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Stop Cop City Activists Plan Mass Return to Weelaunee Forest

The mass mobilization against the military-style 85-acre police training facility will take place November 10-13.

Environmental activists reoccupy the Weelaunee Forest, a preserved forest that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, on March 4, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia.

In April, as the Atlanta Police Foundation erected high fences with razor wire around the site of the planned Public Safety Training Center dubbed “Cop City,” Atlanta organizer Jaye C. began photographing the construction, poking her camera through the chain link fence, documenting as 33 acres of forest became part of a barren expanse. In March, police chased, tasered and arrested activists on domestic terrorism charges until protesters were finally forced to cede the forest that they had occupied for the better part of two years. The fences went up, and Stop Cop City organizers pivoted. Protest continued at public buildings, neighboring parks, and the homes and businesses of contractors. Activists doubled down on legal challenges to the project and launched a campaign to put Cop City on the ballot. But the actual construction site became impenetrable.

A group of Stop Cop City activists aim to change that, to once again put their bodies on the line to block Cop City, to buy time before the Atlanta Police Foundation can destroy the remaining 50 or so acres of forest. A mere week after the RICO indictment of 61 activists, the newly christened Block Cop City wing of the movement issued a call to action to supporters around the country: Show up. Cause trouble (nonviolently, organizers clarify). We’ll see you in the forest.

The mass mobilization will take place in Atlanta from November 10-13. In the run-up to it, Block Cop City organizers embarked on a breakneck speaking tour, visiting over 70 cities in less than two months. They hope that at each place they visit, a few people will decide to come down to Atlanta, culminating in hundreds converging on November 13 to march on the construction site. Organizers have intentionally prioritized making plans for the protest public, and intend for the protest, described as mass nonviolent direct action, to challenge the legitimacy of the state through civil disobedience rather than sabotage. In the decentralized Stop Cop City movement, November’s action is but one tactic. But it’s an important one, particularly now, when Atlanta has ensnared dozens of activists in criminal proceedings while conspiring against democratic resistance.

Democracy by Other Means

On September 11, local organizers handed over box after box of petition signatures to put Cop City on the ballot. Despite stringent residency requirements and voter suppression, the campaign collected over 116,000 signatures, well north of the number required. The City of Atlanta refused to begin the count, continuing the battle of legal challenges, appeals and delays. When city council voted to compel verification of the signatures, the city clerk scanned the petitions and published online the unredacted names and addresses of everyone who signed. (Within a day, activists began selling t-shirts that said “the City of Atlanta doxxed me and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”) The process has bred cynicism, to say the least.

As of August 24, the City of Atlanta has burned through $146,000 in attorneys’ fees to bury the referendum in a legal black hole. The status of both the signature count and construction on Cop City fluctuates week to week as city lawyers cynically burn through appeal after appeal. “At this moment,” said Block Cop City organizer Jamie Peck, “a lot of referendum folks are realizing that the state isn’t going to be fair.”

Each injunction, stay of injunction and interim ruling drags the court process further out from the surge of momentum generated by the petition drive. Erin Pineda, a Smith College professor and scholar of civil disobedience, sees echoes of repression of the civil rights movement in Atlanta’s endless appeals. “Once it was a matter of awaiting legal opinion,” Pineda told Truthout, civil rights controversies “became technical and easier to depoliticize; to say, you’ve done your demonstrations. Now it’s up for the legal experts to decide what’s to be done.”

The March election is still months away, and opponents of Cop City worry that revoking the lease might be a harder sell once the training center is partially completed with already sunk taxpayer dollars. Unitarian Universalist minister Dave Dunn worked extensively on the referendum campaign, but fears Atlanta may succeed in outmaneuvering the democratic process.

