Building a mass movement to Stop Cop City


The struggle against Cop City in Atlanta has become a flashpoint of front-line mobilization against the carceral state and a testing ground for state repression. Three years after millions of people went into the streets with demands for defunding the police, the ruling class and the Biden administration are expanding and intensifying policing. Cop Cities represent a new stage of militarized policing. They are facilities meant to simulate actual conditions of urban warfare to train as many cops as possible in these tactics. They are being proposed and constructed all around the country; a similar facility just went online in Chicago and others are in formation in Nevada and New Jersey.

The movement to Stop Cop City is the most prominent continuation of the George Floyd uprisings at a national level. Police have charged 42 people on trumped up and baseless “domestic terrorism” charges and murdered an activist, Manny “Tortuguita” Paez-Teran, in cold blood. An earlier version of this article was published one day after bail fund and community organizers were arrested in a SWAT raid on bogus “charity fraud” and “money laundering” charges. Workers’ Voice covered those developments and the implications they can have for organizers everywhere in the United States.

The success or failure of Stop Cop City will have a major effect on all struggles against the many manifestations of capitalist oppression, destruction, and exploitation. The corporations and their political representatives, the Democratic and Republican parties, have been fighting for more cops, more pipelines, more theft of Indigenous land, and more poverty and precarity. They are fighting for a worse world. They are fighting for Cop Cities. A victory of the movement in Atlanta will be a blow to capital and give strength to all social and labor movements.

Cop City and Weelaunee Forest

Cop City is the name given by the movement to a planned militarized police-training facility that would be built on the ashes of over 85 acres of Weelaunee Forest—the traditional Mvskogee name for the South River Forest. Weelaunee roughly translates to “green/brown/yellow” water.” Alongside the police-training facility is the planned construction of Shadowbox Studios’ huge Hollywood sound studio, which we expect will use its proximity to the militarized training facility to produce propaganda for the U.S. military and, of course, destroy even more of the forest. The Weelaunee Forest is one of the largest urban forests in the country. It runs through large parts of Atlanta, providing tree cover; one of Atlanta’s nicknames is “City in the Forest.” On its own terms, it is a very beautiful space. There are the constant sounds of wildlife and many areas for community recreation; there are always people going on walks, hanging out, and spending time together.

Urban forests are essential to healthy communities. They help reduce the urban heat island effect, which is getting worse as the world’s temperature continues to rise; they help with air pollution and they provide a sense of connection. The location of Cop City is not an accident. They chose the area known as the Old Prison Farm, which is a former plantation turned-forced labor camp, stolen from the Mvskogee in the decade before the Trail of Tears. The Old Prison Farm is an area of great pain. It is also an area that should be the home of reforestation, of rematriation (Land Back), of healing. Instead, the cops, the state, and the capitalists are trying to turn it into Cop City.

The openly racist and anti-working-class reality of Cop City is better understood when we realize that it is supposed to be constructed right in the middle of poor and working-class Black neighborhoods. Gresham Park, one of the communities in unincorporated DeKalb County that borders the facility, for example, is 76.5% Black. The government has turned the South River watershed in DeKalb County, one of the highest proportion Black counties in the country, into a zone where environmental regulations do not apply.

The conservation group South River Watershed Alliance, which opposed the original land-swap deal that allows for Cop City and Shadowbox Studio’s construction, has pointed out that the county effectively does not have to abide by EPA regulations. The environmental attacks by the state on predominantly Black communities in South Atlanta is connected to political disenfranchisement. A big aspect of this situation that is not well known is that the city of Atlanta did not have jurisdiction over the land it is supposed to be built on until it made a complicated land-swap agreement with DeKalb County. The neighborhoods closest to the proposed facilities are in “unincorporated DeKalb County,” which means that despite being in metro Atlanta they are not technically Atlanta residents and cannot vote in Atlanta elections for mayor and city council. Those are the people who made the decisions to build Cop City. Cop City is an emblematic example of the intersection between environmental racism, corporate power, Jim Crow-type disenfranchisement, and militarized policing.

