Joyous Bravery: #StopCopCity at the Crossroads

Midway on a road trip across the South, I intended to camp in a parcel of woods in South Atlanta known officially as Intrenchment Creek Park, the planned site for the construction of a $90 million police training facility (or military base, as described by commentator Jacquie Luqman) which most people now know as Cop City after two years of concerted opposition. Since then it’s become known as Weelaunee People’s Park. “Weelaunee is the [indigenous] Muskogee name for the South River, it means brown, green, yellow waters” as Sarah of the Anti-Repression Committee told Final Straw Radio. On December 13th 2022, the day before I was going to arrive, a large militarized inter-agency operation began to evict those who had spent the past year camped-out in tents and treehouses in defense of the forest, casting some doubt on my own plans. I made some hasty arrangements to stay elsewhere and otherwise played it by ear. While stopped in traffic in a downpour I checked social media for updates.

Although the movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest is a profoundly local struggle, Cop City is being built by a constellation of corporate funders and construction contractors spanning the continent (click here for further research). Atlas Technical Consultants, (also known as ATC Group Services) for example, has an office in my home state of Connecticut and has done millions of dollars of business with the Connecticut state government since 2017, according to and These contracts are vulnerable to public pressure, should Connecticut residents protest the state’s complicity in militarized policing. Also, the firm providing legal and financial services to the man responsible for the Weelaunee land grab and demolition, Corporation Services Company, has an office in Downtown Hartford where a solidarity protest could be organized.

Additionally, the Atlanta Police Department is represented by a labor organization affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has millions of members across the country. Reached for comment, Julia Wallace, a member of SEIU Drop the Cops! said, “The police continue to show they are enemies of the working class and tools of capitalism. It’s not a surprise then the violent tactics coupled with the harsh sentences the activists face is in the name of ecological destruction for profit. As inflation rises and more are facing poverty as well as on the other hand increased unionization both capitalist parties are fighting for increased cop budgets and militarization. We members of unions need to expel the police from our unions and defend activists who oppose police militarization. Cops like [Atlanta police officer] Garrett Rolfe who murdered unarmed Black man Rayshard Brooks is a member of an SEIU affiliate. These racist killers have no place in our union!” The International Brotherhood of Police Officers enjoys major support and resources from SEIU, and the threat of a strained relationship stemming from Cop City could prove to be one of many cracks to break the dam, should labor activists make a determined effort to extricate our movement from the clutches of scabs with badges.

Since press and other observers were physically barred from the area, I depended on what I could glean from social media, which seemed overall bad. Six arrestees were being charged under the vague (to the point of describing any form of protest deemed undesirable) “domestic terrorism” statute in a naked attempt to cast them as extremists to a community that has overwhelmingly opposed Cop City (to the tune of 98% accorrding to a survey of surrounding neighborhoods in 2021), and divide a movement that authorities have struggled to reclaim the narrative from. Ryan Fatina reported in Unicorn Riot:

Some affidavits say the offense is ’16-10-24 Domestic Terrorism.’ However, as of 2021, that Georgia state law does not include any references to domestic terrorism—it only pertains to ‘obstructing or hindering law enforcement.‘ Another affidavit says the offense is “16-4-10 Domestic Terrorism,” although this appears to be a mistake by prosecutors and the judge, as that section is currently repealed according to However, there is a domestic terrorism statute on the books in Georgia.

Already on shaky ground, the state’s case has a poor chance of a conviction. Charging left-wing political activists under terrorism statutes has generally failed, absent some proven connection to a group like the FARC in Colombia, as most such convictions involve giving “material aid” to a foreign organization. In a very literal sense the forest defenders are political prisoners by virtue of the fact that they are facing charges which serve only a political purpose after political leaders like Gov. Kemp began calling them terrorists, amplified by media that are financially invested in his brand of politics (more on that later).

After waking up in my car the next morning, I stopped at my storage unit before heading to Weelaunee People’s Park, leaving my laptop and other valuables. When I pulled up in the late morning to the parking lot, the area was utterly abandoned. Anarchist and abolitionist graffiti and stickers were on every surface from the gazebo to the burnt remains of a developer’s truck, leaving no other signs of the violence inflicted by police the day before in an unprecedented paramilitary mobilization using tear gas and other chemical projectiles against tree-sitters and occupants of the forest seeking to stop its demolition. I set a password for my phone’s lock screen, shut it off and locked it in the glove compartment in a possibly-futile attempt to protect my personal information. Once I had my backpack put together, I set out on one of the paved paths, completely uncertain as to where I should go.

