A plan by the Atlanta Police Foundation to build what they call a Public Safety Training Center in the city’s South River Forest was announced in March 2021. A resistance campaign immediately sprang up under the rubric “Stop Cop City.” Opponents include groups and individuals promoting environmental protection, racial justice, police and prison abolition, indigenous rights and urban green space preservation. Local residents and activists from other cities have joined together in the struggle. The area adjacent to the project is a lower-income neighborhood, whose residents are largely people of color.
Tactics include demonstrations, tree sits and protests targeting of the construction contractors and CEOs building the project. Protesters arrested have been charged with misdemeanors such as trespassing, and in mid-December, six activists were charged with domestic terrorism.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Kei (Kay), a long-time local resident and organizer who did not want to use her full name for fear of violent retribution from right-wing supporters of the project. Here she talks about the fight to save the forest and the terrorism charges brought against forest defenders.
KEI: I would say what unites everyone in the movement is the understanding that environmental justice is racial justice and that racist policing and racist environmental policy are two sides of the same coin. We’ve heard the police and the Atlanta Police Foundation several times say that the point of Cop City is to boost police morale. That this is essentially a gift that the Atlanta Police Foundation, a so-called nonprofit that is funded by the largest corporations in Metro Atlanta, is giving to the police department to [soothe] the cops’ bruised egos, not about the people of Atlanta and protecting the people of Atlanta, in fact, quite the opposite. We know that Cop City is not only supposed to be the largest police training facility in the U.S., but we call it Cop City because the plans for it include a fake city that they will construct in the forest, after destroying the trees. And the fake city will have a barber shop, it will have a grocery store, it will probably have schools, where they will practice putting down urban protest.
This is a clear response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the George Floyd rebellion of 2020. This is the kind of facility we’re talking about, and I think that’s really important to note, because I think some people hear it and they say, Well, don’t the police need to be trained because they are violent and they’re killing unarmed Black people every day in this country? We say No, this is not what the police need. This is what they need for their bruised egos and this is what they need to better put down protest when they are protesting the brutality of the police. This is what they need to better brutalize us.
MELINDA TUHUS: Apparently there’s been some sabotage, which some people would include in the category of nonviolence and others would say that’s not nonviolent and that could alienate some people who would otherwise support it. Can you comment on that and I don’t know how widespread that is either. I think some machinery has been damaged or destroyed?
KEI: Yeah. At this point I can’t keep track of all the different tactics that people have used, acting on their own authority in solidarity with the movement, because there’s been so many solidarity acts, whether people have done banner drops, or protests or rallies in other cities. There are folks who’ve been able to identify the contractors that are actually set to do the destruction of the forest itself.
And so, like we’ve seen in movements for many decades all throughout this country and certainly internationally, folks decide for themselves what tactics they feel comfortable with, and there’s really no centralized organization that says This is how we protest, this is not how we protest, right?
MELINDA TUHUS: So, around mid-December there was a police raid. If you could describe what happened. But I know the upshot was that six people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, which is a very heavy charge. Can you just talk about what happened there and where those people are now and what’s happening in their defense?
KEI: Over two days in mid-December several police agencies, including federal police agencies, cooperated to raid the forest and violently attack people who were in the forest. Now keep in mind that a massive section of this forest is public park land and so when the police went in and raided – it was the Department of Homeland Security, it was the FBi, the GBI, Atlanta Police Department – when they came in and raided, they utilized several tactics, one of which was detaining anyone who was in the forest, including on the public side of the land. They detained at least one journalist that we know of. They detained residents who were simply going on walks through the forest and harassed them and kicked them out. They also used chemical weapons on people who were sitting in trees. So they fired, for instance, pepper spray balls, and so-called non-lethal or less than lethal weapons at the tree-sitters, which might be less than lethal. We could debate that, but it’s certainly not less than lethal when you’re firing at someone who is in a tree and could easily fall out of that tree to their deaths.
So they used these very violent tactics to attempt to extract tree-sitters from trees. And in that same day, or those two days, they did arrest six people and charged them with some very standard misdemeanor charges, but then they did something quite strange – which is they tacked on this terrorism charge. They’ve been bailed out and there’s a group called the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, that supports protesters whenever they’re facing any kind of state repression and at this point they all have lawyers.
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