By RUSS O’SHEA
Uncontrollable wildfires in Canada. A devastating storm in Libya. The hottest summer on record. “[N]early two-thirds of U.S. adults say that climate change is noticeably affecting their local communities,” according to PBS. As the effects of climate change become ever clearer, so does the need for action to combat it.
Activists around the globe are taking up this urgent cause, at times putting their bodies on the line for the prospect of a better world. One such fight is the movement to protect a forest that is considered the lungs of Atlanta, the Weelaunee Forest. Dubbed “Stop Cop City,” this movement challenges plans to raze the forest and in its ashes construct a heavily militarized police complex for training in urban warfare and movement repression tactics.
It is important to emphasize from the start that the “Cop City” being planned for Atlanta is far from an isolated incident. Originally conceived in the 1960s as a response to the mass mobilizations for civil rights and to end the Vietnam War, these facilities are making a return to relevance in an alarming way. Already, there is a similar facility in Chicago, and plans are advancing for cop cities in Baltimore, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh. The fight to stop the Atlanta Cop City is just one part of a much larger battle to resist increasing police militarization and worsening climate change. The success of the movement in Atlanta will surely be a test for how easily the state can implement similar facilities elsewhere. Given how high the stakes are—and how far beyond Atlanta these implications reach—it is no wonder this movement has been repressed to the degree it has.
Since the earliest days of organizing, the movement to Stop Cop City has been an uphill battle, viciously fought at every turn by state forces. The most notable provocation happened in January of this year, when police raided the forest and shot beloved forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Tehran dozens of times as they meditated in their tent. Since this tragic loss, “Viva, Viva Tortuguita” has become a rallying cry for the movement and Tort’s likeness has been synonymous with it.
During a week of action in early March, a family-friendly music festival in the forest was raided by police, and 31 attendees were arbitrarily arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Just a week earlier, environmental activist Erin Brockovich had been named in an Ohio law enforcement report that described her as a “special interest terrorist threat” for her expressions of concern for the East Palestine community after a widely publicized train derailment in February. Around the same time, the Idaho state affairs committee brought a bill to the state Senate that sought to expand the definition of domestic terrorism, redefining “civil disorder” as “domestic terrorism.”
At the end of May, the home of organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a bail fund for activists in Atlanta, was subjected to a paramilitary SWAT raid conducted by Atlanta and Georgia police. This took place between two historic city council meetings, during which residents of Atlanta gave hours of emotional testimony in overwhelming opposition to Cop City. Even still, enough votes in favor of the project allowed it to continue. In response, organizers launched a massive ballot initiative to put to a vote the cancellation of the lease of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where the facility would be built. This effort involved an army of volunteers hitting the streets all summer and collecting 116,000 signatures—more than twice the amount of residents who voted for mayor Andre “Sellout” Dickens, as he has been nicknamed by his constituents.
Unsurprisingly, the city government has responded to this appeal to democracy with more anti-democratic hurdles, including lawsuits to disqualify the measure, a refusal to collect signatures, a general lack of transparency, and a voter suppression tactic known as “signature matching”—normally criticized by liberals but now being pushed forward by them. Of course, the process for a ballot measure was never meant to be democratic, as evidenced by the constant moving of the goalposts. While it is true that the “appropriate legal channels” are deliberately constructed to be as demobilizing as possible, the move to organize toward this ballot measure was a great initiative. It gave organizers an opportunity to engage with more people of Atlanta than ever before, showing broad layers of the city that they have a stake in this fight, and now exposing for them the failures of the legal system.
During the last week of signature collection, the state escalated its tactics once again, bringing RICO charges against the 61 forest defenders who previously had been indicted on bogus domestic terrorism charges. Originally established with the purpose of targeting organized crime and racketeering, the RICO Act is increasingly being levied against environmental activists. The broader context for this repression is Biden naming environmental activists as “violent extremists” in his National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Biden has made it clear that he is not the green president he wants to portray, as he has signed on to a number of fossil fuel projects that if not stopped will continue to devastate the planet and living conditions of its people.
The neighborhoods surrounding Weelaunee People’s Park provide a living example of the negative impacts of cop cities and similar environmentally destructive projects. Residents have already been experiencing lower quality of life as a direct result of the plans. In addition to increased police presence, residents have reported tanks rolling through and helicopters buzzing their neighborhoods as a means to intimidate them or pressure them to leave their homes.
In addition, local streams are being polluted with sediment from the construction, the subject of a lawsuit being brought against the city by the South River Watershed Alliance. Already much of the forest has been clear cut, which has led to life-threatening flooding. A recent instagram post was quick to point out that while Atlanta police are using footage of themselves rescuing people from floods as a justification for Cop City, in reality any progress on Cop City’s construction will continue to exacerbate flooding and take funding away from projects that could concretely benefit Atlanta residents such as stormwater infrastructure (which many neighborhoods lack).
There is seemingly an endless amount of funding for the police, but every year services like housing, care, and education are given less and less. The struggle over cop cities represents a fundamental contradiction between the interests of the people—the ability to lead a safe, happy and healthy life in unity with nature—and the interests of the ruling class in protecting and increasing their profits at any cost to the community and the environment. As people are increasingly seeing their power as reflected in the George Floyd uprising, increased unionization, and strikes—and now the fight against cop cities—the ruling class recognizes that it must tighten its grip or risk losing control. The police are the main vehicle for doing this.
In fact, the RICO indictment of Cop City activists lists the murder of George Floyd as the beginning of the Stop Cop City movement (along with disgustingly claiming that the police murder of Rayshard Brooks was justified). In many ways, the struggles against cop cities are a continuation of that fight. Many of the same corporations that are now funding Atlanta’s Cop City also partnered with the Minneapolis Police Department. “It’s like a who’s who of corporate America,” remarked Taya Graham, reporter for The Real News Network and host of “Police Accountability Report.”
These companies want to build cop cities to protect the wealth they stole from the people while paying them poverty wages. Waffle House is an obvious example of this. Earlier this month, Waffle House workers in Atlanta delivered a letter to management to demand better pay. CEO Walt Ehmer sits on the executive board of the Atlanta Police Foundation, and the company has helped finance Cop City, yet Waffle House employees cannot make ends meet. Once again, there is seemingly limitless money to increase policing but never any to help workers live a decent life and take care of their families.
The fight to stop Cop City peels back the veneer a little bit and reveals the world that the capitalists want to create. They want to squeeze workers as much as possible, shutting down dissent and rolling back people’s right to organize and assemble. The construction of cop cities is just one part of that, and the steps to get there are a grim foreshadow of what may lie ahead if gone unchallenged by a fighting mass movement. The survival and success of this movement lies in its ability to continue to grow and outmaneuver the state and its repressive forces, which it can do by continuing to mobilize the broadest layers of the working class possible and by continuing to defend victims of political attacks.
The fight to stop cop cities is just one part of a global movement to fight climate change and an escalation in policing, which are each just logical outcomes of a world dominated by the pursuit of profit. A world where people can live in harmony with nature and without the threat of state violence must be a world that substitutes for this impetus one based on human needs and solidarity.
Photo: Tatsoi via Wikimedia Commons