In the year since the Atlanta City Council approved plans for construction of a $90 million police training center in the South River Forest, a growing network of resistance has spread to nearly every corner of the city, from preschools to protests at subcontractors’ offices.
It’s a multi-pronged strategy that activists say has been necessary to confront the corrupt connections between government, corporations, subcontractors and the police that have allowed the project — known as “Cop City” — to move forward, despite immense and clear public opposition.
“All of these systems are interconnected — it isn’t a question just about policing,” said Jasmine Burnett, organizing director at Community Movement Builders, a collective of Black Atlantans that has been working to support local residents amidst the increased police presence in response to opposition. “It’s also about the relationship between the city council, government officials, these corporations and the police. It’s about how all of these different institutions uphold capitalism and white supremacy.”
If Cop City is built, activists and residents fear that the project will lead to further police militarization and oppression of local Black communities.
Prior to their vote last September, the Atlanta City Council received nearly 17 hours of public comment from over 1,100 constituents. Around 70 percent expressed opposition to the police training center, which would be the largest of its kind in the country. While the land is city-owned, it’s located in nearby unincorporated DeKalb County, whose residents — the majority of whom are Black and working class — are not even represented by the council.
Environmental racism and police brutality are already an entrenched reality in Atlanta, which has the highest rate of income inequality in the country. And the state of Georgia has the fourth highest rate of incarceration in the world. If Cop City is built, activists and residents fear that the project will lead to further police militarization and oppression of local Black communities, while also desecrating the city’s largest remaining green space and a major bulwark against climate change.
“This is going to be the largest urban warfare training facility for police in the country,” Burnett said. “And, what does that mean when, in 2020, people were actually asking to abolish the police?”
The land slated for Cop City in South River Forest already harbors a long history of displacement and carcerality. In the early 19th century, the Muscogee Creek people were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland, including the South River Forest, or what they call the Weelaunee, to make room for a slave plantation, prison labor site and other installations.
“These aren’t just hardened activists with decades of experience — it’s also just everyday folks who are bringing their skills and energy.”
An Indigenous activist named Abundia, who is Nahua and Apache, has been acting as a bridge between the Atlanta protesters and the Muscogee people, who now largely reside in Oklahoma. In November, members of the Muscogee and Seminole tribes gathered in the South River Forest, along with hundreds of local Atlantans, for a traditional stomp dance ceremony and cultural sharing.
“This forest has been such a blessing to me, and a place where I can heal as a person who has also felt displaced multiple times as a trans Indigenous woman in the United States,” said Abundia, who approached Muscogee leaders at a ceremonial grounds in Oklahoma about the campaign to stop Cop City, after making the connection between the region’s history of displacement and contemporary gentrification.
“My dream is for us to keep building towards rematriation — and keep building towards another world, and another way of relating to the land,” she said, crediting the stomp dance ceremony with helping to “energize the movement.”
As part of a week of action, activists this week organized a series of workshops, community potlucks, protests and events to help spread awareness and solidarity against Cop City. The events were largely organized by members of the decentralized Defend the Atlanta Forest movement, some of whom have also been occupying trees to prevent construction.
Several musicians also helped to coordinate a free music festival in the forest this weekend — an initiative that Ken Diliza, a local activist who lives in a neighborhood bordering the proposed Cop City, found particularly meaningful.
“The musicians themselves are organizing it, which is really incredible,” said Diliza, who is also a member of the abolitionist group For a World Without Police. “These aren’t just hardened activists with decades of experience — it’s also just everyday folks who are bringing their skills and energy.”
During the Muscogee stomp dance last fall, Diliza spoke with the head of a local preschool about getting her young students involved in the resistance efforts. Since then, they’ve been working together with other preschools, parents and educators in the surrounding area to bring the children to visit the forest.
“At this point, there are thousands of people who identify with the movement, including people who live in other cities and other countries,” she said. “So, we’re seeing that this movement is huge — and that every little corner of it comes together to be very powerful. We’re really keeping each other going with the belief that we can win.”
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