Why are people protesting Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’?

OPINION: Environmentalists and social justice activists have joined together in protesting at the site where the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will be built; tensions have risen significantly after police killed a protester there in late January.

Demonstrators gather outside of Atlanta's City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, as local officials announce they are moving forward with plans to build the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. The protesters have called for officials to abandon plans for the project which they derisively call Cop City. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Despite yearlong protests from environmental and anti-police activists in the Atlanta area, and right on the heels of the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Atlanta officials announced the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — dubbed “Cop City” by activists — will move forward.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond cleared the way for the 85-acre, $90 million complex on city-owned forest land that sits near a predominately Black community. According to the Atlanta Police Foundation — the organization leasing the land and funding two thirds of the facility with Atlanta taxpayers picking up the rest of the tab — the training center promises to “reimagine law enforcement training and Police/Fire Rescue community engagement.”

This complex will reportedly contain training facilities for urban warfare tactics, explosive testing sites, firing range, a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad and more.

In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved a plan to build the facility in a 10-4 vote. Then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms supported the plan, calling the council vote “courageous” and rejecting the idea that we must “defund the police” as Black Lives Matter protesters have advocated. “What I’ve said repeatedly over the last year is that holding the men and women who serve us in a public safety capacity accountable is not mutually exclusive from supporting them,” Bottoms said, suggesting the only way to abolish police is to abolish crime.

Atlanta law enforcement pushed for Cop City, and Bottoms claimed the training facility would “help boost morale, retention and recruitment” of police officers, and provide “21st century training, rooted in respect and regard for the communities they serve.” The center would be among the largest in the country, more massive than LAPD or NYPD facilities. The decision to build Cop City comes amid growing calls to reimagine, defund or even abolish police that emerged from the global protests over the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other police killings such as Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.

Community opposition to Cop City, in the form of the Stop Cop City movement, reflects the sentiment that this training center will bring more police violence and environmental devastation to Black communities in the area.

In this aerial view, land owned by the city of Atlanta is shown, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in unincorporated DeKalb County. The Atlanta City Council has approved plans to lease the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation so it can build a state-of-the-art police and firefighter training center, a project that protesters derisively call “Cop City.” (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Protesters maintain that Cop City will allow the police to continue to kill Black people and thwart and suppress community protest and responses to that police violence. “To be clear — Cop City is not just a controversial training center. It is a war base where police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements,” said Kwame Olufemi of Community Movement Builders. “The facility includes shooting ranges, plans for bomb testing, and will practice tear gas deployment. They are practicing how to make sure poor and working class people stay in line.” 

Further, this training center will have an impact beyond Atlanta, with 43% of trainees at the facility reportedly coming from out of state. And as anti-Cop City activist and founder of the Atlanta-based organization Community Movement Builders Kamau Franklin suggests, Cop City has international implications, as police in Atlanta and Israel are engaged in international training. “The tactics that are used against Palestinians are going to be exported here to the United States, and the tactics used against Black people by the police are going to be exported to Palestine,“ Franklin said on “Roland Martin Unfiltered.”

Community objections to Cop City are environmental as well. The site of the training facility rests in South River Forest — 381 acres of forest once home to the Muscogee Creek Nation, who were removed from the land through genocide. The land was subsequently used as a plantation for the forced labor of enslaved Africans, followed by a prison farm.

The city designated South River Forest as one of Atlanta’s four “lungs” to protect against environmental damage and carbon pollution. Environmental activists known as forest defenders have squatted in the forest and lived there since late 2021 to protest the construction of Cop City. Low-income Black people who live in the area strongly oppose the facility opening there or anywhere else.

One of those forest defenders, queer Afro-Venezuelan activist Manuel Esteban Páez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, was killed by a Georgia State Patrol trooper on Jan. 18. After the shooting, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency and activated 1,000 National Guard troops. And 19 other forest defenders were charged with domestic terrorism under a broad 2017 law intended for cases such as the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The terrorism law, which The Intercept reported could be invoked to prosecute Black Lives Matter protesters as terrorists for blocking roads, has been used against these forest defenders who are accused of trespassing.

Officials have pledged environmental protections for the site, including the preservation of nearly 300 acres as a public green space.

Activists have also focused on the financial backers of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. Cop City has the support of Atlanta’s political leadership, and the Atlanta Police Foundation, the organization backing the facility enjoys the support of major corporations. Some of the companies bankrolling the foundation include Bank of America, Cox Enterprises, Delta, Equifax, Verizon and others. Coca-Cola stepped down from the Atlanta Police Foundation board, Mainline reported, after Color of Change released a report on the harm that police foundations bring upon Black, brown and Indigenous communities by financing police militarization, and the “unchecked corporate power” behind these foundations.  

Meanwhile, the protests continue. 

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.

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