Are the activists who have persisted for the past 15 months in protesting Atlanta’s and DeKalb County’s plans for the South River Forest “protectors” or “domestic terrorists”? Don’t take the bait. This is no simple story with good guys and bad guys.

It is, however, a complex story about the history of Georgia’s indigenous peoples, about efforts to protect eco-systems, about elected officials adequately representing the views of their constituents, about the integrity of police officers, about racial injustice, and about how a story gets told.

The killing of 26 year old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (on left, known as “Tortuguita”) and wounding of a state trooper during a Jan. 18 police raid on the protestors’ camp received international coverage and intensified the debate about how government officials have managed their governance, respected the dissent of impacted residents, and spun a misleading story of revitalization and police morale. 

Out of respect to the original Muskogee occupants, activists use the original name for the contested land: the Weelaunee Forest. Tribal leaders visited and performed ceremonies in the fall of 2021, just six months after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans for an elaborate police and fire department training center to be developed by the Atlanta Police Foundation. The APF is financed by corporate heavy hitters like Amazon, Chick-fil-A, and Delta Airlines.

“The land includes the remains of an old prison farm and the park bordering Intrenchment Creek, whose headwaters form downtown, running under the state capitol,” writes Timothy Pratt in this thorough Atlanta Magazine story. “The neighborhoods closest to the forest – like Thomasville Heights, Gresham Park, Lakewood – are mostly Black, with large shares of low-income residents. They’ve endured a fraught history of development, with six landfills nearby, five prisons, two demolished public housing sites, and a host of trucking and other industrial companies.” This area is less than a dozen miles from UUCA’s campus.

According to Sierra Club Metro Atlanta chair Nina Dutton, the City of Atlanta leased 381 acres of the forested area west of Intrenchment Creek to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) to build what plan opponents call “Cop City.” DeKalb County’s Intrenchment Creek Park is east of the creek, and county officials have agreed to a land swap that would give ownership of part of the park to Blackhall Studios in exchange for cleared land. This map shows the area leased to APF in blue and the land swap areas in red.

“The city owns the property, but it sits in unincorporated DeKalb County, which created an unusual set of circumstances around the development of the Public Safety Training Center (PSTC), as the new facility would be called,” writes David Peisner in this extensive Bitter Southerner story. “The project, a $90 million public-private partnership, had to be approved by City Council, but because the land lies outside the city limits, nobody living in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the property had representatives on the council. When the council opened the proposal to public comment, they received more than 17 hours of it – the majority opposing it – then voted to approve the project anyway.”

Richard Powers, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory, summarized the situation in a recent New York Times opinion piece: “The choice of site could not be more politically charged. The Indigenous Muscogee people, from whom the land was taken 200 years ago, revere that forest, which they know as the Weelaunee. The training center is slated to be built over the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, in operation for much of the 20th century, where decades of human rights abuses took place. And the forest has long been part of an ambitious plan to piece together an ecologically rich greenbelt of protected parkland stretching across southeastern Atlanta and neighboring southwestern DeKalb County, a project that would provide numerous environmental benefits to an increasingly heat-stressed city.”

He proposes that officials should put the plan up for a public vote. “Those who breathe Atlanta’s air and walk its public spaces must decide whether the southeast of their city should remain a living greenbelt or become a state-of-the-art training center,” he writes.

In his Bitter Southerner article, Peisner explains: “For progressive activists, Atlanta’s PSTC represents something of a perfect storm: a single project that catalyzes fears of ecological degradation, state-sponsored violence, police militarization, environmental racism, opaque governance, and the long legacy of white supremacy. In the same way environmental issues are never simply local, the concern is that this training center – which would dwarf those of much larger departments in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – will become a nationwide model. As one activist living in the woods told me in August, ‘The intersection between the climate crisis, growing inequality, and the militarization of cops is emblematic here, but it’s a problem everywhere.’”

Peisner spent the most time interviewing one young activist: Manuel Terán. “‘It’s incredibly important to continue having popular support,’ said Tortuguita, who uses they/them pronouns. ‘Cop City is incredibly unpopular already. We’re very popular. We’re cool.’ They laughed as they said that last bit, but, without a doubt, the movement has succeeded in painting the forest defenders as a scrappy, idealistic David battling a heartless, moneyed Goliath. ‘We get a lot of support from people who live here, and that’s important because we win through nonviolence. We’re not going to beat them at violence. But we can beat them in public opinion, in the courts even.’”

