A police officer wearing black riot gear and armed with a rifle stands just outside the tree line of the Atlanta Forest.
Photo: Jesse Pratt López

Activists Occupying The Woods to Block ‘Cop City’ Face Terrorism Charges

Atlanta police raided treehouse camps where activists are trying stop the construction of a $90 million police training facility.

Last Tuesday, five people who were occupying the South River Forest in Atlanta to halt construction of a $90 million dollar police training facility were arrested by a joint-task force of local and federal officers. The activists were charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism law, which carries a minimum of five and a maximum of 35 years in prison, in addition to a slew of other felonies and misdemeanors including aggravated assault, criminal trespassing, and interference with government property.   

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Activists involved with the loose-knit Defend the Atlanta Forest movement have been occupying the proposed construction site throughout the year, citing environmental impacts, police violence, and a lack of community input on the project. Five people were arrested after SWAT teams swept through the forest, and police also arrested a sixth individual who was filming the raid from inside a car. Another person was arrested and charged under Georiga’s domestic terrorism law the day following the sweep. 

Judge Claire Jason denied bond to arrestees, citing arrest warrants claiming that the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement has been classified as a “domestic violent extremist” group by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  However, it’s unclear whether DHS has actually made this designation. A representative for DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Activists say the terrorism charges are part of a desperate attempt to repress a movement that is partially responsible for successfully delaying construction of the police training center, known to critics as “Cop City.” They also say any characterization of Defend the Atlanta Forest as a violent extremist group is a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement, which isn’t centered around any formal organization with a membership or chain of command.

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“They haven't successfully divided the movement in other ways,” Sara, a forest defender who requested a pseudonym to avoid police retaliation, told Motherboard. “There is an effort to pull out a lot of really big scare tactics from an oppressive playbook and try and disincentivize people and break up the possibility of protest.”

The arrests come nearly a year after local residents and activists came together to oppose the construction of Cop City, as well as an airport and sound stage for Shadowbox Studios, a major film production company. 

Forest defenders argue the projects were approved without input from local residents, and will destroy more than 400 acres of biodiverse habitat, making the city more susceptible to flooding and dangerously hot temperatures in the midst of a climate crisis. Two environmental conservation groups, South River Watershed Alliance and South River Forest Coalition, have also filed lawsuits against Dekalb County, alleging the city illegally swapped public land with Blackhall Studios Real Estate for the construction project . 

A spokesperson for Shadowbox Studios told Motherboard Shadowbox Studios “does not now, nor did it ever, have any ownership of or interests in Intrenchment Creek Park. This parcel has been owned and controlled by the Studio’s former owner, Ryan Millsap, who sold Shadowbox Studios (then Blackhall Studios) to affiliates of Commonwealth Asset Management in April 2021. Shadowbox Studios is no longer affiliated with Mr. Millsap in any capacity. Any continued use of the Blackhall name by Mr. Millsap is entirely independent of and has absolutely no affiliation with Shadowbox Studios.” The spokesperson also said it is not involved in any plans for airport construction in the area.

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Police reformers and abolitionists describe the facility as a “war base” because of the plan’s inclusion of a “mock city” where police will practice military-like maneuvers, which they note are overwhelmingly used against marginalized communities. In November 2021, the activists were joined by tribal members of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe, who were forcibly removed from the land in 1821. 

In a statement, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) claimed Tuesday’s arrests were made while the agency assisted the Atlanta Police Department and other local, state, and task force members attempted to remove barricades blocking some of the entrances to the training center. Several people threw “rocks at police cars and attacked EMT’s outside the neighboring fire stations with rocks and bottles,” according to GBI. 

GBI declined to provide further comment or evidence to support these claims when contacted by Motherboard.

The task force appeared to arrive with the intent of extracting people from the proposed construction site, according to the forest defenders. “They mobilized a huge force around the corner of the woods with SWAT teams that carry long arms and swept through the woods looking for people,” Sara said. “They used crowd control weapons, shooting pepper balls and tear gas at them in a confined space. People in previous raids have been threatened with guns, with deadly force.”      

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A silver canister labeled "Ferret 40mm OC Powder"

A canister of OC powder used by police officers during the raid on December 15. Photo: Atlanta Community Press Collective

The arrests and terrorism charges were applauded by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and Democratic District Attorney Sherry Boston who, in a statement, said she “believes in the right to peacefully protest for what one believes is right and just,” however she “draws the line at violence destruction of property, and threatening and causing harm to others.” 

But Sara said prosecutors and police are projecting their own behavior onto protesters. “The police themselves carry out violent raids on people living in this country and living in Atlanta every single day and there is rampant level of police murder as well that people are rightly resisting,” she said. “Anything that meaningfully connects people, that meaningfully poses a challenge to the order of police is something that they're going to characterize as violence and violently repress.”

Groups like Community Movement Builders, a local organizing group of Black residents actively opposing the construction projects, point out that the state has a monopoly on violence—meaning it arbitrarily controls when and how force can be legitimately used in order to maintain an unjust social order.  

"We cannot allow these young people to spend their lives in prison for doing things we all think was right. We enjoy being peaceful. But we have to understand that what the police and state want is to make sure that they are the only ones who get to use force,” Kamau Franklin, an organizer with Community Movement Builders, wrote in a press release provided to Motherboard. “They are the ones with the night sticks and the guns and the courts. They are building things like Cop City because they are seeing that people are waking up."

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Armed riot police patrol the Atlanta Forest during a press conference following the arrests. Photo: Jesse Pratt López

While the forest defenders had previously been arrested by police in Atlanta, they had never been charged with terrorism. However, terrorism charges have long been used against environmental activists. 

During the 90s and early 2000s, “eco-terrorism” became the Justice Department’s top priority. In what became known as the “Green Scare,” police and FBI agents charged members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) with terrorism for burning down timber mills, factories that slaughtered animals, and government facilities that confined wild horses. While no one was killed during ELF or ALF activities, new domestic terrorism laws enabled courts to convict and sentence activists to years in prison. More recently, Jessica Reznicek, a climate activist and member of the Catholic Worker Movement, was convicted with a federal terror enhancement for acts of property damage to stop the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Reznicek is currently serving an eight-year sentence. 

Several prominent local civil rights attorneys said the terrorism charges against forest defenders endanger First Amendment rights and open the city to lawsuits.

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Drago Cepar, Jr, an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney, told Motherboard that he has seen the charges against the Atlanta Forest activists escalate from “trespass” and “obstruction” to more serious accusations of terrorism. “It points to the fact that they are trying to scare protesters into not protesting anymore,” Cepar told Motherboard. “I think it is a very disturbing attack on free speech rights." 

The activists say their actions are necessary, and point out that the city of Atlanta did not offer the mostly Black population who lives near the South River Forest any means for halting the project. A poll conducted by Social Insights Research found 98 percent of residents oppose the new training facility in the forest, and 90 percent oppose any new facility being built in Atlanta. Many activists who partake in direct action claim societies don’t need rulers to make decisions on their behalf; people are perfectly capable of organizing themselves collectively. 

The South River Forest has served as a space for experimenting with such forms of self-organization. Defenders say the generative aspects of the movement are an invigorating force that propels them forward despite state repression.  

“The struggle against colonialism, displacement and slavery is necessarily a struggle for better possible, future and life,” said Sara. “This is a fight to defend the life that has been allowed to regenerate in the forest.”

Update: This article has been updated with comment from Shadowbox Studios.