Inside Forest Defenders’ Blockade of Atlanta’s “Cop City” Training Compound

On January 28, Atlanta resident and activist April* joined about 60 racial and environmental justice protesters at Intrenchment Creek Park in the South River Forest — a vital green space that plays a crucial role in the region’s ecology, serving as Atlanta and south DeKalb County’s largest watershed and floodplain.

She was there to protest preparatory work on what Atlanta-area activists have dubbed “Cop City,” an 85-acre, $90 million police militarization and training complex spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation that, if built, would be one of the largest police training facilities in the country. The site would have several shooting ranges as well as a helicopter landing base, a place for explosives training, and a mock city for officers to play role-playing games.

The protesters marched through the South River Forest to a boring machine being used to collect soil samples in advance of the compound’s construction, where a brief standoff with several workers and DeKalb County sheriff’s deputies ensued. After police reinforcements arrived, protesters say the sheriff’s deputies attacked the crowd, tackling April and other protesters to the ground. Two other protesters were also arrested and taken into custody on misdemeanor criminal trespassing charges. Another protester faces a felony charge of obstruction of a police officer.

“It’s the site of basically an environmentally racist attack on the people and forest that exist here,” April tells TruthoutShe explains why she took action against this compound. “I see Cop City as giving up this beautiful ecological zone and sacrificing South Atlanta to development … and more police.”

Jan.’s arrest of her is the first at the unincorporated DeKalb County forested site. There organizers have erected at most two tree-mounted structures to delay the clearing work required to build the facility. To monitor construction activity and help tree-sitters, activists are working hard. They have constructed barricades and shared living spaces throughout the forest. As preparations progress, some are destroying construction equipment while others are visiting the site daily. They hope to attract more Forest Defenders into the newly created autonomous zone.

Organizers argue that if their presence on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s easement violates the law, so do certain construction activities by the Foundation and its contractors: Workers with the Reeves Young construction company first entered the site on January 24, organizers say, to conduct soil boring and geotechnical engineering to prepare for construction, despite not having a proper permit from the Dekalb County Planning and Sustainability Department for tree removal or land disturbance, as required under Georgia Code § 12-7-7. The Sustainability Department’s permitting division, however, did not respond to Truthout’s request for clarification as to whether the Foundation obtained the required permit.

Defend the Atlanta Forest organizer Elias* tells TruthoutSince workers had just collected the soil samples, activists used the lull in preparations construction activities to continue building the outdoor living spaces. They also coordinated logistical supplies to help more people reinforce scattered encampments. “It’s been pretty chill compared to the few weeks before, when there were construction workers in there every day,” he said.

The movement is also fighting against other development projects that could threaten the South River Forest. This includes a planned development. expansion of Hollywood’s Blackhall StudioThey claim that it would increase gentrification of an area with one of the largest populations. income inequalityThe country has many gaps. Organizers argue that both projects would further alienate working-class Blacks and make it harder for them to prioritize the kind of solutions that the county and city desperately need, such affordable housing.

Rather than investing in supportive social infrastructure, Atlanta has largely responded to the citywide uprisings against the police-perpetrated killings of George Floyd in MinneapolisAnd Atlanta’s own Rayshard Brooks by back-tracking on police reform measures and increasing both the Atlanta Police Department’s budget and surveillance capabilities — all while limiting opportunitiesPublic comment.

Even the Atlanta Police Foundation was able to pay bonuses to city cops after some staged a sick-out over former Officer Garrett Rolfe’s felony murder charge in Brooks’s killing. Later, City Council Member Howard ShookThey also pushed for more bonuses that were paid out of taxpayer money. Now, the city — and by extension the county — are doubling down on this approach by moving Cop City toward completion, organizers say.

“Rather than addressing the problems with policing that the protests have brought to light, [officials]They are more concerned with repressing protesters. And [Cop City’s] mock city blocks are sort of exemplary of that,” Elias tells Truthout. “This is where [police] would train to do things like kettling crowds and tear-gassing people and rubber bullets, and just all the different crowd-control methods that we saw in the summer 2020.”

