What Is “Cop City”? It Has Spawned a National Fight to Protect Southeast Atlanta's Forest

Bianca Piazza - Author
By

Apr. 21 2023, Updated 2:53 p.m. ET

On a neon green map of Atlanta is a collage featuring handcuffs, a protester holding a sign that reads "Stop Environmental Racism," and an image of a forest.
Source: Green Matters Composite: iStock, Getty Images, DEFENDATLANTAFOREST/Instagram

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Americans zealously came together to protest police brutality and continue the national conversation surrounding systemic racism. It was during this time that Atlanta officials decided building a state-of-the-art police training center would satisfy the reform demands made by citizens.

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As reported by NBC News, the City Council approved the 350-acre ground lease agreement for the project with a vote of 10-4 following 17 hours of public comment in 2021. The $90 million facility — called the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — is to be built on approximately 85 acres of land in southeast Atlanta (at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm site), which has infuriated environmental activists nationwide. The other 265 acres will be "preserved as green space," according to the city, though many are skeptical.

Naysayers have dubbed the controversial project “Cop City,” as the facility will include a "mock city for burn building training and urban police training" as well as an "auditorium for police/fire and public use," an "Emergency Vehicle Operator Course for emergency vehicle driver training," a "K-9 unit kennel and training," "30 acres for urban farming," and additional educational buildings.

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With protesters suggesting the center will further militarize the police, endanger marginalized people, and cause ecological damage in the South River/Weelaunee Forest — which was stolen from the Muscogee (Creek) people in the 1800s, per Defend the Atlanta Forest — the project has divided Georgia's capital. Let's further discuss the environmental blemish and sociopolitical stirrer that is Cop City.

South River/Weelaunee Forest
Source: defendatlantaforest/Instagram

South River/Weelaunee Forest

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Cop City will occupy an area of land known as one of the "four lungs" of Atlanta.

To put it bluntly, Atlanta's identity as "a city in a forest" is under attack. Dr. Jacqueline Echols, the president of the South River Watershed Alliance, told Inside Climate News that "Atlanta is in the process of cutting every tree.” In fact, it's been estimated that 0.43 acres of tree canopy were lost per day between 2008 and 2018.

"It’s this piece of green space it’s called ‘the fourth lung of Atlanta’ because of its ability to filter the air and slow stormwater that reaches the creek and cleaning pollution from the water," she said of the South River/Weelaunee Forest. "Just innumerable benefits to the environment and to the community.”

As mentioned by Inside Climate News, the 3,500-acre forest's tree canopy filters the air, reduces the urban heat island effect, prevents erosion caused by stormwater runoff, and houses wildlife — it's a gift from Mother Nature herself, one that is being taken for granted.

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According to Defend the Atlanta Forest — "an autonomous movement for the future of South Atlanta" — the forest's wetlands help filter rainwater and prevent flooding. The land also serves as "one of the last breeding grounds for many amphibians in the region, as well as an important migration site for wading birds."

Source: Instagram/defendatlantaforest
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From the federally endangered Michaux’s sumac (a rare shrub) to the threatened Altamaha shiner (a minnow in the family Cyprinidae), many rely on the South River/Weelaunee Forest. Aside from our scaly, feathery, and leafy friends, people depend on the forest, as it "protects the headwaters of Georgia’s largest and most biologically diverse watershed, which supplies drinking water to millions of people downstream," per the Center for Biological Diversity.

Primarily Black, Hispanic, and low-income communities surround the forest, which makes the looming Cop City even more of a hot-button issue.

“Couldn’t happen anywhere else in Atlanta,” Echols, who is Black, said. “Racism and degradation of Black neighborhoods and the impacts of discrimination. We are all old enough to know the reality of it.”

Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond — who happens to be the son of late civil rights leader Julian Bond — told Inside Climate News that race is unrelated to Cop City's chosen location.

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“There’s no place else that the city owns, or is within the city limits, that would be a mile in every direction from any residence other than this particular location,” Bond, who is also Black, shared. Additionally, Bond "believes in tree preservation" and relayed that “there’s no encroachment into the old growth forest.”

