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Preserved Forests, Police Forces, and Protest Fires: “Stop Cop City” Highlights Everything That Has Gone Wrong In The City of Atlanta

by Joey Manasso


   he first thing I saw when I woke up on Monday, the fifteenth day of

January, was a series of messages on my phone from my family. A flurry

of gossip erupted in our text chat, with a vaguely familiar face in the l

ocal news anchoring the hubbub. Oh, I know that guy, I think to myself.

His name’s Boo. 
    It’s a mugshot? What? Arrested in a riot? Police car set aflame? 
    It’s gonna be a long day. 
    True to form, it was a long day, and it was only the beginning of a

long week of anxiety. The guy’s face was stuck in my head now. I went to afterschool with him in third grade. It’s always weird to hear that someone you know was involved in something messy. But more than that, it got me thinking about why he was in the news, protesting the expansion of Cop City. 
    Maybe you’ve heard the name Cop City before, or seen it on pamphlets nailed to telephone poles on North Avenue. Another possibility is that you haven’t, which wouldn’t be so surprising. The City of Atlanta of course doesn’t call it by that name, and until recently they generally tried to keep it quiet.
    The new Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, as it is called, is set to be built on the site of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm in Dekalb County, within spitting distance of where I grew up; A tributary of the South River that runs by the farm ends across from my best friend’s house. The Atlanta Police Foundation, a public-private organization dedicated to promoting the Atlanta Police Department, proudly proclaims on their website that the new facility will provide Atlanta police with things such a shooting range, an outdoor amphitheater and track, and a mockup of a real city block for live training exercises. 
     It’s impossible to say what part of the project is most controversial. A small but dedicated movement to resist the building of the training center called Stop Cop City has been active since it was announced, and has kicked into full throttle over the last year in opposition to the wealthy corporate interests and billionaire investors making the project possible. Their objections paint a picture of a perfect storm of neglectful behavior and ugly history on the part of the city of Atlanta, and concern that city government doesn’t care about the environmental or social impact of the training center. 
     To give a few examples:

  • The facility is being built on one of the largest remaining forests in the city of Atlanta, a city which prides itself on its flourishing greenspaces compared to other urban areas

  • The area was, as stated, a prison farm, one with a long record of poor treatment and living conditions for the inmates who received no pay for the work they did there     

  • Removing the forests leaves East Atlanta without a valuable buffer against topsoil loss and flooding, and

  • Placing a police facility there burdens the large black population of South Dekalb County with overwhelming police presence in a city that still has not meaningfully responded to police racism, brutality, and misconduct (as exemplified by the headlines-making murder of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta law enforcement in 2020).

     Despite this, the city government has plowed past any resistance to the building of the facility to ensure that construction proceeds swiftly. The city council voted 10-4 to approve the plan after hours of hearing arguments from a virtual community forum where 70% of people were reported by CNN to have spoken against the facility. The remaining 30% was largely police advocates, government associates, and people who did not live in the area. Among the council members approving the plan to dig up the forest and plant the police training center in its place was mayor Andre Dickens. I saw him on Earth Day last year at a climate rally just outside the Georgia capitol building. He gave a rousing speech about how protecting the environment and vulnerable Atlanta communities were high on his list of priorities. 
    Building the facility will take ninety million dollars. This money comes in part from corporate interests, like Delta Airlines and Bank of America. Cox Enterprises, a major donor towards the project, also owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, helping spin the public eye away from the facility’s construction and controversy. And yet, despite the general public’s resistance and disinterest, these money sinks won’t front the whole thing. Taxpayers are expected to put out thirty million dollars to fund the so-called Cop City. 
     A third of Atlanta’s budget last year is reported to have gone towards law enforcement, and with the Atlanta Public Safety Center that number will only go up. Meanwhile, other city services suffer from neglect. Fulton County Animal Shelter has been running over capacity since last fall, water pipes across Metro Atlanta burst in a cold snap in December, promises to build affordable homes along the Beltline have been left by the wayside, and MARTA expansions stagnate while other Southern cities build vast public transit networks. And while all this is happening, money is being funnelled into law enforcement so the Atlanta Police Foundation can build a GTA simulator on some of the city’s last unspoiled woodland. 
     Over the last year, the Stop Cop City movement to oppose the facility has kicked into high gear. As an alternative to building the facility, they suggest that the space should be preserved as a park. Compared to better-off areas like Midtown, where Piedmont Park has been set aside since the 1880s, East Atlanta is in short supply of public spaces. More importantly, preserving the Old Prison Farm as a historical site would serve as a monument to Atlanta’s history, how far it’s come, and what m
ore needs to be done. 

