The blockade is a culmination of more that a year of resistance against the planned compound. The Atlanta City Council met in September. approved the projectDespite nearly 17 hours worth of comments from over 1,100 constituents throughout the city, 70% of those who commented expressed strong opposition. Black working-class communities who actually live in the proposed area of unincorporated DeKalb County, and therefore aren’t represented in Atlanta’s City Council, have also opposed the project. At least 12 protesters demonstrated on the night of Council voting. were arrested after gathering outside then-City Council member Natalyn Archibong’s house.

The Council’s plan sticks Atlanta taxpayers with at least a third of Cop City’s bill, an estimated $30 million, through a public-private partnership in which the city has agreed to leaseThe Atlanta Police Foundation will donate 381 acres of South River Forest to them for $10 per year for upto 50 years. The remaining two-thirds of the funding comes from the Foundation’s corporate and other donors, includingCoca-Cola, Delta; Home Depot; UPS and Cox Enterprises which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, vocal supporterCop City. The Council’s proposal, however, also gives the city the power to terminate the agreementCancel the project.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’s office, DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson and the Atlanta Police Foundation did not respond to Truthout’s requests for comment.

Kamau Franklin, an organizer for the Black-led collective Community Movement Builders tells Truthout that the group, which organizes against gentrification and played a leading role in the fight against the Council’s approval of Cop City, is fully supportive of the nascent blockade in the South River Forest. Franklin says the collective, in addition to campaigning against the Atlanta Police Foundation’s corporate donors and board members, is already working to provide Forest Defenders with resources. He believes that some Movement Builders organizers might soon assume greater responsibility and direct roles.

“We think drawing the line at the City Council vote and suggesting that that’s the end of the ball game is sort of ridiculous,” Franklin says. “The fact that the City Council went against the everyday people of Atlanta and decided to pass this, that both the old mayor [Keisha Lance Bottoms]The new mayor [Dickens] still support this, means that this has now turned into a people’s struggle.”

Franklin says that despite the Council and mayors’ support of the project, community organizers have had some success in ousting council members who backed Cop City in the last election cycle — including, most notably, former Councilor Joyce Sheperd, who introduced the ordinanceAuthorization of the Atlanta Police Foundation ground lease

The struggle brought together activists against police brutality and environmental activists. It also brought together Muscogee (Creek), tribal members who are descendants of those whose ancestors lived on the land before it was seized by the police in the early part of the 19th century. Highlighting the intersection of Cop City’s social and environmental injustices, they point out that not only is the South River Forest and watershed one of the city’s most important defenses in the face of the worsening climate crisis, it’s also long been the site of racist displacement, enslavement and carceral subjugation.

The land is associated to the Old Atlanta Prison FarmA complex of farms was sold to a chattel slave farmation in a land lotto. It was then made a city-run prisonAccording to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, incarcerated persons were forced to cultivate crops and raise livestock to feed other city prison populations from around 1920 to almost 1990. Today, the area is home to a shooting range and juvenile detention facility, as well as the Helms state jail.

“This land was Native people’s land which was taken from them, and the fact that the city can find no other better purpose than to build a training center for militarized actions against its citizens shows that there’s a certain continuity of the ideological viewpoint of the city, even with Black officials, around supporting capital, supporting white supremacy, supporting oppressing people who can be used as free labor and/or cheap labor for others, and this is a continuation of that history,” Franklin says.

Rev., a former Atlanta resident. Rev. “There are several layers of violence that are taking place with the development of this Cop City in that location,” he tells Truthout. “My hope is that we don’t put something else in its exact same place that will continue the oppression of [Black and Indigenous] communities and peoples.”

Reverend Kernell (and other tribal members) will be appearing in November visited the South River ForestLocal activists about the history of his tribe, and engage in spiritual practices at the site such as stomp dance ceremonies. Many tribal members were able to reconnect with their ancestral homelands for first time since 1821, when they were forced to leave.

Those homelands, the fruits of which have long been cultivated to support the region’s population, continue to provide the “City in the Forest,” as Atlanta is widely known, with important protections against accelerating climate disruption. Conservationists warn that the land not only serves as a crucial filter and buffer for runoff and flooding; it also acts as “the lungs of Atlanta,” in sequestering carbon emissions and providing the greatest amount of tree canopy shade of any urban area in the country.

