A diverse coalition of defund-the-police, environmental and Indigenous activists has mobilized in Georgia to fight the construction of a $90 million police training facility. Dubbed “Cop City,” the new complex would be built on a patch of forest just south of Atlanta. Activists argue that the facility is unneeded and unwanted, and that building it would endanger the local ecosystem and air quality.
The Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 in favor of the development plan in September 2021. It leased 381 acres of city-owned land, outside city limits in DeKalb County, to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit. The expected 85 acre facility itself, which is intended to host police officers and firefighters for training, would be financed through a combination of city, police foundation and private philanthropic funding.
The vote itself was delayed for months due to opposition. The day before it took place, lawmakers spent an extra 17 hours to hear 1,000 comments from residents—the majority opposing the plan. The land in question has, over the centuries, been used as as a slave plantation and later as a prison labor farm—a history to which activists have drawn attention. These days, it’s located in an overwhelmingly Black area, putting residents at higher risk of health effects from air pollution caused by construction.
The movement is uniting a diverse group of activists with different but overlapping priorities.
The Defend the Atlanta Forest/Stop Cop City movement has formed to organize activism against the plan. Besides more conventional tactics like lobbying City Council or filing lawsuits, activists are taking direct actions like sitting in trees and camping on the forest grounds. Some have even taken credit for sabotaging bulldozers and construction equipment. The Intercept has reported that police and construction officials have attempted to enter and raid campgrounds, making some arrests.
The movement is uniting a diverse group of activists with different but overlapping priorities. Environmentalists are raising alarm about the ecological impact of destroying a large natural forest, which protects nearby communities from flooding and gives habitat to migratory animals. Trees and vegetation help hold soil and create a natural barrier to flooding and erosion—protection that is lost when humans cut down forests for development.
“This forest sequesters carbon, filters air pollution, mitigates flooding, and helps keep the city’s temperature down amidst the climate crisis,” Nina Dutton, chair of the Metro Atlanta Group chapter of the Sierra Club, told Filter.
She continued, “The forest provides a habitat for a diverse community of organisms, and it offers a place for people to enjoy and learn from the ecosystem they’re a part of.”
Indigenous activists are also uniting against the construction. The forest is located on the historical homeland of the Muskogee (Creek) peoples, who were forcibly removed by the US government. Over the past year, Muskogee and other Indigenous groups from Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia have traveled to the site of the forest to hold demonstrations together with other Stop Cop City activists. They performed ceremonies recognizing their historical and spiritual connection to the land.
Advocates for police reform (or abolition) are resisting the efforts because of the substance of the planned facility. It would feature a firing range, explosives training site, driving site, helicopter landing site and even a mock village for officers to simulate real-life situations. The prospect of the Atlanta Police Department gaining access to these resources is alarming; the department has been implicated in incidents like the killing of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, a Black man, in June 2020, and in mass arrests and brutality towards protesters during that summer’s racial justice demonstrations. (On August 23, a special prosecutor decided to drop murder and assault charges against two police officers involved in Brooks’ killing.)
Dutton explained that activists are using a variety of tactics to pressure politicians, police and the businesses or donors supporting this plan. “Color of Change has a petition to Atlanta Mayor Dickens to call on him to cancel the lease of the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation,” she said.
Activists are also focusing on DeKalb County lawmakers. “The land the city leased to APF is in DeKalb County,” Dutton said. “The county has jurisdiction to grant permits to APF for them to build the facility. They still haven’t approved the APF’s full land disturbance permit. That suggests to us and others that officials reviewing the permit are aware of some of the problems that the facility and forest destruction would cause.”
“People have done marches and demonstrations not only in the metro Atlanta area but also across the country.”
Activists in Atlanta and nationwide have also targeted various corporations and businesses with a financial stake in the project or who donate to the Atlanta Police Foundation—including Delta, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Verizon.
“Their calls of action are for folks to contact those companies and ask them to drop the project,” Dutton said. “People have done marches and demonstrations not only in the metro Atlanta area but also across the country.”
The construction companies directly involved in the project are also drawing heat. One of the contractors, Reeves and Young, reportedly withdrew from the project in April. The general contractor, national construction firm Brasfield & Gorrie, is also a target of pressure. In May, the company’s offices in Birmingham, Alabama were reportedly attacked by a group of three people, who broke windows and spray painted “Drop Cop City Or Else” on the building.
Of course, not everyone involved in the movement takes such actions or endorses them. The Sierra Club, for example, has guidelines advising its chapters not to engage in civil disobedience without national board approval. But the sheer diversity of different people and groups involved and their varied tactics show that the Stop Cop City movement represents a unique moment in the fight for the future of Atlanta.
“A lot of folks who are in the movement would agree it’s had some success in that full-on construction of this facility has not begun yet,” Dutton said. “It’s not too late for the Atlanta mayor’s office to cancel the lease to the APF.”
Update 08/29/2022: The article has been revised to clarify the city of Atlanta leased 381 acres to the Atlanta Police Foundation, with 85 acres set aside for the facility itself.