Inside Forest Defenders’ Blockade of Atlanta’s “Cop City” Training Compound

On January 28, Atlanta resident and activist April* joined about 60 racial and environmental justice protesters at Intrenchment Creek Park in the South River Forest — a vital green space that plays a crucial role in the region’s ecology, serving as Atlanta and south DeKalb County’s largest watershed and floodplain.

She was there to protest preparatory work on what Atlanta-area activists have dubbed “Cop City,” an 85-acre, $90 million police militarization and training complex spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation that, if built, 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.

The protesters marched through the South River Forest to a boring machine being used to collect soil samples in advance of the compound’s construction, where a brief standoff with several workers and DeKalb County sheriff’s deputies ensued. After police reinforcements arrived, protesters say the sheriff’s deputies attacked the crowd, tackling April and other protesters to the ground. She and two others were arrested and jailed on misdemeanor trespassing charges. Another protester faces a felony-level charge of obstructing a police officer.

“It’s the site of basically an environmentally racist attack on the people and forest that exist here,” April tells Truthout about why she took action against the compound. “I see Cop City as giving up this beautiful ecological zone and sacrificing South Atlanta to development … and more police.”

Her January arrest is among the first to take place at the forested site in unincorporated DeKalb County, where organizers have erected at least two tree-mounted structures in an effort to physically delay the clearing work necessary to build the facility. Activists are digging in for the long haul, building barricades and communal living spaces throughout the forest to monitor construction activity and assist tree-sitters. Some are sabotaging construction equipment, while others have begun visiting the site daily as preparations move ahead. They hope to attract more Forest Defenders to the newly established autonomous zone.

Organizers argue that if their presence on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s easement violates the law, so do certain construction activities by the Foundation and its contractors: Workers with the Reeves Young construction company first entered the site on January 24, organizers say, to conduct soil boring and geotechnical engineering to prepare for construction, despite not having a proper permit from the Dekalb County Planning and Sustainability Department for tree removal or land disturbance, as required under Georgia Code § 12-7-7. The Sustainability Department’s permitting division, however, did not respond to Truthout’s request for clarification as to whether the Foundation obtained the required permit.

Defend the Atlanta Forest organizer Elias* tells Truthout that since workers recently finished collecting the soil samples, activists have used a lull in preparatory construction activities to continue building up the outdoor living spaces and coordinating logistical supplies as more people begin to reinforce the scattered encampments. “It’s been pretty chill compared to the few weeks before, when there were construction workers in there every day,” he said.

The movement is also fighting other development projects threatening the South River Forest, including a planned expansion of Hollywood’s Blackhall Studio, which they say would further intensify gentrification in an area that has one of the widest income inequality gaps in the country. Organizers argue both projects would further displace working-class Black people rather than prioritize the kinds of solutions the city and county desperately needs, such as affordable housing.

Rather than investing in supportive social infrastructure, Atlanta has largely responded to the citywide uprisings against the police-perpetrated killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Atlanta’s own Rayshard Brooks by back-tracking on police reform measures and increasing both the Atlanta Police Department’s budget and surveillance capabilities — all while limiting opportunities for public comment.

The Atlanta Police Foundation even paid bonuses to city cops after some staged a sick-out over former Officer Garrett Rolfe’s felony murder charge in Brooks’s killing. Later, City Council Member Howard Shook pushed for additional bonuses paid with taxpayer dollars. Now, the city — and by extension the county — are doubling down on this approach by moving Cop City toward completion, organizers say.

“Rather than addressing the problems with policing that the protests have brought to light, [officials] are more focused on repressing protesters. And [Cop City’s] mock city blocks are sort of exemplary of that,” Elias tells Truthout. “This is where [police] would train to do things like kettling crowds and tear-gassing people and rubber bullets, and just all the different crowd-control methods that we saw in the summer 2020.”

The blockade is the culmination of more than a year of resistance to the planned compound. In September, 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, have also opposed the project. The night of the Council vote, at least 12 protesters were arrested after gathering outside then-City Council member Natalyn Archibong’s house.

The Council’s plan sticks Atlanta taxpayers with at least a third of Cop City’s bill, an estimated $30 million, through a public-private partnership in which the city has agreed to lease 381 acres of the South River Forest site to the Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 a year for up to 50 years. The remaining two-thirds of the funding comes from the Foundation’s corporate and other donors, including Coca-Cola; Delta; Home Depot; UPS; and Cox Enterprises, which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a vocal supporter of Cop City. The Council’s proposal, however, also gives the city the power to terminate the agreement and cancel the project.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’s office, DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson and the Atlanta Police Foundation did not respond to Truthout’s requests for comment.

Kamau Franklin, an organizer with the Black-led collective Community Movement Builders, tells Truthout that the group, which organizes against gentrification and played a leading role in the fight against the Council’s approval of Cop City, is fully supportive of the nascent blockade in the South River Forest. Franklin says the collective, in addition to campaigning against the Atlanta Police Foundation’s corporate donors and board members, is already working to provide Forest Defenders with resources. He expects some Movement Builders organizers will soon take on more direct roles and responsibilities.

“We think drawing the line at the City Council vote and suggesting that that’s the end of the ball game is sort of ridiculous,” Franklin says. “The fact that the City Council went against the everyday people of Atlanta and decided to pass this, that both the old mayor [Keisha Lance Bottoms] and the new mayor [Dickens] still support this, means that this has now turned into a people’s struggle.”

