“Armies of officials are clothed in uniform, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence & death & conditioned to believe that they can intimidate, maim or kill Negroes with the same recklessness that once motivated the slaveowner.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Protest by non-locals [organizers against Cop City] are inherently terrorism.” — Second-in-command Atlanta Police Department Assistant Chief Carven Tyus
Here in Atlanta, we just marked the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. The day has been turned into a day of “service.” A day to wash away graffiti and sweep sidewalks — and for many, sweep away the radicalism of Dr. King, who, at the time of his assassination, stood opposed to U.S. imperialism, identified as a socialist, and rethought American racism as not just something that could be cured by “love” but as an idea woven into the fabric of the country that only a social revolution could combat.
King recognized that what held this system together domestically was a police force whose main job was maintaining the racist social order via the brutality of a Jim Crow policing system, but also northern police departments and courts, who he referred to as the “enforcers” of a “system of internal colonialism.”
Those of us in Atlanta who remember King’s radical legacy spent the MLK weekend participating in the movement to Stop Cop City.
The Origins of “Cop City”
The Atlanta Police Foundation, the Atlanta Police Department and the City of Atlanta plan to destroy nearly 100 acres of forest to erect a domestic version of a military base in the heart of a working-class Black community. The plans for this “Cop City” include military-grade training facilities, a mock city to practice urban warfare, explosives testing areas, dozens of shooting ranges and a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad. This police training facility for the Atlanta police is a prototype of militarized police centers in the country. If built, “Cop City” will be the largest police training facility of its kind, in a city that is ranked in the bottom 20 of largest police departments in the country.
The idea of “Cop City” came after the uprisings in 2020 when the police-perpetrated murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and here in Atlanta, Rashad Brooks, began a new call for defunding and/or abolishing the police. While communities wrestled with the idea of alternative forms of public safety, the Black-led city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Foundation, the Atlanta Police Department, corporations and institutions in Atlanta as diverse as Morehouse, Spellman, Coca-Cola, the Atlanta Hawks, AT&T, and others, put down their Black Lives Matter signs and started planning a $90 million complex to demonstrate their commitment to police and to develop a tactical site that could stop mass movements. These institutions worked with corporate media to shift the narrative from police violence to a focus on “crime,” where the police were again centered as the solution to all our problems. Once the plans to build Cop City became known to the public, opposition emerged immediately. Although public opinion surveys have shown that 70 percent of Atlanta is against it, the city and its corporate friends have continued to move forward with construction.
Since June 2021 when the protest began, demonstrators have been pepper-sprayed, attacked, threatened and violently arrested by the police. Whether the tactics were marches or dismantling bulldozers, demonstrations against Cop City have been criminalized. The movement has dubbed the arrestees as the “Forest Defenders,” who at the time of their arrest were committing acts of civil disobedience by sitting in tree huts to prevent the City of Atlanta from cutting down nearly 100 acres of forest adjacent to one of the last intact Black working-class communities left in Atlanta, one that has not been completely gentrified.
This past weekend, we held public demonstrations demanding the district attorney drop the charges against the Forest Defenders and provided teach-ins and skill-building workshops on civil disobedience. Marte White from my organization, Community Movement Builders, stated, “It is important that we connect King’s radical legacy to this fight against a militarized police facility being built in Atlanta: a facility whose only purpose is to stop future uprisings against police violence.”
Criminalization of Movements Continues
The right-wing governor of Georgia and “liberal” Black elected officials in Atlanta have supported the creation of a police “task force” made up of the Atlanta Police Department, the DeKalb County Police Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security. The agencies have worked together to investigate, intimidate and criminalize protesters. Recently, six protesters were arrested and charged with acts of domestic terrorism. These demonstrators were sitting in tree huts when the police shot rubber bullets and used pepper spray against them.
This task force is a reminder of the political oppression suffered by organizers and movements from a generation past: when the FBI teamed up with local police to commit criminal acts against movements. The range of those tactics included creating a divisive narrative, criminalizing dissent, false arrests and bogus charges, infiltrating and destroying movements, and acts of murder (the most notorious being the murder of Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther, by the FBI and local Chicago police).
Dr. King was arrested over 29 times, during demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience and direct action, and also arrested as a form of intimidation by local police and sheriffs. King and the civil rights movement did not just dissent against overt Jim Crow laws, but also housing discrimination, wage theft and U.S. military intervention, while pushing for voting rights and labor rights. He and the civil rights workers of the day were often called outside agitators, terrorists, trouble makers and violent criminals when they traveled to different states in the South and the North by city officials, police heads, and the general white population in both areas.
But just like King, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the Black Power movement and the climate movement, we continue to move forward. This campaign to Stop Cop City has participants from all of the above. It is a diverse grouping of organizations, community groups, loose confederations and individuals who continue to fight against the building of Cop City, the criminalization of a movement and in the defense of those falsely charged as terrorists for sitting in trees. It is after these arrests that we have all continued in a weekend of solidarity to fight back against Cop City. We have had multiple trainings, demonstrations, banner droppings and teach-ins, among other organizing efforts. Now, more than ever, the campaign to Stop Cop City needs support to show that movements of people will not be intimidated by state violence and its corporate backers. In the midst of worsening climate change, killing a forest and displacing a Black working-class community for the sake of a militarized police base must be stopped.