By ERWIN FREED
On Dec. 13 and 14, Atlanta and Dekalb County police, alongside the Department of Homeland Security through the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, conducted two violent raids on the ongoing occupations in South River Atlanta (Weelaunee) forest. Twelve people were arrested in the raids. On the first day, five activists were targeted with tear gas and pepper balls before being charged with “criminal trespass” and, chillingly, “domestic terrorism.” A sixth person was arrested as punishment for recording Atlanta Police officers, a constitutionally protected act.
According to the Saporta Report, police have ”been unable to provide any incident reports or other documents showing exactly what the arrestees [charged with domestic terrorism] are accused of doing.”
John Ruch, writing for the Saporta Report, details how “the [Dekalb County Police Department] raid on neighboring property the following day… was triggered by someone, around the time of the training center raid, setting off fireworks at a County fire station. [APD Assistant Police Chief Carven Tyus] said six people were “locked up” in that DKPD raid. He did not state the charges against those arrestees and could not identify any of them.”
All arrestees are part of broad community efforts, known generally as “Stop Cop City” or “Defend Atlanta Forest,” to stop the development of a $90 million police training facility and the privatization of important public lands, and in support of rematriating the Forest to Muscogee peoples.
Workers’ Voice has previously written that “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 [as well as a proposed massive multi-media studio]. … 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.”
The training center and other developments entail destruction of urban forest, which leads to higher temperatures and worse air quality in the surrounding area—a textbook example of environmental racism. They would similarly have a highly negative effect on the health of the rest of the forest, one of the few like it in the country. The police training facility, Cop City, would be home to a gun range—which the area is already used for, to the chagrin of residents in the surrounding neighborhood—as well as night drills.
There are also national ramifications, as the proposed police-training facility will be used by police departments all over the country to further practice strategies and tactics of urban warfare, targeting largely Black and Brown communities. Activists opposing the project say that Cop City could not only be a national training center, but also a model for replicas all over the United States.
The movement in Atlanta has taken a multi-pronged strategy of regular community mobilizations and events alongside an ongoing occupation of the forest along the planned route of the development. Police have aggressively attacked both sides of the movement, which has broad support within the city.
The state and its allies in local media have been attempting to write-off the opposition to Cop City, and the movement of Forest Defenders generally, as a group of disconnected outsiders and provocateurs, and as alleged members of “Antifa.” In actuality, opposition to Cop City and further destruction of Weelaunee Forest has deep support by working and oppressed people and all who have a mind towards the needs of the many in Atlanta. Community and environmental groups have been consistently vocal in opposition to the Cop City project. Going back to August 2021, 15 Georgian and Atlanta-based environmental groups signed an open letter by the Georgia chapter of Sierra Club opposing the allowing the Police Foundation to lease land in the forest. In June 2022, 64 environmental groups, community groups, and local businesses signed a similar letter.
Every opportunity for public comment on the project has led to massive outcries through the “official” channels against Cop City, including over 11 hours of testimony at one of the few City Council meetings where discussion was possible, demonstrations and mass organizing meetings to collectively discuss the situation and plan common actions, and press statements signed by dozens of organizations and local individual supporters. Since the arrests, there have been multiple solidarity events, including a march of over 150 East Atlanta community members and a planned potluck for Dec. 21. Activists aligned with the Stop Cop City Movement have knocked on thousands of doors in the neighborhoods surrounding the planned facility and found virtually unanimous opposition to the project.
On the other side, the Atlanta Police Foundation did no community outreach prior to making the proposal to city council and maintains a stranglehold on the “Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee” it set up to allow for community “engagement” and “transparency. Egged on by threats of secession by prominent residents of Buckhead—the richest and whitest neighborhood in Atlanta—the CSAC has silenced its own members with a ban on talking to the press as well as pushing out non-compliant committee members like Lily Ponitz, who expressed criticism of the project.
On Dec. 21, Atlanta Community Press Collective reported the destruction of parts of the park where Shadowbox (formerly Blackhall) Studios plans to construct a massive media production complex. The destroyed structures include a gazebo and bike path that are used everyday by local park goers. This is a repetition of events in July when CEO Ryan Millsap accompanied an excavator and its operator to tear up the park. This is in the face of an ongoing lawsuit over the legality of the original land swap deal. Until the lawsuit is resolved, Shadowbox has no legal right to deface any part of the Weelaunee Forest.
Major escalation, not an isolated incident
The state is trying to use this moment to scare Forest Defenders and the community at large with a major escalation of the legal stakes. The charge of “domestic terrorism” carries with it a five to 20-year sentence as well as legitimating claims that climate activists are “terrorists.” According to the arrest warrants of the five, published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), the state is holding them without bond—meaning they are unable to leave jail. It should be noted that the AJC’s editorial board is openly hostile to the Stop Cop City movement, and the paper’s corporate CEO is leading efforts to raise private funding for Cop City. In October, the paper published an opinion piece from the board stating that “out-of-control protesters must be stopped.” Activists wrote a response, giving many examples of community support for the movement, which was signed by dozens of Atlanta residents and organizations in the city and around the country.
The U.S. ruling class has been doubling down on anti-protest legislation at the federal and state levels since the mass uprisings sparked by the Ferguson and Standing Rock protests. That trend accelerated further during and after the Justice for George Floyd movement in 2020. After giving nominal concessions in various areas and showing rhetorical support for racial justice, a bipartisan shift towards “law and order” has been sweeping the country. We have previously shown local variants of these attacks, including by Democrat controlled cities and states, for example in Albany, N.Y. and Stamford, Conn.