I walked alone through new growth woodlands, wetlands, the edge of the park along a neighborhood, and over a long rambling foot bridge across Atlanta’s South River. A repurposed newspaper box offered canned goods and #StopCopCity literature. The graffiti mostly disappeared past a tunnel with large, brightly painted pieces that went underneath an expressway overpass toward a residential area, and after an hour of seeing no one, I decided to turn around and check on my car. Police the day before had dubiously asserted that the park was closed and accused people of trespassing, and if I knew where else to park besides the most conspicuous place possible, I would have done so if only to avoid getting towed.

On my way back something off the main path caught my eye and I decided to take a quick look. I walked around the clumped-up tent on the ground marking the narrow trailhead, offering very little visibility into the dense woods beyond fifty feet. As I got closer to the object it appeared to be some kind of box made out of glass window panes. But now from within the brush I spotted more tents laying in piles along with tarps, furniture and personal belongings further into the woods.

Having finally stumbled upon what remained of the Living Room, the main gathering place of the forest defenders, I decided to look around. “Hello,” I called out loud enough that someone nearby might hear, but hopefully soft enough that they not be as frightened as I felt. Either way I heard nothing but wind, creaking pines and the hum of a nearby expressway. It seemed like a ghost town of wrecked campsites and fallen trees spread out over an acre or two, one right after another, underneath fluttering banners and flags still hanging high from the tall pines, perhaps the last occupants declaring Weelaunee free from encroachment. In the silence I wondered what I was even doing there.

I retraced my steps to the paved path and sat in my car for awhile, checking my phone for news, thinking about the staggering scene I had come across. One Instagram post announced people had been harassed “at gun point” by police at the same general area and same day I was out there. In the parking lot someone had their phone fixed to a tripod in front of the burnt truck, apparently shooting some kind of footage of herself talking. An unmarked pickup truck slowly circled the lot, doing little more than that as far as I could tell.

After awhile a fellow Subaru driver pulled up and parked a few spaces down from me. I’ll call them “A.” The single occupant got out and started unloading camera gear. I decided from the look of them that they were probably a comrade, and I started to consider how I could approach them as gently as possible. We exchanged waves as they walked around taking shots of the area. Eventually I worked up the nerve to call over and ask them about whether or not they knew if any tree-sitters were still holding out. They seemed unsure how to answer the inquiry or what to make of the person making it, a random unfamiliar guy dressed in a college hoodie. They said they didn’t know. We got to talking about what I’d seen, how severe the police escalation had been, and our mutual ambivalence of approaching the place in plain sight.

As I was trying to find the alarming Instagram post to show to A., a pickup with an emblem I couldn’t make out pulled around the lot toward us. I stole a glance and quickly turned away. “That looks kind of official” I said turning to my new friend. They scanned it closely trying to assess the threat it posed. The truck parked in a spot directly between my car and A.’s as we were talking by mine. The door opened and out came Joel, a newly minted Ranger at a park a half hour away, and a conservationist that’s been working to keep developers out of the Old Prison Farm section of Weelaunee. Neighborly from the word “go,” Joel chatted us up about the week’s events and the smallest details of the land dispute, from the leading personalities to where the zoo animals are buried. He described his efforts in vain to find a compromise with developers that would’ve made everyone happy, lamenting his role as the voice of pragmatism. As Joel and A. were talking I found the Instagram post I had been looking for and showed it to them.

After a long talk he bid us farewell. He asked my name, and I tried to casually give him my nickname, “B.,” in lieu of something more identifiable. “Beep? Like beep-beep?” “Sure, why not” I chuckled. As he pulled off he shouted “I’ll be saying your name in traffic from now on!” with a big smile as he tooted his truck horn at us. A. was getting ready to head into the forest and I asked if they’d be alright with me joining them. We made a slow ingress back along the path I’d been down already, stopping to photograph the vegetable garden that had been decimated by the police before we headed into the Living Room. They gave me the lay of the land while trying to process the destruction of the place they’d seen fully intact just a few days earlier when the worst to come seemed more likely to be the weather than anything else, for which preparations were well underway.

