Forest protectors in Atlanta are engaged in a week of action against the construction of “Cop City,” and all of our futures hang in the balance.
To clear the area for “Cop City,” Atlanta City Council is proposing the destruction of over 300 acres of the Muscogee Weelaunee Forest. The paramilitary training facility for police is set to include, among other things, a shooting range and a mock city, all to the tune of more than $90 million. The project is funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation (which has many corporate backers, including Wells Fargo, Amazon, UPS, and JP Morgan Chase) and was approved in September 2021 by the Atlanta City Council despite widespread opposition. Cop City’s infrastructure would make Atlanta the most surveilled city in the US, a terrifying status which would fall disproportionately on Black Atlantans. All of this comes in a context of record-high police murders for the year of 2022, when one in twenty murders are committed by a police officer.
As construction of the multi-million dollar death-making laboratory began, a forest protector named Tortuguita (“Little Turtle”) was murdered in cold blood by a state trooper on January 18. In response to the police killing and the Cop City project as a whole, forest protectors have converged on the forest in large numbers to protest, only to face extraordinary, militarized violence. On the night of March 5, peaceful protestors taking part in a music festival in the park were encircled by SWAT teams and helicopters. Some were even threatened with outright murder. Legal observers were arrested, and, as of this writing, at least twenty-eight people, including an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, are facing domestic terrorism charges, which can carry a sentence of up to thirty-five years imprisonment. This is an unprecedented escalation in the criminalization of dissent, as well as a frightening sign of things to come for activists pushing back against environmental racism.
Ironically, this increasingly draconian response toward forest protectors speaks powerfully to the need to stop Cop City, putting the routine violence of policing on full display and quickly calling the entire institution into question. Indeed, in a positive feedback loop, the Atlanta police have already killed one person and harmed countless others in pursuit of the construction of a facility to enable them to enact more violence still. Though the cops have claimed that Tortuguita shot a trooper first, there is ample evidence, including an independent autopsy, which suggests this is yet another instance of police lying about the circumstances of one of their murders.
The Policing Project
The police repression toward forest protectors, including Tortuguita, lays bare not only the regular, routinized violence of policing but also the consolidation of the political organization of police in pursuit of their own agenda–namely, funding for more and deadlier weapons, as well as for “cop cities.” Cops all over the US are and have been organizing themselves, preparing for and executing war against their neighbors–disproportionately their Black neighbors. Upholding racial capitalism through violent spectacle has always been their primary purpose, but as anti-police sentiment has grown especially in the wake of the uprisings of 2020, cops have doubled down, with “back-the-blue” ideology and other right-wing cop support growing into a fully fleshed fascist movement. Indeed, while the links between the far-right and police go deeper than individuals, the number of individual officers who are also members of white supremacist groups is notable.
Cops and their supporters have realized that every time a murder takes place they can swindle more money out of the public for “training.” However, contrary to the fantasies of a massively projecting media class, cops and their organizations do not want to change or “retrain” themselves. The training money is for more weapons. The reform money is for more humvees. Moreover, studies have shown that there is no correlation between higher police spending and a reduction in crime. However much reformers wish that police murders were a mistake or an impulse that can be reformed away, the cops themselves and their closest supporters tell us the real truth.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Rayshard Brooks, who was murdered in Atlanta in 2020 by officers who had been through 2,000 hours of training in de-escalation, cultural awareness, and the use of deadly force. In another heartbreaking example, on the eve of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis had complied with all of recommendations of the Obama Administration’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”
Police murder is not an error, it is a function of policing. Cops don’t apologize for it, they defend it. They cover it up. They lie, claiming they “feared for their life.” They plead not guilty. And then they continue taking lives.
Centuries of Colonial Violence at Weelaunee
The story of Atlanta’s Weelaunee Forest does not begin with the current police assault and attempted construction of Cop City in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Before the military vehicles and SWAT teams, before the protests and the murder of Tortuguita, Weelaunee was a prison farm, part of a project of re-creating slavery under the guise of the carceral system. Before that particular regime of violent profit-making, before the incarceration of Kwame Ture (also known as Stokely Carmichael)for civil rights activism, it was a plantation. And before it was a plantation, Weelaunee was part of the homelands of the Muscogee Creek peoples, who were violently removed as the land was stolen from them by the state of Georgia.
