Cops Vs. Trees
Which side are you on?
Eight years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux nation led a volunteer army fighting to defend water from pollution by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which transports tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for export. The defenders ignited the passions of the world. On a 2016 trip to faraway Laos, a student asked President Obama what he would do to protect Indigenous land at Standing Rock and got loud applause for asking.
Standing Rock was the first round of the battle between The World Vs. Industrial Capitalism. The oil companies and bankers, supported by armed police agencies and the National Guard, won that fight. DAPL went ahead, leaking oil as water defenders had predicted, and many who nonviolently protested it were sent to jail as terrorists.
Now, another fight of people and planet vs. corporations and government is rocking Atlanta, GA. This time the anti-Nature forces are police, not oil companies. Those on Earth’s side are protecting the 600-acre South River / Weelaunee Forest from a proposed 350-acre movie set / shooting range for militarized police training called Cop City (official name: City of Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.)
Cop City was approved by the Atlanta government in 2021, after the Black Lives Matter protests against police killings. Just as our rulers’ solution to climate change is to pump more oil, their solution to police violence is more militarized police.
But many Atlanta residents don’t feel spending $90 million on a police training site will make them safer. A resident named Martin told me, “Money like this should be used for the homeless here in Atlanta.” City government, however, believes public opposition can be ignored.
Atlanta Forest Defenders, the informal group camping in the forest and leading opposition to the project, says, ”Cop City will hyper-militarize law enforcement, equipping police with a site to train for the suppression of Atlanta’s diverse Black and working-class communities.” Like Standing Rock, the Atlanta Forest is nothing less than a “collision of two competing ideas of life and the future,” according to the Forest Defenders.
Will we have a natural world, or a concrete police state? As with Standing Rock, people all over the world are taking Nature’s side, risking their lives but being outgunned by the banks, industries, and their armed forces.
Escalating violence against defenders
US governments have been cracking down ever-harder on indigenous and environmentalist land defenders. Many states have passed laws classing nonviolent protest against development as terrorism. Now Georgia law enforcement has shot an Atlanta forest defender to death.
According to the Guardian news site, “Twenty-six-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who went by “Tortuguita,” was shot in his tent by police. This is a huge escalation.” “Killings of environmental activists by the state are depressingly common — Global Witness recently reported that 1,700 climate activists around the world have been murdered in the last 10 years — in countries, like Brazil, Honduras, Nigeria,” author and Northwestern University history professor Keith Woodhouse told The Guardian. “But this has never happened in the US.”
I think he’s leaving out 400 years of murder of indigenous land defenders, but in the 21st Century, he is probably right. The forces of industrial development and their governments are getting more violent. The police allege that Toruguita fired first, but according to WABE Radio in Atlanta, demonstrators challenged that story and said they only heard firing from the cops. In any event, nine demonstrators have been arrested and charged with terrorism.
From the trees’ point of view
South River / Weelaunee forest has a long history. It’s not old growth; the original forest, cared for by the Muscogee (Creek) Indians until their expulsion in the 1830s, was cut down in the 19th Century to make way for plantations worked by African slaves. When slavery ended, many plantations became uneconomical and were eventually replaced by The Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where prison labor replaced slave labor, as it did in much of the South.
Since the prison closed in 1990, the forest has been growing back. It now does what forests do: provides cover and shade, controls floods, brings rain, shelters animals and grows food.
The forest defenders are helping it. One defender told Ecowatch Journal, “South River Forest is already a food forest with many wild fruit trees and other edible plants. We who defend and inhabit this forest have also begun planting crops and fruit trees in natural clearings and sowing edible native wildflowers in the paths of destruction left by the bulldozers. By the time the Cop City project is defeated, we will have already begun transforming it into a zone of communal food production [including] squash, okra, fruits, goats, chickens, and ducks,” crops that could feed surrounding communities.
Neighbors support the forest; police fear it
Along with food, the forest provides places of peace, of escape from urban despair, a place where people from the majority Black communities around the forest can relax and heal. The residents of surrounding neighborhoods don’t want to give those up. These communities already have to contend with environmentally unjust developments such as six nearby landfills.
If Cop City opens, neighbors will be assaulted with noise from firing ranges and explosives practice. Traffic will increase dramatically during and after construction. Quite likely, having a money-making police playground across the street will make them a destination for police and will gentrify their area, raising rents and forcing them out.
Tunde Osazua, an organizer Black Alliance for Peace and with the Community Builders’ Movement, which opposes gentrification and police violence told KPFA radio, “Residents are overwhelmingly opposed to Cop City, but business interests, police, and city government are pushing ahead.”
Osazua says the project represents police trying to take more control of Black communities. “Looking at the plans for Cop City,” he says, “it is abundantly clear that the police do not see the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising as finished. They have not recovered, and they fear its return…For this reason the police budget was recently increased by 7 percent despite widespread protests in the city calling for a decrease and the reallocation of funds to social services.”
City government and the police know Cop City is not wanted by their citizens and have kept plans hidden as long as they could. According to Osazua, “Plans were devised without public input and in secret between the city council, the Atlanta Police Foundation, and the various business interests that fund both institutions.”
Cop City’s proponents have gone to embarrassing lengths to reduce opposition. The proposed police training campus was originally called, “The Institute for Social Justice.” Now it’s the City of Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, because who is against public safety or social justice? ‘Urban Warfare Boot Camp’ wouldn’t sound nearly as desirable, but it would be closer to the truth.
Why this is a big deal
The forest defenders say, “The struggle that is playing out in Atlanta is a contest for the future…It is up to us to create a peaceful society that does not treat human life as expendable.” This fight may not be as globally significant as the battle against pipelines at Standing Rock, but is critical in trying to heal Nature and society in the current moment. What is more important, police or forests? Oil or water? We can see in Atlanta, as we have seen in struggles against pipelines, how protecting nature and protecting people are the same fight.
Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, jailed last year for winning a case against Chevron’s oil pollution in Ecuador, said, “The killing in Atlanta is clearly part of a dangerous trend of wholesale escalation and violence by US law enforcement, courts, and the fossil fuel industry to attack leaders of the climate movement.”
Defend Atlanta Forest does not appear to have much indigenous leadership, though it’s hard to be sure as most activists do not reveal their identities. But they have gained widespread indigenous support. The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) published a strong statement for the protestors, called for the resignation of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, and urged all their supporters to speak out in solidarity with the forest defenders.
IEN wrote, “As a network of Indigenous Peoples, we know too well the dangers of defending our lands and waters. In these struggles we have experienced brutal crackdowns on land defense, we have seen our leaders and communities marked as eco-terrorists, and we have felt the direct impact of police who have been given the authority to exercise military tactics and force upon our bodies.”
IEN also published a list of ways to support the forest defense.
· Donate to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to support legal costs for arrested protestors and ongoing legal action: https://atlsolidarity.org/
· Donate to the family of Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán:
· Uplift this phone zap targeting members of the ATL Police Foundation:
· Uplift this campaign targeting the contractors behind Cop City:
· Call your Member of Congress to urge them to call for an independent investigation into the police killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán.
· Amplify social media posts by Members of Congress calling for an independent investigation:
Or go to Atlanta and join the fight, or organize actions where you live. According to the AFD Twitter account, a week of solidarity has been announced February 19–26 to #StopCopCity and defend the forest everywhere. Check out http://StopCopCitySolidarity.org.
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