Cop City: The environmental, social, and colonial factors motivating the fight over a police training center

You may have heard about the protests against Atlanta’s “Cop City” and the police shooting of an activist last week. What you may not know is that the efforts to oppose the police training center are about more than a dislike of cops. The resisting coalition brings together people fighting for the environment, for environmental and social justice, and for colonial reparations—in addition to those against the militarization of the police.

Background: What is Cop City?

Cop city is a $90 million proposed training center for police officers. It would include a mock city, a helicopter pad, areas for explosives testing and high-speed vehicle chases, and new shooting ranges in 85 acres of the South River Forest (south of Atlanta, Georgia). Taxpayers will foot one-third of the bill, with the Atlanta Police Foundation funding the remaining $60 million.

The Atlanta Police Foundation, which is helping fund the project in an unincorporated part of DeKalb county, says on its website that it will have “the necessary facilities required to effectively train 21st-century law enforcement agencies responsible for public safety in a major urban city.”

Among the training features will be a burn tower for firefighters to practice extinguishing life-threatening blazes; areas for high-speed vehicle chases; a helicopter landing pad; a mock village including residential, school, nightlife and community areas, with structures such as a bank and a gas station; and a shooting range.

The project was approved by the city of Atlanta in September 2021 after 17 hours of public comment, 70% of which was against the training center.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said…that she is aware of widespread opposition to the recently-approved $90 million public safety training facility to be built of forested land, and it is unfortunate that the city “didn’t have anything else to choose from” in terms of other potential sites to build the sprawling facility.

Then-Mayor Bottoms reportedly planned the training center to boost police morale following the 2020 racial justice riots, with little community input:

Documents obtained by The Mainline show that on Jan. 4, 2021 former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms secretly ordered the formation of a “Public Safety Training Academy Advisory Council” to plan the project. The council consisted of police and fire department chiefs, foundation heads, and city employees, according to The Appeal. But local community members weren’t invited—an exclusion that violated the mayor’s own administrative order.

Shortly after the city vote in late 2021, forest defenders and activists barricaded the area and took residence among the trees to prevent the forest from being demolished. The movement is largely described as leaderless and autonomous, with participants citing varied motivations:

“It’s sort of this ungoverned amorphous group of folks,” said Roddy. “Nobody’s the boss. It’s really empowering to see how much a group of folks can accomplish together and to know that you can participate however feels empowering and feels comfortable to you.”

In addition to Cop City, another 40 acres of the South River Forest has been committed to a film studio. That deal is currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by environmental advocacy groups.

Environmental concerns

The South River Forest is a 3,500-acre network of connected green spaces that surrounds part of the South River watershed of southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb County. The Atlanta City Council unanimously approved a plan to create and protect the South River Forest in 2017:

Nature was key to the report’s vision. “South River Forest was the center of the plan,” said Gravel, the lead author of the report, which described the old prison farm land as “our last chance for a massive urban park in the city.” The 350 acres owned by Atlanta would allow the city to string together parcels in a green belt of more than 1,200 acres, connecting nearby properties like Constitution Lakes and Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve. The report conveyed a sense of urgency: “With all the growth in the city, we’ll never have another chance to do this.”

Both residents and local lawmakers were blindsided by the sudden change of plans from conservation to demolition.

The plans were a surprise, as well, to the DeKalb County commissioners who represent districts encompassing the forest: District 3 commissioner Larry Johnson and Ted Terry, the commissioner for “Super” District 6, which covers the west side of the county. “When Mayor Bottoms announced it to the public, that’s when I heard about it,” Terry said. If elected and appointed officials weren’t apprised of the plans, they weren’t alone. “Nobody in the public knew about it,” Gravel said. “There was no process.”

The South River watershed comprises about 544 square miles of creeks and streams that drain large sections of seven counties, ultimately forming the headwater of Georgia’s largest freshwater system, the Ocmulgee and Altamaha River basins, which feed the Atlantic Ocean.

Unfortunately, the river has a long history of pollution prior to the approval of Cop City. In 2021, the South River was named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers due to persistent sewage pollution:

DeKalb County’s failure to maintain and upgrade its sewage system causes sewage to repeatedly overflow from pipes and spill into the South River, before reaching treatment facilities. The EPA and the county negotiated a consent decree to upgrade the sewer system to stop pollution, but after more than a decade of little to no action, the county’s deadline is being extended.

