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The new fight for an old forest in Atlanta


Then the following month, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, made an announcement: the area around the prison farm was to be the site of a large training facility for police and firefighters. That, Gravel said, was “a big surprise.” Many people in Atlanta were alarmed by the news—including Joe Sandifer, who told me he was already disturbed by the police presence in the woods. For decades, the Atlanta PD has operated a shooting range there, and on his walks in the woods, Santifer had started hearing gunshots. Even from a distance, he said, “it sounds like a battlefield.” She emailed a complaint to the city and, a few days later, received a response: “Call 911.”

In the year since Bottoms’ announcement, a different kind of battle has taken shape. She and others — including Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — have described the training facility as a response to a recent spike in violent crime in Atlanta. (The number of homicides in the city rose sharply in 2020; last year, Atlanta police investigated more than one hundred and fifty homicides, the highest one-year total since the mid-nineties.) Other cities have recently built or proposed similar facilities, but, at eighty-five acres, Atlanta’s would be far larger than almost all the others. New York City, for example, has a thirty-acre facility for a force fifteen times the size of the Atlanta PD. Planned features of the APD facility include a firing range, a “vehicle skills area,” a “burn building” for firefighters, and a “demonstration village” for the organization of simulated emergency situations. It is slated to cost about ninety million dollars, with one-third of that money coming from public funds and the rest coming from the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The APF, which was established in 2003, is one of several police institutions created over the past two decades. These private nonprofits typically funnel corporate money into policing initiatives, stretching police budgets and, in some cases, producing conspicuous conflicts of interest. Some of Atlanta’s most influential people—the CEOs of Waffle House and the Atlanta Hawks, vice presidents from Home Depot and Delta Air Lines—sit on the APF board of directors. Coca-Cola and Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta-based media group, are among the companies that have recognized their contributions to the foundation. Cox CEO Alex Taylor is the fundraising chair for the educational facility. Cox owns the city’s largest newspaper, the Newspaper-Constitutionwhich has published one number of editorially in favor of the facility and has only sometimes disclosed its owner’s contributions to the APF

The Atlanta City Council requested public comment on the facility in September of last year and received more than seventeen hours of comments — including a few minutes from Joe Santifer. “I said the location is not in keeping with the neighborhood,” he told me. “It’s too big for the number of officers Atlanta has, and the process has been rushed.” Sandifer said he had also heard most of the other remarks, which were recorded, and that “about seventy percent” were opposed to the development. (A crowdsourced account came to the same conclusion.) The other thirty percent, he said, “were mimicking what they had been told—that this would solve Atlanta’s crime problem and its low morale in the police force”. Santifer began researching alternative locations, including an abandoned mall in southwest Atlanta and some industrial properties. He also took to social media to alert his neighbors of what was happening.

All Atlanta Forest Defenders treehouses are at least fifteen feet above the forest floor.

In September, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 in favor of the project. Rather than ending the debate, the vote seemed to bring it into wider perspective, in Atlanta and beyond. Smaller publications in Atlanta continued to respond to drumbeats, and a fragmented, free-form protest movement began to coalesce.

One morning in June, on a dirt road lined with food and camping supplies, I met a young woman who introduced herself to me as Rutabaga. He is one of a few dozen people who have moved into the forest since late last year. They call themselves defenders of the forests. Some have lived in treehouses and camps for months at a time, trying to stop what they call Cop City, a name inspired by the virtual village designed for the police and fire training facility. In May, seven defenders were was arrested after allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at police who tried to chase them away. Some of the tree houses were subsequently destroyed, along with a suspension bridge the defenders had built over a creek. But most defenders remain.

Rutabaga didn’t live in one of the treehouses. “I’m not a good climber,” he said. Before coming to Atlanta, he was in West Virginia, Protestant the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a six billion dollar project that stretches three hundred miles through Appalachia. “The way I see it, the state and the institutions of capitalism are once again trying to destroy and dominate nature to build monuments to themselves,” Rutabaga said, linking her current protest to her previous one. He added: “Without the enforcement of capitalist laws by the police, all this devastation I don’t think would have been possible.” For Rutabaga and others, Cop City is the latest episode in the misuse and abuse of this land, which goes back to the removal of the Muscogee.

I had come to the forest with Jacqueline Echols, the board chair of the South River Watershed Alliance, and Joseph Peery, co-director of the South River Forest Coalition. “APF saw an opportunity to capitalize on a decades-long history of environmental injustice and community disinvestment perpetuated by Atlanta, and seized it,” Echols said. We ventured deeper into the forest where we encountered another young forest dweller, bundled up in dark clothing that hid everything but their blue eyes. I had arranged to interview this person, who asked to be called Twig, through an intermediary, but we had not met at the appointed time and place, and now they were skeptical: I could be a police officer. However, I was brought to a sunken area where we could talk more privately.

Twig told me of a “long personal history of dealing with brutality from the state” – they declined to share the details – and said they had come to the forest “to prevent this from happening to other people”. Twig described seeing and hearing disturbing things in the woods, including screams from a nearby juvenile detention center and “submerged rectangles that are roughly human-sized.” The city, Twig said, is trying to erase the stain of the prison farm and also push back against the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, creating a training ground for “even more brutal crowd control, even more brutal I HIT raids, even more brutal murders. And a lot of us were, like, “Oh, screw that,” they said.

Activists in the forest don’t have official positions, Twig told me. But in the short term, Twig hoped to prevent the construction of “a playground for police killings” and protect as much of the forest as possible. Twig noted that construction of the facility had been delayed, judging by a leaked schedule. “They’ve only been out a week,” Twig said. “This seems to me a beautiful thing.” Eventually, they suggested, the land could even be “returned to the Muscogee peoples.”

A Muscogee delegation from Oklahoma had visited the forest earlier in the summer. Among those who came was Laura Harjo, who teaches in the Native American Studies department at the University of Oklahoma. It was her first visit to this part of the Weelaunee Forest. “When I walked through it, the sounds of the insects, the birds and the heaviness of the air – I know my relatives felt the same way before the removal,” he said. “Walking through that space meant a lot to me.” Harjo teaches a course on local community planning. “For a recent assignment, I had them work on what kind of future they envisioned for the Weelaunee Forest if there was a Muscogee Tribal City instead of Cop City.” He added, “This is being treated as a cancerous space from contact with Europe and Cop City would be a continuation of that rather than a return to the community.”

In late July, someone set fire to a truck carrying construction equipment in a trailhead parking lot. Inscribed on his charred remains were the words “No Cop City” and “No Hollywood Distopia.” (The latter slogan refers to the planned project to build a film studio on forty adjacent acres of forest, a project that has been delayed treatment originating from local environmental groups. A few days after the apparent arson, I asked a representative of the rangers about it. “We don’t know if it was someone we know or just, like, someone doing an autonomous action,” this person told me. “But we know that vehicles are not human lives and human lives will be taken if this forest is destroyed and a police city is built.”



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