The Movement to Stop "Cop City" Sparks International Solidarity

After police killed an environmental activist in Atlanta, efforts to defend 300 acres of forest show no signs of stopping

By Joanna Thompson

February 5, 2023

Cop City memorial

Protesters hold a candlelight vigil for an eco-activist who was shot and killed during an incident near the site of a proposed Atlanta law enforcement training center on January 18 in Atlanta. Activists have camped out in the woods near the proposed site to prevent the clearing of forest area for the training center dubbed "Cop City" by the protesters. | Photo by Collin Mayfield/Sipa USA via AP Images

The movement sprung up organically, like a ring of button mushrooms, around more than 300 acres of forest in South Atlanta. In the fall of 2021, the City of Atlanta shocked residents of DeKalb County when it announced its intention to build a sprawling $90 million police training facility (nicknamed “Cop City”) on the site of the city’s old Prison Farm. Locals immediately began lodging complaints; within days, the Weelaunee Forest had filled with protesters.

On January 18, 2023, one of those protesters—Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, also known as Tortugita, or “little turtle”—was shot and killed by Georgia state troopers. The police claim they acted in self-defense, though no body camera footage of the incident exists. Tortugita’s death sparked outrage in the community and around the world, with memorials springing up from Chicago to Los Angeles to eastern Germany and Athens, Greece. “Things were always brighter when they were around,” says Nissa Sylvatica, a forest defender who met Tortuguita at the weekly potlucks and food distributions staged by community organizers. “That’s just the kind of person they were.”

Tensions over the fate of the forest have continued to mount over the past two weeks. So far, 20 activists have been arrested in the Atlanta area and charged with domestic terrorism—some of them are being held on bail as high as $13,500. Last week, Governor Brian Kemp called in 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to quash protests against police violence sparked by both Tortugita’s death and the murder of Tyre Nichols. But the movement remains resolute in the face of it all. “Cop City will never be built,” the Defend the Atlanta Forest Twitter said in a statement on January 19. 

After Coca-Cola and Donald Glover, Atlanta is perhaps best known for its forests—a 2014 study estimated that canopies cover some 47.9 percent of its urban sprawl, earning it the nickname “City in the Forest.” But this reputation has been in jeopardy for at least a decade. Of the trees that make up the city’s 40,000 acres of canopy, 77 percent are located on private property, which means they can be cut down at any time to accommodate a new parking garage or improve a homeowner’s view. Over the past 10 years, Georgia has consistently ranked in the top five states for urban deforestation. 

Canopy loss isn’t just bad from an ecological perspective; it can be downright deadly for human health. Trees significantly reduce the so-called urban heat island effect, a phenomenon in which a city’s concrete streets and buildings function like a thermal echo chamber, trapping and amplifying extreme heat. Scientists have measured 30-plus-degree Fahrenheit air temperature differences directly beneath city trees compared with the surrounding street. That cooling effect greatly reduces strain on a city’s power grid by lessening the amount of air conditioning people need. And for people without A/C, it can be literally lifesaving.

Urban forests also help absorb and clean an incredible amount of rainwater that would otherwise flood the streets, and they provide an oasis to city residents who might otherwise feel trapped in the concrete sprawl. “If that forest is gone, I’m out; screw it,” says longtime Atlanta resident Joe Peery, a co-manager of the South River Forest Coalition who has been fighting to protect part of the South Atlanta forest from becoming a movie studio for the better part of a decade.

In the United States, historically Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities tend to bear the brunt of disasters like storm flooding and deadly urban heat. Thanks to its forest, DeKalb County, which is nearly 55 percent Black, has had more of a buffer from heat and floodwaters than many communities of color. But with the trees gone, that could change. “For us, that makes it a big environmental justice issue,” says Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance. 

The Prison Farm property still bears the scars of the Jim Crow-era South. From 1919 to 1995, the site operated as both a prison and agricultural labor camp for a majority-Black inmate population. And, according to Atlanta historian Scott Petersen, there is reason to believe that the grounds may be riddled with unmarked graves. In the wake of 2020’s George Floyd protests, the fact that the city plans to bulldoze this forest in favor of a police training facility feels like a slap in the face to some in the community.

The 85-acre center would be the largest police training grounds in the country, easily dwarfing New York City’s 30-acre facility despite having one-fifteenth of NYPD’s personnel. In addition to the shooting range, it would feature horse stables, a helicopter landing pad, an explosives range, and a mock city complete with school buses for fire, bomb, and shooting drills. 

More than 100 acres of the property would also be converted into a public park. But between lead contamination from discarded bullets and noise pollution from helicopters, bombs, and gunfire, Peery believes that this green space will be more scorched earth than oasis. “It would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic,” he says.

The City of Atlanta government has attempted to weaken the forest defender’s cause, asserting that the decentralized movement is spearheaded by “outside agitators”—rhetoric that was widely deployed during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And in a 2021 public presentation, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) called into question the quality of the forest itself, pointing out that the Prison Farm property had been largely clearcut during its stint as a carceral facility. They claim that the land was “devoid of hardwood trees” and brimming with invasive species, such as “loblolly pine, boxelder, Chinese privet, Callery pear, tree of heaven, chinaberry, and kudzu trees,” making it worthless. 

However, Nissa Sylvatica, who has a background in ecology (and whose pseudonym nods to the Georgia native black gum tree), disagrees. According to them, two of the so-called invasive species on APF’s list are actually native to Georgia. Loblolly pine and boxelder maple are quick-growing trees that indicate primary succession, the first wave of recovery after a deforestation event. True invasive species, like kudzu and privet, are a problem, but with community effort even they can be controlled before they choke out native plants. And as for the hardwoods, Peery says they’re there once you penetrate the first 40 or 50 feet of vegetation. 

Weelaunee may not be a “pristine” forest, but for the protesters, that’s part of the beauty. “It’s been through the wringer, and it’s recovering.” Untouched wilderness is rare nowadays, but nearly every city on Earth has a scrappy patch of woods that provides immeasurable good for the community. And, they say, the movement refuses to see the site of Tortugita’s grave become a training ground for the organization that killed them.

“In a healthy and mature forest, when one of the trees gets knocked down, it creates a gap in the canopy,” says Sylvatica. “In that gap, many seedlings spring up in order to take that tree’s place. And the forest is richer for it.”