Capitalists bypass democracy

Cop City was first imagined in 2017 in backroom negotiations between Atlanta City Council members and people involved with the Atlanta Police Foundation. The Atlanta Police Foundation is a shadowy organization whose funding and leadership come from Atlanta-based and national corporations like Home Depot, Delta, and many others. Connected with the APF also are multiple news agencies, most notoriously Cox Enterprises, which is directly funding Cop City and which owns the Atlanta Journal Constitution. That has a big impact on how the narrative around Cop City and the struggle against it are determined in so-called mainstream news.

The Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) is the second largest police foundation in the country, but it is by no means an outlier. Cooperation between corporations and the cops are a reality everywhere in the United States. Police function to protect and defend large-property owners and businesses, large-property owners and businesses cultivate special and privileged relationships with the police. Well known examples include Target’s partnership with cops to carry out public-private surveillance in Minneapolis, Enbridge’s privately funding police to “protect” Line 3, and in Atlanta itself, where the APF teamed with the APD to create “Operation Shield.” On the APF’s website, they describe Operation Shield as “Atlanta Police Foundation’s core smart policing initiative. The program has installed a canopy of some 3000 cameras across every zone of the City, each designed to be networked in real time to the Atlanta Police Department’s Video Integration Center.”

The APF has effectively turned policing in Atlanta into a “public-private partnership.” During the protests in 2020, the APF gave every Atlanta cop a $500 bonus and purchased at least 20 new police cars for the department. The foundation, which is the lessee of the Old Prison Farm, is building five houses for the police in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. Almost 90% of Pittsburgh residents are Black, and the neighborhood is facing rapid gentrification. While most Atlantans are struggling to find homes, the APF is providing hundreds of free or reduced-cost apartments around the city, with the intention of getting more police on patrol and in community organizations. “Community” policing is a false start. More cops always lead to more arrests and police violence. Activists with the Black liberation organization Community Movement Builders are fighting against the construction under the slogan “No Cop Housing.”

In recent weeks, journalists with the Atlanta Community Press Collective uncovered and exposed additional lies around the funding and construction of Cop City. The meat of the new information is that instead of the much publicized figure of $31.5 million, the actual cost to the city could be anywhere between $51 million to over $80 million. Also included in the ACPC’s important reporting are massive cuts to the non-policing aspects of Cop City. A draft budget for the project that the Press Collective obtained shows that public park improvement, a new E911 operations center, and fire training were moved to a “second phase” of funding, while a proposed urban farm was “not recommended” by the financial committee. These are important developments because Mayor Dickens and other Cop City supporters have been emphasizing that the funding would include forest improvement and non-police first responder training as central to the project.

Lastly, the ACPC article shows the closeness between city council members and the APF. Multiple city councilors are actively meeting with APF representatives in closed-door meetings while District 9 city council member Dustin Hillis, who introduced the funding ordinance, attended a May 20 APF fundraiser where his wife donated $2150 to the foundation.

Cooperation between big corporations and the police have very material reasons. The cops protect capital investment and property rights. This includes speculation in land and housing, as well as construction of destructive industries like fossil-fuel production. Cop City has two immediate causes. First, Atlanta has one of the fastest rates of gentrification in the country. Walking through one of the city’s historically working-class Black neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, you see the huge new housing complexes being constructed that are pushing out current residents. That is a lot of investment that capital wants to protect. Second, and connected, is the fact that the elites want to turn the city into a playscape for the wealthy. That includes everything from being the “Hollywood of the South,” to the “Tech Mecca of the Southeast,” to the host of major events like the Olympics and the Democratic National Convention.

Atlanta Magazine gives a description of some of these trends in economic terms. Describing the price trajectory of a house on South Eugenia Place, a street in the almost entirely Black Grove Park neighborhood, the magazine states how the property “sold for just under $30,000 in 2008 and then for $49,000 in 2018. [In mid 2022], the house made its way back on the market for $339,000—a 593 percent appreciation in three years. … Some community members attribute these skyrocketing prices to Microsoft, Quarry Yards, Echo Street, Westside Park, and other major developments that have come or will open in the area soon.”

Black homeownership in metro Atlanta recently increased a few percentage points this year, but it is still well below the pre-2008 rates, as housing prices and rents have been on the rise with increasing speculation by large corporations. Atlanta ranks in the bottom fifth of major U.S. cities for Black homeownership relative to Black population, which means that the increase in property values is largely not being realized by Black residents.