In other words, Weelaunee is and has been a site of ongoing colonial violence. As a result, the struggle to #StopCopCity is not only a campaign to stop construction of a police facility, it is a struggle to stop what has been centuries of continuous violence against Black and Indigenous peoples, and against all other life forms as well.
In an essay for Emergence Magazine, Jamie Figueroa writes of a conversation with Indigenous activist and lawyer Sherri Mitchell, in which she emphasized the dangers of understanding our world as “postcolonial”: “The danger,” Sherri says, “is that it normalizes the time that we’re living in, which is very much still a time of ongoing colonization. It’s a time of ongoing trauma.”
We live in colonial times. The trauma of that past is not gone, it is with us. And it is still being written: on us, on the land, and on the beings we share this planet with. Reports of police, armed to the teeth, encircling peaceful attendees of a music festival in Weelaunee forest seem to frighteningly encapsulate this. They also find their echoes in the long arc of Weelaunee’s history.
A Key Battle for the Environment
We also live amidst an intensifying climate crisis, a time in which the environmental importance of Weelaunee cannot be overstated. The South River, which runs through the forest, was named the fourth most endangered river in the United States. Myriad environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, and the Sunrise Movement have been part of the struggle against Cop City. Ironically, the ecological importance of Weelaunee (also known as South River Park) was even recognized by the city of Atlanta itself in 2017, when an official report named the forest as one of the four “lungs of Atlanta”. As Hannah Riley and Micah Herskind put it in an article for Teen Vogue,
the forest is a critical bulwark against environmental disaster and serves as an important public good for the many residents who find joy in walking the forest’s trails. In a city already facing dangerous heat waves (projected to worsen) and flooding (also projected to worsen) as a result of the climate crisis, the protection that ecologically rich land provides cannot be overstated. Both the Weelaunee Forest and the South River, which winds through it, are teeming with life.
Yet as in so many cases of environmental injustice, the people likely to face the most harm from the destruction and razing of Weelaunee are Black residents, who constitute the majority of those living in surrounding neighborhoods.
It is crucial not to rhetorically separate the climate impacts of Cop City from the human impacts. They are not separate, nor have they ever been. Cop City’s attack on the environment—that is, on the forest—is an attack on the web of life which enables our own survival. Colonizers, old and new, seem to recognize this in practice. Their violence has always been omnicidal, meaning resistance to such violence must seek to break down the artificial barriers which separate humans from those they share the planet with. We have seen this expansive vision of kinship take physical form in the brave forest protectors who are fighting for life—not only their own lives and their neighbors lives, not only the lives of the trees and other creatures who call the forest home, but for the possibility of continued life, for a life beyond the paradigm of colonization that has threatened our collective survival as human beings for generations.
The history of Weelaunee, too, has much to teach us. From the theft of Muscogee Creek land, to the plantation, to the prison, to the new proposed facility, the fight against Cop City has no choice but to face down a largely unbroken chain of violence going back hundreds of years. Some of the trees in Weelaunee forest were present for and witness to many iterations of this chain of violence. What forest protectors and the those they share the forest with know is that displacement, genocide, enslavement, forced labor, imprisonment, and policing are strategies of the colonizer which are fundamentally incompatible with life. This is why we know that #CopCityWillNeverBeBuilt. In the words of Tortuguita, “The abolitionist mission isn’t done until every prison is empty. When there are no more cops, when the land has been given back, that’s when it’s over.”
Solidarity with all forest protectors! Stop Cop City!
Ways You Can Support Forest Protectors*:
Donate to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund
Buy a Book for a Forest Defender in Jail
Phone Zap for Forest Defenders Denied Bail
Stop Cop City Solidarity: Take Action (website)
If you are an organizer with other ways readers can support #StopCopCity, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.