The Fight Against Cop City

The Fight Against Cop City

The protests in Atlanta build on a history of organizers challenging prison construction as a force for environmental destruction.

A Stop Cop City activist’s tent glimpsed through the trees on March 4, 2023. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

On Saturday, March 4, I arrived at Intrenchment Creek Park in DeKalb County, Georgia, for the first day of a week of action against a $90 million construction project undertaken by the Atlanta Police Foundation—a private entity, backed by local CEOs and political leaders, that advances police interests. The foundation wants to raze eighty-five acres of public forest to build the largest police training facility in the United States, complete with a firing range, a burn building, and a “kill house” designed to mimic urban combat scenarios. It also argues that the facility will boost morale among officers. The size and scale of the project, and the destruction and deforestation it will require, have led a growing number of activists, organizers, and community members to object to what they call “Cop City.” The campaign against Cop City is simultaneously a campaign to defend the Weelaunee Forest, the name used for the area by the Muscogee Creek people forcibly displaced by settlers from the land in the early 1800s before it became the site of the notorious Atlanta Prison Farm. These elements of the campaign—the histories on which it draws, what it’s fighting against and for, who it is bringing together, and how—have given it tremendous staying power despite extraordinary odds.

Locals often describe Atlanta as “a city in a forest,” with trees and a tree canopy covering almost half of the land. The ecosystem depends on this foliage, and activists say that the deforestation required to build the facility will harm air quality, hasten climate change, and contribute to flooding in predominantly poor and working-class Black and brown communities. The proposed development will further distance residents from accessible green space while bringing toxic waste closer. But the project will do more than fracture the largest green space in Atlanta. The activists fighting against Cop City argue that police violence itself constitutes an environmental hazard, and that toxic chemicals associated with explosives that could be used on the site will destroy the air, water, and land on which myriad forms of life depend.

The week of action I attended was organized in remembrance of Tortuguita, or Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, the twenty-six-year-old nonbinary forest defender killed by Georgia State Patrol on January 18. Activists I met affectionately abbreviated their name to “Tort.” While police originally claimed self-defense, body-camera footage and two different autopsies show police shot Terán thirteen or fourteen times and suggest they were sitting cross-legged with both hands up when the police fired. Terán’s mother has since come to Atlanta from Panama to file suit against the city for records of her child’s murder, and to demand justice with a growing coalition at her side.

Terán is the first environmental activist killed by police in recent U.S. history. Their death is part of an intensifying campaign of repression waged against protesters fighting environmentally destructive developments across the country, most famously the Standing Rock encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The arrests, raids, and prosecutions evoke the Green Scare of the early 2000s, when the federal government infiltrated, surveilled, and prosecuted environmental and animal activists across the country. The recent protests, however, come at a time of greater popular recognition of the climate crisis—and the seeming futility of turning to elected officials to take climate action against the same corporations that fuel their campaigns and structure the economy.

In Atlanta, there have been three waves of arrests and at least as many forest raids since December. Sixty-eight people are facing variations on common charges brought against protesters—disorderly conduct, criminal trespass and assault, and obstruction of governmental administration. But forty-two among them face domestic terrorism charges, which carry a mandatory minimum of five years of incarceration and a maximum of thirty-five. The thin affidavits suggest the basis of the charges are affiliation with Defend the Atlanta Forest, “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.” (A DHS official told the Washington Post it never made such a classification.) Those who have been released on bond are prohibited from having contact with their codefendants or with Defend the Atlanta Forest. Multiple activists have insisted, however, that Defend the Atlanta Forest is not an organization at all: instead, it is a demand, a social media account, and a shorthand reference for a loosely affiliated group of autonomous individuals, protecting the land against encroachment and seemingly motivated by anarchist principles. This insistence is about their political commitments as much as it is a rejection of the state’s theory of criminalization.

In June 2021, one year after the George Floyd uprisings and the Atlanta Police Department’s murder of Rayshard Brooks, Joyce Sheperd, then a city council member, introduced an ordinance to lease over 350 acres of public forest land to the Atlanta Police Foundation at the subsidized rate of $10 per year for up to fifty years. The council attempted to rush the ordinance through the legislative process without any public input. But thanks to a campaign by the Black-led membership organization Community Movement Builders to slow down the project, over 1,100 people provided the council with public comments—with 70 percent opposed to the development. While opposition came from across Atlanta, support for Cop City came from police, firefighters, and wealthy enclaves. The council approved the project anyway by a 10–4 vote in September 2022.

The project rests on a private-public partnership, with the foundation aiming to privately finance $60 million of the facility’s costs and the city covering the remaining $30 million. Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A, and Norfolk Southern (the train company responsible for the recent disaster in East Palestine, Ohio) have all donated to the foundation’s fundraising campaign, while executives from Delta, Waffle House, and Home Depot are on the board. Alex Taylor, the CEO and president of Cox Enterprises—which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—is the chairman of the fundraising campaign.