A 2022 article titled ‘Investor Purchases of Rental Housing and Gentrification in Atlanta’ on the Housing Policy Blog asks the question, “Are investor purchases of rental properties linked to evictions, gentrification, and the displacement of Black residents?” The answer it finds is: “A new analysis of rental investment activity in metro Atlanta… reveals exactly this. Over a 6-year period, neighborhoods in Atlanta where investors purchased apartment buildings saw a 33% increase in the likelihood of an eviction spike.” Beyond pure eviction statistics, the numbers give a picture of gentrification’s racial dimensions: “Over a 6-year period, these neighborhoods lost 166 Black residents, and gained 109 White residents, compared to adjacent neighborhoods without such purchases. … While Atlanta has been a majority Black city since the civil rights era, from 2000 to 2010 there was an 11.3% decline in the Black population while the White population increased by 16.5%. … In the 2010s, large increases in renter cost burdens and a 16% decrease in the number of affordable rentals in the Atlanta region increased the departure of low income residents, many of them Black.”

In sum, capitalist landlords are pricing out working-class Black residents and using the police to enforce racialized evictions.

The other major factor behind Cop Cities is a desire by elites to maintain a stranglehold on dissent. The urgency for new militarized police training facilities tracks with the state responses to the Ferguson Uprisings in 2014, Standing Rock Movement in 2016, and especially the George Floyd protests in 2020. Just like in the 1960s, when police, white supremacists, and the military collaborated in constructing Riotsvilles – the state today is developing Cop Cities to practice “counter-insurgency” tactics in preparation for the next mass movement. “Counter-insurgency” is the term used by the police to describe what is in actuality state repression. They use this in the context of fighting against mobilizations of the working class and oppressed, despite the fact that mass protests are not armed insurgencies. In January of this year, the $170 million “Cop Academy” opened in Chicago. Cop City Atlanta would include a full city block, helicopter landing pads, gun ranges, and explosion testing facilities, at some points within 250 feet of residential housing.

While the plans for Cop City were formulated as far back as 2017, it was kept hidden from the public until 2021. The facility is expected to cost at least $90 million, with $60 million coming from the APF and an additional $30 million from Atlanta taxpayers. Recently, the APF said it has not been able to raise all of the funds, and the city now faces a vote to approve an additional $3 million for the project. The vote on additional funds is an opportunity for the movement to force city officials to end the project.

When it was announced, community members immediately began organizing against its construction. In the lead-up to the city council vote on whether or not to allow the project to move forward, residents of the nearest communities held a number of street demonstrations, mass meetings, canvassing, potluck dinners, and other events to help build awareness about and oppose the training facility. At that city council meeting, a large majority of Atlantans opposed Cop City. In the public commentary, 70% of residents were opposed, and the 30% in favor were connected to Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the police department, or wealthy sections of the city that are threatening secession if the city does not give more money to policing.

When the city council vote passed and the Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens gave his full support to Cop City, forest defenders began occupying Weelaunee, creating communities of struggle to directly oppose construction. At the same time, residents have always continued fighting against Cop City through all available channels, including mass meetings, youth-led street protests, community events and more. Opposition to Cop City is deeply felt and fierce.

Repression of the movement, and responses

As the movement continued, the state became increasingly violent in their attacks. Raids on the forest encampments got more intense as 2022 came to a close. In December, using a barrage of chemical weapons and rubber bullets, police arrested forest defenders and began charging them with domestic terrorism.

On Jan. 18 of this year, police murdered Manny Paez-Teran, known in the movement as Tortuguita. Since then, cops have tried to paint a narrative that they were acting in self-defense, but the reality is that they were the aggressors—storming into a peaceful encampment for no reason other than to save the mayor’s reputation in the face of worried investors. The cops have released little and self-contradictory information about Tort’s murder, but an independent autopsy by Tort’s family indicates that they were killed while sitting cross-legged with their hands up. The Georgia Medical Examiner’s report indicates there was no gunpowder on Tort’s hands during the autopsy, which directly contradicts the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s claim that there was residue. Officers responsible for Tort’s death have been named, and the movement is demanding justice for Tortuguita and an independent investigation into their death. Three activists exercising their democratic rights to share flyers publicizing some of the facts around Tort’s murder are now facing felony charges.