Atlanta is called the City in the Forest, but judging from the infrastructure that was being built to weather the winter, Weelaunee was perhaps becoming a village unto itself. Rather than one built to exploit the landscape, it was engineered to meet the needs of both humans and nature. The woods were thick with brush, but the trees were mostly skinny. Still unfamiliar with southern ecosystems, I asked if this was old growth. No, A. said, it’s only grown since the closing of the Old Prison Farm in 1990, and the developers use that fact to argue that it’s not worth saving. Of course, how else does one get more old growth forests if not by allowing new growth to keep growing? We chatted on and off but mostly I tried to leave them to their work. I wandered around within view of my guide, and without my phone I stared off into the endless field of skinny swaying pines.

I offered to A. that such a dramatic escalation seemed like an act of desperation. Typically the power structure tries to undermine a movement through soft power, trotting out pro-cop community members and marginalizing the radicals, but it didn’t seem like that was working very well this time. I offered that maybe their desperate lashing-out will backfire on them. “I hope so,” they answered tentatively. Wandering a bit farther by myself I found a path that took me across a stream where something else caught my eye, which after hours of seeing ransacked campsites turned out to be a tent that was miraculously still standing.

A couple weeks prior I had hustled briefly into Atlanta (along the way to another appointment further south) to check out a demonstration against Cop City led by children from the nearby Highlander School, a preschool named for the historic movement-building institution in Tennessee by the same name. It was another rainy day, and by the time I arrived everyone was huddled under a pavilion sharing food, banging on drums and doing arts and crafts. A man named Craig Womack from the Muscogee Creek tribe talked about his peoples’ relationship to the land they were forced off of by white Americans, and his experience with the movement to now defend it. His own tribe bears a complicated relationship with the same systems of anti-Blackness currently at work in South Atlanta, which was discussed at-length in a recent online panel that Craig participated in, describing the Muscogee’s legacy of being both a home for free Black tribal members, as well as slavery and segregation. After his presentation at the park, he opened the floor for anyone else to speak.

A debate ensued regarding the question of property destruction. Some felt it could be overemphasized and alienate potential allies, while leaving other aspects of the movement like community-building and creating a nurturing environment in the background. Others offered that not everyone could garden, nor would everyone be willing to let the more privileged forest defenders be the only ones standing toe-to-toe against demolition crews and police. Someone else acknowledged their deep ambivalence toward any kind of destruction that might inadvertently bring harm to the forest, but emphasized that there is no comparison between a burnt truck and the state violence being waged against Black and brown communities, pleading with everyone to stay first-and-foremost focused on the latter.

It was striking to me to see how a potentially charged subject, one I’ve seen devolve on more than one occasion, was maybe tempered by the presence of the protest’s leaders, local kids. How much better would our arguments be if we had them in front of people we’re setting an example to? Or perhaps doing so in full view of the generation that will reap the consequences of our successes or failures? Maybe that’s the meaning behind the word “accountability” we’ve been fumbling for.

Following the police mobilization of December 13th and 14th I stuck around Atlanta long enough to attend a rally and march protesting the state’s aggression, swelling to two hundred people at its height. Speakers at the outset underlined the divide-and-conquer strategy at play with the terrorism charges, and rejected such attempts while thanking the tree-sitters for sharing water and their knowledge of the forest paths with community members. “These are our people being detained.” Chants of “Free them all!” echoed remarks connecting the six arrested that week with longtime Black liberation political prisoner Mutulu Shakur, and 2Pac’s stepfather, released just one day prior to the Atlanta protest due to his deteriorating health.

Another speaker added that even if the Civil Rights-era dogwhistle (used historically to incite reactionary violence) “outside agitator” accusation held any water, the construction of Cop City has both national and global implications. Not only will it train police nationally, it will offer the opportunity for an expansion of Georgia State University’s “anti-terrorism training” program in partnership with the Israeli apartheid police forces. Given the Israeli government’s policy of labeling all anti-apartheid activities, including nonviolent tactics such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as terrorism, it is little wonder that their partners in Georgia have taken the same rhetorical tact in defending American apartheid. If non-Georgians are concerned enough to make the trip, we have good reason.

The young multiracial crowd soon marched through the surrounding neighborhoods and commercial district, moving at a brisk pace up a steep embankment leaving the park. As we snaked our way through the streets, no visible signs of opposition could be seen, either from pro-police civilians or from the police themselves. An unmarked car with a police vest in the driver’s seat left unattended just outside the park suffered only a protest sign left under its windshield wiper. Many residents waved, clapped and raised their fists in solidarity.