“They’ll have this thing built before the vote on it. That’s their goal,” said Dunn. “So we felt compelled to actually go onto the site and issue a People’s Stop Work Order.” Two days after the RICO indictment came down, Dunn and four other members of the clergy (all members of the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City) chained themselves to bulldozers on the site. They shut down construction for the day. As the state wages its legal war of attrition, any day that construction can’t continue marks one day closer to the ballot.

Calling the State’s Bluff

The Faith Coalition protest marked the first time that protesters had breached the high fences around the construction site in many months. The protest, called the People’s Stop Work Order, inspired hope imagining a universe where the people, not just the suits in city government, get a voice. Critically, the five Faith Coalition protesters walked away with only misdemeanor trespassing and obstruction charges, a far cry from the 20-year RICO penalties and the 35-year maximum sentences for domestic terrorism hanging over other activists’ heads.

Spokesperson Sam Beard thinks “that the state has overplayed its hand.” District Attorney Sherry Boston, the prosecutor behind the first terrorism charges, recused herself amid spiraling political fallout. Fani Willis, the prosecutor responsible for RICO cases against former President Donald Trump, Young Thug’s record label and a ring of cheating school teachers, has declined to prosecute the Cop City case. Instead, the case will be prosecuted out of Attorney General Chris Carr’s office. Such direct intervention is rare at the state level, where attorneys general typically delegate prosecutions to district attorneys. The first judge assigned the RICO case recused himself. It later came out that the DeKalb County legal team asked if they could drop charges against Thomas Webb Jurgens, a legal observer charged with domestic terrorism, only to be told no by the attorney general’s office. With local prosecutors jumping ship, the attorney general’s office may be out to sea in domestic terrorism and RICO prosecutions.

This month’s mobilization will take place on the same land where forest defenders occupied tree houses for the better part of two years. Activists will stand arm in arm on the site of the forest destroyed by the Atlanta Police Foundation, across the street from the now-closed Intrenchment Creek Park, where police murdered activist Tortuguita Terán during park open hours, in broad daylight.

In November, there’s the practical matter of shutting down construction, of buying time for what’s left of the forest while keeping the ballot initiative at top of mind. But the geography also matters, symbolically and rhetorically. In December and January, forest defenders were arrested on domestic terrorism charges for what basically amounted to trespassing. Should the state finally recognize the spiraling political problem created by overcharging protesters, activists could walk away with misdemeanor trespassing charges, or no charges at all. If arrests occur on the same land, for the same basic defiance of trespassing ordinances, with dramatically different results, the inevitable question of selective prosecution arises. It could be one more chink in the prosecution’s armor, one more way to expose the dirty truth that the charges are intended to intimidate and incarcerate protesters out of existence.

If the state strikes back hard in November, it will be with less support than the opening salvos, with national attention dialed in and prosecutors and judges forced out by conscience or legal flimsiness.

Inheritors of Civil Rights Movement Tactics

If built, the mock villages of Cop City will fuel urban counterinsurgency tactics.

From the beginning, the fight to Stop Cop City has taken on broader resonance beyond saving a particular patch of land. The predominantly Black community surrounding Cop City has been long neglected by Atlanta politicians, to the extent that DeKalb County is unincorporated from the city of Atlanta proper. Long before Cop City was proposed, Atlanta officials had long manufactured the conditions of neglect. The South River Forest became a park more or less by accident. Atlanta built two prisons, then abandoned them, unmarked graves intact. As the prison farm decayed, the surrounding Black community gradually began to use the property as a park, only for the announcement of the Cop City project to destroy those thin silver linings of neglect. The Cop City project inherits land from the racist project of incarceration and deepens the infrastructure backing racialized policing. Black activists have said they feel the stakes of the fight against Cop City particularly acutely.

As Atlanta officials fight tooth and nail to speak the language of procedure, to insist that the Cop City project is democratic despite overwhelming testimony otherwise, direct action demands that the public reckon with the reality on the ground: that a forest has been razed, and construction of Cop City continues, threatening to expand the infrastructure of racialized police violence.

