The movement to save Atlanta’s South River Forest is a microcosm of the front-line struggle that’s heating up everywhere to halt both the devastation of our planet’s life-support systems and the alarming erosion of democracy worldwide. Please read on for a brief update, followed by a poet’s-eye view of the larger issues behind this fiery confrontation between a Democratic and largely African-American city government and the people it claims to represent. Then use the links at the end to learn more, get involved, and take action.
Update: On June 5, after 15 hours of citizen testimony overwhelmingly opposed to a new police training center, the Atlanta City Council voted 11-4 to approve $67 million in taxpayer funds for “Cop City” – over twice the amount originally proposed. Community activists immediately launched a campaign to gather the 70,000 signatures required to qualify for a voter referendum to cancel the project. But bulldozers were already at work carving a 170-acre site for the facility out of the nation’s largest urban forest, known to its original inhabitants, the Muskogee Nation, as Weelaunee Forest.
Meanwhile, Dekalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston has withdrawn her office from the case against 42 people charged with “domestic terrorism” – some for merely attending a concert in Intrenchment Creek Park – leaving it to Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr. The long wait for indictments containing actual evidence leaves some legal experts wondering if the vague charge is only a pretext to intimidate those who dare to oppose the mighty Atlanta Police Foundation and its corporate backers.
The movement to save Weelaunee Forest from becoming “Cop City” exposes the hidden links between some of the most urgent issues we face today: deforestation, police violence, environmental justice, official corruption, corporate dominance, gentrification, and most of all, climate change.
In order to portray the forest defenders as “outside agitators,” the police have made a point of letting Georgia residents go and arresting only those from elsewhere. Tactics like this make the case against Cop City better than any protest rally speech. Unfortunately, some of the protesters have returned the favor by sabotaging construction equipment, attacking police cars and breaking windows during marches downtown. These are acts we might expect from paid undercover provocateurs. But the activists who defend them on the grounds that “destruction of property is not violence” are splitting philosophical hairs. From the standpoint of the average viewer of TV news, such tactics will only reinforce the claim that Cop City is needed to keep the peace.
What most media commentators seem to miss is the deepest substrate of the conflict: climate change. The young people so ardently defending the forest are not idiots. They see clearly that their future has been sold out for staggering short-term profits for the One Percent, backed by police repression, and they are understandably pissed. To them, cutting down a forest to build a police training center is more than symbolic of the ecological ignorance and political arrogance that are driving us over one tipping point after another on the road to planetary collapse.
The One Percent and its tax-funded enforcers are not stupid either. They can see what lies ahead on that road when the sleeping majority wakes up to realize their future has also been sacrificed. Cop City is only one of a new crop of training centers planned across the country. Rather than preserving forest canopies to sequester carbon and channel storm runoff – the very least they could do – in Atlanta the One Percent’s answer to climate change appears to be a militarized police force to prepare for mass civil unrest.
Between the two extremes are millions who dutifully continue going to work, getting an education, enjoying sports and entertainment under the blithe delusion that the world they know will keep ticking indefinitely into the future . . . until the moment their lives are consumed by wildfire, flood, storm surge, heat wave, or drought-induced shortages of food and water. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee what happens next. As Bob Marley prophetically sang, “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”
The situation playing out in Weelaunee Forest is tragic on many levels. It is tragic that a delicate forest ecosystem with its frogs and salamanders and nesting birds and incalculable benefits for city-dwellers has been targeted for destruction when abandoned industrial sites are waiting to be reclaimed. It is tragic that a forest we thought was protected by a government we elected must now be defended against that same government. It is tragic that 26-year-old activist Manuel Teran, known as “Tortuguita,” had to die in its defense. And it is tragic that a pattern of abusive policing in Atlanta and across the nation has devastated public trust in the police, making the official story of Tortuguita’s killing automatically suspect – like every other aspect of the official story justifying Cop City.
Particularly suspicous is the inclusion of a “mock city” for training purposes. Coming so soon after the protests over the murder of George Floyd, this smacks of an all-too-obvious overreaction to the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, authorities from the FBI on down have downplayed a far more potent threat: the rise of armed and organized white nationalists. In the rather likely event of a violent right-wing uprising, we might be grateful to have a police force trained in urban warfare. But all we hear about is the fantasy threat of Antifa and BLM – possibly because the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other vigilante groups count so many active and former police officers among their ranks.
I’m sure most officers are sincere and dedicated public servants. But the actions of the law enforcement establishment as a whole do not reassure us that they are on our side. As Michael German of the Brennan Center for Justice told the Saporta Report, “Police training is often raised by policymakers as a solution to the problem when I think in many cases it’s the foundation of the problem.” The article’s author, John Ruch, points out that Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of Floyd’s murder, “had a long history of misconduct – yet was made a field training officer.”
A proposed police training center could have been used to rebuild the trust and respect that are the only possible foundation for an institution that “serves and protects” the citizens of a democracy. The site could have been chosen through a transparent process of community input and involvement. The training program offered there could have been designed the same way, with the explicit goal of serving needs identified by the community and healing the wounds of past abuses. It could have emphasized the de-escalation of violence, sensitive treatment of the addicted and the mentally ill, humane services for the homeless and indigent rather than handcuffs and jail. Instead, the process so far has reinforced the perception that the primary function of the police is to serve and protect the One Percent and their property against the rest of us.
Across the continent, Los Angeles has its own problematic police culture. But recently I ran across a description of L.A.’s response to Joe Biden’s 2021 America the Beautiful Initiative. “By identifying and rethinking the very concept of parks and natural areas within urban centers,” writes Lynell George in Sierra magazine, “this initiative will help more Americans access and interact with nature. Among the goals for Los Angeles laid out in a 2019 mayoral plan: Double the amount of tree canopy in ‘areas of greatest need’; reduce the urban-rural temperature differential by at least 1.7 degrees F by 2025 and 3 degrees by 2035; initiate the L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Project; and increase the public’s proximity to parks and open areas.” Key to the plan is the participation of communities traditionally excluded from municipal decision-making. By comparison, the plan to replace living forest with Cop City sounds like an open declaration of war.
Above all, it is tragic that our profit-driven society has callously abandoned its young to a futureless existence and can only prosecute – or execute without trial – those intelligent enough to protest. So far, 42 forest defenders have been charged with “domestic terrorism” for standing up for Weelaunee Forest. For the sake of the endangered forest and their own legal jeopardy, I regret that their outrage was not channeled more strategically. But given the backdrop of what is happening to the planet they will inherit, and who profits, I certainly understand it.
Does that make me a “terrorist sympathizer”? The surreal severity of the charge is clearly intended to chill my right to express my views on the matter – and yours. Yet if we do not speak up, worse is sure to follow. Please follow the links below to learn more and add your voice to the call to save Weelaunee Forest. If you live in Atlanta, your help is needed to gather signatures for a voter referendum. Let’s find out if we still live in a democracy.
Timeline of the story so far: StreetsOfAtlanta.blog
For more information and to register your support: DefendTheAtlantaForest.org
What you can do to help: CommunityMovementBuilders.org (scroll down)
To help gather signatures for the referendum: CopCityVote.com
For the latest developments: AtlPressCollective.com
Overview of the broader political implications: TheIntercept.com
The ACLU on domestic terrorism charges: RSN.org
Saporta Report article cited above: SaportaReport.com
(Photos of Intrenchment Creek Park by Luz Wright, from our book Wild Atlanta.)
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