There is a battle being fought in the city of Atlanta. Here, local politicians, law enforcement, and the powerful Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the union that backs up police officers, aim to build a massive police complex that has been dubbed “Cop City” — and activists and local residents are working together and risking everything to stop them.
For the activists, many of them Black, Indigenous, Latine, and/or queer, the proposed $90 million, 85-acre law enforcement training facility that the city of Atlanta wants to build in the Weelaunee Forest in unincorporated Dekalb County will harm the environment and communities of color. They warn that the continued militarization of the police, trained in massive facilities like this one, will lead to more violence, over-policing, and arrests for populations that are already vulnerable and targeted.
“Environmental racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, and the oppression of minority groups have always been tied together,” Noah Grigni, a children’s book illustrator who has been participating in actions to support the movement, tells Refinery29 Somos. “'Cop City' is a perfect storm.”
The project was approved in 2021, shortly after the 2020 police killing of Rayshard Brooks and local Black Lives Matters protests. It’s been reported that the massive complex would include training facilities, shooting ranges, driving courses, and even a mock city to practice police raids. The APF has also said the facility would “lift morale among officers.”
Funding for the project includes $30 million from the city of Atlanta and $60 million by the APF. The foundation is supported by corporate donations, including from Chick-fil-A, Home Depot, UPS, and even Georgia State University. The contract grants the APF a 50-year lease on the land that is owned by the city of Atlanta.
"This is an issue that affects us all and we are working together as a community."
According to Grigni, who uses they/them pronouns, the fight against "Cop City" has brought people together across movements and across communities who care for one reason or the other. “Some people aren’t critical of the police and want to save the forest. Some are not environmentalists but are activists against racism and over-policing. This is an issue that affects us all and we are working together as a community,” they say.
One of the many concerns raised by those opposed to the movement is that the city is granting the APF carte blanche by training officers with no mode of accountability. As a private organization, the APF isn’t required to have any kind of oversight, including sharing details of training tactics or being subject to open records requests.
This raises red flags for activists considering the city’s history of militarized police force, including when law enforcement tear-gassed protesters during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Moreover, a national study by PBS found the militarization of police officers doesn’t make communities safer and doesn’t reduce police fatalities. Instead, it found that it increases policing in neighborhoods of color. Already, Black and Latine communities are among the most overly represented in U.S. prisons. We are more likely to live in areas with increased police enforcement, more likely to be arrested, and also more likely to be given longer sentences than non-Latine white people once in the system for the same crimes.
Saturn, an organizer that has been with the movement since the start, says that the building of Atlanta’s “Cop City” will be felt all over. “It’s a danger to everyone, particularly people that have historically been targeted by police, because these facilities will be replicated across the country,” he says.
Additionally, people I spoke with say the land disturbance permit granted by the city to build the massive facility would lead to clear-cutting hundreds of acres of trees, displacing animals and interrupting the ecosystem. Even more, they say it also violates sediment regulations that protect people’s right to clean water. “The high amount of sediment found in the water of the South River and Entrenchment Creek after the first clearings creates a high flood risk that will only worsen if clear-cutting of the forest goes forward, endangering people living in surrounding neighborhoods,” Seesaw, a volunteer in the movement, says, adding that many in these communities are non-white. “This is another way that climate and racial justice are deeply tied.”
For nearly two years, forest defenders like Seesaw have managed to slow, and at times completely stop, construction. They’ve accomplished this by camping out in the forest, living in trees, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing community events, fighting zoning permits through legal avenues, and organizing marches.
“This is another way that climate and racial justice are deeply tied.”
However, time after time, the city of Atlanta has responded with raids. On January 18, Manuel Páez Terán, a nonbinary activist known as “Tortuguita,” was shot to death inside of a tent by agents of the Georgia State Patrol, working with Atlanta Police Department agents, during a raid in the forest. Police have said that Tortuguita, who was born in Venezuela, first fired shots that wounded an officer and that they were killed after police returned fire. However, last month Tortuguita’s family attorney revealed the results of an independent autopsy that determined that Tortuguita had their hands up when they were shot and killed, completely conflicting with the police narrative that the officer shot in self-defense. A recent autopsy found that they were shot at least 57 times. Yet, no charges have been brought against any officers and no other information has been released related to their death.
Conversely, protesters have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, dozens so far, for activities like trespassing and property damage of construction equipment on site. Watchdog organizations warn that these arrests highlight a growing trend of state and federal governments using charges like domestic terrorism to squash the rights of citizens to organize and protest. They say the normalization of using charges like terrorism could have deep effects for groups across the country who participate in public actions to show disagreement with other laws.
Domestic terrorism laws have historically affected communities of color, particularly South Asians, Arab Americans, and non-white Muslims. More recently, terrorism laws have also been used to ramp up immigration enforcement against undocumented people, largely Latines. Congress passed astronomical budgets to close borders, ramped up enforcement in local communities, and created the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Later came the raids, the persecution of undocumented people in their own communities, Real ID requirements — laws that made it impossible for undocumented people to drive legally — and therefore the criminalization of traffic violations like driving without a license, which, coupled with police participating in programs like 287g, led to the incarceration, deportation, and separation of countless families.
People living in Georgia are very familiar with the effects of these policies. For many years, Gwinnett County, a suburb outside the city of Atlanta, had the embarrassing honor of having more 287g ICE holds than any other county in the nation.
With so much at stake — for the land, communities of color, and immigrants — what began in 2021 as a small local drive initially led by environmental activists to stop the destruction of a forest right outside the city of Atlanta has morphed into an expansive, diverse, and intersectional social justice movement. Currently, an appeal is pending with the county's Zoning Board of Appeals against the permit that would allow the building of "Cop City."
According to Saturn, the movement has gotten this far because of “all the smaller collectives who have banded together for a common goal, including environmentalists, queer collectives, bail funds, farm collectives who do food distributions, mutual aid, and organizers of all types coming together.”
Collaboration, he says, is key to their fight. On March 31, news began to spread that contractors started cutting down more trees despite the pending appeal. Hours later, hundreds gathered to protest.