After Tort’s murder and trying to head off potential protests around the death of Tyre Nichols, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a “state of emergency” at the end of January, effectively creating a situation of martial law and giving himself the ability to mobilize the national guard against activists at a moment’s notice. Despite this threat, students from Atlanta University Center—a consortium of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)—protested in the street against Cop City.

Since Tort was killed, solidarity protests and other events have happened all around the country. The movement gained a new sense of urgency and popular support. Two weeks of action were called, one nationwide, the other to bring supporters to Atlanta. People protested (and continue to protest) at APF’s backers and Cop City’s corporate sponsors. During the second week of action, a number of events to build support and connection throughout the city were organized, but the cops had different plans.

During the weekend of March 4 and 5, Stop Cop City supporters and broader community members attended a music festival to benefit the movement in Intrenchment Creek Park, renamed by the movement as Weelaunee People’s Park. On the second day of the music festival, cops descended on and terrorized the gathering. They used a few acts of alleged property destruction at the Cop City construction site as a pretext. In reality, the construction site incident and the music festival were unrelated prior to the police’s attack on the festival. The vast majority of people at the music festival had no idea why there was suddenly a swarm of officers from multiple police departments pulling guns and threatening to murder them. Around three dozen people were detained, completely arbitrarily. Eyewitness reports indicate that residents of Atlanta and nearby communities were immediately let go, but 23 people were charged with domestic terrorism for being in a public park. The evidence against them in general is that they were wearing black, camo, and/or muddied clothing. This is the state’s “proof” of a criminal terrorist conspiracy! In reality, it is unhinged and unconstitutional collective punishment.

Georgia’s state domestic terrorism law was put in place as a response to the racist mass shooting by Dylann Roof in South Carolina. The pretense for the law was to fight racist violence, but in actuality it is being used to target and repress anti-racist activists. Further, we have to understand that anti-protest laws are being introduced to silence and repress activists at all levels of government. The state is defending the interests of the big polluters, the prison industrial complex, and the weapons manufacturers. State governments have introduced many so-called “critical infrastructure” bills that allow for special charges against anti-pipeline activists.

On the federal level, the government used the Jan. 6 riots as a justification for new laws and procedures to fight “domestic violent extremists.” While the Democrats pat themselves on the back for fighting Trumpism, the laws and actions themselves are blatantly directed at the left. To give one very concrete example, environmental justice, Black liberation activists, and socialists/anarchists are specifically named as likely domestic violent extremists in Biden’s 2021 National Security Strategy report—all to justify increased surveillance and policing to protect the current system.

At this point, most forest defenders and Solidarity Fund organizers are out of jail on bond. However, this does not include Victor Puertas. Puertas is an Indigenous Peruvian activist who has participated in important front-line struggles around the United States for a number of years. He was released from Dekalb County Jail, where he was held for 90 days despite not being indicted for any crimes—only to be immediately detained by ICE on June 8. Puertas is currently detained at Stewart Detention Center. Nine people have died in the facility since 2017, and human rights organizations have pointed to many violations of basic hygiene, medical attention, and service access at the facility, as well as sexual abuse allegations and cover-ups. Detainees at Stewart suffer a 98.5% deportation rate, the highest in the country.

So what next for the movement?

If Cop City is built, it will mean that police from around the country, and probably internationally, will use the facility to train in extreme anti-community and anti-protest tactics. Every person interested in defending civil liberties, fighting back against police power, protecting ecosystems, and building a better world can be involved in this fight.

There are Stop Cop City actions in and around Atlanta and all over the United States multiple times a week. These include some large and militant campus demonstrations at universities and colleges around Atlanta, a series of actions to allow a UNC law student facing DT charges to attend classes which mobilized hundreds; a coalition-organized teach-in last weekend in Greensboro, NC; and many, many more. These are especially significant because activists understand that the state is taking a special interest in surveilling this movement around the country, and students in Atlanta in particular are facing threats from their schools for being involved in organizing.

One weakness of the movement so far has been an adherence to the principle of “diversity of tactics” and, in general, diffusing organizing work into small, effectively independent groups rather than the formation of a unified mass movement. There have been incredible examples of people and community members initiating protests, educational events, and meetings all over the country. At the same time, they remain largely isolated from one another, without a collective, democratic, and transparent body to bring new people into the movement to take responsibility for its politics and character.

