Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, wrote, “Trees could solve the problems if people trying to improve things would only allow them to take over.”
Last year, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s (APF) plan to convert urban forest space to a police training facility was met with criticism. Although the ground lease for the “Cop City” facility passed, activists are occupying the forest in a last-ditch effort to prevent the controversial development.
On September 8, 2021, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 to pass a ground lease agreement which handed over 85 acres of forest in southeast Atlanta to the APF for just $10 a year. The wooded area will be used for the construction of a public safety training campus, most notably including a mock city for urban police training. The forest will be appropriated for a variety of other purposes, including 30 acres for urban farming, 40 acres for pastureland for horseback patrol, about eight acres for an emergency vehicle driver training course, a shooting range, and an explosives testing site.
The Atlanta City Council press release states that the remaining approximately 265 acres of the 381 acre plot will be preserved as greenspace that will “feature passive recreation areas with minimal environmental impact to the nearby forest area”. Amendments scaled back the initial lease proposal from 150 acres to 85 acres, yet activists are concerned that APF could expand their plans in the future if the project proceeds.
This urban forest, bounded by Key Road in DeKalb County and home to portions of Intrenchment Creek, once held a prison farm, now called the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. By the 1970s, the City of Atlanta acquired the land, and the prison farm shrunk out of existence. While much of the forest has been left untouched since, the land has also been used for facilities like Georgia’s largest youth detention center on Constitution Road. Intrenchment Creek Park offers some walking paths through the forest.
The Mainline reported that Atlanta Police have trained on this land for the past 50 years and used it as a shooting range, leaving lead bullets, discarded shells, and grenades that leach heavy metal pollutants into the watershed. The forest and regions downstream are already suffering from as much as fifty years of heavy metal pollution from police without proper precautions or environmental damage assessments.
APF constructed this proposal as early as 2017, where a public safety action plan first mentioned plans for the facility. The project only became public knowledge around April 2021, however. Opponents of the plan were quick to term it “Cop City”, holding a range of intersecting concerns about the project, including environmental degradation, nuisance to neighboring communities, racial justice, and others. In August, Social Insights surveyed 371 Atlanta residents and found that 98% of respondents do not support the development of police and fire facilities being built in the area.
To prevent the lease agreement from being approved, rallies and demonstrations accompanied communication of opposition to the Atlanta City Council in the months leading up to the September vote. Ultimately, a 17-hour public comment session where about 70% of commenters reflected opposition to the plan was not enough to dissuade the council from passing the agreement.
A Georgia Tech student, Peyton*, caught wind of the project on Twitter and became involved after attending rallies and connecting with activists.
“I view Cop City as a fundamentally different facility. If it were built it would further militarize the police and desecrate the local environment,” Peyton said. Peyton echoes concerns that the urban forest would be best left alone: “If you go to the forest, you see that this is a lot of space. This is a habitat in recovery. You can’t build something like that. This is something that is rare in our day: areas that haven’t been sterilized into ‘green spaces’, but instead are true wild spaces in the middle of a city.”
Another activist, Emerson*, said, “This project can’t be allowed to continue because it perpetuates this legacy of racist violence that has been happening on this land since the removal of the Muscogee people,” they continued, “That’s not even to mention the ecological impacts of the project.” Emerson mentioned that on top of the pollution from shooting ranges and bomb testing, deforestation would damage the watershed and contribute to flooding problems in southeast Atlanta and downstream.
After failing to get a majority of the council to vote on their side, Peyton says activists are “building infrastructure needed to resist the development by any means necessary.” With the land leased and surveying underway, activists began to occupy the forest. A march onto the property with about 60 protesters in attendance resulted in four arrests made in the woods, according to Emerson. In late October, Emerson started working to develop this occupational infrastructure, including an encampment with tree houses. “There are so many reasons that this project can’t be allowed to happen … that I feel really strongly about that informed my decision to be a part of the active blockade of it,” Emerson said.
Emerson recounted that Reeves Young and Long Engineering spent roughly two weeks bulldozing and surveying the area surrounding the encampment where activists were constructing tree houses. “When they started bringing machinery into the forest, it was a very catalyzing moment … When they discovered our encampment, we decided to occupy the trees full-time … People went into the trees right away,” said Emerson.
Emerson spent seven consecutive days in one of these half-finished houses. The experience was overwhelmingly positive for them. “It felt really spiritually significant to be there and to be close to all of the life that was going on there and to feel like part of the healing instead of the destruction … A lot of my reflections had to do with how very important it is for that life to be allowed to grow freely there,” they said.
Emerson said that on their first day in the tree, a squirrel crawled right above them and wandered through the trees. They said, “It felt like a different little world, working with the environment and healing it instead of continuing this cultural cycle of feeling as though we are superior to the land, that we can do whatever we want with it and dominate it.”
Tree-sitters are continuing to construct encampments and barricades in an effort to hold the space long enough for the plans to be canceled. While both activists reflect that they hope for more people to join the forest occupation, Emerson noted that resistance could come in a variety of forms: “I hope to see people working on every level, whatever people feel comfortable with, whatever people feel inspired to do.” Peyton said, “Even if you can’t live there, existence in the forest is an act of resistance, too. Come see it; come see why it’s worth protecting.”
A recent rally on February 12 organized by Community Movement Builders saw roughly 100 people in attendance. Peyton expressed hope for the movement. “Almost every single person I meet is opposed to this facility. When I explain it to them, that they rammed through the democratic process with as little debate as possible, every single person has been opposed. I know this movement has all the ingredients it needs for widespread public support” Peyton said.
They also expressed that this is an opportunity to open more discussion of the role of police in our communities, where Peyton prompts, “Why do corporations fund the police, and what do they get in return?” If resistance is successful in preventing the development, Peyton remarks, “I am really excited to see that forest recovered, and see it protected, and see what we can learn from this.”
* These names have been changed.