“We Don’t Want To Live in a Police State”: Stop Cop City Still Needs Your Help

Since 2021, the Atlanta Police Foundation has sought to build a training facility, which will be the largest police training facility in the United States, in a community of color and via clear-cutting forest that is one of the “lungs” of the city in Atlanta, Georgia. For as long as there have been plans to build Cop City, there has also been resistance by a broad coalition of activisits.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MARCH 4: Environmental activists hold a rally and a march through the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest Atlanta that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

So, What Is “Cop City”? And Why Is There A Massive Peoples’ Movement Opposed To It?

Cop City is a part of a project composed of two parts: the Atlanta Police Foundation’s plan for a cop training facility and film and television production studio Blackhall Studios’ plan for a studio expansion on forest land in Atlanta, Georgia.

Both of these proposed construction projects would take place on public land in the South River Forest area. This land is also part of the traditional homeland of the Mvkoke people who colonizers (specifically, Andrew Jackson and his regime and the white people of the time) forced from their land with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Following this eviction, the land was used as a plantation where it was farmed by enslaved African American people before it became a prison farm, now abandoned. The prison farm closed in the 1990’s, but in the decades it operated, guards reportedly enacted countless horrifying human rights abuses.Of this public land, Intrenchment Creek Park, according to WABE, is ‘property [that] was given to DeKalb subject to the restriction that it “shall be used in perpetuity as park property.'” It’s on that land, which formerly held this prison farm, that the Atlanta Police Foundations plans to construct the new Cop City training facility.

The project has two components:

  1. Shadowbox Studios (formerly Blackhall) which is engaged in a land swap with the City of Atlanta giving them access to forest land. Of the deal, Shadowbox’s founder and CEO, Ryan Millsap, said, “I’m an entrepreneurial opportunistic real estate developer,” and “It is both an excellent time for an entrepreneur to exi[s]t and for private equity to take a run at the next leg of the race. Everyone wins.”
  2. The project includes the construction of a massive police training facility, notable for its inclusion of a “mock city” where cops could, presumably, train in urban suppression tactics. As someone who has personally evaded the rather uninspired bean bag rounds of cops who live in the suburbs, I can see why cops — who don’t even have to come from the communities they police — would want to be able to “practice” in a fake city. This, not to mention the numerous other components of the complex, including a K-9 training facility, stables and pasture land for mounted patrol (yours truly was almost killed by a cop horse in 2020, and, yes, these horses are a violent tool of state repression), point to efforts that, “potentially” I will say for legal reasons, further bolster the police in their role of upholding white supremacist and capitalist interests.

Considering that the city of Atlanta is 48% Black, according to the US census, to propose building this compound in 2021 might lead one to think this is a reactionary measure to the uprisings of 2020. To propose building Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia, might lead one to think that this is a calculated action to make sure that the people of Atlanta cannot wield the same kind of collective, bottom-up power they demonstrated in 2020. It’s certainly there for you to consider.

Cop City and the proposed studios will occupy land in one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta. While the consequences of cutting down a forest are pretty obvious (the trees are there, and then if you cut them down, they are not, and with that, the environment that filters the air and rainwater and houses countless living things also suffers), according to environmental engineeer Lily Pontiz, the Davinci Development Collaborative and the Atlanta Police Foundation “are doing less than the minimum to meet the legally defined standards for environmental site assessment reporting, and are breaking the trust of stakeholders and the terms of their Ground Lease Agreement with the City of Atlanta.”

A makeshift memorial for environmental activist Manuel Teran, who was deadly assault by law enforcement during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, Georgia on February 6, 2023. - Teran was allegedly shot by police on January 18, 2023, during a confrontation as officers cleared activists from a forest, the planned site of a police-training facility.

