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Youth Organizers Are Uniting Marginalized Communities to Stop Atlanta’s Cop City

Inspired by Black radical tradition, youth activists are building a powerful coalition in the struggle to Stop Cop City.

Environmental activists march through a preserved forest that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, March 4, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia. Activists of color in the fight to stop Cop City say their white counterparts mustn’t separate environmentalism from abolition and overall racial justice work in their organizing.
“Who keeps us safe?"
“We keep us safe!”

A crowd of youth organizers have mastered this call and response chant, a unanimous voice talking back to a potential Cop City. Nearing the end of Defend the Atlanta Forest’s Week of Action, the energy from the In Defense of Black Lives rally held at the Atlanta Police Foundation Headquarters is palpable. There is laughter, chanting, a fire of hope that electrifies the air — folks have just finished roasting the heavily militarized police, who eye the crowd through the slits of their helmets. The solidarity between these kids is their biggest threat.

Black youth organizers were at the center of this rally that was organized by the Stop Cop City Coalition, In Defense of Black Lives Atlanta (IDBL), which is a coalition movement based in Atlanta that works to defend Black life and to defund the Atlanta Police Department. Sustaining solidarity among the Black left, the movement’s goal is to create an Atlanta free of policing, prisons and detention. It has three basic demands, according to IDBL youth organizer Thayu Speaks: No Cop City anywhere; reinvest the $90 million granted to destroy the Weelaunee Forest to the community living outside of it; and finally, that land being leased to the Atlanta Police Foundation be given to the community as part of a “land back” initiative in partnership with the Muscogee people working toward the reclamation of their stolen land.

Establishing an organizing fellowship for Black and Brown youth, IDBL strives to push Atlanta’s University donors to divest from Cop City through this youth organizing, and to engage Black and Brown communities within organizing work. For youth organizers Destiny Harris and Thayu Speaks, IDBL has also tasked them with another mission — to form solidarity between resistance struggles and reclaim space for Black and Brown community members through the Black Radical Tradition.

Solidarity Through the Black Radical Tradition

The Black Radical Tradition is a foundational legacy of resistance that has realized many of the practices we rely on in organizing work. Born out of anti-colonial and abolitionist organizing, this tradition encompasses the cultural, intellectual and direct-action practices designed to disrupt the social, political and economic structures that destroy Black lives. And while various iterations of Black movements have emerged throughout history, these practices still build from one another, thus demonstrating the connectedness between struggles across time and space.

This connectedness is especially noticeable when you consider the various versions of Cop City that have been proposed throughout the nation. One such iteration was Cop Academy — a $95 million cop campus proposed in a predominantly Black neighborhood on Chicago’s westside. This training facility, much like Cop City, would have included a mock city block to practice raids and other militarized maneuvers, as well as a swimming pool, food court and shooting range. Beginning in 2017, Black youth organized and led a powerful effort against its construction, demanding that the city of Chicago invest in youth and the community instead. Today, inspired by this work from #NoCopAcademy In Defense of Black Lives, the #StopCopCity movement relies on key strategies developed by #NoCopAcademy’s Black and Brown youth organizers according to Speaks and Harris. In fact, Harris stresses that this was what compelled her most to get involved with the Stop Cop City campaign. “[They] read our toolkit and told us that a lot of strategy was informed by us,” Harris told Truthout.

Movements like #NoCopAcademy and #StopCopCity continue the work of previous Black-led uprisings which resisted the carceral state.

Fundamentally, both #NoCopAcademy and #StopCopCity emerged from the same context. In fact, Harris stresses that not only were these developments to be built in Black neighborhoods, but multiple people responsible for getting the proposals being passed were Black — even Black women. Such a commonality brings contradiction to light, demonstrating that too often Black political figures have a fealty to the carceral state and not the communities they’re meant to “serve.” In fact, while Chicago had no money to maintain 49 public schools as well as half of Chicago’s free mental health clinics, they did have the $95 million to instate a new training facility on top of contributing 40 percent of the annual budget to the Chicago Police Department. Meanwhile, last November Atlanta didn’t have the money to save a hospital from shutting down in the community, but managed to conjure up the $90 million to develop Cop City.

And aside from Cop City and Cop Academy, yet another training base in Crawford County, Michigan has catalyzed a new resistance movement. Camp Grayling — the largest National Guard training base in the US — is looking to double its size, with the National Guard attempting to lease yet another 250 square miles of public state forest to train in warfare.

However, just as all of these training facilities mimic one another, so too, do the resistance movements against them. In fact, functioning through abolitionist movement building, both #NoCopAcademy, #StopCopCity, and now #StopCampGrayling campaigns have prompted decentralized coalitions that exist beyond racial, political and class lines in cities fuming with segregation and political fracturing. Most importantly, movements like #NoCopAcademy and #StopCopCity continue the work of previous Black-led uprisings which resisted the carceral state — a pillar of resistance deeply informed by the Black Radical Tradition in Harris’s eyes. “These [movements] are a pattern of something that’s already happened and something we’ve already done. We have to look at history and the way folks organized before to better inform our tactics and strategies. The fight is connected and it’s best that we look to each other for support as we build movements,” she told Truthout.

