Tuesday, May 17th, the police made a surprise raid at the Old Prison Farm and arrested eight Forest Protectors. For seven months, the Forest Protectors have been protecting the Weelaunee Forest, a/k/a South River Forest, from destruction by the future police and fire training complex dubbed “Cop City” to be built in the forest.
Dozens of police officers surrounded the area, including Atlanta and DeKalb police, Georgia State Patrol, The Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while a helicopter circled the area. Police were armed with guns, assault rifles, and K-9 dogs. The police accused the Forest Protectors of throwing rocks and a crude ignition device at them. No evidence has been produced to support that claim, and no officer was hurt.
COP CITY HAS A CONTROVERSIAL PAST AND A CONTROVERSIAL FUTURE
This controversial complex had faced ongoing opposition from the beginning when former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms unexpectedly resigned and immediately gave the Old Prison Farm property to the Atlanta Police Foundation without any public input from anyone. It surprised everyone and smelled like an under-the-table backroom deal, and it still stinks today.
Bottom’s action violated an existing ordinance that placed the Old Prison Farm’s 300-plus acres into the Atlanta charter to be protected in perpetuity as green space and ecological habitat restoration to protect Intrenchment Creek and South River watersheds.
In 2021, the Atlanta City Council (ACC) voted 10 to 4 in favor of the controversial public safety training facility. This vote came after 17 hours of public comment where almost 70% of the callers spoke against “Cop City” and in favor of green space.
ACC did not listen to the people, but the opposition and resistance to cop city did not disappear. Resistance to this project grows among local residents, dozens of organizations, environmentalists, and the Muscogee community who want the forest rematriated or restored to balance with respect for Mother Earth.
Those who want more green space and are opposed to cop city are concerned that training police in urban warfare with military equipment would make Atlanta’s Black community less safe. After Ferguson and the murder of George Floyd, activists have legitimate concerns that police could be used to suppress protests that demand police reform and police accountability for their behavior.
Georgia Republican lawmakers tried to pass a law to severely limit protest and free speech. It failed but will probably be back next year. Their actions did nothing to ease fears that an authoritarian government would use the police against citizens’ First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.
A PEACEFUL PROTEST MARCH TURNS INTO MASS ARRESTS
Saturday, May 14, a few days before the police raid at the Old Prison Farm, a peaceful protest to oppose “Cop City” marched through Little Five Points and into the Inman Park neighborhood.
After about an hour of marching, it ended in Freedom Park, where police suddenly surrounded the marchers and began indiscriminately arresting people. A journalist and people walking in the park that had nothing to do with the demonstration were arrested. About 17 people were arrested and charged with walking in the roadway.
ARRESTEES, A FOREST PROTECTOR, AND NEIGHBORS SPEAK OUT AT A
PRESS CONFERENCE ON THE PROTEST MARCH AND POLICE RAID.
The press conference at Intrenchment Creek Park responded to police aggression and repression against protesters who opposed cop city. This forest is at the intersection of racism, police violence, environmental issues, and climate change. The Weelaunee Forest is a symbol of endangered forests all over the country that need to be protected if we are to survive climate change.
Ashely Dixon, a SEARCH Showing Up For Social Justice community member, was arrested at the Saturday protest and march.
“It was a friendly protest with neighbors and children smiling and dancing. When police attacked without warning, they attacked some people with tasers. We were all terrified. The police are out of control. I feel it is not safe to protest in Atlanta, but we will fight for the right to have our voices heard,” Dixon said.
“The poor and black communities are most directly impacted by police violence. We want funding from policing and incarceration to go toward housing, health care, mental health care, and other services desperately needed by our community,” Dixon said.
“I was at the protest Saturday when police aggressively tackled people without warning. I started to videotape, and in response to my videotaping, they tackled and arrested me. It shows how little they care about people’s freedom of speech,” BP, a community organizer, and artist said.
The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) represents the people arrested. They have been involved in human rights work since the summer of 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement and the protest involving George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
“A number of those charges [against those arrested] have been dismissed because the prosecutors have acknowledged that the actions by police officers were unwarranted and abusive,” Devon Franklin, Policy Council for SCHR, said.
“The actions we have seen over the past week are intended to serve as intimidation and suppress constitutionally protected speech. Since 2020, we have seen a pattern of force by the APD to arrest and create charges against people engaging in free speech that they disagree with. We see police making unfounded allegations that historically have been proven to be untrue,” Franklin said.
Meg Johnson, a homeowner in one of the neighborhoods impacted by cop city, said, “The police raided a growing protest encampment in the woods, and SWAT pointed rifles at environmental activists. This is an attempt to demoralize a vibrant and diverse movement that local community members lead against replacing the largest urban tree canopy in the United States with the largest police training compound in the U.S. This land is the lungs of Atlanta. It is ecologically critical to the city’s survival.”
Amethyst, a movement organizer, read a statement from a Forest Protector still in the only remaining treehouse that police have not destroyed, but it is under siege by cops now.
“I am not afraid. I am angry. This [forest] does not belong only to the rich and powerful, and it never will. When the people speak, and their voices aren’t heard. We must act to defend the lives of the people and the planet’s life. Agents of the state are deployed to enforce the decision of the rich and powerful. Decisions that are detrimental to life on Earth. We will continue to defend the forest; we are not leaving,” the Forest Protector said from the top of a water oak tree.
In summary, Amethyst said, “It’s clear the APD is hoping that through violence, repression, and intimidation, this will discourage social movements and discourage people from complaining about injustice. But the opposite will happen; there’s a broad community of organizations, neighbors, and community groups dedicated to ensuring that the more this movement is oppressed, the more it grows and the stronger it becomes.”
Written and photos by Gloria Tatum
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