I spoke to Kwame, a member of one of the organizations in attendance, a Black liberation collective called Community Movement Builders (CMB), “residents and activists serving Black working-class and poor Black communities. CMB emerged out of a need to respond to encroaching gentrification, displacement and over-policing. CMB organizes to bring power to Black communities by challenging existing institutions and creating new ones that our people control,” according to their website. He told me the collective moved into Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2015 at the invitation of residents suffering police surveillance and harassment aimed at pushing them out of their homes. Indeed, policing and housing have long been intertwined issues in Atlanta (see here and here) in a “Mafia system” according to one former cop who blew the whistle on his own.

As I’ve been trying to figure out where to publish this piece and how to structure it, events have continued to unfold. It was not until the state assassination of forest defender Tortuguita (Tort for short) that I decided too much time had passed already. In a macabre reenactment of the exact kind of modern state-sanctioned lynchings that the movement has been fighting to end, the police’s claims that the young Afro-Venezuelan had fired the first shot was immediately challenged by those who heard the single burst of gunfire. Neither a gun nor bodycam footage have been produced, but the corporate press has predictably done little more than parrot the same police force that they themselves have a vested financial and political interest in shielding. According to Mainline magazine, “Two-thirds of the $90 million facility is being bankrolled by corporate funders and private donors of [the Atlanta Police Foundation]—which includes Atlanta Journal-Constitution [newspaper] parent company Cox Enterprises”.

David Peisner and others have observed that Tort was not a violent person and indeed repudiated violence as a political weapon. Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders offered on the day after the assassination:

There’s no indication to us as to why someone in that situation where it hasn’t happened before would start shooting while surrounded by police in a tent, not in a barricade, not in a place with some cover or anything, so we totally dispute, we think an independent investivation needs to be … had…

The truth of the matter is that even when we first started protesting this Cop City, the police have raided, and broke up, so-called legal demonstrations, multiple people have been arrested, pepper sprayed, they’ve had charges against them, the threat of having their paperwork lost and having to stay in jail longer, and this has happened time after time, way before there were any so called forest defenders who were in the forest trying to stop the actual construction from happening, so the police have been using violent tactics since the beginning of the surge to stop Cop City. And again the local media in particular has only reported … anytime they mention the protesters, they mention it with the word violence. But when the police have, again, arrested folks, charged folks, used pepper spray, thrown people to the ground, elbowed folks, pushed folks, harassed folks, during and after demonstrations, it’s never been labeled “violent acts against the community,” or against protesters. It’s only labelled violence when they accuse protesters of trying to stop police.

And we expect that narrative but we have to point out that that is the narrative that is currently being given and is currently out there, which is: it’s the protesters that have been violent. With this large task force, this type of military weaponry, militarized hardware they have at their disposal they’ve been using to clear the forest, it was only a matter of time when an incident like this would take place. That the police and their gung-ho manner would go in there suited up, vested up with SWAT teams to clear the forest of 21-year olds who are climbing up on trees basically, 20 year olds who are climbing on trees. We just did a rally and demonstration on the Dr. King holiday in from of the Dakalb County DA’s office here in Atlanta, at one point one person tried to take down the flag in front of the building. We actually thought in our eagerness to do a rally, partly we were like, “Oh wait a minute, we forgot this was a holiday, so no one’s going to be in the building.” But when we went to the building, sometime you go to a protest and it’s symbolic. And okay, so it’ll be symbolic. No one is coming in and out the building. But as soon as someone attempts the flag pole, all of a sudden about 15 officers rushed out the building, guns in hand, rifle in hand, one officer had an AR, they rushed out the building. They’re there ready to use force and violence, and again military style weapons to put down protests.

And so now that we have this one person, this one (as far as we know) male who’s been killed in the forest, we have to continue fighting, we have to continue asking people that at this stage that whatever you can do in your individual cities to protest, demand that Cop City not get built, social media, hold of signs that say “Stop Cop City” we have to make sure there is a public outcry about the killing of this protester in the forest. Again the police are using this time period to weave a narrative and tell a story about a “violent protester who shot at the police,” we have no inforation whatsoever other than whatthe police have given. There’s not been any release of any bodycams, we know the Georga State Police aren’t even required to have bodycams on, so we don’t know what imagery will come forth. Again, we only have their version of events. We have no other version of events that are coming and the media itself is leading with this version. All we know is we have one person killed by the police…”

He goes on to say:

This is a combined, both Democrats and Republicans, on the city level, the county level, the state level, and the federal level. The one thing they’ve agreed upon right now is they’re going to criminalize protesters, so basically you have the mayor of Atlanta, the so called Black liberal mayor of Atlanta on the same side as the righ-wing white Republican Kemp in calling organizers and protesters “terrorists,” and in backing-up the narrative without any question whatsoever that somehow the governor is now the lead person leading the way for a police facility that’s located in Atlanta. The issue here, why the Georgia state patrol, state troopers are in clearing the forest… Somehow the state apparatus is fully involved because the city police and the state police … they are working together, these so called liberal Democrats are working together with these … right-wing Republicans. And so when it comes to stopping protests, when it comes to protecting police, they are all on the same side.