A memorial for Manuel Terán. Photo by CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images

An Overview of Cop City Resistance

To talk about state repression and violence as it relates to this land, we have to go back and once again sit in the genocide against the Indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years. Then, there’s the entire history of the prison farm to consider, one which spanned decades between 1920 and 1989. According to the Atlanta Community Press Collective (an autonomous collective), “Newspaper articles, letters from nurses, legislative and inspection records, and folk stories tell tales of overcrowding, ‘slave conditions,’ lack of healthcare, labor strikes, deaths, and unmarked ‘pauper’s’ graves.”

This land, which has the potential to become something, anything different, has a storied, bloody history of being used for state violence. Activists have not forgotten the land’s history, and it has inspired a desire for a way forward that moves away from propping up the evils of the prison industrial complex and toward something like a more just world.

Numerous groups and autonomous individuals have raised their voices in resistance to Cop City. Starting in 2021, autonomous members of the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement began camping in the forest and tree-sitting as a means of resisting construction. From The Guardian:

“By the rusted gate barring the entrance of a prison farm building, Red lights a cigarette.

‘We don’t want to live in a police state. We don’t want to live in a world that’s ravaged by climate change. And, you know, we just want to protect the nature that exists. And for me as an individual, this whole thing is coming from a place of love, not from rage or anger.'”

Black residents of Atlanta have voiced their opposition, including a community member who said at a City Council meeting earlier this year, “I have five Black children … I like breathing clean air … I want to drink clean water … I don’t want Black Hawk helicopters landing around the corner from my house. I don’t. My neighbors don’t. My granny don’t. She’s been in her house for 50 years.”

The Muscogee people served the mayor of Atlanta with an eviction notice, and according to the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement (which is not an organization, though politicians may attempt to frame it as such), the movement to Defend The Atlanta Forest brings together people resisting environmental racism, white supremacy and the carceral state, as well as those who want Atlanta’s green space preserved for current and future generations — as opposed to an Atlanta that capitulates to the influence of a powerful police foundation and descends further into racist over-policing. Some people just think the people who live in a city or who would be affected by a massive project receiving city funding should be able to have a say in it:

“The fight against ecological destruction and racialized violence in Atlanta, and beyond, are inextricably linked. Today, climate collapse disproportionately affects disadvantaged groups such as Atlanta’s Black communities. Rather than investing in solutions to the environmental crisis, governments are investing in heavier policing, especially of those disadvantaged groups. Atlanta’s tree canopy is one of its main sources of resiliency in the face of climate change. The threatened forest is home to wetlands that filter rainwater and prevent flooding which is a growing issue in the city. It is also one of the last breeding grounds for many amphibians in the region and an important migration site for wading birds. Nevertheless, the police and Blackhall Studios are set to bulldoze every inch of it. The period of planetary climate collapse that we are all living in will continue to pose urgent and unsettling questions to our species as we fight for dignity in a world of increasingly dangerous wildfires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and mass extinction. Rather than address the problems as they really present themselves, world and local leaders are hurling us into the fire. As we fight for a life worth living, the system seems prepared to prop up its petroleum-based economy with tear gas and lines of riot police. Defend the Forest/Stop Cop City is one part of a larger struggle dedicated to opening up a different path forward.”

It’s also, for many activists, about proving that it can be done, that Cop City will not be built, and that a movement can be sustained through waves of state and police repression. It can employ different tactics and that people of all different backgrounds, skillsets and abilities can find a place in the movement that suits them, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. From The Intercept:

“‘It’s not that people think this place of wilderness in the city of Atlanta is the key to solving the climate crisis,’ said an Atlanta-based artist I’ll call Marshall, who asked that his last name be withheld to avoid police scrutiny. ‘By creating a template of actions at the human scale, on the terrain that individuals and groups can influence with a little bit of focus, I think we have managed to crack something of a code.’ He added, ‘If we can stop this project, it is quite likely that further efforts will be taken elsewhere to definitively put to rest the long era of environmental devastation, police militarization, and all of the rest.'”

Activists continued to engage in resistance via a variety of tactics (marches, civic engagement, sabotage) throughout 2022.