Reclaiming Space: Whiteness in the Movement

Understanding the importance of solidarity between movements means understanding the inevitable interconnectedness across different struggles. In fact, Stop Cop City’s movement has united communities from across Georgia, including neighborhood associations, environmentalist groups, Muscogee leaders, local schools, and of course, racial justice, and other abolitionist organizations. Muscogee leaders delivered an eviction notice to Atlanta Regional Commission in protesting Cop City, while Black residents canvassed and organized direct actions and Forest Defenders began a long-term encampment in Weelaunee Forest to prevent deforestation. The movement integrates abolitionist work with environmental justice with #landback in an effort to demilitarize, decolonize, divest and dismantle yet another product of the carceral systems that destroy these communities daily.

The idea of solidarity and interconnected struggle lies at the heart of the Black Radical Tradition that the Stop Cop City coalition practices.

However, not all solidarity within the movement to Stop Cop City is cohesive. This is especially true of white organizers involved with Defend the Atlanta Forest. IDBL fellow and youth organizer Speaks stresses white anarchists and environmentalists too often monopolize space in the movement. “There’s extreme white dominance over the movement, and because of this, there’s a lack of inclusion of POC and the community who surround the forest,” they told Truthout.

“There’s a clear divide between the white anarchists and the abolitionist movement,” Harris told Truthout. In talking with Stop Cop City organizers, she realized that most Black organizers hadn’t been to the forest, while when she went to the forest with her No Cop Academy coalition, most of the people were white, with herself and #NoCopAcademy peers being the few other Black folks there. Thus, while most white folks were watching over the forest, Black coalition organizers were engaging folks in Atlanta neighborhoods and communities outside of the forest. This would be a good strategy to diversify tactics and center individual strong suits in the movement, Harris clarifies, but the issue is the lack of integration and coordination regarding these potential tactics. “They can’t just both be doing their own thing with no communication. There needs to be solidarity and communication amongst folks,” Harris told Truthout.

The idea of solidarity and interconnected struggle lies at the heart of the Black Radical Tradition that the Stop Cop City coalition practices, but this isn’t always the case for some white organizers distanced from the practice. And while white allies may mean well, the foundational work needed to eradicate their remnants of white supremacist ideals is nonexistent. As a result, white organizers often reify the same individualist and negligent practices they insist only exist in right-wing spaces. “Sometimes we get very radical white allies but they just wanna fuck shit up, and it’s safer for them to do that,” Harris shared. “But they won’t acknowledge that having that mentality presents a threat to nonwhite people — if something violent does happen, it’s the Black people who’ll be impacted first and foremost.”

Further isolating white organizers from the Black Coalition movement is their tendency to center environmentalism at the root of their organizing. Characterizing their fight as one to save the forest, some white anarchists and environmentalists neglect solidarity work in their attempt to separate environmentalism from abolition and overall racial justice work. “A lot of white environmentalists focus on deforestation, saying ‘No Cop City in the forest!’ But no, we don’t want Cop City anywhere — not in the forest, not in the neighborhoods, not in Atlanta, not anywhere,” Speaks points out.

In this case, white organizers too often sever movements from one another, including the inextricable link between abolition work and environmental justice. In fact, environmental liberation has everything to do with abolishing the same carceral systems which defecate on the land and abuse its stewards. “They don’t understand,” Harris explains, “that when you’re talking about the environment, you’re talking about the community that you engage with every day. If you live in an overpoliced community, that’s an issue of environmentalism.”

“We don’t want Cop City anywhere — not in the forest, not in the neighborhoods, not in Atlanta, not anywhere.”

But for Speaks, acknowledging and building community is not the strong suit of many white organizers. In fact, despite the stronghold white anarchists and environmentalists have over the forest region — giving them proximity to marginalized communities right outside of the forest — Speaks stresses that these communities are often left behind. “White anarchists and white environmentalists are not good at engaging communities. There’s a disconnect there, and the community of people around the forest — predominantly Black and Brown people — are being neglected even though they’ll be the most impacted by Cop City,” Speaks told Truthout.

For this reason, IDBL established a fellowship designed for youth organizers to engage other POC and Black organizers and make space where white folks have dominated. The goal of this engagement is to center the Black Radical Tradition, find the gaps left by white environmentalists and anarchists in the forest, and to expand the movement to bring in and lift up the marginalized communities’ needs.

Grounding their organizing within the Black Radical Tradition, Black coalition organizers like IDBL are able to center the voices and testimonials of those most marginalized, and to ensure that their concerns and ideas are not an afterthought. For Speaks, this is indeed a lot of work — “getting the word out to different community members, training community members, bringing community members in and helping them engage in ways they want to based on their various skills,” is just a taste of the organizing work that IDBL has been doing. Nonetheless, this work is what makes movements grow, and continuing to build solidarity and reclaim space for marginalized people will ensure that movements like Stop Cop City are successful.

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