Inside Atlanta’s sprawling South River Forest, city officials are moving forward with plans to raze dozens of acres of woodlands to build a $90 million police training facility that locals are calling “Cop City.” In response, Defend the Atlanta Forest activists who call themselves “forest defenders” have begun occupying the woods in an attempt to physically halt the facility’s construction—sabotaging construction vehicles and building barricades around a police-free autonomous zone that serves as both a living space and staging ground for the resistance effort.
The forest defenders say the proposed 85-acre facility, which proponents are calling the Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training, would harm air quality in the Atlanta area and prioritize policing and social control in a city that desperately needs life-affirming infrastructure such as affordable housing. Renderings of the complex show it would be one of the largest of its type in the country, featuring a mock city for training, a helicopter landing base, burn tower sites, and new shooting ranges. The movement is also fighting against the expansion of Hollywood’s Blackhall Studio, a project they say would devastate the forest and fuel gentrification and displacement of working class Black people. Roddy, a forest defender who requested to use a pseudonym for security reasons, told Motherboard the defensive encampment is expanding daily, and is strategically scattered throughout the massive forest. “The living is humble, but you have pretty much everything that you truly want and need,” he said. “The folks here eat healthy, and we commune around the fire each day, which keeps our spirits up.”
Forest defenders say the encampment has served as both a staging ground and a site of communal living, where they share food and skills, sing around campfires, build barricades, and even throw their own forest raves. Some work to ensure everyone is fed, while others scout the land and prepare for physically defending the forest. “It’s sort of this ungoverned amorphous group of folks,” said Roddy. “Nobody's the boss. It’s really empowering to see how much a group of folks can accomplish together and to know that you can participate however feels empowering and feels comfortable to you.”
At nearly 50 percent tree canopy coverage, Atlanta is the most forested city in the United States. Climate scientists have warned that destroying greenspace in the area will make the city more susceptible to flooding and dangerously hot temperatures. Other researchers have suggested that habitat destruction is also a main driver behind pandemics, since forests offer a buffer for emerging infectious diseases. While environmental and social justice issues are often viewed separately, a growing “social ecological” movement emphasizes connecting the dots. According to Murray Bookchin’s theory of social ecology, ecological problems stem from social problems, and social problems are in turn exacerbated by ecological destruction. Proponents of social ecology argue that hierarchical societies that rely on violent institutions like police and prisons to address harm will treat both its populace and the natural world as entities to be dominated or conquered.
The Defend the Atlanta Forest movement draws from this tradition. Its members come from a combination of police and prison abolitionist organizations, environmental groups, and local neighborhood associations who see the causes of environmental justice and abolitionism as interlinked.Community Movement Builders, a local organizing group of Black residents actively opposing the construction projects, described Cop City as a “war base” where “police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements,” in a press statement sent to The Mainline, a local magazine that covers social justice issues. “They are practicing how to make sure poor and working class people stay in line,” organizer Jamal Taylor said in the statement. “So when the police kill us in the streets again, like they did to Rayshard Brooks in 2020, they can control our protests and community response to how they continually murder our people.”The land slated for construction was originally inhabited by the Muscogee (Creek) Indigenous tribe before it was stolen by settlers and sold in a land lottery to a local plantation. It was later used as a prison farm, where criminalized people were forced to work for free.
Some Atlanta residents have criticized the lack of transparency around the project, which has been planned and executed with little chance for input from the community.The construction plans have been supported by The Atlanta Police Foundation and the Atlanta Committee for Progress, and so far their efforts have been paying off. Documents obtained by The Mainline show that on Jan. 4, 2021 former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms secretly ordered the formation of a “Public Safety Training Academy Advisory Council'' to plan the project. The council consisted of police and fire department chiefs, foundation heads, and city employees, according to The Appeal. But local community members weren’t invited—an exclusion that violated the mayor’s own administrative order.
In June 2021, the council introduced an ordinance to authorize the mayor’s office to lease hundreds of acres of land to the Atlanta Police Foundations (APF) for only $10 per year. After significant public backlash, the APF held two “public input session” webinars where police presented a slideshow, but disabled the chat feature and did not allow community members to speak.The mayor’s office and the Atlanta Police Foundation did not respond to Motherboard’s requests for comment.The city council approved the project after 17 hours of testimony at a meeting in September,—the vast majority of which was residents speaking out against the facility’s construction. But the legislation also gives the city the power to terminate the agreement and cancel the project.
Yona, another forest defender who requested a pseudonym to avoid police retaliation, told Motherboard the urgency with which the city is moving forward with the training complex is related to the George Floyd uprising. “After the riots the city government and even state police agencies have seen they face a crisis,” wrote Yona in an email. “This crisis is so deep they have scrapped their 2015 plans to turn this wild corridor into a protected eco-park—which is what many in the movement want—and decided to build the police training compound. But it's because they must in order to retain social peace for the wealthy and for industry.” The city’s lack of public accountability on the project has driven some forest defenders to call for a “diversity of tactics” to stop the facility’s construction, including staging encampments and destroying property. “Direct actions become your only option and your only voice when all of the ‘‘proper channels' that those in power have given to you obviously fail,” Roddy said. Last November, forest defenders claimed they burned two bulldozers in defense of the South Atlanta Forest. In mid-January, members of the movement said they had safely escorted several workers who had entered the forest on bulldozers without the permits that they legally needed to conduct tests on the land. Some members reportedly smashed the bulldozers’ windows and escaped into the wilderness. While Atlanta police have remained fairly hands off so far, participants on the ground reported that four people were arrested during a demonstration on January 28. But members of the movement are hopeful that the forested terrain will ultimately make repression and surveillance difficult for police. “One of the most fun things about these forests is that the police can't control them. It's why they have to destroy it and why we will defend it and win,” wrote Yona. “There is a point when it becomes your terrain. You know the forest and it knows you, and you can move through it with confidence, joy and respect. All of that is part of what we're fighting for—for life to be fun, too, and for fun to be free from the police.”