Then, on January 18, 2023, police shot and killed Indigenous queer and nonbinary activist Manuel Terán (Tort/Tortuguita) in the Atlanta Forest. Despite the fact that cops claimed Tortuguita shot one of them, the autopsy later revealed there was no gunpowder residue on their hands, and they had suffered 57 bullet wounds [warning: the preceding link contains a disturbing look at the autopsy report, including a body map of the location of each of the bullet wounds]. Tort was beloved by so many, and their death spurred solidarity actions across the country.

In March of 2023, the broad coalition of Black and Indigenous, environmental, and abolitionist activists — and all the intersections therein — held a week of action. This included multiple peaceful actions like speeches and a concert, as well as direct action from a group that “tore up silt fencing, and set an office trailer, two UTVs, a mobile surveillance tower, and a front end loader afire as police ran for cover.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 09: Activists participate in a protest against the proposed Cop City being built in an Atlanta forest on March 09, 2023 in New York City. Cop City, a vast police training facility under construction atop forestland in the Atlanta, Georgia area, has become a focus point of demonstrations opposed to the development in one of the state's most pristine forests. The $90 million training center is designed to train police in militarized urban warfare.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Suppression of Stop Cop City Activists

When activists said they would be labeled terrorists, they were right. Police allegedly rounded up members of those gathered for the March 2023 week of action on that day, including concertgoers who had no knowledge of the direct action taking place, and arrested, especially, those with out-of-state licenses, many of whom would go on to be detained on Domestic Terrorism charges.  From NPR:

“To Alex Papali, another defendant in this case, the way that law enforcement agencies have targeted mostly non-Georgia residents with the domestic terrorism label has felt clearly political. Papali was at the music festival in the forest in March. He said when word got around that police had arrived, panic set in. He said officers detained anyone they were able to catch.

‘It was just totally arbitrary and random,’ Papali said. ‘But at one point they asked people where they’re from and they separated all the Georgia residents from all the out of town folks… and then they let them leave.'”

Atlanta, Georgia, is, in many ways, a test case as to whether the state can get away with taking advantage of little-used domestic terrorism laws. From an article by the ACLU:

“The recent arrests demonstrate how overbroad laws like Georgia’s can be wielded to disproportionately punish people who express political beliefs. The “Stop Cop City” defendants are not accused of injuring, or even attempting to injure, anyone at all. At most, they are accused of damaging property, and some defendants appear to be accused of no more than misdemeanor trespass. But the state has chosen to press extreme charges of “domestic terrorism” because the defendants were also engaged in a political protest that challenges the increasing militarization of the police.”

Following March’s week of action, three activists were arrested and detained on domestic terrorism charges for allegedly flyering near the home of one of the cops who participated in Tort’s killing. Jailtime is a serious threat. The conditions in the DeKalb County jail are allegedly abhorrent, with people — and a reminder that most people in jail have yet to be charged or convicted of any “crime” — living in states of malnourishment, little to no recreation time, exposure to sewage and leaking pipes and fixtures, lights left on all night, and generally inhumane torturous conditions. In 2022, a man died, “eaten alive” in an insect-infested cell in Fulton County Jail. Conditions in the Atlanta, Georgia area’s largest jails are known to be deadly — and remember, you don’t have to even be formally charged to find yourself held in a U.S. jail for days, weeks, months.

When police raided the home of three bail fund workers and arrested them, it was obvious the city of Atlanta and local police and prosecutors had zeroed in on the jailing of political dissidents on flimsy charges as a tactic. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund offers support to activists who are arrested and is not tied directly with the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement, but instead provides general support to activists in the Atlanta area exercising their First Amendment rights. They provide jail support, access to bail funds and access to representation. Bail Funds are common across the country, and each provide very similar types of support for protesters without necessarily aligning with any one specific movement. The three arrested Solidarity Fund organizers were “initially charged with the felony crimes of charity fraud and money laundering.” The charges came just as reporters revealed that Cop City would cost $51 million in public funds, $21 million more than its initially reported $30 million. From The Intercept:

“Local opposition to the project has been strong, with hundreds of people attending a recent city council meeting to speak out against Cop City during a public hearing. The city council will vote on whether to approve the growing cost of the vast militarized policing facility on June 5. ‘The charges against organizers of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund come as the public becomes increasingly aware of the corporate funding and interests backing the Cop City project and the Atlanta Police Foundation non-profit,’ Nora Scholl from the Atlanta Community Press Collective told me. ‘Law enforcement agencies are using force and imprisonment against protestors to buffer them from widespread opposition to the project.'”

Still, resistance continues, and the three organizers are now out on bond. The Atlanta Solidary Fund has resumed operations as of June 26. During that time, the sixth week of action took place in the Weelaunee Forest and Atlanta area.

If you want to deep dive into the history of the use of domestic terrorism charges as a tool of state repression, here’s a discussion by the Harvard NLG.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MARCH 4: Environmental activists hold a rally and a march through the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest Atlanta that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. Intent upon stopping the building of what they have called cop city, the environmentalists were evicted from the forest in January, resulting in the killing by police of Manuel Teran, a young activist and medic.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Where Are We In the Fight Right Now?

We’re less than a month out from the deadline for organizers to collect 70,000 signatures for a petition which will place a referendum on the City of Atlanta ballot this November — and as of August 14, canvassers had collected 80,000 signatures, well ahead of the upcoming deadline — and because “the coalition began to hear from reporters and sources inside City Hall that the City fo Atlanta is planning to argue for a higher-than-previously-reported legal minimum signature count for ballet access” they are continuing to collect signatures, and report they have passed the 100k mark. This referendum has the potential to allow the people of Atlanta to cancel the lease the City of Atlanta has for the land upon which Cop City construction is slated to take place in the Weelaunee Forest. The lease is with the Atlanta Police Foundation. According to WABE, “If successful, it would be the first such referendum in the city’s 186-year history.”

While activists are clearly pushing hard — and succeeding when it comes to obtaining signatures — it’s also clear that resistance will continue whether or not this legal avenue pans out. As a canvasser said, “I thought it was absolutely absurd of an expectation that we would get 70,000 signatures in the course of a couple of months.” And then, while living in a stew of state repression and violence, organizers did it anyway and are continuing to push, even as further resistance is thrown their way.

On another front, as the race for collecting signatures heated up, the South River Watershed Alliance filed a lawsuit, arguing that Cop City will violate the Clean Water Act.

And, recently, in July, multiple police motorcycles were set on fire by unknown individuals. The mayor of Atlanta, Andre Dickens, responded by saying: “Collectively, these have been some of the most significant attacks on public safety in our city, and in our nation over the past year,” and “Criminals are hiding in the midst of peaceful protesters…Some are career arsonists and vandals from across the nation.” The implication is obvious. You can hear the way that the mayor is trying to make a clear deliniation between people who use direct action tactics and people engaged in “peaceful” protest and ballot box tactics. In response, Rev. Keyanna Jones with Community Movement Builders, spoke: “They want to associate us with people who others would label as terrorists…We will not ever say that the destruction of property is violence, because what we know to be acts of violence are the ways police terrorize the Black community.” Amen.

The coalition organizing around the referendum to Stop Cop City similarly had already issued a statement that showed their solidarity with a diversity of tactics in the fight against Cop City. See their entry from June 25, at the start of the most recent Week of Action, which reads:

June 25, 2023

On the first day of the 6th week of action to stop Cop City, the Atlanta community gathered to celebrate the beginning of the week of action with meals, music, educational community panel and fun activities for the many children present. As the event shifted to a beautiful vigil in honor of Tortuguita, a beloved organizer who was violently killed by the police defending the Weelaunee forest, over 30 Atlanta Police Department officers swept through a community vigil at Brownwood Park to actively escalate and intimidate attendees. APD and opponents of the Stop Cop City movement see the power in this community and are actively attempting to disempower us while continuously harming this community.

