By JOHN JOSEPH
In Atlanta—considered by some to be the most heavily forested urban area in the country—developers, police, and politicians have united to clear cut nearly half of the largest remaining contiguous forest in the city, the Weelaunee Forest. The Atlanta Police Foundation, along with the mayor and city council, want to build a police training facility—including several blocks of a mock city for the practice of putting down urban rebellions—on the 330 acres of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. Meanwhile, Blackhall Studios is seeking to clear cut another 170 acres for the creation of a private airport and what would become the largest sound stage in the United States.
All of this is taking place in the vicinity of working-class Black neighborhoods, the kind of neighborhoods already terrorized by police across the United States and gobbled up by investors and developers, forcing working people out of their homes.
Thankfully, these efforts have not gone unopposed. An ever-growing network of old and new community, activist, and political organizations has taken up the demand to defend Atlanta’s Weelaunee Forest and STOP COP CITY! Through dedicated work in the community, attendance at public city council meetings, public letters, marches, civil disobedience, and now the partial occupation of the forest, this broad movement has fought every step of the way in all the manners available to them for over a year.
As part of this continued resistance, the week of May 8-14 has been declared a week of action, with community members and organizations invited to schedule events at the park and in the forest and to take part in active resistance.
A history of oppression
The land on which the proposed police facility would sit reveals the long history of oppression in the country. Originally land of the Muscogee (Creek) nation, it was stolen by the state of Georgia and eventually purchased by a white settler named George Key in the 1800s. Key and the settlers who were awarded similar lots in the area practiced slave-based plantation agriculture. The names of 35 enslaved persons who were held on this land were discovered by scholar Mark Auslander.
As if the land had not suffered enough horrors, in the early 20th century it was purchased by the city of Atlanta and served as a prison farm from 1920 to well into the 1960s. As the location for the re-enslavement of Black people, and beyond that for the horrific abuses of the prison system generally—including stories of mass solitary confinement and rampant abuse—the land is seen by many as almost having been sanctified by all the innocent blood that graced its soil. It is a site that encapsulates in its history the horrific oppression of Black and Indigenous peoples throughout American history. Following the closure of the prison farm, and having lain vacant for some decades, the area has also become home to rampant illegal dumping by local industry.
A community in struggle
The angry response of the community to this project—in particular, that of the Atlanta Police Foundation—has been overwhelming. Despite the fact that part of the attraction of building on the site for the city of Atlanta is that it is outside city limits, and they can therefore avoid most typical community approval processes, some extremely limited virtual meetings allowing community comment were held by the city council. Over 70% of comments from community members were in opposition to the plan.
Many in the community have been fighting for years through the South River Watershed Alliance. Despite this, the South River—which runs through the Weelaunee Forest—remains one of the most threatened rivers in the country, with industry and an unofficial police firing range contaminating the water for the Black communities downstream.
Not just adults are getting in on the struggle. Children from the community and from local pre-schools have been taking trips to the forest and playing in its parks; they have formed an active part of the opposition, even organizing their own children’s march to defend the forest and writing their own letters of protest to the mayor. These children have a lot to fight for too. Its not just their future, but their present put at risk by climate change and pollution. A 2012 CDC report found that children in Georgia were diagnosed with asthma at higher rates, and that Black children in particular were disproportionately diagnosed with asthma. It is, of course, no coincidence that working-class neighborhoods of color also suffer higher rates of air pollution.
Another community that has been heavily involved in this struggle is that of the Muscogee people. Mark Auslander, the scholar mentioned earlier, has played an important part along with Muscogee leaders, activists, and scholars. In November 2021, Creek ceremonialists performed a “stomp dance” in the forest as part of a process that Auslander calls “re-matriation” or “reconnecting to the ancestral homelands of the Muscogee people.” In an excellent article on his blog, Auslander describes a recent Muscogee summit that took place in the forest, and which was deeply connected to and involved with the ongoing struggle over the future of this land. The connection between Indigenous and environmental struggles is one that we see often; however, Auslander also discusses questions of racial justice within the Muscogee Nation and reckons with the history of chattel slavery practiced by the Muscogee prior to their removal from the land.
The struggle brings together many varied struggles, and perhaps this is why such a vast and varied number of groups are involved in their own ways and have found in this fight something to stand for. A local activist described the struggle for the forest as a bridge between the urban-centered rebellions against police terrorism, the often-rural struggles against clear-cutting and deforestation, and the often-marginalized struggles against Indigenous oppression. This almost one-of-a-kind urban forest finds itself the site of a struggle whose contours cannot help but spur systematic critiques. As its history lays bare the sordid history of capitalism and policing in America, its present situation is exemplary of the connections between racism, the police, capital, and environmental destruction.
So what next?
On May 8, at 4 p.m., the week of action will begin with a community cook-out. Attendees can get a physical copy of the calendar for the week of action and meet and talk with activists and organizations involved in the struggle. You can also find a digital calendar at defendtheatlantaforest.com. If you’re reading this somewhere besides Atlanta, you can take part in spreading the message via social media by using the hashtags #StopCopCity and #StopBrasfieldGorrie in messages calling on Brasfield & Gorrie to drop the Atlanta Police Foundation contract and refuse to build Cop City. You can also call their offices and do the same. Activists are also providing convenient images for you to post to your social media, which we are providing below.
The most important thing you can do, however, is to join the fight against capitalism wherever you are. This monster is international and these struggles and lessons cross all borders. For the victory of the international working-class in the struggle against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and environmental destruction!