City Politics Culture Politics

Fight for the Forest

The home front in a new era of environmental warfare
Forest defenders occupy trees at the Atlanta prison farm // Photo by Crowina / Creative Commons

On March 5th, 2023, the Woodstock South of Woodstock music festival was in full swing in the South River Forest. Nearly 1,000 festival- goers had spent their weekend thus far enjoying a free barbecue, learning about herbal care, jumping in a bounce house, listening to various genres of music, and laughing with friends. Even as the sun crept below the protective canopy of the forest, their spirits remained high with anticipation and excitement for their favorite musicians to take the stage. The evening’s atmosphere suddenly shifted when police cruisers descended upon the forest grounds, blocking off exits and detaining those attempting to leave. The diverse group of concert-goers, including everyone from children to the elderly, gathered and were united in chants of “stop cop city!” and calls of “the show must go on!” Go on it did, with artists continuing to take the stage for more than an hour until police closed in on the stage. After deliberation between festival attendants and police, it was decided that the crowd would be allowed ten minutes to clear the area. The night ended with the remaining festival-goers leaving the forest together and 22 participants facing charges of domestic terrorism. The abandoned footprints on the forest floor served as evidence of the confrontation that took place.

The footprints left by these concert-goers in the South River Forest were left atop memories of those who had celebrated, toiled, played, and labored on the same land for hundreds of years prior.

The land that makes up the South River Forest today was once known as the Weelaunee Forest by the Muscogee people. At its height, the Muscogee confederacy was composed of multiple tribes spanning the vast regions of the southeastern United States. The Muscogee people inhabited the land including the Weelaunee Forest until the 19th century, when U.S. policy became encroaching. In the 1830s, the U.S. Army carried out the forced removal of more than 20,000 Muscogee people to newly established Indian Territory.

Following forced removal, the land was privately purchased and converted into a slave labor- powered plantation described as “the finest plantation” in all of DeKalb County.

In the 1910s, the land was purchased from the plantation owners by the City of Atlanta and began taking shape as the Atlanta Prison Farm. The Prison Farm’s opening was met with great anticipation from high-ranking Atlanta society members, including then-mayor William B. Hartsfield. This anticipation was for good reason, as the Atlanta Prison Farm had every intention to be the world-class symbol of the future of imprisonment: rehabilitation. Prisoners of the farm were “handpicked” from other penitentiaries, the majority of whom were doing time for public drunkenness.

Within years, it became clear that the Atlanta Prison Farm was not all that it was made out to be. Multiple cases concerning severely lacking medical treatment within the Prison Farm were brought to trial. Allegations of inhumane treatment in the Prison Farm spread throughout the surrounding community, including claims of Black female prisoners being raped by guards and unequal working conditions, with the most strenuous labor exclusively assigned to Black prisoners.

Despite the controversy, the Atlanta Prison Farm remained in operation until the 1990s, after which farm animals and equipment were auctioned off.

At the Atlanta Prison Farm in 2013 // Photo by RJ on Flickr

In 2003, the Trust for Public Land awarded 136 acres of forest connected to the Atlanta Prison Farm property by Intrenchment Creek to DeKalb County. The park property restriction in this deed stipulated that the land would be utilized as a park for the public “in perpetuity.”

With the Atlanta Prison Farm out of operation, the area encompassing the farm was abandoned for two decades. In this time, the abandoned territory was frequented by urban explorers and subject to illegal dumping. In response to this activity, the City of Atlanta tightened restrictions to the land access.

In 2017, the Atlanta Police Foundation released the “Vision Safe Atlanta-Public Action Plan.”

Founded in 2003, the Atlanta Police Foundation seeks to accomplish its mission to “make Atlanta the safest large city in the nation” through a broad array of public safety initiatives. These initiatives seek to transform policing with a community-based approach, representing the future of policing in the 21st century. The APF’s 2017 plan proposed the construction of a new 150-acre public safety training facility for the Atlanta Police Department.

Also in 2017, the Atlanta Department of City Planning shared “Our Future City” plans, which sought to protect Atlanta’s forests and expand its ecological value in the face of drastic urbanization. The department’s “Atlanta City Design” document identified key conservation areas designed to protect nature including plans for the new major South River Park, which is identified as one of the “lungs of Atlanta.” Upon city council approval, the design was adopted into the city charter.

The proposed creation of the South Forest Park served as the vision for the 3,500-acre South River Forest. The proposed park would protect existing natural sites in Southeast Atlanta, including areas of the city and unincorporated DeKalb County. The Atlanta Prison Farm is located within the proposed park.