While supporters of “diversity of tactics” as a principle claim that this method is what gives the movement its “vitality” and allows for continuous mobilization, the reality is that this approach has isolated the movement from other social forces and left it internally atomized. There is currently no clear direction for how to fight against Cop City on a national level in a way that can mobilize the thousands of people needed to win against the state. This provides a basis for a number of concerns, from basic security to carrying out truly mass mobilizations. When demonstrations are organized in small groups, without space for public discussion and planning, basic steps like organizing marshals and security teams, having a clear idea of who is responsible for actions, and having the broadest, most representative decision-making bodies become very difficult.

In order to build the movement in a way that becomes attractive to working and oppressed people, it is necessary for organizers to be up front about who is involved, what the risks of participation are, and how safety concerns will be addressed. One positive example of this method of functioning in the movement was the March 8 Community Movement Builders-led demonstration in front of the King Center. There, a coalition was built and publicly announced, and organizers made clear that the demonstration would be peaceful, marshaled, and a space for Black Atlantans to make their voices heard.

Organizers of all of these efforts have the path in front of them to begin to develop a coalition-based model of organizing that allows for the largest possible mobilizations through collective discussion, transparency and accountability, and a strategy that includes mass, nationally organized actions. Organizing actions in this way is not an attack against the “autonomy” of activists and forest defenders but rather would allow for the greatest possible coordination and public impact of events.

Taking up this sort of method could also begin to develop the movement in a way that would lead to reversing the almost complete absence of the labor movement from both the fight against Cop City—as well as from the defense effort for the protesters. This absence is not the fault of Stop Cop City activists but rather the union officialdom, which has generally disengaged the trade unions from struggles around social issues while also tending to side with the police and their “unions.”

At the same time, there are important examples of labor actions against Cop City and related state repression. Some are through trade unions and their leadership. For example, Indiana University Graduate Workers Coalition (UE, United Electrical Workers) and University of Connecticut Graduate and Postdoc Employees Union (GEUP-UAW 6950, resolution forthcoming) both put out inspiring statements standing with the Stop Cop City Movement as a whole. International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) General President Jimmy Williams Jr. released an important statement calling for an end to the repression of the forest defenders.

Other examples of labor activity in the movement are not through unions per se but have been collective actions taken by co-workers in a shop, usually academics. These include over 50 Moorehouse faculty, 55 Georgia State University professors, and dozens of Emory public health faculty, graduate students, alumni, and undergrads—all writing their own respective collective letters calling for Cop City to be stopped.

Since an earlier version of this article was published in Tempest, the movement has made important steps forwards in this direction. On June 5, there was another historic mobilization of Metro Atlanta residents, including at least two Mvskogee speakers, calling on city council members to cancel funding for Cop City.  After the arrests of the ASF3 on May 31, a number of movement organizations put out statements condemning state repression and state escalations against activists.

The movement in Atlanta is entering a new stage. On May 7, Atlanta activists declared their intention to petition for a referendum on Cop City funding for the November elections. The petitioning campaign is an ambitious step forward. In order to get on the ballot, Stop Cop City supporters will need to collect over 75,000 signatures from Atlanta residents. Some of the infrastructure and capacity for such an initiative has already been developed through the tireless work of local organizers discussed above. At the same time, this is a very concrete campaign that can prove to be a tool to consolidate and mobilize hundreds and thousands of Atlantans in common work against Cop City. The referendum can also be an important platform to have necessary discussions about the project and make thousands of new contacts within Atlanta.

An important focal point of organizing is around the specific fight to get charges dropped against activists. These charges in themselves are a huge escalation by the state and would set a horrible precedent. They must be vigorously opposed. There are many opportunities to do this, all organizations with an interest in defending democratic rights can be involved—trade unions, socialist organizations, climate groups, racial justice and immigrant organizations, student groups, and many more.

The politicians are not interested in stopping Cop City or in defending democratic rights. The way forward to Stop Cop City is through making connections, collective organizing, and building a real mass movement that has active support all around the country. This can be done and is beginning to happen, but it is an uneven process and needs to be developed on a larger scale with more open collaboration. If we can bring this together, we can build even stronger fightbacks against the Cop City proposals in Atlanta, Las Vegas, New Jersey, and elsewhere!

Photo: Protesters in New York City march in solidarity with the movement to Stop Cop City. (Felton Davis via Tempest).

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