Source: Instagram/defendatlantaforest
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Echols stands by her opposition. “Balanced and equitable consideration must be given to the protection of the local ecosystem, the cultural and historical significance of the property, and health and wellbeing of the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods,” she said in a statement.

Plans to build Cop City overrode 2017 plans to create a recreational sanctuary in southeast Atlanta.

A 2017 city planning proposal revealed that the city-owned DeKalb County land in question — which has previously functioned as a plantation, a prison farm, a temporary training center, a dumping ground, and a shooting range — was reserved for a 1,200-acre recreational park.

NPR reported that the city council approved the plan, but the Atlanta Police Foundation noted it "was not binding."

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The Atlanta Police Foundation approached councilmember Natalyn Archibong about a potential training facility that same year, killing dreams of a picturesque green space plan. Though Archibong urged the nonprofit organization to inform the public of the proposal and seek input, its members disregarded her advice.

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"And instead of heeding my recommendation, it was ignored,” Archibong said in 2021, per SaportaReport. “We now see the manifestation of what happens when the government, albeit well-intended, moves ahead of the public that was trusting them to keep them engaged."

She went on to criticize the idea that building the mysterious facility will "magically reduce crime," calling the narrative "irresponsible."

In the face of much public pushback, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the project “is something that can’t wait” and that the city “didn’t have anything else to choose from” in terms of locations.

The “first phase” of the gargantuan facility — which will be one of the largest police training centers in the U.S. — is slated to open in late 2023.

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City officials have confirmed the project is partially funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation via “philanthropic and corporate donations.” The city of Atlanta will also contribute "through a 30-year $1 million per year lease starting in FY24 or a single contribution through a general obligation bond," according to the official ground lease agreement.

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Groups like Defend The Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City have actively opposed the construction of Cop City since 2021.

“We’re building this training center as a tribute to the community, this tribute to 21st-century police reform,” Atlanta Police Foundation CEO Dave Wilkinson stated in September 2021, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He deemed it the “most important security measure that this city could introduce in our generation.”

Despite the Atlanta Police Foundation's efforts to mold public opinion and ensure "police reform and cultural sensitivity," as stated on its website, the divisive proposal of Cop City has spawned a state of emergency, felony charges, and one death.

Ever since renderings of the facility were put out in 2021, Georgia has seen an influx of Cop City protesters, as have states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.

A slew of these "forest defenders" have camped out on forest grounds, hoping to raise awareness and halt the construction of the massive complex.

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Tragically, an ongoing forest-based protest turned deadly on the morning of Jan. 18, 2023, when Georgia State Patrol troopers and other law enforcement officers worked to remove protesters from the plot. A 26-year-old nonbinary protester and organizer known as Tortuguita (Manuel Esteban Paez Terán) was fatally shot by officers after they “did not comply” with "verbal commands," according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) press release. Tortuguita allegedly fired the first shot, injuring a state trooper.

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Regarding the incident, Defend the Atlanta Forest claimed its sources heard 12 uninterrupted "rapid fire" shots rather than a trade of gunshots.

As reported by The Intercept, telling police body camera footage of the incident's aftermath was released in February. Atlanta Police Department officers can be heard saying, "You f--ked your own officer up," and "They shoot their own man?” Though this suggests that Tortuguita did not shoot the officer, the GBI dismissed the remarks as "speculation."

“In those videos, at least one statement exists where an officer speculates that the trooper was shot by another officer in crossfire,” a GBI statement reads. “Speculation is not evidence. Our investigation does not support that statement.”

More was revealed when the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office put out its official autopsy report on April 19. According to ABC News, the autopsy found that Tortuguita's body had at least 57 gunshot wounds. No gunpowder residue was found on their hands.

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Though an independent autopsy showed that the protester's hands were raised when they were shot, the Dekalb County autopsy could not confirm this.

"There are too many variables with respect to movement of the decedent and the shooters to draw definitive conclusions concerning Mr. Teran's body position," the report reads.