A sit-in is a protest where you plant yourself in a place you may be legally barred from to make a point. They were famously used during the Civil Rights movement to protest race-based segregation. Union protests use picket lines the same way – show up to the job, take up the space, and then refuse to work until the employer comes to the table to talk. The Stop Cop City protestors use the same line of thinking, and apply it to the woodlands. They do a sit-in, except where they sit is at the top of a tree. 
     Just like with sit-ins, just like with picket lines, the police hate it. 
     The Atlanta Police Department has made two raids into the forest, one in December and one in January. In the January raid they surrounded and killed a protester in their tent. Their name was Manuel Teran, a nonbinary forest defender from Venezuela. Their friends called them Tortuguita, “little turtle”. 
     Teran’s murder provoked further outrage. Vigils were held across the country in their memory, and on January 21st, a crowd emerged from midtown Atlanta to vandalize the buildings of the training facility’s backers and burn a police car. Six people were arrested. City officials were quick to make sure everyone knew that the culprits were from out of the state. Outside agitators. Except they had to go back and change that, because there was someone from Georgia in the group they arrested. Graham Evatt of Decatur, Georgia. I went to afterschool with him when I was eight. Boo. 
     Since then, Brian Kemp, genius governor that he is, has called in the National Guard to the city to protect the Old Prison Farm area. To make sure everyone gets the point, he declared a state of emergency until February 9th to go with. I found this out leaving the dining hall on a Thursday night. The lady at the desk had gotten up to check the news and was telling the other staff all about it. A state of emergency? A state of emergency about what? Until now, news around the training facility had been kept hush-hush. Not anymore. 
     There’s no question that things are getting extreme. The December raid on the Prison Farm protestors found explosives in their camp, the GBI reports that Tortuguita Teran fired back in self-defense and injured an officer before they were killed, and I’ve already mentioned the burning cop car. In a statement released after the January 21st protest, Stop Cop City said that “Destruction of material is fundamentally different from the violence that led to extinguishing someone’s light.” 
     The protestors’ tactics are noisy and disruptive. They attract attention, which is what the Stop Cop City movement wants. Compare this to the favorite tactic of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center’s backers  – silence. Pass a proposal for a police facility nobody wants as quickly as possible to avoid scrutiny. Keep it on the down-low in the AJC, and when it does come up make sure the controversy is never mentioned, only the police response. Bring in the National Guard to shut down dissent when things get ugly. Keep your cameras away, and your hands behind your head. 

     I’ve heard a lot of commentary these last few days from people I know along the lines that while peaceful protest and discourse has its place in being a good citizen, the kind of vandalism and destruction the Stop Cop City protesters put on goes too far. But what the Cop City protestors ask is, what’s the good in protest if it’s orderly? 
     People in France recently took to the streets all across the country, rallying at the homes of their politicians to protest a proposed raise in the age of retirement. This was not done in orderly fashion. There was no applying for a protest permit, there was no government approval first. The ‘civil’ in ‘civil disobedience’ doesn’t mean it’s polite, it means that it’s people doing it, people who care about what’s going on in their society. People who won’t obey just because a politician said to. 
     There’s nothing I like about a riot. People get hurt. It shows that all other avenues of expression have failed. But why has it come this far? How are things supposed to change if our politicians refuse to acknowledge the reality of our society? What good is a protest if it becomes institutionalized? What are Americans supposed to do when our elected officials ignore our complaints? 


Photos from the Georgia Tech "Stop Cop City" Protest

photos by Faye Holt and Bailey Williams

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