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Forest Defenders Vow Resistance After Court Green-Lights Phase I of “Cop City”

A judge denied a restraining order against initial construction of the $90 million militarized police training complex.

A makeshift memorial for environmental activist Manuel Terán, who was fatally shot by law enforcement during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have dubbed "Cop City" near Atlanta, Georgia, on February 6, 2023.

The Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia, issued an order last week denying three plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order to halt clearing and construction work at the forested site of a planned police training facility that activists in Atlanta have dubbed “Cop City.” The ruling paves the way for construction activity even as the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals considers the merits of the plaintiffs’ legal appeal of the project’s land disturbance permit.

The 85-acre, $90 million police militarization and training complex is being spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation. If built, the compound would be one of the largest police training facilities in the country. The site would contain several shooting ranges, a helicopter landing base, an area for explosives training, police-horse stables and an entire mock city for officers to engage in role-playing activities.

In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved the project despite nearly 17 hours of comments from more than 1,100 constituents across the city, 70 percent of whom expressed firm opposition. Black working-class communities who actually live in the proposed area of unincorporated DeKalb County, and therefore aren’t represented in Atlanta’s City Council, also vocally oppose the project.

Judge Thomas Cox sided with the Atlanta Police Foundation’s argument that, “Property owned by a governmental entity for governmental purposes is exempt from local zoning ordinances.” Judge Cox, however, ordered the Foundation to “immediately coordinate daily inspections of the property and pay for the same.”

According to documents the DeKalb County Planning and Sustainability Department submitted to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, the project’s land disturbance permit allows for “phase 1” construction processes that include measures to control sediment and “certain security measures, including … a widened parking pad, security lights, generators, and storage for supplies to support 24 hour patrols.” A Planning and Sustainability Department inspector found that no work beyond this scope had been performed after an inspection last week.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jon Schwartz, tells Truthout he doesn’t plan to appeal last week’s ruling denying the restraining order. The next step is a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals, likely on April 12. After the hearing, the board has 60 days to issue a ruling. Schwartz, however, said Friday’s decision provides cover for the Zoning Board to rule the permit can move ahead.

The denial of the temporary restraining order comes as a loose coalition of community activists dubbed “Forest Defenders” are building toward a large convergence during a week of action March 4-11. The convergence is aimed at potentially reoccupying the South River Forest after a series of violent raids on a protest encampment resulted in the police-perpetrated shooting of Forest Defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in January. The coalition has called for protests at local offices of the project’s contractors and investors across the country this week.

Atlanta-based organizer Micah Herskind told Truthout last week’s ruling doesn’t change much for those organizing on the ground. “I think that people are just preparing for the week of action, and we’re going to do that regardless. I think Judge Cox’s ruling is a bummer, and I hope that the case moves forward with being able to stop the project beyond this, but I think for most activists in Atlanta the fight continues.”

“I think Judge Cox’s ruling is a bummer, and I hope that the case moves forward with being able to stop the project beyond this, but I think for most activists in Atlanta the fight continues.”

Amy Taylor, a member of the project’s own advisory committee, filed the initial appeal of the land disturbance permit earlier this month with the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals. The appeal argues the county improperly issued the permit because the project’s construction would violate a state limit on sediment runoff in violation of the Clean Water Act and because the amount of green space its lease sets aside is inaccurately large.

Taylor’s attorney, Schwartz, filed an amended appeal last week in the Superior Court of Fulton County adding two new plaintiffs, County Commissioner Ted Terry and the South River Watershed Alliance, an environmental organization that has been working on behalf of the South River Forest and watershed for more than a decade. The filing also sought the restraining order as well as an injunction against future clearing work until the Zoning Board of Appeals’ final decision on the permit appeal.

On February 11, the Atlanta Community Press Collective obtained and published an email exchange between the plaintiffs’ attorney Schwartz; Dave Wilkinson, the CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation; and Simon Bloom, Foundation attorney and Board of Trustees member. In the exchange, Wilkinson said the Foundation plans to move “full speed ahead” with construction on the project despite the appeal, which puts in place an active stay against the permit. Wilkinson suggests that “it defies common sense” that an appeal from Taylor, who lives within 250 feet of the site in unincorporated DeKalb County, could force a work stoppage.

South River Watershed Alliance Board President Jackie Echols told Truthout that both Wilkinson’s comments and Judge Cox’s ruling last week were disappointing. “You feel kind of helpless when the law that you’re quoting is just totally ignored,” she said.

