Activists and groups gear up for week of action against Georgia’s ‘Cop City’

A broad range of individuals and activist organizations, from a local rabbi to Black Voters Matter, Atlanta-area residents and people from across the US, are gearing up for a “week of action” this week to defend a forest south-east of the city in Georgia, as part of a movement protesting a project dubbed “Cop City”.

The protest comes less than two months after police shot and killed activist, Manuel Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita”, one of dozens camped in the forest. The fatal shooting of an environmental protester, the first of its kind in US history, raised the movement’s profile nationally and internationally.

It also ratcheted up tensions between local government and law enforcement officials on the one hand, and the diverse coalition of individuals and groups seeking to protect the forest. “This is the first week of action since the state killed someone,” said Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides bail and other resources to protestors who have been arrested. “The entire character, mood and status of the struggle has transformed dramatically … [and] feels much more real – to us, and to the state.”

A key issue is whether this Week of Action – which includes a music festival in the forest; a Jewish shabbat, or Friday evening, service; herbal workshops; and a “know your rights” workshop – will draw people back to camping and tree-sitting in the forest.

There’s also the question of whether various marches also scheduled – including one led by a handful of Black-led organizations – will result in more arrests on the state “domestic terrorism” charges that 18 activists are already facing.

The land in question is called South River forest on municipal maps, and “Weelaunee forest” – a Muscogee (Creek) word meaning “brown water” – by activists. At least 85 acres of the forest is under threat from the $90m police and fire department training center opponents of the project have labeled “Cop City”.

Another 40 acres is under threat from Ryan Millsap, former owner of Blackhall Film Studios, who made a deal with DeKalb county in 2020 to swap the land, in use as a public park, for another piece of land nearby. That deal is on hold due to a local environmental group’s lawsuit, and residents of surrounding neighborhoods continue to use the park for recreation.

The two parts of the forest are divided by a stream, Intrenchment Creek, which is the municipal name of the public park. The pair of threats to the forest led dozens of “forest defenders” to camp in the woods on both sides of the creek starting in late 2021. Tortuguita was camped on the Intrenchment Creek Park side on 18 January, when dozens of officers from the Atlanta and Dekalb county police departments, the Georgia bureau of investigation (GBI), Georgia state patrol and, possibly, the FBI, swept through the forest, with the goal of clearing activists.

The GBI, now tasked with investigating the shooting, said that Tortuguita fired a gun first at a state trooper. The agency also released a document appearing to show that the activist purchased the gun. Despite the presence of the multiple agencies, the GBI has also said there is no body-cam or other footage of the shooting.

Since the shooting, the forest seems to be cleared of tree-sitters and campers on both sides of the creek, according to activists. The city of Atlanta, which owns the land where “Cop City” is planned, announced in a recent press conference that Dekalb county, where the land is located, had granted what’s known as a “land disturbance permit” – meaning work on the training center could begin.

And while Tortuguita’s death – the first time US law enforcement has killed an environmental activist while protesting – brought attention from international media, members of Congress, and global environmental organizations, Atlanta-area residents opposed to the training center have recently turned to local government.

A member of a “community stakeholder advisory committee” meant to provide local input into the training center has resigned in protest against Tortuguita’s killing. Another member lodged an appeal against the land disturbance permit with a county zoning board that will be heard in April, claiming that work on the training center will drive sediment into the creek, in violation of the Clean Water Act and state law.

Meanwhile, the specter of “forest defenders” possibly arriving during the Week of Action led local Clayton State University to send an email to students, warning them against being drawn by the week’s activities to attempt entering the site of the planned training center – which is being guarded by more than 100 Atlanta officers around the clock, at a cost of $1m monthly, according to a recent court filing.

“The APD and Georgia Bureau of Investigations have taken a zero-tolerance stance on protestors who attempt to enter the property of this proposed training location,” read the email, “[and protesters] will be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” The email said nothing about the public park area of the forest.

Most of the neighborhoods surrounding the forest have large Black populations, and local government has overlooked the area for decades, leading to industrial and other kinds of pollution.

Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders, a grassroots organizing group, is helping organize a march of Black-led organizations during the Week of Action to draw attention to the opposition in his community to a training center that he sees as accelerating police militarization and brutality, as well as overlooking community input in how best to use the land.

This would help put a lie to the “outside agitator” trope that Georgia governor Brian Kemp, Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens and others have used to describe opposition to “Cop City”, based on the out-of-state addresses of most forest defenders arrested to date, he said.

“The idea is to have a march with Black-led groups, centered in Atlanta history, and the protest movements we’ve always been a part of,” Franklin said.

Although there is no way to know how many people will show up for the week’s events, or from where – there’s no tickets to buy or sell, and all work is being done autonomously and largely, anonymously – Sam, part of the Atlanta Community Press Collective, an anonymous group of activists who use journalistic methods to monitor “Cop City”, said they’ve received queries from Spain, Canada, New York, Minnesota and California in the last week alone.

“I have the impression there’s going to be a lot of people and a diversity of events that’s probably the most accurate representation of the breadth of this movement all along,” they said.