“By tearing down 85 acres of this forest and turning it into a semi-impervious, built-up area, they are going to have a direct impact, … with [surrounding] neighborhoods experiencing higher urban heat island effects and then having to pay more for their cooling bills in the summertime,” says environmental engineer Lily Ponitz.

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry placed Ponitz on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee. He is a graduate student at Georgia State University studying urban planning. The advisory committee was created through an administrative order by former Atlanta Mayor Bottoms on January 4, 2021, in response to criticisms about lack of transparency in Cop City’s public process, which at that point had consisted of just three virtual meetings — two of which did not allow public questions or comments.

The board was initially composed of chiefs of the Atlanta Police Foundation, Atlanta Police Department Chiefs and city employees. But, it has since been expanded to include more members of the community. Ponitz claims that this is despite the fact. TruthoutThe public meetings are dominated by Foundation officials and their developers team, with little room for open discussion. “It’s very much like a captive audience of us listening to boosters of the project,” she says.

Ponitz arguesThe Foundation is deliberately mischaracterizing preliminary results environmental assessmentAnd limited secondary investigation of the Cop City site conducted last year by Terracon Consultants, as required under the Foundation’s lease agreement with the city of Atlanta. Terracon’s Phase 1 assessment recommended additional investigation after finding potential for soil and groundwater contamination beneath the site due to several factors including burnt tire activities, old fuel dispensers and containers, an unspecified 20,000-gallon above-ground storage tank, and issues related to a local municipal waste landfill.

The Foundation, Ponitz says, has represented Terracon’s limited secondary investigation as a more comprehensive Phase II environmental assessment in order to argue that it has met its lease requirement. Yet more analysis is needed, she says, as the secondary investigation failed to sample around the 20,000-gallon storage tank, which she argues likely functioned as a “day-tank for mixing concentrated pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers with water to dilute them so they could be sprayed on fields or animals” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. Terracon did not test soil samples or groundwater for pesticides, nor did they test for petroleum hydrocarbons.

“It’s just sketchy,” Ponitz says, referring to the secondary investigation. “I think that [the Atlanta Police Foundation is] using the language of ‘Phase II’ to make us believe that the report is something that it’s not.”

She also worries that historic and ongoing munitions testing pose a risk to South River Forest’s soils and waters — an issue that would only be made worse with the addition of Cop City’s explosives training area and new firing ranges. The MainlineAccording to reports, residents have found police grenades containing lead and other toxic chemicals in the area’s already-existing firing range.

Neither the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) nor the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 4, which oversees the Southeast region, have conducted an environmental assessment, spokespersons for the agencies confirmed to Truthout.

To make matters worse, Atlanta’s South River is already one of the most endangered riversThe country, which has long been plagued with sewage pollution. DeKalb County was actually granted a consent decree with GEPD and the EPA. more than eight yearsto implement procedures to curb water pollution, but the mass sewage leaks have only continued. The county’s deadline has since been postponed to 2027Critics argue that this allows the county to continue systemic environmental racism against surrounding communities.

In fact, the South River Forest area’s ecological benefits and clear need for protection had become so evident over the years that, prior to plans for Cop City, the Atlanta City Council had planned to turn the corridor into a protected park. That’s still what Forest Defenders say they want, arguing Cop City destroys opportunities for green jobs that would have been created under the original plan.

In the face of rising calls for racial justice and the worsening climate crisis, the choice, organizers say, is clear: The city and county must pursue environmental justice by remediating the South River Forest, a life-affirming green space that provides critical protections for all — not build a toxic, militarized police playground that will only further destroy lives and land.

“We see this climate change taking place right before our eyes, yet we do not do anything but more destruction in reaction to it,” Muscogee (Creek) tribal member Reverend Kernell tells Truthout. “My hope is that this ecosystem, this biodiversity that is protected by a forest like the South River Forest will always be there for our well-being, whether it’s producing oxygen, whether it’s producing water, whether it’s producing a place of spiritual retreat, whatever it may be.”

* Names have been changed to protect the identities of activists organizing and engaging in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience under heavy police surveillance and presence.

*Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Old Atlanta Prison Farm was never federally run. The Atlanta Community Press Collective is grateful for this observation. Truthout We regret this error.