The Guardian • Issue #2044

Atlanta’s Cop City

Atlanta, Georgia - Downtown Skyline. Photo: Public Domain

In August 2021, the City of Atlanta shocked its citizens when it announced plans to construct a US $90m police training complex in the middle of the city’s beloved Weelaunee forest. The complex would feature a shooting range, helicopter landing pad, horse stables, an explosives range, and as the jewel in the crown, a mock city to train America’s already heavily militarised police forces in urban warfare, training that will likely be invaluable to America’s ruling class as the US becomes increasingly unstable. These features would make the complex dubbed “Cop City” the largest police training facility in the United States.

The construction of this complex would require clearing 300 acres of forest which is vital to the ecological well-being and biodiversity of the city. Atlanta is often referred to as “the city in the forest” due to its extensive tree canopy cover. The forest surrounding Atlanta is a vital part of the city’s identity to many locals. The forest is also one of the last breeding grounds for the region’s amphibians, a migration site for birds, and contains wetlands that prevent flooding and filter rainwater.

Before this plan that would change Atlanta forever was made public, there was no opportunity for the people of Atlanta to voice their opinions. Since then, Atlantans have made their voices heard by all means at their disposal, with many taking to the streets and some squatting in the forest to frustrate efforts to begin the clearing and construction of the facility.

Atlantans have been strongly opposing “Cop City” since its inception, as the fear of greater police militarisation hits very close to home for them, Atlantans still remember the George Floyd uprisings of 2020 and the murder of Rayshard Brooks in the middle of their city at the hands of a police officer who had undertaken several hours of ineffectual “sensitivity training” and “de-escalation” courses.

The people of Atlanta remember their Democrat-led city government responding to these protests by finding more creative ways of raising the funding for their racist police force under the guise of “reform” and “greater training.” Across the United States, this same process was undertaken despite massive, widespread calls for decreased police funds and demilitarisation. For the whole country, not just the Republican-dominated South and rural states, greater police militarisation means death for an increasing number of African-Americans, and worsened living conditions for millions of people.

It is no coincidence that this complex has been proposed in one of the United States’ most predominantly African-American and working class cities. Atlanta and Weelaunee Forest still bear the scars of the eras of slavery and of the racist Jim Crow laws. On the proposed site that would become “Cop City,” there is an old plantation that later became a prison farm holding mostly black prisoners. This prison farm was active until the 1990s. Today it is abandoned and serves as a reminder of Atlanta’s painful history.

The main group fighting the construction of “Cop City” is a social movement called “Defend The Atlanta Forest.” It is not a centralised organisation but instead draws support from individuals and several grassroots groups that share the common goal of defending the Weelaunee Forest and resisting police militarisation and ecological destruction in general. This broad support for the resistance to “Cop City” has led to incredible frustrations for the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Department and the project’s corporate patrons of Cox, Delta, the Koch brothers, Home Depot, and others.

Opposition to the construction of “Cop City” has risen in tension drastically in the last few months, with the murder of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, also known as “Tortuguita” (meaning “little turtle”) on the 18th January, galvanising the forest’s defenders and enraging many Atlantans, and not helped by the fact that the police claimed that he was killed in an alleged firefight between police and the forest defenders which also claimed the life of a police officer.

Those close to Tortuguita knew him as a pacifist, and police bodycam footage released later showed that the deceased officer had been killed by his peers by mistake, suggesting that the police had framed Teran for the officer’s death.

The crackdown on the protests against Cop City and the police brutality that killed Tortuguita was swift and bloody, with Georgia’s governor calling in 1000 National Guard troops to deal with the protests, and 20 protestors arrested on trumped-up “domestic terrorism” charges and placed on bail as high as US$13,500.

For now, Weelaunee Forest’s defenders are still doing their best to resist the destruction of Atlanta’s greatest treasure, and continuing to proclaim that “Cop City will never be built.”

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