“You feel kind of helpless when the law that you’re quoting is just totally ignored.”

The Watershed Alliance has expressed concerns about the training compound’s impacts on the South River for months now. The organization sent letters to DeKalb County and the state environmental protection division outlining how the training center’s construction would increase the sediment load in Intrenchment Creek, a tributary of South River, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Atlanta’s South River, Echols says, has been on a state’s 303(d) list of waters polluted by sediment that fail to meet water quality standards. It’s one of the most endangered rivers in the country, having long been plagued by sewage pollution. In fact, a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia Environmental Protection Division gave DeKalb County more than eight years to implement procedures to rein in water pollution, but mass sewage spills have only continued in that time. The county’s deadline has since been postponed to 2027, a move critics like the Watershed Alliance argue lets the county continue active practices of systemic environmental racism against surrounding communities of color.

In fact, the South River Forest area’s ecological benefits and clear need for protection had become so evident over the years that, prior to plans for the police training center, the Atlanta City Council had planned to turn the corridor into a protected park. That’s what Echols says the community still wants.

“That 300 acres of green space was the largest investment that Atlanta has ever made in southeast Atlanta, and to renege on that, … it’s truly a blatant disinvestment in the communities and the environment in southeast Atlanta,” she told Truthout.

“That 300 acres of green space was the largest investment that Atlanta has ever made in southeast Atlanta, and to renege on that, it’s truly a blatant disinvestment in the communities and the environment in southeast Atlanta.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, alongside DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, announced the county’s approval of the training center’s permit during a press conference on January 31. During the conference, Dickens and Thurmond referred several times to the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, a body intended to act as a representative for the communities immediately surrounding forested area of the planned training facility.

Prior to Advisory Committee member Taylor’s appeal, another member of the committee, Nicole Morado, resigned in outrage over the police-perpetrated killing of environmental activist Terán by Georgia State Patrol trooper the day Terán was shot on January 18. Terán, whose chosen name was Tortuguita, was fatally shot by police during a violent raid on a protest encampment in the South River Forest that has blockaded construction on the training center for months.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) initially said Tortuguita was shot and killed after allegedly firing a gun and injuring a Georgia state trooper during the raid, but body-worn camera video from an Atlanta Police Department (APD) unit released this month appears to show officers suggesting the trooper was shot in a friendly fire incident. The GBI has stated that their ongoing investigation of the shooting “does not support” the officers’ statements and that they will release all video evidence when the investigation is complete.

Tortuguita’s family released a statement responding to the release of the body camera footage, saying the videos raise “more questions than they answer, but confirm the family’s worst fears that Manuel was massacred in a hail of gunfire. The videos also show the clearing of the forest was a paramilitary operation that set the stage for excessive use of force.” They have joined community activists in calling for investigation of the shooting completely independent of the GBI, DeKalb County police and the APD, and for the agencies to share the evidence they have gathered with the family in a face-to-face meeting.

Over the course of December and January, 19 opponents of the police training center have been charged with felonies under Georgia’s rarely used 2017 domestic terrorism law, including participants of the recent uprising. A Grist review of 20 arrest warrants shows that none of those hit with terrorism charges are accused of seriously injuring anyone, and that many of the alleged acts of “domestic terrorism” consist solely of trespassing in the woods, camping or occupying a tree house.

The Superior Court’s ruling last week also comes after former Emory University President Claire Sterk stepped down from the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation and as a growing student movement opposed to the training center gains momentum at historically Black and other colleges in Atlanta. Sterk resigned from the board after more than 200 health care workers and students affiliated with Emory signed a letter calling for her resignation.

The land around the site slated to become the training center is associated with the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, a complex of farms sold in a land lottery to a chattel slave plantation. The site became a city-operated prison and dairy farm where incarcerated people were forced to grow crops and raise livestock to feed the populations of other city prisons from about 1920 to 1989, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective. Today, the area continues to host a shooting range, juvenile detention facility and the Helms state prison.

The struggle against the training center has brought activists against police violence together with environmental activists as well as Muscogee (Creek) tribal members, whose ancestors originally inhabited the land before their forced removal in the early 19th century. Highlighting the intersection of the training center’s social and environmental injustices, they point out that not only is the South River Forest and watershed, known to the Muscogee as the Weelaunee Forest, one of the city’s most important defenses in the face of the worsening climate crisis, it’s also long been the site of racist displacement, enslavement and carceral subjugation.

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