There is an ongoing crackdown against protest rights as U.S. capitalism proves itself increasingly incapable of providing basic economic and political stability for the vast majority of working people. In the face of historic inflation, ongoing pandemic, and ecological catastrophe, the response of big capitalists is to increase tensions with all other countries, attack the living standards of workers, expand policing and fossil fuel production, and drive up unemployment.
In these conditions, left-wing and progressive groups are more and more finding themselves having to fight for basic democratic rights. In July, Workers’ Voice reported on the raids on African Peoples’ Socialist Party, People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, and African People’s Solidarity Committee offices—as well as other groups and individuals—by federal officers. Those were for ostensibly having connections with people who had connections with the Russian state, a chilling logic for defenders of civil rights.
Capitalist state swings against the left
There is a real threat of growing right-wing militancy, which has in its sights oppressed peoples and the basic conditions of the working class. The U.S. government is very aware of this threat, and uses it to whip up liberal hysteria, get new anti-protest laws on the books, and generally roll back formal civil liberties.
As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, the “domestic terrorism” laws in Georgia were “adopted in 2017 following the massacre of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C.” Further, according to the article, charging people with domestic terrorism is rare in the state. The law “essentially defines the offense [of domestic terrorism] as the commission of any felony meant to “intimidate the civilian population” or “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government.”
The reason for using the charge in the warrants is “participating in actions as part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists. … The accused confirmed their cooperation with DTAF by occupying a tree house on the site, refusing to leave, and posting videos and calls for actions on social media sites used by DTAF.” However, Defend the Atlanta Forest is not a group but rather a social media page and website that aggregates information about the efforts to Stop Cop City.
In June 2021, under the guise of combating anti-democratic and proto-fascist rightists, the Biden administration released its National Strategy for Combatting Domestic Terrorism document, which specifically mentions environmental and anti-capitalist activists as targets for surveillance, disruption, and repression.
The role of liberal and “progressive” politicians—including the self-described “socialists”—in the Democratic Party is to give a left cover and justification for the needs of big capitalists. In periods of relatively normal functioning, this means maintaining the stability of the system of exploitation. When the social antagonisms inherent in capitalist production become apparent through mobilizations of the working class and oppressed, the “left” Democrats speak to the need for some type of improved social policies to placate the upsurge. At the same time, they often become the most outspoken for using the state to quell social unrest, often using the justification of the need to fight right-wing extremists.
One prominent recent example was Congresswoman Cori Bush leading the charge to pass House Resolution 350, proposed legislation that would create new “domestic terrorism” units in the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ironically, Rep. Bush has also been a rhetorical supporter of “defunding the police.”
Far-right, including fascist and proto-fascist forces, serve a distinct objective for capital in carrying out extra-legal discipline to keep working people in line. The expanded repressive capacity of the state is always used primarily against the left, regardless of the initial justification. A useful illustration is the FBI’s protection of KKK members involved with the Birmingham Church bombing against the active disruption and assassination of Black liberation organizations and activists in the 1960s and ’70s. For a number of historical examples in the United States on this process in general, see the 2021 article on the Socialist Resurgence website: U.S. capitalism on the move against civil liberties.
History repeats itself
The expansion of capitalist repression in the United States during times of increasing social movement activity is a process whose regularity matches that of the laws of nature. During virtually every important upsurge of the class struggle in U.S. history, the state and their far-right enforcers have used jails, saboteurs, police informants, and legal and extralegal violence to attempt to silence dissent.
Knowing this, we have a responsibility to look at the successful methods of organizing that have turned back the tide of repression. That is, to build a truly broad, mass movement capable of winning the support of civil liberty, community, and labor organizations not only in people’s minds and hearts but also in the streets and workplaces. That also means creating open, democratic, and transparent movement cultures that allow for broad discussions and disciplined collective action based on the real balance of forces facing the movement.
If the state is successful in its criminalization of Atlanta Forest Defenders, then it will be increasingly emboldened to attack other left-wing and progressive organizations and actions, including in strike breaking.
Workers, activists, and everyone with a basic understanding of the importance of free speech and the right to organize have an obligation to take up the defense of the forest defenders and for all charges to be dropped. The threat of progressive activists and organizations being labeled “terrorist” is a very real escalation that has bipartisan support from both of the ruling-class parties.
Activists all around the country must begin to coordinate with the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta to develop the capacity to quickly mobilize the largest demonstrations possible with truly representative organizational support both locally and, when necessary, to bring hundreds and thousands of people to Atlanta. The best example of this type of network forming is the solidarity efforts with the Standing Rock Sioux encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline. At its height, there were around 10,000 people, largely from Indigenous communities, at the pipeline construction sites. These efforts were buttressed with organizations in solidarity all around the country, which carried out hundreds of mass mobilizations at prominent sites—e.g., banks that were investing in pipeline construction—in many cities and towns. The mass, public, and often nationally coordinated support for the NoDAPL movement created the conditions in which National Nurses United, Communication Workers of America, and other major trade-union, community, and even veteran organizations were able to openly and actively support the encampments.
To support the Atlanta arrestees, organizers are asking:
- Donate to help with bail costs with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund
- Call the Dekalb Sheriff’s Office to demand access to water and other essentials: 404-298-8111
- Solidarity actions against repression as well as to uplift the fight against Stop Cop City. Information on the location of facilities involved with Cop City construction can be found at StopReevesYoung.Org
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution