Resistance mounts to Atlanta’s Cop City, but is the city government listening?
Law enforcement work at the construction site of Cop City.| John Spink / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

In the southeast corner of the city of Atlanta, one of Dekalb County’s majority Black neighborhoods is cradled by a peaceful forest. While the piece of land is officially titled South River Forest, a new name has emerged through struggle: Weelaunee Forest. The explanation can be found in the history of the land.

Weelaunee was the name given to the area by the Muscogee Creek people, its original occupiers. The Muscogee, like many other Indigenous peoples, were forced off their native land in the 1830s and sent to Oklahoma, marching along the Trail of Tears. Many remain there to this day.

History, as always, continued to move. After the forced removal of Muscogee by white settlers, slave owners turned the land into a plantation, and with the arrival of the Civil War, the land became a battleground. As the 19th century was eclipsed, the use and ownership of the land continued to change.

For much of the 20th century, it hosted a city-run prison farm. According to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a citizen-run research journal, “newspaper articles, letters from nurses, legislative and inspection records” tell a tale of “overcrowding, ‘slave conditions,’ lack of healthcare, and labor strikes.”

The prison farm shut down in 1990, but its closing did not bring an end to the abuse of the land and the people who live on it. Rather, it sowed the seeds for more violence still to come. Where oppression is planted, however, resistance will grow.

Just as the Muscogee fought to preserve their land and prisoners rebelled through strikes against unfair prison conditions, a new fruit of resistance blossomed in the fight to Stop Cop City.

With funds originating from companies such as The Home Depot, Chick-Fil-A, and Delta Airlines, the Atlanta Police Foundation plans to build a facility on an 85-acre wide piece of land. The facility, officially called the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center but known colloquially as “Cop City,” would include shooting ranges and a mock village complete with schools and residential homes.

While support from APF and the CEOs remains consistent, pushback has been equally consistent from the Atlanta community. Residential organizations and environmental groups alike have raised their voice over how the facility would only hurt the vibrant city of Atlanta, not help it.

In 2017, the Atlanta planning department dubbed Weelaunee Forest one of Atlanta’s four “lungs,”  a green space vital for the environmental health of the city and its residents. The destruction of the forest would have devastating impacts on the air quality of not only the surrounding neighborhood but of the whole city.

According to the U.S. Census, the majority Black neighborhoods surrounding the forest are already low income, with persistent health problems such as asthma common among residents.

Spokespeople for the South River Watershed Alliance, the organization that oversees environmental care of the river running through Weelaunee Forest, have made it clear that the destruction of the forest would worsen water quality, and the environmental impact would be irreversible.

With no possibility of mitigating the damage to the environment, Cop City poses a clear threat to the health of Atlanta residents. According to the South River Forest Coalition, no proper ecological surveys have even been completed to forecast the potential damage.

While the Earth may howl at the wound inflicted by ecological destruction, the people of Atlanta have raised their voices as well. Research shows that Atlanta residents constantly and adamantly deny support for the training facility, while simultaneously supporting efforts to sustain urban forestry in this Southern city.

A poll completed by Social Insights Research found that 98% of local residents oppose building the facility specifically in Weelaunee Forest, and 90% oppose a facility being built in Atlanta altogether.

Additionally, 84% of respondents directly support turning the old prison farm grounds into public park space. Not only does this idea of public park space find support amongst Atlanta residents, but a 2017 study carried out by researchers at the University of Georgia and the University of Tennessee showed that Atlanta residents collectively would support paying over a million dollars a year solely for the purpose of urban forest maintenance and preservation.

While the damage of Cop City to the environment and many surrounding residents remains only a possibility at the moment, with halts and delays in construction, there have already been victims among those protesting the training facility.

Noah Gringi holds a sign at a press conference for Manuel Esteban Paez Terán in Decatur, Ga., Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. | Arvin Temkar / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

On Jan. 18, 2023, police shot and killed a protester in the Weelaunee Forest named Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) claims that Tortuguita shot first, which led to dozens of shots being fired by police in reaction. Thirteen bullets hit Tortuguita. The family of the victim remains skeptical and has largely been left in the dark by the GBI, which has not responded to requests by the family for the exact details of the events leading up to Tortuguita’s death.

While Tortuguita, described as a committed environmentalist by their mother and father, is no longer among those who occupy the forest, the other “forest defenders” have taken their death as motivation to further the fight against Cop City, in whatever ways possible.

In an interview with The Bitter Southerner in December 2022, Tortuguita told David Peisner:

“The right kind of resistance is peaceful because that’s where we win; we’re not going to beat them at violence. They’re very, very good at violence. We’re not. We win through nonviolence. That’s really the only way we can win. We don’t want more people to die.”

Many forest defenders have taken these words to heart, and continue to fight in ways that honor their legacy.

The GBI has yet to conclude its investigation. While the APF continues its persistence in constructing the facility, resistance has only grown louder. With the number of trees fallen and lives lost only rising, the fight to Stop Cop City grows bigger every day.

The people of Atlanta have made their opinion on Cop City clear. Will the APF and Atlanta City Council listen?

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Erica Meade
Erica Meade

Erica Meade is an organizer with the Angelo Herndon Club in Atlanta, Georgia. She got her start in political organizing through mutual aid in D.C., her hometown, before becoming involved with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.