Atlanta’s proud history of movement organizing means that many before us have stood against the power of the state. The Stop Cop City movement carries on this legacy of defying state repression and intimidation in pursuit of liberation, staying true to the community-centered values of Atlanta far more than any official who would rather use an altered, respectable lens of organizing and activism history as a talking point to call for quiet acceptance of authoritarianism.

Our place in the people’s movement against militarization, police violence, and state repression demands vocal and active solidarity with all tactics on this road to collective liberation. The Cop City Vote referendum coalition stands in solidarity and full support of the Stop Cop City Week of Action, larger Stop Cop City movement and abolitionist organizers and activists across the city.

While the state, bolstered by Cop City’s funders and proponents, seeks to define “violent” or “nonviolent” resistance, we reject this framing at its very core — our movement, across strategies or mobilizations, opposes the violence that the state is inflicting on our communities daily. From deforestation and the pollution of our neighbors’ drinking water to the prosecution of protestors and legal observers under “domestic terrorism” statutes, to the physical violence against forest defenders and heartbreaking murder of Tortuguita, police and our leaders have shown that they are willing to use any range of violence in their quest to quash this movement and our collective vision for a new world that chooses people over profits and capital.

The Cop City Vote referendum campaign is grounded in the values of abolitionist organizing, and racial and environmental justice. We also recognize our chosen tactic is a single intervention in a wide rainbow of fighting state oppression. We seek to use the Cop City referendum to leverage local power, educate and activate our communities, and build networks that can strengthen our city and future mobilizations. The referendum is one piece of a vibrant, multi-faceted movement, one that defies respectable categorization as well as state violence and repression. Our moral compass, and our North Star, remains in active solidarity with this wider movement in favor of our communities. We encourage those who support the Stop Cop City movement through our activity to learn more: attend the Week of Action, amplify this movement’s voice, and lift up the memory of Tortuguita.

Together, we will win.

With a referendum on the table, and a lawsuit, and concerns about the people working in coalition to get the referundum on November’s ballot centering electoral politics assuaged, why are we still talking about this? Largely, because this is one fight in a larger battle against state repression and police violence.

Don’t live in Atlanta? Don’t live in the U.S.? If Cop City gets built, it can effect you. Not only will it set a precedent for quashing opposition and democracy in favor of a police state, it will also, materially, provide a training ground for police nationally and internationally to practice repression tactics within a mock city, to further militarize — and it could open the floor for more such facilities.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 21- A woman speaks during a protest following the shooting death of Manuel Teran during a police raid on their encampment inside Weelaunee People's Park, the site of the proposed 'Cop City' training facility, earlier in the week, on Saturday, January 21, 2022 in Atlanta, GA.

Photo by Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images

How To Help Stop Cop City and What Comes Next

There are additional signs that resistance is working and that state repression is not currently holding up:

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston’s office has withdrawn from prosecution of the over 40 cases connected to the “Stop Cop City” movement. In part, Boston cited the arrest of a legal observer and stated “I will only proceed on cases that I believe that I can make beyond a reasonable doubt.” This does, however, leave Republican Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr with sole oversight of the cases.

And via the podcast It’s Going Down:

Podcaster:Atlas Technical Consultants has officially severed their ties with the Cop City project. After officials told protesters in Minnesota during a recent home demonstration that they were pulling out of the project due to Cop City activists being quote “fucking nightmares.”
Atlas Official: “Atlas is no longer involved.”
Protester: “Why? Why did they decide to get out of it?”
Atlas Official: “We stopped doing that shit.”
Protester: “Why?”
Atlas Official: “Because you guys are fucking nightmares and you broke all our fucking windows.”

As mentioned above, canvassers are still collecting signatures. So, if you’re an Atlanta, Georgia resident who was registered to vote as of October 4, 2021, your next step is to sign! The more the better! You can also canvass.