Pineda again sees parallels between Stop Cop City and civil rights movement tactics. In the 1950s and 1960s, sit-ins, marches, and DIY integration of segregated spaces served a dual purpose of exposing injustice and communicating to the public the scale of police backing for the racist political order. “Direct action,” said Pineda, “would provoke various kinds of confrontations with police, who then became the embodied image of state violence or unjust force.” The coming mobilization puts police to the test: To what extent will they show their true colors? The mobilization, described by activists as nonviolent direct action, inherits the tactics of the civil rights movement: march, sit in and create a rupture in “business as usual.”

Collective historical amnesia skips over the controversy of civil rights nonviolent direct action and how incendiary the tactics of peacefully disrupting the social order appeared. Ahead of the March on Washington, police departments from across the country tailed protesters to D.C. According to Pineda, ahead of the march, much of the public feared violence was inevitable. Fears about communist infiltration and outside agitators ran high, much akin to the discourse around out-of-state anarchist provocateurs alleged in officials’ public statements and the Stop Cop City RICO indictment. As activists flood in from across the country, Atlanta officials may echo previous statements calling nonresidents outside agitators, or worse, domestic terrorists, reviving longstanding abuse of both terms. Activists have always drawn on the strength of movements beyond city limits, especially when the locus of a particular hope or horror is at stake.

Many Stop Cop City activists feel state repression has left them no alternative but to keep up the fight. Police murdered Tortuguita and activists have decades in prison hanging over their heads. In the eyes of Atlanta-based activist Miriam (a pseudonym), continued protest is all the more vital under circumstances of repression. “We recognize it as a strategy of fear,” said Miriam. “These charges are very seriously damaging and even ruining the lives of all the people who are facing them. So it’s extremely important to keep fighting for the cause, to show solidarity with how much these peoples’ lives have been affected.”

During the civil rights movement, activists, too, felt they had no choice other than to draw on courage in the face of racism, retribution and repression. Even knowing about the risks ahead of time, they brought children to marches. “If you think about it,” explained Pineda, “protest is slightly more controlled than the random racial violence you might be subjected to going about your day.” Through direct action, activists “pointed public attention toward the injustice at stake — an entire racist order that nevertheless speaks in the language of law and democracy.”

Hope and Revolutionary Horizons

Through organizer Sam Beard’s eyes, Stop Cop City is “the most resonant environmental justice campaign that this country has seen in years, since Standing Rock. And it’s the most resonant and popular abolitionist campaign since the George Floyd rebellion in 2020. There are hundreds to thousands of people around the country watching this campaign. Hoping that it wins.”

“I’ve been organizing for 10 years,” Beard said. “And many of our social movements fall short. Don’t get me wrong. Every time that we engage in a campaign, we make new relationships and learn new skills. But we need to win social struggles. We’re a generation without victories. The world is being systematically attacked by capital and the militarized police that protect it, and we’re toast if we don’t scale up our capacity to mobilize. We’ve known this for decades.”

“I just begin to wonder,” Beard continued, “what the world could actually look like if we begin to win some of these things. People will be reinvigorated, reactivated, reenergized and feel the very real truth that we can indeed win. So when we do win struggles, it doesn’t just stop a specific project or protect a specific forest. It opens up new revolutionary horizons around the globe.”

Already, with Atlanta as a template, fights have begun against other cop cities across the country and across the world. New police training centers with ever more eye-popping price tags are proliferating in Nashville, Baltimore, San Pablo and Pittsburgh. But there have been victories too. Through similar protest occupation tactics, activists successfully pressured the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to deny a 20-year lease of forest land to the National Guard. In Hawaii, a proposed 243-acre police training center stalled out in the legislative process.

Whatever happens on November 13, the day’s mass mobilization will be just one action among three years of dedicated activism, diverse tactics and protests.

But organizers hope that this mobilization moves the needle. Whether the win comes through the ballot, in the courts or in the streets, Cop City must never be built.

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