A battle is raging in the woods outside Atlanta. At stake are 85 acres of the South River Forest (Weelaunee Forest by its Muscogee name) where city officials and corporate bigwigs want to build a $90 million police training center. Also at stake is the right to dissent, as the powers that be viciously retaliate against those who have worked for two years to stop what they call Cop City. Forty-two protesters face domestic terrorism charges, and one has been killed.
The plan for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center tramples a 2017 initiative to turn this area into a community park for nearby underserved Black neighborhoods. The facility would contain a shooting range, a driving course for high-speed chases, and a mock village for practicing urban raids.
The nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) developed the proposal with the support of its corporate board members from Delta, Home Depot, Georgia Pacific, Wells Fargo, and UPS.
In 2021, when the city abandoned its design for a conservation corridor in favor of a facility to advance the militarization of police, the betrayal gave birth to a passionate intersectional, decentralized movement. Black Lives Matter supporters, environmental organizations, voting rights advocates, neighborhood associations, and area schools all joined the fight. Soon, self-styled “forest defenders” set up a camp, pitching tents near the construction site
The pushback has been non-violent: waving banners, marching through the streets, testifying at city council hearings, and staging gatherings in the woods. It has aimed at various entities from the general contractors clearing trees, to funders like the Bank of America, to an insurance provider, and government officials.
Intimidation and cop violence
Atlanta and Georgia State authorities are using all the power at their disposal to crush the resistance. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the FBI is keeping close tabs on what they call “anarchist violent extremists” and, citing zero evidence, equating their activity with domestic terrorism. As far away as Chicago, the FBI has spied on movement supporters.
Officials slam opponents of Cop City as outside agitators, a trope Black organizers deride as used by segregationists in the civil rights era. True, activists had issued a wide call for supporters to come to Atlanta, connecting the local fight with national and international campaigns against environmental racism and police violence.
The confrontation reached a fevered pitch this January when police killed non-binary eco-occupier Manuel Esteban Paez “Tortuguita” Terán in a raid on the forest campsite. In a too-familiar defense, the Georgia authorities claimed that Tortuguita had first shot at an officer. They then changed their story multiple times and withheld evidence from the incident.
Tortuguita is the first environmentalist killed by cops in the U.S., marking an escalation in this war.
On March 5, hundreds of Atlantans, including children, attended the South River Music Festival in the woods to show their solidarity with the “Stop Cop City” campaign. Suddenly officers in riot gear stormed the concert, corralled participants, and prevented them from leaving.
The police claimed that masked saboteurs had bashed equipment at the nearby facility construction site, then fled and hid among concertgoers. They arrested 35 people based on absurd criteria like having “muddy clothing” two days after a rainstorm. Those detained were denied bail and kept in solitary confinement. Twenty-three of them now face between five and 35 years behind bars for domestic terrorism.
Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders, one of the earliest resistance groups, said about the excessive charges, “This is a scare tactic meant to demoralize the movement. And it’s also meant to criminalize the movement in the eyes of the larger public.”
In April, cops arrested several activists who were distributing flyers that named the officers involved in Tortuguita’s shooting. They are charged with felony intimidation of an officer and face up to 20 years in prison.
Even though the police closed the campground in May, demonstrations continue. To stay up-to-date on developments, visit https://StopCop.City.
Escalation of repression
For Georgia’s reactionary politicians, the battle in Atlanta is a perfect opportunity to target both environmental and Black community activists.
As far back as 2004 the FBI declared environmental extremism one of its highest domestic terrorism priorities. Surveillance of eco groups increased as did arrests and conspiracy charges. But it was the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 that triggered a wave of dangerous anti-protest legislation — in 2021 alone, 34 states introduced 81 bills.
Georgia had already expanded its domestic terrorism law so that anyone attempting to “disable or destroy critical infrastructure” to “alter, change or coerce the policy of government” could be charged with felony domestic terrorism. The statute was first used against foes of Cop City.
Eli Bennett, defense attorney for three of those arrested, stated “You can’t make a criminal organization out of a political movement. That’s just not what we do in this country, I hope.” The “I hope” indicates that the right to protest is very much on the table. If the legal battles to clear those arrested are lost, if the police get away with killing a demonstrator with impunity and charging non-violent agitators with extreme sentences, civil liberties everywhere are in jeopardy.
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Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 44, No. 3, June-July 2023