However, these plans for nature conservation were dashed when, in 2018, Blackhall Studios CEO Ryan Milsap and planner Jay Scott pitched a land swap idea to DeKalb County commissioners. In this plan, 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park would be given to Blackhall Studios. In exchange, Blackhall Studios would give DeKalb County roughly 53 acres of land under its possession. The swap was presented as having major economic improvement potential through expansion of the film studio, which Blackhall asserted would create new jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for the county. Through the swap, Blackhall Studios also offered $3.8 million for park improvement efforts.

The community response to the land swap proposal was mixed. Some nearby residents expressed hope that the studio expansion would create new economic improvement and activity in the area. On the other hand, the opposition to the land swap has been strong.

Opponents of the plan argued that the swap would have detrimental effects on the environment, as the new Blackhall Studios would be built atop the heart of Intrenchment Creek Park, an area that is essential for South River runoff. They also argued that the swap would leave DeKalb County residents with clear cut land with no ecological value and in serious need of restoration. Opponents further raised the moral question of trading public use land for private development and were concerned that the swap would set a dangerous precedent for similar deals in the future.

Despite significant opposition, the DeKalb County Commission approved the land swap with Blackhall Studios in 2020. The approval came with the requirement that for every part of Intrenchment Creek Park that is developed, a piece of the film studio’s land would be converted into park land. Before the swap occurred, Blackhall Studios was to invest $1.6 million in park renovations, significantly less than the originally offered $3.8 million.

Once again, the approval brought about strong opposition. Although the plan was approved by Commissioners in 2020, it was not finalized until 2021 while the Trust for Public Land weighed deed restrictions.

In response to the plan’s finalization, a lawsuit was filed by the South River Forest Coalition, the South River Watershed Alliance, and several individuals against DeKalb County and Blackhall Real Estate on February 12th, 2021. The complaint states that the land exchange “violates the conditions imposed via deed on Intrenchment Creek Park” and is “not in accordance with the laws and regulations concerning the use and disposal of county property.” The Plaintiffs further argue that the Trust for Public Land deed grants “any member of the general public who utilizes the park the legal right and authority to enforce the Park Property Restriction.”

Stop Cop City protests in Atlanta on January 22, 2023 // Photo by Tatsoi / Creative Commons

In her 2021 State of the City address, then- mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms highlighted Atlanta’s public safety growth, including 250 new officers, pay raises, and retention bonuses to keep officers from leaving the force. In the address, Bottoms also announced a collaboration with corporate and philanthropic partners to build a new public safety training facility for police officers and the fire department. Bottoms said “a top notch city should have a top-notch training facility.”

The following month, the APF released the first renderings of the new training facility to be built on 150 acres of the old Atlanta Prison Farm. The renderings included classrooms, shooting ranges, a burn building, an auditorium, and space for explosion tests.

With plans for the training facility on the path to realization, community opposition intensified.

Shortly after the renderings were released, the instagram account @defendatlantaforest was created. Defend the Forest is a grassroots movement seeking to protect the South River/Weelaunee Forest from demolition for Hollywood and police development. A unique feature of the Defend Atlanta Forest movement is that it is autonomous. A community organizer who preferred to remain anonymous explained that that means “no one group or organization is leading the movement.” They further added that the autonomous feature of the movement has “allowed people from many different organizations, groups, and some autonomous groups of people who’ve come together to be plugged in and do things that feel good to them.” Defend the Forest’s resistance comes in numerous forms, from forest tours to concerts, free community gatherings, and forest occupation.

In August 2021, the instagram account @stopcopcity was created. Stop Cop City is also a grassroots autonomous movement composed of multiple organizations, groups and people. The movement opposes the construction of “cop city,” their name for the APF’s police training facility which features a “mock city” for police training.

According to another anonymous community organizer, “you have people coming into the movement from an abolitionist perspective, and then people who are part of the movement who are people from the neighborhood who don’t want to wake up to gunshots. There’s people in this movement fighting environmental racism and so much more … It’s hard,” they continued, “to talk about the movement as this singular thing because what we all have in common is we want to stop the construction of cop city.”

Despite numerous hours of public comment opposing the construction of the police training facility, years of community opposition, and months of protests, the local government has upheld and continued plans for the land swap and police training facility.

Nevertheless, the movement to protect the South River Forest is not slowing down. After a Georgia State Patrol officer shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel Terán, known as “Tortuguita,” in January 2023, national attention was brought to the fight for the South River/Weelaunee forest in Atlanta.

This year, it has become clear that the fight for the forest exceeds city, state and national lines. The South River Forest has become a battleground where movements focused on protecting the environment are going head-to- head with corporation and land development efforts. There is no doubt that whatever is decided in this fight will set a precedent for similar conflicts in the future.

A shrine erected in the Atlanta Forest to commemorate the killing of Tortuguita on January 18, 2023 // Photo by Tatsoi / Creative Commons

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