The Stop Cop City campaign emerged out of an ad hoc formation to defund the Atlanta Police called Defund APD, Refund Communities (DARC), working alongside Community Movement Builders and the Atlanta DSA. Activists credit the campaign’s longevity to the involvement of a range of organizations and individuals, with varied political commitments and comfort with different tactics and strategies—what they have called “multiple grammars of struggle.” While there is undoubtedly disagreement within these formations, there is a shared sense of purpose to defend the land and oppose the development.

Some groups have done this through protest and pressure on the city council, while others have filed legal challenges. A number of activists moved into the forest, camping out to blockade the construction. Some have gone a step further and sabotaged equipment, targeting the private companies on which the project depends. Last spring, in an open and anonymous letter to Reeves Young, a local construction company, activists explained the strategy behind the sabotage: “we will undermine your profits so severely that you’ll have no choice but to drop the contract.” Reeves Young has since backed out. Then, this March, a group of Muscogee Creek people traveled to Atlanta and disrupted a municipal commission to deliver an “eviction notice” to Mayor Andre Dickens, the city, the police, and the police foundation. The letter demands that they “immediately vacate” Muscogee homelands and “cease violence and policing of Indigenous and Black people.”

The Stop Cop City campaign builds on a history of organizers challenging prison construction as a force for environmental destruction. In 1999, the prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance took on a campaign against California’s efforts to build a prison in Delano, the home of the United Farm Workers, on the grounds that the required clearing of at least 480 acres of farmland posed environmental hazards. Joined by the National Lawyers Guild and an environmental group called Friends of the Kangaroo Rat, the coalition sued the California Department of Corrections for failing to comply with an environmental review process. The suit lost, but the project was delayed by almost six years. The prison eventually opened in 2005—and no new prisons were built in California until 2013.

The judge dismissed Critical Resistance and the National Lawyers Guild from the lawsuit on the basis that their concern was really about the prison and not the environment. But poor and working-class communities of color have long made these connections. In 2006, the late Rose Braz and Craig Gilmore, cofounders of Critical Resistance, described a conference where young people in California “reported as the biggest threats in their communities the ‘three Ps’: police, pollution, and prisons.” In Atlanta, conservationists and prison abolitionists are fighting Cop City on the grounds that cutting down trees will lead to rising temperatures, increased flooding, greater erosion, and the destruction of wildlife habitats. Protesters have made a range of demands for alternate uses for the site, including preserving greenspace and building affordable housing.

Stop Cop City threads together elements of other recent protest movements—including Occupy Wall Street, which highlighted the state’s fealty to corporations and the ultra-wealthy; #NoDAPL, which embodied the connection between struggles for environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty; and the 2020 uprisings, which pointed to the bloated municipal budgets for policing over all else. The current campaign is focused on the relationship between the state and corporations, which are united in support for policing and the privatization and destruction of public land. DARC campaign materials argue that the mayor and city council’s embrace of the facility, in defiance of public opposition, “exemplifies their alignment with corporations over the working-class people of metro Atlanta.”

When I arrived at the protest camp, it took me a minute to understand that the people I met were sharing temporary monikers to shield their identities from police and private security. Face masks were doing double-duty, protecting against both viral spread and surveillance. Under tarps and tents, there was a medic station, a “free store” with clothes and campaign literature, and an array of food and water. A parking lot served as a staging ground for people heading into the forest to set up camp for a two-day music festival. The Instagram post announcing the musical lineup proclaimed: “Stop Cop City. No Cop City Anywhere. Defend the Forest. Come Dance.” When a kid from Atlanta told me he had convinced his parents to drop him off at the park by telling them about the concert that evening, something clicked for me: this was a Gen Z equivalent of Occupy Wall Street, but instead of taking place in the Financial District, it’s in the woods.

Around 3 p.m., I followed Joe Peery (his real name) of the South River Forest Coalition on a tour with about fifty newcomers. His group was created in 2018 to advocate for the creation of a 3,500-acre conservation area that would cover five public parks and the surrounding area. While Peery stood apart from the anarchists—the South River Forest Coalition prefers press conferences and lawsuits to direct action—he expressed frustration with the limits of the political and legal process to protect the land. It was clear that he had developed respect for the young activists who were camping out. He explained that while he once saw the struggle against Cop City as separate from his own concerns, he now understood them to be entangled.

Our first stop was the “living room,” a place for meetings, campfires, and shared meals. Peery explained we were within a pine forest, which made the ground “super comfortable.” The forest did not look like other public parks—I saw no marked trails, benches, or signage. Until recently, the city saw the lands as unprofitable and not a priority for development. The South River, which winds through the forest, was named the fourth-most endangered river in the country in 2021, due to pollution, sewage, and runoff. The deforestation required by Cop City would disrupt this already fragile ecosystem. Without the grassland trees to slow down water, there would be considerably more flooding of the surrounding communities.

