Hanging from a canopy of maple, oak and pine is a black banner with the words “STOP COP CITY” boldly painted in white. Up in the trees, people donning balaclavas sit in makeshift treehouses. Others mill around the campsite, carrying jugs of water and handguns. At the base of a stately tree, candles decorate a picture of a young adult with a welcoming smile. “Rest in Power Tortuguita, April 23, 1996- January 18th, 2023. Murdered by Georgia State Police.”
This is the current scene in the Weelaunee Forest of Southeast Atlanta. In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved the construction of an 85-acre, $90 million “Public Safety Training Center” in one of the city’s largest remaining green spaces amidst stark community backlash. “Cop City,” as protestors call it, would include a mock city for “urban police training,” an explosives testing site, and multiple shooting ranges. Its proposed area lies in unincorporated DeKalb County, which is 55% Black.
“Forest Defenders” have lived in encampments for months with the goal of delaying Cop City’s construction. In January, “Tortuguita” Páez Terán was shot thirteen times and killed by a Georgia State Trooper during a raid of their encampment. Police claim that Tortuguita fired at officers, but in the only released body camera footage, an officer is heard saying, “Man…You f**ked your own officer up?”, suggesting that the injured officer was actually a victim of friendly fire.
If Cop City reaches completion, it will represent an undemocratic victory of corporate interests with enormous environmental and human costs. With the popular media devoting limited coverage to this months-long battle, it has become a struggle of popular resistance against systemic injustice. But it cannot fly under the radar because it is not only Cop City at stake. It speaks to several crises: the degradation of our natural resources amidst accelerating climate change, the power of economic elites to bypass democracy and our racist carceral system.
The leveling of 85 acres of forest would be an environmental atrocity. Beyond its role as a precious green space for Southeast Atlanta residents, Weelaunee Forest is also an essential defense against climate disasters. Urban forests reduce the “urban heat island effect” of concrete streets and buildings amplifying extreme heat. They also prevent flooding by trapping rainwater.
Furthermore, research shows that heavy metal toxins from shooting ranges can contribute to runoff in the forest’s streams. In 2009, the United States Geological Survey found that the amount of copper, lead, and zinc in Weelaunee’s Intrenchment Creek, flowing from the two already existing police shooting ranges upstream, violated Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division’s standards. Environmental activists are warning that addition of more shooting ranges and explosive sites will funnel even more toxins into the forest streams.
The Sierra Club writes that historically Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities are often most affected by storm flooding and urban heat. The surrounding community has been relatively spared by such climate disasters. “But with the trees gone,” they write, “that could change.”
Moreover, the site has a history of commodifying humans, an essential aspect of America’s prison industrial complex in which corporations have an interest in the reinforcement of the carceral system. It was first stolen from the Muscogee tribe in 1800, then sold to a chattel slavery plantation, then transformed into a city-operated prison labor camp in 1920 which once incarcerated Stokely Carmichael during the civil rights movement. According to a 2021 report by the Atlanta Community Press Collective, there is evidence of "systemic abuse, torture, overcrowding, neglect, and racialized violence throughout the prison farm's history, as well as the possibility that unmarked graves of prisoners exist on the grounds."
Today, Atlanta’s most powerful corporations are behind the funding and administration of Cop City. The Atlanta Police Federation (APF), which is committing $60 million of the total $90 million price tag, shares multiple overlapping board members with the Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP), a group of the city’s top CEOs including Coca-Cola and Koch Industries. Atlanta’s major newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is owned by Cox Enterprises — whose CEO is ACP’s fundraising chair for Cop City. For months, AJC has published editorials from their editorial board, former police chiefs, and even the CEO Loudermilk Cos — also the chair of APF — all in support of Cop City, with no mention of their conflicting interest.
Why would these CEOs care so much about Cop City? ACP’s mission links “public safety” with “attracting business and investment.” In Atlanta, the ACP has been crucial for supporting development projects that drive up property values and drive out low-income residents. Policing protects capital investments by criminalizing poverty and homelessness, driving out the ugly reality that new projects aim to cover up. In a broader sense, Black abolitionists like Angela Davis and Cedric Robinson have argued that the core function of the prison system is to “warehouse” the vast unemployed population, which is necessary to maintain capitalism because there must always be unemployed individuals ready to replace unproductive or unruly employees.
Proponents of Cop City maintain that it will protect Atlanta residents from an “immediately pressing” crime wave by improving training and resources for a police force demoralized by popular anti-cop sentiment exacerbated by the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. This, several AJC editorials claim, will bring about a safer Atlanta for its citizens and its police officers. However, uncovering the web of corporate interests behind these narratives casts doubt on their sincerity and motivation. Not to mention, corporate leaders themselves have admitted that Cop City would do nothing to address the urgent crime wave because it would not be finished for at least two years.
Moreover, during 17 hours of public hearings, not a single call-in from the area surrounding Cop City supported its establishment, and 70% of all calls stated opposition. Atlanta residents, especially those who will be most affected by the decision, deserve to have their opinions heard by their elected officials. They have a right to question funneling $90 million into a perpetually unjust institution. With the murder of Tortuguita, Cop City’s stated mission — mitigating negative or unsafe community-police interactions — has failed before even being built.
In a heartless instance of environmental racism, Cop City would tear precious green space from a community that needs it most, replacing sounds of wildlife with the sounds of police gunshots that have historically terrorized them. Four HBCUs stand within 10 miles of Cop City, and students and faculty have been organizing protests and writing open letters calling on city leaders to block its construction.
As Duke students, we have the power to call more attention to the injustices facing our peers a few hours southwest. Popular resistance needs numbers. Not all of us can make the drive down to Atlanta, but we can do many other things to support the Forest Defenders: organize a march on campus, donate to the frontline resistance, flood the phones of decision-makers and investors or simply tell your friends. We must stop the construction of Cop City — for the people, for the trees and for justice everywhere.
Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternating Tuesdays.
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Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.