"Playgrounds for cops": Beyond protests, clergy, environmentalist unite against Atlanta's 'Cop City'

23 people were charged with domestic terrorism — including a legal observer

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published March 7, 2023 5:26PM (EST)

A makeshift memorial for environmental activist Manuel Teran, who was deadly assaulted by law enforcement during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, Georgia on February 6, 2023. (CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial for environmental activist Manuel Teran, who was deadly assaulted by law enforcement during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, Georgia on February 6, 2023. (CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)

More than 20 people are now facing domestic terrorism charges after dozens of protesters dressed in black — including one from France and one from Canada — were arrested at a planned police training center in a wooded area outside of Atlanta.

The ongoing conflict between authorities and protesters who oppose the so-called "Cop City," a $90 million project set to be built in a forest near Atlanta to offer training for the city's Police and Fire Departments, including classrooms, a shooting range and a "mock city for real-world training," has heated up in recent weeks. Since 2021, the proposed site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center has drawn protesters who worry the project will damage the environment and contribute to the militarization of police. 

"We have a problem in the United States with how deeply unimaginative our leaders are in addressing crime," said Kyle Bibby, the senior campaign director at Color Of Change, a civil rights organization. "All we do is just increasingly militarize our police. We increase funding to the police, but that doesn't actually address real systemic issues that lead to crime. People in the community would like to see that money going towards housing, education programs, violence prevention, mental healthcare – other inputs that actually raise crime."

At issue is 3,500 acres of land in Dekalb County called the South River Forest – one of the largest unspoiled forested areas in the Atlanta metro area, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. The area includes Intrenchment Creek Park, the Atlanta Prison Farm, Constitution Lakes Park and Gresham Park – a predominantly Black neighborhood.

In January, a 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, or "Tortuguita," was shot and killed by officers during a raid at a protest camp. Police have said that Tortuguita attacked them and injured a state trooper, but activists have questioned their claims and called on law enforcement to release any body-camera video of the incident. Tortuguita's killing sparked demonstrations to spread across downtown Atlanta, leading Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to declare a state of emergency on Jan. 26 and order the state's defense department to mobilize up to 1,000 state National Guard troops to be called up to active duty "as necessary." Since then, local organizations have criticized the Mayor and City Council for choosing to engage in violence by relying on police to harass and arrest those protecting the forest as the movement against the Cop City project has built momentum.

Some groups are even calling out corporations for funding Cop City and supporting a police facility that would be surrounded by poor neighborhoods in a city with one of the nation's highest degrees of wealth inequality. "The Atlanta Police Foundation takes in millions of dollars every year and with that money and almost no oversight from the community, they can buy equipment and do other services," Bibby said. "This prevents the community from oftentimes having a say in how the dollars are being appropriated for their own local police."

Color of Change has called on corporations to stop funding APF, which they say "has a history of using corporate donations to fund the expansion of the police at the expense of the Black community in Atlanta." Corporations, like Target and Wells Fargo have funded two-thirds of the donations for the police training site, Bibby added. One of the major donors is Coca-Cola, headquartered in Atlanta, which contributed $13 million. 

"You would not have the sort of unrest that we've seen and so much anger in the community if Coca-Cola and other companies like that had not given millions of dollars to the Atlanta Police Foundation… to build this cop city that no one wants," Bibby said. 

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Law enforcement detained at least 35 demonstrators in Atlanta on Sunday for "coordinat[ing] attacks on construction equipment and police officers", according to a statement released by the Atlanta Police Department. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Lawyers Guild released a statement, contradicting the police's account of events, saying that an NLG legal observer was among one of the 35 arrested.

"An employee at the SPLC was arrested while acting — and identifying — as a legal observer on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). The employee is an experienced legal observer, and their arrest is not evidence of any crime, but of heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protesters," the statement said. 

A coalition of faith leaders in Atlanta has also joined the protest to stop the construction of Cop City. Clergy and religious leaders held a news conference on Monday before Atlanta City Hall to demand that the Weelaunee Forest be returned to the Muskogee people. 

"In this time, let us take this moment to remember the ancient ones who lived in this very area," said Muskogee Chief and Methodist Minister Mekko Chebon Kernel. "Let us be mindful of the love, respect and humbleness they had for all people and for this land that gives us water and food. As we become more mindful of these first Native American people, may we live in the same manner."

Additionally, several environmental organizations have also raised concerns about the police center impacting forest preservation efforts and wrote a letter to the city council in 2021 when they were originally considering the lease for this project.

"This particular forest is a wetland and riparian buffer for the South River, and destroying it would have severe implications for the health and vitality of the river," the letter said. 

Another group called Defend The Atlanta Forest has echoed similar sentiments, saying that Atlanta has "the highest percentage of tree canopy of any major metropolitan area in America" and that "[t]he forest in Southeast Atlanta is home to wetlands that filter rainwater and prevent flooding."

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said that the facilities will be built on a site that was cleared decades ago for a former state prison farm. He added that the tract is filled with rubble and overgrown with invasive species, not hardwood trees. While the facility will be built on an 85-acre site, about 300 other acres would be preserved as a public greenspace, Dickens said. 

But groups like Color of Change have emphasized that the South River is the fourth most endangered river in America. 

"The chemical runoff from weapons testing at the militarized police facility will further pollute the South River and the surrounding communities," according to COC's campaign statement. "Black Atlantans already bear the brunt of pollution in Georgia. 'Cop city' is yet another example of the state risking the health of Black communities."

On top of this, Color of Change is also worried about similar facilities like Cop City forming in other places across the country offering "playgrounds for cops" to experiment with military equipment.

"It will still all come at the opportunity cost of real investments in the community that could address crime," Bibby said.


Editor's note: This article has been updated to remove a mention of Truist Bank. The company has not provided funding for the Atlanta Police Foundation Training Center but its predecessor, SunTrust, donated $3 million to the Atlanta Police Foundation, which it said was used to fund financial education programs for at-risk youth and the construction of the Truist Andrew & Walter Young Family At-Promise Center in Southwest Atlanta. 

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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