now face arson charges, reports The Intercept. Police affidavits from March 5 site muddy shoes as a primary basis for charging people with domestic terrorism. 

“In the city of Atlanta, when developers clear-cut and they don’t have the right to do that, the City refuses to enforce those laws,” says Coffin. “All the trees that are taken down illegally, that’s property destruction. How is that any different than the kind of property destruction that the activists took part in?”

Dekalb County police drive a group of arrestees to jail in a SWAT vehicle on the night of March 5. Bina Cristan

Other states have moved to harshly punish protests in recent years. Non-violent protesters could be charged under a North Carolina “anti-riot” bill that cleared the House in February. Since 2021, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing policy shop funded by corporations and conservative billionaires, has been pushing a spate of bills aimed at silencing fossil-fuel critics that have been adopted by various conservative states. 

If built, Cop City will train police from all over the United States. It is also widely rumored that due to a partnership between Georgia State Police and the Israeli Police, Israeli cops will provide trainings at the center. 

“The City of Atlanta has the most extensive training requirements in the Southeast,” said Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at a Jan. 31 press conference. “This training needs space, and that’s exactly what this training center is going to offer.” During a Feb. 7 Cop City forum at Morehouse College, Mayor Dickens, who voted for the training center when he was a City Council member, was caught falling asleep.

Cop City will be the largest police-training facility in the country and will train police for urban warfare. It will include several shooting ranges, a helicopter-landing base, explosives training and an entire mock city. In the 1960s, the army built fake towns, “riotsvilles,” a response to uprisings against racial injustice and protests against the Vietnam war, which resulted in violent policing of civil disobedience; some argue it marked the beginning of police militarization.

Chicago’s Public Safety Training Academy opened in January after six years of planning, despite an organized community opposition campaign. Seven-hundred miles north of Atlanta, it has strong parallels with Cop City. Also, Pittsburgh activists are denouncing the city’s plans for its own expensive police-training center, “which they worry would fuel police militarization, pollution, and violence against Black Pittsburghers,” reported Pittsburgh City Paper earlier this month. 

In 2017, New York City spent $275 Million on updating Rodman’s Neck, a firearms training center in the Bronx following the 2016 completion of a $1 billion police academy in Queens.

Since 1997, the Pentagon has transferred billions of dollars worth of equipment — including small arms, aircraft and tactical vehicles — to more than 8,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies.  During the George Floyd uprising, Indypendent reporters saw countless instances where the NYPD used gear like this while quelling protests it was deployed to. In the aftermath, New York City elected a former police offer as mayor who has cut the budget of every City agency except the Police Department. Atlanta’s police averaged two fatal shootings a year before the uprising; there were seven last year. 

NEXT STEPS

The Cop City site is owned by the city of Atlanta, but it is located in unincorporated Dekalb County. This means that in order for the City to be able to build on the land, Dekalb County has to approve a land-disturbance permit. “Dekalb wanted to approve it,” says Dr. Echols, “and they finally did in December.”  

A land-disturbance permit can be appealed, but it must be done by residents who live within 250 feet of the opposed development. The South River Watershed Alliance was able to identify several homeowners who were willing to appeal the permit based on several concerns including negative environmental impacts. The appeal will be heard by the Dekalb Zoning Review Board on April 12, which is a part of the same department that approved the original plan. 

Meanwhile, Stop Cop City events continue to take place in Atlanta and across the United States. 

•   •   •

For more, visit defendtheatlantaforest.org, stopcopcitysolidarity.org and atlpresscollective.com.

An earlier version of this article stated that the whole training facility, not just the Atlanta Police Department, intends to recruit 43% of trainees from out-of-state police departments.

*Another 40 acres of Weelaunee forest is under threat from Ryan Millsap, former owner of Blackhall Film (now renamed Shadowbox) Studios, who made a deal with DeKalb county in 2020 to swap the land, in use as a public park, for another piece of land nearby. That deal is on hold due to a local environmental group’s lawsuit. Forest defenders used to actually be camping on the site of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm site, but when that became too risky, they relocated to WPP, the land Millsap gained in the controversial swap. In addition to Cop City, they denounce Millsap’s plan to level WPP and enlarge his Hollywood-style studio on that land.

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