The tour was punctuated by scenes of camping debris: slashed tents and water containers, remnants of tree houses and campsites built and destroyed. Peery explained this was the work of the police. Activists were so scared after the police killing of Terán that the forest quickly emptied out. Only now, leading into the week of action, were people returning.

Peery told the crowd that the Stop Cop City campaign was the latest development in an ongoing struggle over the future of the forest, which included a 2021 South River Forest Coalition lawsuit in which he is a plaintiff. The suit challenges Ryan Millsap, a local real estate mogul who is laying claim to forty acres of the park, adjacent to the Cop City site, through a land swap deal that would increase his return on investment by millions. Part of his promise to the city is to build a park named after Michelle Obama. While Millsap initially purported to obtain the land for his film company Blackhall Studios, he has since sold the company. It is unclear what he plans to do with these lands. The lawsuit argues that by privatizing public land, the swap is in violation of a 2003 agreement in which the nonprofit Trust for Public Land conveyed 136 acres to the city for use “in perpetuity as [public] park property,” and to the exclusion of “fire stations [and] police stations.”

Last December, after the first police sweep and wave of arrests, Millsap bulldozed trees, much of the parking lot, a gazebo under which many meetings took place, and the first several hundred feet of paved trail into the forest. The South River Forest Coalition sought an emergency restraining order against construction in court. The judge denied the injunction. Meanwhile, earlier this year, another lawsuit, brought by the South River Watershed Alliance against the Atlanta Police Foundation to stop its clearing of the land, was dismissed soon after it was filed. After the tour, I recognized the mangled remnants of that gazebo at the mouth of the parking lot. Over the destroyed trail, a sheet hung among trees and spraypainted in pink declared, “Our Woods Not Holly Woods. Tout le monde déteste le Millsap.”

That evening, I caught one wild performance at the festival before heading out for the evening. The performers, covered in dirt and color, writhed on the ground, and implored the audience to take off our shoes and feel the land with our feet. Young people of all colors, sexualities, gender identities, and class backgrounds were picnicking and dancing. For a few minutes, there was a small mosh pit. The atmosphere was joyful and powerful; it was a magnetic experience of solidaristic possibility. When I learned the following evening that the police had arrested thirty-five people at the festival—twenty-three on domestic terrorism charges—it was hard to reconcile with the exuberant scene I had just left. (As of mid-April, none of those charged with domestic terrorism have been indicted.) The purported basis for the police crackdown was an action a mile away from the concert, where dozens of people dressed in black threw rocks at and set fire to a construction tractor and other equipment at the Cop City site. I wondered whether the arrests and draconian charges would end the week of action, but social media, press coverage, and accounts by the Atlanta Community Press Collective suggests it has continued in the weeks since with forest cleanups, phone zaps to local officials, art-making, a town hall, and more.

In defiance of the ongoing protests, the police and their contractors have started to cut down the forest, and the future of the encampment remains unclear. Occupy and Standing Rock were both crushed by police, prosecutors, and private security—experiences that radicalized those who encountered police violence for the first time. Lawmakers, the fossil fuel industry, and conservative formations like the American Legislative Exchange Council have continued to fuel repression. The protests against the Line 3, Keystone XL, and DAPL pipelines were met with new laws to further criminalize interference with “critical infrastructure” for oil and gas, including pipelines, refineries, and mining camps. One Oklahoma law makes it easier to penalize organizations for “conspiring” with individuals caught trespassing near pipelines; others have made more severe penalties available to prosecutors who already have extensive criminal trespass and property destruction laws at their disposal.

As daunting as they are, the criminal charges prosecutors are bringing against those fighting extractive projects might provide new openings for protesters. Last year, the Washington Supreme Court took the unusual step of recognizing a political necessity defense in the case of George Taylor, a seventy-six-year-old retired minister and environmental activist who was charged with criminal trespass and unlawful obstruction when he went onto the tracks of BNSF Railway in Spokane to disrupt a train carrying crude oil. While courts have generally rejected the necessity defense for activists on the grounds that it would allow them to litigate the political propriety of their protest in front of a jury rather than their guilt, it seems that some judges are starting to understand the limits of counting on the formal legal process to represent public interests over companies in cahoots with the state. In allowing Taylor to present a political necessity defense, the court decided he had no reasonable legal means to challenge the transportation of the oil. Weeks before the trial, the charges against Taylor were dismissed at the request of BNSF. The company preferred to dismiss the charges rather than face a public trial on climate change and the unassailable hold of the fossil fuel industry on the formal legal and political process.

On that Saturday evening, I stood in a field watching the music festival being set up. People were streaming out of the woods—where many were setting up camp—as the sun set at their backs. The stage was draped 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.” The Sunday arrests targeted those from out of state, undoubtedly an attempt to frame a locally rooted popular insurgency against Cop City as the act of outsiders. It’s an audacious effort by the state to scare others from joining a blooming movement and taking up the bold action required to remake the economy and the carceral system. Stop Cop City is a struggle for the many over the few, no matter how hard they try to make it appear otherwise.

Amna A. Akbar is a professor of law at the Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law.