How Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’ became the focus for green protests – and claims of lethal police brutality

The site of a proposed new police training centre in a forested area outside Atlanta has become the focal point of the US environmental movement in recent weeks amid a series of confrontations between protesters and police.

The latest clash between protesters and police at the site came on Sunday, when the Atlanta Police Department detained some 35 people who they claim set fire to a construction vehicle and threw bricks and rocks at officers as part of what the police department said was a “a coordinated attack on construction equipment and police officers”.

Activists dispute that narrative, with Kamau Franklin telling CNN that the law enforcement response “further demonstrates policies of police aggression and the tactical response of over-policing”.

Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said that DeKalb County prosecutors and the Georgia Attorney General’s office are coordinating to bring charges against the protesters arrested on Sunday. The arrests took place at the beginning of a week of mass mobilisation against the project, with organisers calling on people to come to Georgia and defend the forest.

Part of the call to supporters is also to honour the life of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, an activist who was shot and killed during a Georgia Bureau of Investigation operation at the protest site. The killing of Terán, who was known as Tortuguita, or Little Turtle, was the first documented killing of an environmental activist by US police.

The project has pitted a climate movement increasingly willing to use direct action to try to stop major construction projects against a state aparatus that appears increasingly willing to use violence against protesters to facilitate those projects.

What is Cop City?

Local power brokers began discussing the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center as far back as 2017.

Plans call for the project to bulldoze at least 85 acres of the South River Forest, or the Weelaunee forest as it is known to the native Muscogee (Creek) people, outside of city limits to make way for a police shooting range, Blackhawk helicopter landing pad, and a full mock city to practise large-scale operations.

The majority of its funding is slated to come from the private Atlanta Police Foundation, which counts as donors and board members representatives of major corporations like Amazon, Chick-fil-A, and Delta Airlines with operations in the city.

The Atlanta City Council has approved plans to lease a plot of land to the Atlanta Police Foundation so it can build a state-of-the-art police and firefighter training centre, a project that critics call “Cop City”.

Backers, including former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the editorial pages of top Atlanta newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have framed the centre as a solution to a “crime wave” in the city and a once-in-a-generation investment in public safety. They’ve also argued it’s a way for the beleaguered Atlanta Police Department to “boost morale” and retention, which have been in short supply following the 2020 racial justice protests and scandals like the APD’s killing of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back by police officers less than three weeks after George Floyd was killed.

To many community members, however, the project seemed to be rammed through city government without their voice on public safety solutions mattering much at all.

By the time plans for the project were well known in the summer of 2021, a wide range of community groups, from civil rights activists to neighbourhood organisations, were opposing Cop City, which they saw as local officials putting another undesirable project in a working-class, Black area that’s already home to six landfills, five prisons, and two demolished public housing sites. Atlanta, thanks to a network of security cameras funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation, is already one of the most heavily surveilled places in the world. Cop City marked another increase in the police footprint in the city.

“It was organisations across a ton of different areas,” local organiser Micah Herskind told The Independent. “Anti-gentrification. Anti-police brutality. Abolitionists. And there were people who just cared about on the level of just neighbourhood associations. We don’t want this massive noisy toxic thing near our house. There were preschoolers who were hosting marches.”

The potential impacts of Cop City go well beyond a lack of public input and another massive investment in the police state. The broad, leaderless coalition of individuals and communities opposing the project say the $90m training centre is historically insulting and environmentally damaging as well.

The forest where the project is being built, which lies outside of Atlanta city limits, was previously home to the Muscogee (Creek) people before they were forcibly displaced, then was the site of a prison farm. The training centre could also lead to the destruction of 85 acres or more of greenspace in a city where forests are rapidly declining.

According to Dr Jacqueline Echols of the South River Watershed Alliance, the forest where the training centre is being built is known as the “fourth lung of Atlanta” and was once described in a city plan as the site of future protected park land. More development would further pollute the nearby Entrenchment Creek, one of the city’s most important waterways, which already exceeds legal pollution limits.

Environmentalists say the Cop City project will destroy one of the Atlanta area’s few remaining green spaces and pollute waterways in a largely Black, working class community.

What is the broader impact?

The stakes of the project and the fight to stop it in the Atlanta area are clear. But far beyond Atlanta, the battle against Cop City is resonating as emblematic of the battles likely to come in the fight to stop climate change — an interconnected fight against environmental degredation, racism, colonialism, and capitalism.

It may also come to represent turning points in the tactics the climate movement is willing to use and the risks they take in pursuing its aims. In late January, Georgia Gov Brian Kemp issued an emergency declaration for protests, empowering him to deploy the National Guard to subdue the protests and arrest people.