With the police training facility set to decimate Atlanta’s forestland, a coalition of abolitionists and environmentalists are sustaining the struggle.
It is a grim moment for climate justice in the U.S. The Supreme Court kneecapped the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions. And the deal struck with coal baron Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for climate-related programs — a fraction of what was initially proposed — falls far short of what is needed to avert environmental devastation.
It is a disheartening time, too, for racial justice struggle against policing and prisons. The bipartisan race to the bottom in “law-and-order” governance continues apace, insulting the memory of the 2020 Black liberation uprisings, in which up to 26 million people participated. President Joe Biden, for instance, pledged to aggressively expand law enforcement funding to allow the hiring and training of 100,000 more cops.
There is an unassuming but remarkably resilient struggle that connects the environmentalist and abolitionist movements in Atlanta.
In climate and racial justice, reasons for optimism can feel few and far between. And yet there is an unassuming but remarkably resilient struggle that connects the environmentalist and abolitionist movements in Atlanta — and it’s gaining ground.
For over a year, activists have protested to defend a major stretch of Atlanta forest where the government plans to build a vast, $90 million police training compound, dubbed “Cop City.” Plans for the training facility include several shooting ranges, a helicopter landing base, an area for explosives training, and an entire mock city for officers to engage in role-playing activities.
Next to the planned Cop City site, film production studio Shadowbox, formerly named Blackhall Studios, aims to expand its soundstage complex into Intrenchment Creek Park — public lands bequeathed to the company in a controversial and contested land swap with unincorporated DeKalb County.
Against the joint incursions of entertainment capital and militarized policing, the Defend the Atlanta Forest/Stop Cop City movement was born. Activists have organized, camped, marched, sabotaged, researched, addressed City Council, filed lawsuits, educated, tree sat, and blockaded — in sum, shown themselves to be immovable through nimble strategizing and highly targeted protest campaigns.
The demonstrators have kept Cop City and the film studio construction efforts at bay for months. Since November 2021, encampments on both the land intended for Cop City and the soundstage complex have expanded and contracted in waves — from dozens of forest defenders to hundreds — but have maintained a continuous base of forest protection.
Defend the Atlanta Forest/Stop Cop City might not boast the headline-grabbing numbers of Standing Rock nor anything close to the millions nationwide who took to the streets in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder. The movement is, however, striking for its strategic capacities and longevity, even when participant numbers have been low. It provides a key lesson in movement durability, something that is too often lost in the peaks and troughs of liberation struggles.
“It’s not that people think this place of wilderness in the city of Atlanta is the key to solving the climate crisis,” said an Atlanta-based artist I’ll call Marshall, who asked that his last name be withheld to avoid police scrutiny. “By creating a template of actions at the human scale, on the terrain that individuals and groups can influence with a little bit of focus, I think we have managed to crack something of a code.” He added, “If we can stop this project, it is quite likely that further efforts will be taken elsewhere to definitively put to rest the long era of environmental devastation, police militarization, and all of the rest.”
Last September, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 in favor of building Cop City. The vote came despite some 70 percent of residents expressing their opposition to the project during 17 hours of recorded public comment. The bill for the center will be covered by both public funds and the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit backed by major corporations including Coca-Cola and Bank of America, among many others.
Environmental concerns over Cop City abound. The project would put a dent both in Atlanta’s tree canopy, which currently has the highest percentage of coverage among major metropolitan areas in the country, and wetlands that filter rainwater and prevent major flooding. The surrounding neighborhoods, predominantly Black and working-class, would suffer from increased air and noise pollution.
In defending against Cop City’s construction, activists have been consistently clear that the movement is a broad coalition co-constituted by those engaged in Black liberation and Indigenous and environmental struggles, with none taking precedence over the other.
“The history of this particular land is deeply scarred,” the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement website notes. “In the 1800s shortly after the land was stolen from Muscogee Creek peoples, it was used as a plantation. In the early 1900s, a prison farm was opened where inmates were forced to perform unpaid agricultural labor, marking the rebranding of slavery into for profit prison labor. The Atlanta Police Department currently uses this hallowed ground as a firing range.”
In recognition that the land on which Atlanta stands was stolen in the 1800s from the Muscogee (Creek) people, the protest encampment has been host to dozens of visitors from around the country who descended from the displaced Indigenous community. In November 2021 and April 2022, Muscogee (Creek) and other Indigenous activists gathered in Intrenchment Creek Park — which the movement now calls by its traditional name, Welaunee — to engage in a “re-matriation” process with the land.
During the last week of July, an estimated 500 activists from around the country traveled to Atlanta to join a week of action in defense of the forest. There were teach-ins, barbecues, and child-friendly activities, as well as a music festival. The aim was to gain further public support for a movement that right-wing politicians have tried to denigrate as “eco-terrorism.” Over the months, there have been attempted police raids, including arrests, and scattered efforts by construction contractors to enter the forest, but no attempts have successfully displaced the encampment.
At the same time, the forest defenders have refused to pander to liberal pieties by softening their message. The movement is unabashedly abolitionist, anti-cop, and embracing of militant tactics, including numerous instances of vandalizing police and private contractor vehicles and bulldozers.
Seasoned environmental activists have constructed and slept in tree sits, while others — some encampment mainstays, some short-term participants — maintained a camp kitchen and “living room” beneath banner-adorned trees. When I visited the encampment on an afternoon in late May, only a few dozen activists were gathered in the forest base; the week prior had been another week of action, drawing hundreds to the camp. The week that followed saw an attempted raid, but the camp remained. Activists regrouped; strategizing continued.
The forest defenders have refused to pander to liberal pieties. The movement is unabashedly abolitionist, anti-cop, and embracing of militant tactics.
Another part of the movement’s work has taken place beyond the forest. Activists investigated targets to exert pressure on the companies contracted to build Cop City and the Shadowbox soundstage, alongside a huge array of investors and subcontractors. Protests far outside the camp — at the offices of these companies and at the homes of Cop City-supportive local politicians — have been constant. Brasfield & Gorrie, the general contractor for Cop City, has been a major target, but so too have several of its subcontractors.
In recent months, acts of solidarity proliferated nationwide. Anonymous activists in Philadelphia vandalized branches of Bank of America and Wells Fargo and released a communiqué to announce that the acts were in solidarity against Cop City. “This attack was done in solidarity and complicity with those disrupting the construction of a police training grounds in Atlanta,” the communiqué noted. “The Atlanta Police Foundation is being funded by Wells Fargo and Bank Of America.”
In Minneapolis, Atlas Technical Consultants saw its office windows smashed in May, with a similar communiqué released online by the anonymous perpetrators. “Atlas Technical Consultants is the owner of Long Engineering, who are active participants in the ill-fated attempt at the destruction of the Atlanta forest,” they wrote. Other such actions have taken place from New York City to North Carolina to Nebraska.
It would be foolish to romanticize the breaking of a few corporate windows as constituting a great stand against the glutted police state. And it would go too far to say that the futures of environmental, Indigenous, and abolitionist struggles rest on the fate of the Atlanta forest.
Yet the strength of the movement has been its staying power, which speaks instead to an internal understanding of the flexibility, diversity of tactics, and strategic alliances required for a long fight.
“I didn’t ever think I’d see a movement where doctors, preschoolers and their parents, anarchists, and City Council people were all rallying together with other community-led groups around such, frankly, radical demands,” Marshall told me. “But here it is.”