The Defenders Of Atlanta
by Reinout Debergh
26 years. That’s how old Tortuguita was when on January 18th, 2023, they became the first environmental activist killed by the police in the US [1,2]. Location: a forest in Atlanta, Georgia, where activists were camped to protect the area from being turned into what locals referred to as “Cop City” [2, 3]. But what is Cop City and why are people protesting? Continue reading to find out.
In September 2021, Atlanta approved plans to lease 85 acres of public land that was earmarked as a public park to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) for 10 USD/year . The foundation announced plans to build a police and firefighter training facility on the land, dubbed Cop City by locals. The facility costs 90 million USD, a third of which comes from the city’s budget . It includes shooting ranges, areas for militarised drills, and a mock city with buildings and roads to allow the police to practise urban warfare tactics [6, 7].
Figure 1. Lay-out of Cop City .
But cop city is not the only concerning project in the region. According to the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement, Shadowbox Studios, a major film production company, wants to clear cut 170 acres of forest to build an airport and the largest soundstage in America . This would increase local air pollution and according to the movement, also increase living costs [8, 9]. A representative of Shadowbox Studios recently stated that they are not involved with anything on this land . This is what actually happened: Blackhall Studios got the land in January 2021. In February a lawsuit was filed against the land swap. In April, Blackhall Studios was sold to Shadowbox Studios, but the land was not part of the deal. It is still owned by the former CEO of Blackhall Studios (Millsap) .
Impacts and environmental racism
Atlanta is home to wetlands which filter rainwater and mitigate flooding . Forests also provide an important cooling effect . Therefore, the projects risk worsening climate impacts. The forest is home to some of the last breeding grounds for various amphibians in the region and is also an important migration site for wading birds . Shooting ranges, ammunition and residues are also a source of heavy metal pollution and toxic chemicals. These substances can leach into water and soils and stay there for decades. They can accumulate in food such as crops and fish which are subsequently consumed by humans .
As is often the case, who will be affected is not random. The neighbourhoods in the area are dominated by people of colour with low incomes. And it is not just this project. There are six landfills, five prisons, two demolished public housing sites, and various trucking and other industrial companies nearby . Placing such facilities in areas with certain demographics is indicative of what is known as environmental racism . The area where the facility would be built is not even represented in the Atlanta City Council (who approved the project). Therefore, the people affected could not even vote . And because the area is unincorporated, plans were not subject to review by a neighbourhood planning unit (NPU), a process for collecting community input on important decisions such as land use. Some efforts were made but they were largely symbolic (e.g. listening sessions but no possibility for comments, removal of a criticising member in an advisory committee) .
Overall, Cop city represents an intersection of environmental, racial and procedural injustices.
Fortunately, there are those who stand up. Various movements arose in response to Cop City: there are neighbourhood associations involved such as the East Atlanta Community Association and South Atlantans for Neighborhood Development, activist groups such as Community Movement Builders and Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), the central movement in protesting against Cop City [3, 10]. The latter is decentralised. There is no official leadership, spokespeople, or organisation status in order to keep members anonymous . According to their website, “Defend the Forest & Stop Cop City is a grassroots movement of many groups and individuals from Atlanta and beyond, working together and separately to prevent the forest off Key, Fayetteville, Constitution, and Bouldercrest roads from becoming either a police training compound or a new Hollywood soundstage complex.” .
Figure 2. Forest defenders march through the streets of Atlanta following a police raid on Dec. 13, 2022 .
The protests have had some success in that the original plans were scaled back from 150 to 85 acres, and authorities committed to preserve the surrounding land as a 265-acre public park . But that hasn’t stopped the protests. And activists who were at Lützerath protesting coal extraction in Germany also voiced their support for the activists in Atlanta on Instagram . And while in Germany, they were accused of violence and irresponsibility, authorities in the US went a step further [2, 16]. The United States Department of Homeland Security has branded the DTAF as domestic violent extremists . As of late March, 42 people have been charged with domestic terrorism . On January 26th, Republican governor Kemp also declared a state of emergency which allowed him to mobilise 1,000 national guard troops until at least 9th of February [2, 18]. The protests against the murder of Tyre Nichols by the police also played a role in Kemp’s decision . No new executive order was published since February 9 .
Figure 3. The National Guard arriving in Atlanta, 28/01/2023 .
Protests against Cop City do not seem to be ending any time soon. The state responded aggressively, resulting in the tragic death of environmental activist Tortuguita. One can only hope that justice will prevail in the end and that local residents and future generations can enjoy our beautiful nature.
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