The New Fight Over an Old Forest in Atlanta

The New Fight Over an Old Forest in Atlanta

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Then, the following month, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, made an announcement: the area around the prison farm was going to be the site of a sprawling training facility for police and firefighters. This, Gravel said, was “a big surprise.” Many people in Atlanta were startled by the news—including Joe Santifer, who told me that he’d already been bothered by the police presence in the forest. For decades, the Atlanta P.D. has operated a firing range there, and, on his forest strolls, Santifer had begun hearing gunfire. Even from a distance, he said, it “sounds like a battleground.” He e-mailed a complaint to the city, and, a few days later, he got a response: “Call 911.”

In the year since Bottoms’s announcement, a different sort of battleground has taken shape. She and others—including Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp—have described the training facility as an answer to Atlanta’s recent rise in violent crime. (The number of homicides in the city spiked sharply in 2020; last year, Atlanta police investigated more than a hundred and fifty homicides, the highest one-year total since the mid-nineties.) Other cities have lately built or proposed similar facilities, but, at eighty-five acres, Atlanta’s would be much larger than nearly all of the others. New York City, for instance, has a thirty-acre facility for a force fifteen times the size of the Atlanta P.D. The A.P.D. facility’s planned features include a firing range, a “vehicle skills pad,” a “burn building” for firefighters, and a “mock village” for staging simulated emergencies. It’s slated to cost around ninety million dollars, with a third of that money coming from public funds, and the rest coming from the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The A.P.F., which was founded in 2003, is one of many police foundations created in the past two decades. These private nonprofits typically channel corporate money into policing initiatives, expanding police budgets and, in some cases, producing apparent conflicts of interest. Some of Atlanta’s most influential people—the C.E.O.s of Waffle House and of the Atlanta Hawks, V.P.s from the Home Depot and Delta Air Lines—sit on the A.P.F.’s board; Coca-Cola and Cox Enterprises, a media conglomerate based in Atlanta, are among the corporations that have acknowledged their contributions to the foundation. Cox’s C.E.O., Alex Taylor, is the chair of fund-raising for the training facility. Cox owns the city’s largest newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, which has published a number of editorials in favor of the facility and has only sometimes disclosed its owner’s contributions to the A.P.F.

Atlanta’s city council solicited public comment on the facility in September of last year, and received more than seventeen hours of remarks—including a few minutes from Joe Santifer. “I said the location isn’t congruent with the neighborhood,” he told me. “It’s outsized for the number of officers that Atlanta has, and the process has been rushed.” Santifer said that he’d also listened to most of the other remarks, which were recorded, and that “about seventy per cent” were opposed to the development. (A crowdsourced tally reached the same conclusion.) The other thirty per cent, he said, “were mimicking what they had been told—that this was gonna solve Atlanta’s crime problem and the problem with low morale in the police force.” Santifer began researching alternative sites, including a dilapidated mall in southwest Atlanta and a few industrial properties­. He also took to social media to alert his neighbors to what was going on.

All of the Atlanta forest defenders’ tree houses are at least fifteen feet above the forest floor.

In September, the Atlanta city council voted 10–4 in favor of the project. Rather than put an end to the debate, the vote seemed to bring it into wider view, in Atlanta and beyond. Smaller publications in Atlanta kept up a drumbeat of coverage, and a fragmented, free-form protest movement began to come together.

On a morning in June, along a dirt path piled with food and camping supplies, I met a young woman who introduced herself as Rutabaga. She is one of a few dozen people who have relocated to the forest since late last year. They call themselves forest defenders; some have lived in tree houses and encampments for months at a time, working to stop what they call Cop City, a name inspired by the mock village planned for the police- and fire-training facility. In May, seven defenders were arrested after reportedly throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers attempting to expel them. Some of the tree houses were subsequently destroyed, along with a suspension bridge that defenders had built over a creek. But most of the defenders remain.

