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Atlanta’s Attack on Cop City Protesters Should Be a Warning to Us All

The fight against the militarized police training center dubbed “Cop City” is one of the great struggles of our time.

Law enforcement drive past the planned site of a police training facility activists have dubbed "Cop City," following the first raid since the death of environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán near Atlanta, Georgia, on February 6, 2023.

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The ongoing attack on the network of environmental and abolitionist activists in Atlanta should make all people concerned with the right to protest, the future of the environment and the rise of militarized police forces take notice.

At 5 am on June 6, after over 200 community members had spoken against moving forward with the facility, the Atlanta City Council voted to allocate $31 million in public funds toward construction of a militarized police training center dubbed “Cop City.” This was the most recent development in a fierce and violent struggle over police expansion and forest preservation in Georgia, and has repercussions well beyond the state. In January, a young protester was shot and killed by police in a surprise raid on a protest encampment at the proposed site of the facility. Soon afterwards 42 protesters were arrested and outrageously charged with domestic terrorism. “Dissent is being criminalized,” warned Atlanta organizer Kamau Franklin.

On May 31, three people associated with a legal aid and bail fund supporting the Stop Cop City protesters arrested earlier were themselves arrested on false allegations of financial fraud and “money laundering.” Even the judge in the case found the evidence uncompelling. Nevertheless, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp referred to the ecoactivists and abolitionists as criminals and pledged to prosecute them aggressively.

The situation in Atlanta should alarm abolitionists and progressives everywhere. There we see an all-out assault on two movements — the environmental justice movement and the movement against policing and prisons — that have seen growing popular support and influence in recent years.

Here is the backstory for those who have not been following this struggle: A $90 million militarized police training facility that will destroy 85 acres of the Weelaunee Forest just outside Atlanta (but owned by the city) has become the epicenter of a fierce fight around policing, environmental justice and the right to protest. This training center is slated to include “mock cities” to help police rehearse how to undermine and disrupt future protests of all sorts.

The struggle in Atlanta is a part of a bigger story. With corporations like Amazon, Wells Fargo and Delta backing the Atlanta Police Foundation’s development of this project the direct link between the police state and encroaching environmental degradation becomes obvious. Moreover, Black and working-class people are losing their lives to both at a record pace. And when brave community members and their supporters have stepped forward to defend the forest and object to a training ground designed to further perfect the use of state violence, they themselves have been systematically targeted.

On January 18, 2023, the police killed Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a forest defender affectionately known as “Tortuguita” or “Tort,” and then said they were fired on first. Their own official accounts contradicted their story and an independent autopsy showed that Tortuguita’s hands were raised when they were shot. Dozens of people were arrested not long after during another raid on a Stop Cop City gathering, resulting in outrageous charges of domestic terrorism.

As egregious as they might seem, the police attacks on activists in Atlanta do not constitute a new trend. We know that at least 1,700 environmental activists have been murdered around the world in the past decade. Corporate hitmen and state violence are used to bludgeon anything that gets in the way of profit and power. Atlanta’s business elite and political class have pulled from this playbook and have worked to misrepresent the movement as the work of “outside agitators.” It’s ironic to hear classic segregationist rhetoric from those who claim to uphold the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The same lines were used against the Freedom Riders and voter rights volunteers, after all, when they traveled to the South to participate in the Black Freedom Movement in the 1960s.

Black student protesters, a coalition of movement organizations, and Black communities that are opposed to Cop City are being outright ignored by a Black establishment. Even when students and faculty from historically Black colleges and universities like Morehouse and Spelman joined the outcry against Cop City, Mayor Andre Dickens didn’t stop pushing for this facility. When the decision to sign off on domestic terrorism warrants came before Fatima El-Amin, a Black judge, she signed them. And Atlanta’s Black police officers have never broken ranks with their white counterparts. This is not a simple matter that political representation will sort out for us; it is a question that must be answered by abolitionist praxis, which means both creating alternatives to police and prisons to achieve harm-reduction, and continuing the ongoing work of building a more just society.

In our view, the money that it takes to build police training facilities would be better spent advancing deteriorating infrastructure. Atlanta has the highest income inequality in the nation, and more police won’t fix that. Resources for health care, housing, and education could change the politically preordained circumstances that create such oppressive conditions.

The call to stop Cop City is much bigger than just one facility. It is also connected to the years-long fight against the West Side Cop Academy in Chicago and against Urban Shield in Oakland. It is also directly linked to the uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore and the massive response to the public execution of George Floyd. Because the forest where the City of Atlanta wants to construct the training facility consists of land that was taken from Muscogee Creek people, resisting Cop City is directly linked to Indigenous struggles against the Keystone XL Pipeline and other extractive infrastructure. Neither corporate nor government elites want another precedent of conscientious activists interrupting an unethical profit-driven project, which is why they are waging war against the “Stop Cop City” movement.

The movement for the abolition of police and prisons, as well as the urgent and growing movement for environmental justice, are two key pillars of a collective vision for a more hopeful, egalitarian future. The targeting of organizers in Atlanta seeks to send a dangerous and chilling message to the larger national and global movements. We must oppose this effort and support and defend the Atlanta organizers now being attacked, harassed and persecuted for daring to speak truth to power and organize for a more just future. We urge people who share our values and views on this question to support Atlanta’s upcoming week of action to protest Cop City and defend those being harassed and prosecuted. We also support the referendum the network of activists plan to have on the November 7 election ballot to ask Atlantans to decide if they want $90 million invested in a Cop City or in vital city services and programs.

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