Georgia’s largest forest in an urban area sprawls over hundreds of acres, with trees and vines intertwining with ruins of old buildings. But, in the coming years, 80 acres of the forest will be torn down to make way for a new police and fire training facility for the city of Atlanta.
The new police training facility, dubbed “cop city” by activists is politically divisive and could potentially negatively impact one of the largest forests in a US city. The Georgia Tech community is making their voices heard.
Shehza Anjum, a second year Public Policy student and organizer, was active in the fight to prevent the training facility. She said she was interested in the movement because of its intersectionality.
“It’s very interestingly at the intersection of racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice. And that was how I think so many people like saw something in the issue. We mobilized a lot of people who knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls,” she said.
Anjum is an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, which is a political action organization that advocates for action on climate change. She first learned about the fight against Cop City during a community teach-in. From there, she informed the community about the new training facility, and found that many people were opposed to it.
“Fundamentally, it wasn’t incredibly difficult to try to convince people that this was something that’s a bad thing, because people see that. People who live here, people who are on the ground, people who live in these neighborhoods, people whose input should matter the most, when it comes to making decisions like this one, they knew that it wasn’t bad, they just had to be told about it. They just needed to be informed,” she said.
The site chosen for the project, the Old Atlanta Prison farm, once housed state prisoners. It is now Atlanta’s largest vacant property, spanning over 340 acres. In August 2021, Atlanta City Council passed a measure to lease the farm from DeKalb county to build a 90 million dollar police training facility. That decision has been met with harsh backlash, from social and environmental activists.
“The South river forest, and which was a land with a very, with a very scarred history, we should know because it was once the other in a prison farm. And before that, it was key plantation where black people were enslaved. And before that it was Muskogee land that was stolen from the scummy people. So it’s all been it’s a land with a very scarred history,” Anjum said about the history of the land.
The prison farm hasn’t been in use since the 1970s, and forest has taken over the land. ButterATL reports that the land was used for farming until the 1990s. The land was originally occupied by the Muskogee Creek Nation. Most of the farm is forested, and old farm ponds pepper the landscape. The land has been mostly untouched, according to activists, so plants and animals have been able to thrive. Atlanta Zoo buries its deceased animals on the property as well, according to Saporta Report.
Activists have expressed concern that if this forested land is torn down, it could cause flooding in the area. Trees and soil can slow flooding during periods of heavy rain. The proposed training facility would take up about 80 acres of the land, and officials say it would leave the rest of the property to nature.
The lot sits just inside I-285 in Southwest DeKalb county on the east side of Atlanta, and just behind Starlight Drive-in movie theatre on Moreland Avenue.
Councilwoman Joyce Shepard authored the proposal for DeKalb to lease the land to Atlanta. She is the District 12 councilwoman, however the training center is in District 1. She has faced backlash for being the driving force behind the proposal when she is not the representative for the area. Shepard maintains that the training facility is necessary for the Atlanta Police force.
Anjum and other activists disagree that the facility is necessary. She strongly believes that Atlanta has bigger issues to address. “You’re talking about the talking about a city where, where there are people who struggle out from thing with rent rising and who end up on the streets and who struggle to housing feed themselves into the complete desert. So we want to spend 30 million in taxpayer money funding a project that takes up then in space to allow the Atlanta police department to expand have a training ground and practice tactics that prove has proven to brutalize black and brown working class residents. So that was kind of our tactic at that point, because it was just like, a really complicated issue with a lot of nuance is something that is very much in clinical management works on environmental justice issues. Specifically, there are groups we work with who are working on policing and incarceration, and the Atlanta police budget increases,” she said. The Atlanta Police Budget went up by about 6% in the last year.
The Saporta Report reports that the training center will be used for indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, bomb detonation and explosion tests, burning building for fire training, a road course to practice car chases, pastureland for the city’s mounted patrol among other training facilities.
Some residents of DeKalb county expressed that they did not want to have a training complex near their homes, citing noise as a major concern during public comment.
Anjum is also concerned that similar training facilities will pop up around the US.
“You’re talking about a model that can be replicated in other cities,” she said.
She also emphasized that the significant public pushback against the training center also has implications.
“You have Police Foundations, and you have the mayor and you have these corporations coming in and developing and doing things with land without the consent of the people who live there. And that affects everybody,” she said.
The measure to lease land for a police training center passed 10-4 by the city council after 17 hours of public comment, mostly opposing the measure. Antonio Brown was the only mayoral candidate who chose to vote against it. The other candidates either voted for the proposal, or were not on the committee reviewing the proposal. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also supported the proposal.
Anjum was disappointed over the decision. “It was really disappointing, because you’re talking about, we’re talking about a, you’re talking about elected officials, who said, at the end of the day, I’m going to listen to what my community has to say, kind of blatantly,” she said.
However, she is hopeful for the future of her movement, and the progress they have made thus far.
“I also think that it was strengthened all of our results in a way because when that leg of the campaign was over, nobody was quitting. Now, we have a big national organization, Color of Change is heavily involved in the fight. They just released a report talking about the funding of Police Foundations and how corporations fund these foundations and as a result of that report being released Coca Cola pulled out of the Atlanta police Foundation,” she said.
Anjum also said she is seeing increased student interest at Georgia Tech about movements to divest in police.
“[Students at] Tech and Emory are kind of getting worked up and looking into what student mobilization could look like. We’re recognizing that the institutions that we ourselves are a part of also have a stake in funding and supporting the police. And through divestment campaigns, that’s something that a lot of students are looking into and wanting to change,” she continued, “there’s lots of other ways that we can agitate and educate, organized and continue to flip the script to fight for the Atlanta that we deserve.”