Rutabaga wasn’t living in one of the tree houses. “I’m not a good climber,” she said. Prior to coming to Atlanta, she had been in West Virginia, protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a six-billion-dollar project that spans three hundred miles in Appalachia. “The way that I see it, the state and institutions of capitalism are yet again trying to destroy and dominate nature in order to build monuments to themselves,” Rutabaga said, connecting her current protest to the previous one. She added, “Without the police’s enforcement of capitalist laws, all of this destruction I don’t think would be possible.” For Rutabaga and others, Cop City is the latest episode in the misuse and abuse of this land, going back to the removal of the Muscogee.

I had come to the forest with Jacqueline Echols, the board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, and Joseph Peery, a co-manager of the South River Forest Coalition. “A.P.F. saw an opportunity to take advantage of a multi-decades-long history of environmental injustice and community disinvestment perpetuated by Atlanta, and they seized it,” Echols said. We ventured deeper into the woods, where we met another young forest dweller, swaddled in dark clothing that obscured all but their blue eyes. I’d arranged to interview this person, who asked to be called Twig, through an intermediary, but we hadn’t met at the decided-upon time and place, and now they were skeptical: I could be a cop. Nonetheless, they brought me to a sunken area where we could talk more privately.

Twig told me about a “long personal history of facing brutality from the state”—they declined to share the details—and said that they had come to the forest so “that that doesn’t happen to other people.” Twig described seeing and hearing disturbing things in the forest, including screams from a nearby juvenile-detention center and “sunken rectangles that are roughly human size.” The city, Twig said, is trying to erase the stain of the prison farm and also push back against the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, by creating a training ground for “doing even more brutal crowd control, even more brutal SWAT raids, even more brutal murder. And a lot of us were, like, ‘Oh, fuck that,’ ” they said.

The activists in the forest do not have any official positions, Twig told me. But, in the short term, Twig hoped to prevent the construction of “a police murder playground” and to protect as much of the woods as possible. Twig noted that construction on the facility had been delayed, judging from a leaked timeline. “They’ve only gotten about a week done,” Twig said. “That seems like a beautiful thing to me.” Eventually, they suggested, the land might even be “returned to the Muscogee people.”

A delegation of Muscogee from Oklahoma had visited the woods earlier in the summer. Among those who came was Laura Harjo, who teaches in the Native American Studies department at the University of Oklahoma. It was her first visit to this part of the Weelaunee Forest. “When I was walking through it, the insect sounds, the birds and the heaviness of the air—I know my relatives had that same felt knowledge before removal,” she said. “To pass through that space meant a lot to me.” Harjo teaches a class on Indigenous community planning. “For a recent assignment, I had them work on what kind of future they imagined for the Weelaunee Forest, if there was a Muscogee tribal town instead of Cop City.” She added, “This has been treated as a carceral space since European contact, and Cop City would be a continuation of that rather than a return to community.”

At the end of July, someone set fire to a truck that had hauled construction equipment to a trailside parking lot. On its charred remains were scrawled the words “No Cop City” and “No Hollywood Distopia.” (The latter slogan refers to a film studio’s planned construction project on forty adjacent acres of the forest, a project delayed by a lawsuit brought by local environmental groups.) A few days after the apparent arson, I asked a representative of the forest defenders about it. “We don’t know if it was somebody we know or just, like, somebody taking an autonomous action,” this person told me. “But we do know that vehicles are not human lives, and human lives will be taken if this forest is destroyed and a cop city is built.”

The facility’s plan has been modified during the past year, as opposition has grown louder. The size of the A.P.F.’s lease has been reduced from a hundred and fifty acres to eighty-five, and the A.P.F. has promised to test explosives elsewhere. But critics view these concessions as minor. Sixteen environmental-justice groups, including the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, have signed an open letter arguing that the proposed development would be “devastating for the ecological community.” Shooting ranges are a known cause of heavy-metal pollution, and paving naturally permeable surfaces is likely to make the city more vulnerable to flooding, which the letter describes as “Atlanta’s top natural disaster.” Any loss of forest canopy could make an infamously hot city even hotter.

An earlier version of this article misstated the acreage of the training facility.

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