Franklin says that despite the Council and mayors’ support of the project, community organizers have had some success in ousting council members who backed Cop City in the last election cycle — including, most notably, former Councilor Joyce Sheperd, who introduced the ordinance authorizing the ground lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The struggle 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 Cop City’s social and environmental injustices, they point out that not only is the South River Forest and watershed 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.

The land is associated with the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, a complex of farms sold in a land lottery to a chattel slave plantation. The site slated to become Cop City 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.

“This land was Native people’s land which was taken from them, and the fact that the city can find no other better purpose than to build a training center for militarized actions against its citizens shows that there’s a certain continuity of the ideological viewpoint of the city, even with Black officials, around supporting capital, supporting white supremacy, supporting oppressing people who can be used as free labor and/or cheap labor for others, and this is a continuation of that history,” Franklin says.

Former Atlanta resident Rev. Chebon Kernell, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and a descendant of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, could not agree more. “There are several layers of violence that are taking place with the development of this Cop City in that location,” he tells Truthout. “My hope is that we don’t put something else in its exact same place that will continue the oppression of [Black and Indigenous] communities and peoples.”

In November, Reverend Kernell and other tribal members visited the South River Forest to educate local activists about the history of his tribe and the land, engaging in spiritual practices including stomp dance ceremonies and other rituals at the site. The visit represented the first migration of Muscogee tribal descendants since their forced removal beginning in 1821, with many tribal members connecting with their ancestral homelands for the first time.

Those homelands, the fruits of which have long been cultivated to support the region’s population, continue to provide the “City in the Forest,” as Atlanta is widely known, with important protections against accelerating climate disruption. Conservationists warn that the land not only serves as a crucial filter and buffer for runoff and flooding; it also acts as “the lungs of Atlanta,” in sequestering carbon emissions and providing the greatest amount of tree canopy shade of any urban area in the country.

“By tearing down 85 acres of this forest and turning it into a semi-impervious, built-up area, they are going to have a direct impact, … with [surrounding] neighborhoods experiencing higher urban heat island effects and then having to pay more for their cooling bills in the summertime,” says environmental engineer Lily Ponitz.

Ponitz, a graduate student studying urban planning at Georgia State University, was put on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee by DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry in September. The advisory committee was created through an administrative order by former Atlanta Mayor Bottoms on January 4, 2021, in response to criticisms about lack of transparency in Cop City’s public process, which at that point had consisted of just three virtual meetings — two of which did not allow public questions or comments.

The board was initially comprised solely of police and fire department chiefs, Atlanta Police Foundation heads and city employees, but has since opened up to include a broader range of community members. Despite this, Ponitz tells Truthout, the public meetings are still largely dominated by Foundation officials and their development team, with little opportunity for open discussion. “It’s very much like a captive audience of us listening to boosters of the project,” she says.

Ponitz argues that the Foundation is actively mischaracterizing the results of a preliminary environmental assessment and limited secondary investigation of the Cop City site conducted last year by Terracon Consultants, as required under the Foundation’s lease agreement with the city of Atlanta. Terracon’s Phase 1 assessment recommended additional investigation after finding potential for soil and groundwater contamination beneath the site due to several factors including burnt tire activities, old fuel dispensers and containers, an unspecified 20,000-gallon above-ground storage tank, and issues related to a local municipal waste landfill.

The Foundation, Ponitz says, has represented Terracon’s limited secondary investigation as a more comprehensive Phase II environmental assessment in order to argue that it has met its lease requirement. Yet more analysis is needed, she says, as the secondary investigation failed to sample around the 20,000-gallon storage tank, which she argues likely functioned as a “day-tank for mixing concentrated pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers with water to dilute them so they could be sprayed on fields or animals” at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. In fact, Terracon failed to analyze soil or groundwater samples for presence of any pesticides whatsoever, nor did they analyze for the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons.

“It’s just sketchy,” Ponitz says, referring to the secondary investigation. “I think that [the Atlanta Police Foundation is] using the language of ‘Phase II’ to make us believe that the report is something that it’s not.”

She also worries that historic and ongoing munitions testing pose a risk to South River Forest’s soils and waters — an issue that would only be made worse with the addition of Cop City’s explosives training area and new firing ranges. The Mainline reports that residents have found police grenades containing lead and other toxic chemicals in the area’s already-existing firing range.

Neither the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) nor the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 4, which oversees the Southeast region, have conducted an environmental assessment, spokespersons for the agencies confirmed to Truthout.

To make matters worse, Atlanta’s South River is already one of the most endangered rivers in the country, having long been plagued by sewage pollution. In fact, a consent decree with the EPA and GEPD 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 argue allows the county to 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 Cop City, the Atlanta City Council had planned to turn the corridor into a protected park. That’s still what Forest Defenders say they want, arguing Cop City destroys opportunities for green jobs that would have been created under the original plan.

In the face of rising calls for racial justice and the worsening climate crisis, the choice, organizers say, is clear: The city and county must pursue environmental justice by remediating the South River Forest, a life-affirming green space that provides critical protections for all — not build a toxic, militarized police playground that will only further destroy lives and land.

“We see this climate change taking place right before our eyes, yet we do not do anything but more destruction in reaction to it,” Muscogee (Creek) tribal member Reverend Kernell tells Truthout. “My hope is that this ecosystem, this biodiversity that is protected by a forest like the South River Forest will always be there for our well-being, whether it’s producing oxygen, whether it’s producing water, whether it’s producing a place of spiritual retreat, whatever it may be.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of activists organizing and engaging in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience under heavy police surveillance and presence.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the site slated to become Cop City was never a federal prison. Thanks to the Atlanta Community Press Collective for the observation.