Atlanta Approves “Cop City” Funding as Crackdown on Activists Escalates

    At a marathon public City Council meeting, Atlanta lawmakers have voted to approve millions in taxpayer funding for “Cop City,” a huge police training center slated for construction on forested land. Security guards blocked Stop Cop City activists from entering the building. And police and prosecutors are continuing to target activism—now arresting bail fund organizers and charging them with supporting “violent extremists” in what’s widely seen as a fear tactic.

    In September 2021, the City Council voted to approve the construction project outside the city limits in DeKalb County. It leased 381 acres of land to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit, with plans to build an 85-acre facility including a center to train police and firefighters, with the help of city and private funding.

    The site is located in the South River Forest, named the Weelaunee Forest by the Muscogee Creek people who originally inhabited the area. It’s adjacent to a majority-Black community that would face pollution and potential adverse health effects from the construction. Locals would also lose forest space which provides natural protection from flooding, habitat for migratory animals and recreational opportunities.

    And the acreage is now disputed: The Atlanta Community Press Collective reported that Joe Beery, a local resident who took drone photographs of the site and testified to the City Council on June 5, “shows more than 171 acres of the Weelaunee forest that have been planned for demolition,” double the size that the city authorized.

    On May 24, advocates packed into an earlier Council meeting to speak out against the project, as a city committee approved a plan to appropriate funds to help build the center.

    More showed up to the June 5 meeting, when the full City Council met to vote on whether to allocate $30 million towards the center’s construction, about one-third of the total cost.

    “It was unprecedented to have that many folks there making comments, knowing it was a long shot but it had to be done.”

    As the group Defend the Atlanta Forest reported, security guards blocked people from accessing the meeting, as about 300 gathered outside the building. Officials cut off sign-ups for public comment early in the day. Videos show advocates chanting “Let us speak!” and “Stop Cop City!”

    In response, protestors held their own “People’s Public Comment” outside. City Councilors adopted a resolution to extend public comment to allow more people to speak before taking the vote, and the meeting ended up being extended by 14 hours—going on through the night and finishing after 5 am on June 6. A broken air conditioner meant high temperatures inside as people camped in the building, sharing food and water.

    In the end, their objections were disregarded as the Council voted 11-4 to allocate $31 million to Cop City and a police gym. It will also allow Mayor Andre Dickens to “lease back” the facility from the police foundation, at a cost to the city of $36 million over 30 years.

    “It was unprecedented to have that many folks there making comments, knowing it was a long shot but it had to be done,” Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance, told Filter.

    Echols’ comments at the meeting focused on the project’s racist environmental impact of increasing toxins and pollution for nearby residents, contaminating water sources and worsening high temperatures because of the “heat island” effect.

    She added, “We’re talking about training 2,000 people and it takes a facility that is consuming 171 acres, and $67 million? The math doesn’t work from just a tax standpoint that will impact marginalized, poor and primarily Black folks in the city.”

    The chaotic meeting took place just days after the arrests of three organizers in what experts describe as a fear tactic.

    The fight continues: Defend the Atlanta Forest is now planning a Week of Action from June 24-July 1, called “Weelaunee Summer.” 

    The chaotic meeting took place just days after the arrests of three organizers in what experts describe as a fear tactic.

    The Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF) formed in 2016, then became part of the Network for Strong Communities (NFSC), a Georgia 501c3 nonprofit. On May 31, according to a joint report by the Appeal and the Mainline, Atlanta police officers in SWAT tactical gear arrested three ASF organizers, executing a warrant signed by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Shondeana Morris. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations charged all three with money laundering and charity fraud.

    According to the warrant, police claim the ASF illegally reimbursed the organizers’ personal accounts for expenses; and a transfer from the NFSC to another bail fund in Oregon, which was then returned, is now being investigated as an act of money laundering. The warrant also accuses the NFSC of misleading donors by using funds raised to “[support] the actions in part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.”

    The federal government has not made such a classification of DTAF or any other group involved. “This is a strategy we frequently see prosecutors and police use to suppress political speech,” Alex Joseph, a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta, told the Appeal. “It is a tactic that makes that organization, by necessity, disband because people are getting arrested or fear getting arrested.”

    It sends a message to others who may want to organize against Cop City.

    These latest arrests fit a now-familiar and disturbing trend. To date, at least 42 people have been charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute in connection—or alleged connection—to the Stop Cop City movement.

    Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, told the Appeal that district attorneys in Fulton and DeKalb Counties are using “blatant, sloppy prosecutorial work” that likely won’t even stand up in court and satisfy state law. No one has been indicted yet for any offense, because state law allows up to 90 days before prosecutors present to a grand jury. But with activists locked up in dire conditions, denied bond or set high bails, it sends a message to others who may want to organize against Cop City.

    Efforts to stop anti-Cop City protests have escalated to physical violence, too. In January, several law enforcement agencies raided an area of the forest occupied by protesters, where they shot and killed Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a 26-year-old Venezuelan climate activist known as “Tortuguita.” Officers claimed Tortuguita fired first; activists have called for an independent investigation of the killing.


    Photograph by Chad Davis via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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