The DeKalb County Medical Examiner's Office officially ruled Tortuguita's death a homicide.

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Three days after the Jan. 18 shooting, Atlanta police officers arrested six demonstrators marching along Peachtree Street as they mourned Tortuguita’s passing and protested Cop City. Arrests were made on felony charges like unlawful assembly, criminal damage, arson, and domestic terrorism.

According to Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, active protesters destroyed windows and set a police vehicle ablaze. However, as stated by protester Tunde Osazua — a member of the Atlanta chapter of the Black Alliance for Peace — aggressive behavior ensued only after police began “using intimidation tactics.” It remains unclear what these tactics involved.

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The ceaseless events surrounding the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center as well as the release of the Tyre Nichols police videos prompted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to declare a state of emergency on Jan. 26, authorizing up to 1,000 members of the Georgia National Guard to be called up and used as needed.

New York City activists protest Cop City on March 9, 2023, and one holds a sign reading "Stop Environmental Racism"
Source: Getty Images

New York City activists protest Cop City on March 9, 2023.

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Though chaotic and frenzied Cop City protests have birthed eye-catching national headlines, Matthew Johnson — a Defend the Atlanta Forest fighter — argued that violence was a last resort.

“We’ve tried everything. We went through City Council, we’ve taken the legislative route, we’ve done tons of advocacy, we’ve sent in letters, and all we’ve been responded with is force,” he told NBC News.

“This wasn’t just people breaking s--t to be breaking s--t. This was people who have run out of all options.”

In response to the death of Tortuguita, Stop Cop City — an "abolitionist movement to resist Cop City" — told WSB-TV that "the police have raided the forest for over seven months, destroying material by trashing camps and water supplies."

Additionally, they have "threatened the lives of forest defenders and now have murdered one."

"Protesters are only leveling the playing field and preventing future violence by disabling the economic machine of the Atlanta Police Foundation that seeks to sterilize all life within the Weelaunee Forest," the group's statement continued.

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Concerning the "sterilization of all life," the Atlanta Police Foundation has clarified that the 85-acre Cop City property "has fewer than 20 specimen trees" and promised to "replace any hardwood tree disturbed during construction with 100 new hardwood plantings."

Moreover, soil and water surveys and an archeological and historical preservation review will be conducted and the facility will “be built with 21st century EPA standards and controls” to lessen pollution.

Activists hold a banner reading "Stop Cop City: NYU supports Atlanta Forest Defenders"
Source: Getty Images

New York City activists protest Cop City on March 9, 2023.

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Still, opponents say construction will adversely affect local water quality and cause erosion. On April 12, Stop Cop City activists went to the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals, pleading with members to revoke the permits authorizing campus construction, as reported by Fox 5 Atlanta.

Community Movement Builders activist Kamau Franklin spoke during the virtual meeting, pushing for an appeal: “This project is operating in violation of the law. This runoff, this sediment, is continuing to pollute a river that’s already being polluted by the city and by the county. Nothing has been done. The Clean Water Act has been violated."

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Clean Water Act violation claims didn't sway members, as the board denied the appeal, unanimously finding that the permits respect county requirements. With that, Cop City construction resumes, as does the fight for the precious land of the South River/Weelaunee Forest.

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In an April 2023 email exchange with Green Matters, Defend the Atlanta Forest provided the following statement:

"Brent Scarbrough's clear-cutting of the Weelaunee Forest has started with multiple acres already lost. Members of the City of Atlanta government, the DeKalb County government, the Atlanta Police Foundation, and their corporate allies work together to steal once untouchable public forest land. The building of Cop City has been stalled for two years at this point, and the fight is far from over."

This article, originally published on April 19, 2023, has been updated to include a quote from Defend the Atlanta Forest and new info on Tortuguita's (Manuel Esteban Paez Terán) autopsy.

This article is part of Green Matters’ 2023 Earth Day programming, Past Forward: A series of stories about keeping the spirit of the first Earth Day alive. We hope these stories inspire you to get active in the fight for climate justice.

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