For those of us outside Atlanta, while we cannot sign the petition, we can support via our dollars. Donations support Stop Cop City canvassing actions and go through New Disabled South Rising, a 501(c)(4) organization serving as fiscal sponsor for the campaign. I also highly recommend supporting the Atlanta Solidarity Fund in their continued work in supporting political prisoners and those facing charges.

You can also boycott the donors to the Atlanta Police Foundation. This isn’t an original thought, but if straights can boycott Bud Light, I’m sure we can do the same to Chik fil A. You can read this report — created in collaboration betwen LittleSis and Color of Change — on police foundations and their corporate funders. Did you notice how solidarity in Minnesota led to a contractor pulling out? Don’t sleep on (obviously totally legal and above board — ahem) solidarity actions in your area. And do be careful out there.

Speaking of supporting our local bail funds and the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. Right now, we’re seeing charges come through for activists associated the uprisings in 2020. In New York City, protesters are slated to receive settlement money, but others, across the country, are still in prison. Others are seeing charges come in now. Keep your local mutual aid groups up and running in whatever way is best for you. Write to political prisoners (see the writing to political prisoners zine on this page). You can also go to uprisingsupport.org to learn more about what you can do to help with the ongoing support of political prisoners and also learn more about Uprising Support’s work from this podcast episode. Thanks to the commenter below who pointed out that you can participate in phone zaps and follow the @stopcopcity Instagram account to learn more. Find a local jail support group and join it. Don’t let threats of repression deter you because Cop City will not be built and because this is a single nexus point in a broader movement that affects each and every one of us.

But you know what? Together, we will win.

Correction: Thanks to the commenter who pointed out that while DeKalb County residents can help collect signatures, but cannot sign the petition. This has been corrected above.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Thank you for this deep dive into the history, present, and future risks of Cop City. I just gave $200 to support those who have been arrested. We need more coverage of this to stop our increasing miltarization of the police. It serves only to oppress those of us that want a better lives for the working classes.

  2. This is really comprehensive and actionable! Would also like to share that folks in and outside of Atlanta can make calls or even organize phone zap parties to flood these Atlanta offices or affiliated corporations with demands to stop Cop City–you can find sample scripts online and on the @stopcopcity instagram. https://www.stopcopcitysolidarity.org/callnow

    Thank you for this research and writing. The increase in antifascist pieces like this on this website really affirm my fitting at and support of Autostraddle.

  3. Amazing article, thank you for this. To clarify one point,*only* City of Atlanta residents can sign the petition, NOT DeKalb County. The court order allows DeKalb County residents to assist in gathering signatures, but not to sign. Even though Welaunee is in DeKalb, not Atlanta!

  4. Thank you for this excellent article! I very much enjoyed reading it!

    You write that cop city will „provide a training ground for police nationally and internationally to practice repression tactics within a mock city“.

    As far as I know, there are already a dozen (or more) such training grounds all over the US and it‘s common in other areas of the world, too. If you google tactical village, training village, etc you‘ll sadly see what I mean. An especially shitty one is in Gravesend (UK), for example, which seems to be exclusively used for what the police likes to call „riot training“ (instead of „at least“ also providing training on e.g. active shooter or hostage situations).

    Am I missing something about what sets cop city apart from these? Don‘t get me wrong, cop city SUCKSSS! I‘m just unclear on if/why it sucks more than all the other cop cities that already exist or are currently being built (e.g. Indianapolis and Houston, I think?).

    • I pitched this piece, in large part, because I was aware of the repression tactics being exercised by the State of Georgia against people opposed to Cop City. This would also be the largest facility of its kind in our country and would train cops from around the country and the world. To me, the resistance and the repression involved with Cop City are super important to watch. The state of Georgia is a test case for seeing how far a state can take domestic terrorism charges against its own population when they speak out against increasing fascism.

      And also thank you for pointing out that this is not a *new* concept, it’s a part of a long-ranging development when it comes to training facilities, police spending, Police Foundations and mock cities.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!