Not all protestors share the same concerns. Jackie Echols (right), a political science professor and a leader of the South River Watershed Alliance told Peisner, “I can’t see a realistic argument for doing away with the police, and of course, police need training. I’m just saying the training can be accomplished without destroying the acreage at the prison farm.”

Echols and SRWA, who are suing over the county’s land swap with Blackhall Studios, explained their objection to Peisner: “‘It’s race-based discrimination,’ Echols said. She’s also concerned about the impact potential construction projects in the South River Forest will have, including the PSTC and any film studio expansions. ‘If you add more pollution from those sites, that will have a detrimental effect on the creek, the river, and the community.’”

In a June 2022 op-ed piece, Margaret Spalding, the executive director of the South River Watershed Alliance wrote: “Leaders have a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in southeast metro Atlanta for the benefit of marginalized communities and their environment. Amid disparate and widespread criticism, will the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County continue to suffocate the southeast metro area with crumbling infrastructure, landfills, unenforced illegal dumping, prisons and detention centers, ammunition and explosives ranges, industrial complexes, and a blanket of neglect? Or will they confront historic and ongoing inequity and injustice in order that we may examine and reflect upon who we are and what we would like to become.”

The Georgia Sierra Club published a statement after Terán’s death that expressed unequivocal support for the protestors and strong opposition to the city’s and county’s plans. “We reject the mischaracterization by media and state/city leaders of referring to the opposition to this project as ‘outside agitators.’ Thousands of Atlantans and many local organizations, including the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, came together over the last two years to voice their opposition to this project to Atlanta’s Mayor and City Council. They submitted public comments, sent emails to their representatives, organized marches and rallies, canvassed neighborhoods, and more. Despite these efforts, the Mayor and City Council have continued to push this project forward, ignoring the will of community members and choosing to engage in violence by sending police to harass and arrest those protecting the forest.”

The statement continues: “The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter remains steadfastly opposed to this project. The Weelaunee Forest helps mitigate flooding, captures and sequesters carbon from the air, provides a natural filter for air pollution, helps keep our city cool, and will aid our efforts to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The Chapter believes that these benefits should not be given up in order to build a training center that is unnecessary and unwanted by the local community. The project is also an embarrassing waste of taxpayer dollars and public resources, an attempt to appear ‘tough on crime’ to corporate and wealthy interests rather than making meaningful investments in our communities.”

This forest fight has indeed drawn an array of protestors and a variety of non-violent and destructive tactics. Criticism has been leveled at politicians, police, vandals, corporate backers, deal-influencing entrepreneurs, and a biased media. Recent reports shared by the Sierra Club indicate that “as of Jan. 28, South River Forest Coalition had word from a ‘credible source’ the Atlanta Police Foundation’s land disturbance permit application was ‘pending approval’ from DeKalb County. This permit application shows that the APF intends to develop within a 171-acre footprint. That’s twice the size of the 85-acre footprint described in the APF’s lease agreement with the City of Atlanta.”

The fight continues.


Read more about this ongoing story:

The Forest for the Trees (Bitter Southerner, 12/13/22)

”The birds stopped singing”: Inside the battle for Atlanta’s South River Forest (Atlanta Magazine, 1/20/23)

Atlanta Police Kill Forest Defender at Protest Encampment Near Proposed “Cop City” Training Center (Democracy Now, 1/20/23)

‘Bogus charges’: Demonstrators protest arrests after deadly shooting near planned APD training center (Fox 5, 1/20/23)

Little Turtle’s War (Bitter Southerner, 1/20/23)

‘Assassinated in cold blood’: activist killed protesting Georgia’s ‘cop city’ (The Guardian, 1/21/23)

Roy Wood Jr. Explores Police Militarization & Atlanta’s “Cop City” (The Daily Show, 1/26/23)

The Death of a Forest Defender at “Stop Cop City” (truthout, 1/26/23)

The Fierce Protests in Atlanta Are Eerily Familiar to Me (New York Times, 2/2/23)

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