Anytime there is an uptick in information being given out that is favorable to the demand Stop Cop City, they’ve increased their raids. And I think as I did the story yesterday that [mayor] Andre Dickens was telling a group of developers and corporate leaders that they were committed to making this project happen, and the corporate leaders said they’re worried about bidding on this project because of the amount of media attention, so-called controversy which has been stirred… We think it’s a reaction to stories like that which even moreso has made them double down, triple down, in terms of the tactics they’ve used in the forest. And again, all of a sudden several weeks ago now, when they went in and raided the forest and arrested five people, the next day another, when they used rubber bullets, when they used pepper spray to arrest these people, and then they charged them with domestic terrorism for sitting in trees, a leading advocate of that was so called Governor Mike Kemp. Kemp has somehow become the point person for leading this, so that means he’s joined with the city, which means they’ve had many discussions. Because now Kemp is now putting out the word calling people domestic terrorists, probably because the liberal Democrat doesn’t want to be caught doing that. So it’s like “Hey Kemp, you do that for us. We won’t say anything about it, we won’t push back, it’s okay to do that.”

So since that time period they’ve been using SWAT teams again, Georgia state troopers, Atlanta police, Dekalb county police, all in unison to go in the forest and take out 4 or 5 forest deenders at a time. 20, 30, 40, 50 upwards to hundreds of cops, just for that purpose. Just to take out 5 or 6 people. This is destined to happen in terms of the number of military hardware that’s been in there, the way in which the forest defenders narrated in the media, so these folks are ready to shoot on hair trigger notice, they’re hopped-up on who knows what, they’re ready to show who’s in charge, they’re convinced these protesters are a danger to them, so all of that is in their head and they go in there with the use of force present in their minds about how they’re going to disband or get rid of these folks in the forest. It’s not shocking something like this took place, considering the narrative that’s been painted, considering the militarized policing, the works. That is something we understand to be taking place.

The following statement by a forest defender was broadcast by Democracy Now!

On Wednesday, January 18th, multiple police departments descended upon Weelaunee People’s Park in unprecedented numbers and force. They blocked access to the park on both roads and bike trails. Some people were arrested for attempting to document police actions that day at the park.

Gunfire was heard at 9:04 a.m., about a dozen shots fired in rapid succession, followed by a loud boom about a minute later. For hours after the murder of Tortuguita, police continued to hunt, assault and arrest our brave forest defenders.

Those defenders in trees were targeted with pepper bullets. One tree sitter had their treehouse, which stored food and water, cut from beneath them. They were left without food and water for over 12 hours up in the tree as police waited at the base of the tree to capture them. This same tree sitter continued to stay in their tree until the next morning, when they were arrested.

Other forest defenders were chased by police dogs. These defenders had to hide and flee for their lives, all the while with the nauseating knowing that their dear comrade had been murdered in the sacred land that we call home.

Tortuguita was a radiant, joyful, beloved community member. They fought tirelessly to honor and protect the sacred land of the Weelaunee Forest. They took great joy in caring for each and every person that they came across. Tortuguita brought an indescribable jubilance to each and every moment of their life. Their passing is a preventable tragedy. The murder of Tortuguita is a gross violation of both humanity and of this precious Earth, which they loved so fiercely.

Do not turn away from this violence. Do not allow the callousness of the police state to numb your heart. Honor Tortuguita by bravely witnessing the ongoing injustices the police and corporations are enacting upon the Weelaunee Forest. Honor Tortuguita’s legacy by embodying their joyous bravery. Tortuguita’s presence on this Earth is a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. It is time for people to join this movement and to say no to this pointless escalation by the police.

The day Tort was assassinated, seven more were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, followed by another six at a protest memorializing Tortuguita the following Saturday, bringing the total to nineteen.

Please sign and share this Call to Action.

¡Tortuguita, presente!

One response to “Joyous Bravery: #StopCopCity at the Crossroads”

  1. […] trailhead and park entrance on the land. Corporation Services Company’s Hartford office has been urged by protestors to drop Millsap’s […]


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