Over the past few years, however, the river and surrounding forest have started to recover. A trained stream ecologist explored the area in 2021, finding native tree species, large hardwoods, evidence of beaver activity, and salamanders living in the stream. “The fact that this stream can support amphibians means that it can also support other native species,” the ecologist, Wayne Butler, wrote.

Furthermore, the proliferation of shooting ranges has already been proven to cause heavy metals pollution. Police munitions and their residues will only add to toxic chemicals leaching into the South River, and further downstream, to the Altamaha River and Atlantic Ocean.

The potential damage of demolition of the forest and installation of a large concrete development isn’t limited to ecology. As a group of environmental organizations wrote in an August 2021 letter urging the City Council to preserve the South River Forest, Atlanta’s tree cover is crucial to fighting climate change and preventing harmful weather impacts like flooding and heat islands:

Trees absorb rainfall which can mitigate flooding, runoff, and overflows from our outdated sewer systems. A forest and its vast ecosystem capture carbon and sequester it; destroying such an ecosystem would release previously captured carbon, accelerating climate change. Forests offer a natural filter for air pollution, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. They also cool cities by reducing the urban heat island effect. This particular forest is a wetland and riparian buffer for the South River, and destroying it would have severe implications for the health and vitality of the river.

Environmental justice

Part of the South River Forest is the site of an abandoned, city-owned prison complex called the Old Prison Farm. Beginning in 1920, prisoners were forced into unpaid labor working the land, planting and harvesting crops, and producing dairy products. By 1959, the farm produced 88 tons of food worth $204,000, netting $115,000 over the cost of operations.

The prison farm, sold at the time as an honorable way to serve time, actually subjected Black and poor people to mistreatment and abuse for profit:

Reporters found credible evidence of systemic abuse, torture, overcrowding, neglect, and racialized violence throughout the prison farm’s history, as well as the possibility that unmarked graves of prisoners exist on the grounds. Kwame Ture was also held there briefly as a political prisoner during the civil rights movement.

The communities surrounding South River Forest have a special interest in preserving this history, being a low-income Black majority area. Yet, these communities are also the location of a disproportionate amount of polluting sites, including six nearby landfills.

During the latter half of the 20th century, the surrounding area became what urban planner Ryan Gravel has called a “regional dumping ground.” “There are a lot of terrible things in this part of the city,” Gravel told me. Residents there, he said, are more likely than other Atlantans to live near a landfill or prison. At least a quarter of the people in the area live in poverty, and more than two-thirds are people of color. In 2021, 662 out of the 701 students at McNair High School, which abuts the forest to the northeast, were Black, and nearly all were eligible for free school lunch. Those students, among other area residents, already hear gunshots from a practice range the Atlanta Police Department has used on the prison farm land for decades.

Given the history of the land, the city’s plans for it are ironic—instead of utilizing the environment to ensure the health of its citizens, Atlanta has chosen to sacrifice the well-being of African Americans and poor people for the economic “progression” of the city.

The forest vision could also spur economic development in long neglected areas and reconcile decades of environmental injustice with investment, said urban planner Ryan Gravel. “If you live in a community in the South River Forest, you’re more likely to live within walking distance of a landfill or a prison than anywhere else in metro Atlanta, by far,” he said. “You’re talking about an area that has historically been treated as a dumping ground.”


Before the lands of South River Forest were a prison farm, it was a slave plantation. And before that, it belonged to the Muscogee Creek Native American peoples, whose original homelands stretch from Tennessee to Alabama and Florida. In the first half of the 19th century, the Muscogee were among the tribes that were forcibly relocated to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during the Trail of Tears.

The overall effect of the Creek Trail of Tears was staggering. 21,792 Creeks lived in Georgia and Alabama in 1832. Twenty years after the “removal” ended, only 13,537 Creeks remained in Oklahoma. Some 8,000 people apparently had died. Counted as a percentage of their population, the Creeks and related tribes suffered more deaths than the Cherokee in their own, far better-known trail of tears.

Following the City Council’s vote to bulldoze a large portion of South River Forest, tribal members of the Muscogee Tribe returned to their homeland to participate in cultural sharing and stomp dance ceremonies.

One late November evening in 2021, the sandy loam felt the weight of several dozen members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, hypnotically dancing in a circle here for the first time in nearly 200 years—since before the federal government forced tens of thousands of Native Americans to leave the Southeast on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Not far from the entrance to Intrenchment Creek Park, a fire sent flames against a darkening sky, surrounded by shuffling feet marking time, using turtle shells stuffed with pebbles. There was a high-pitched call and response in a language unfamiliar to most of the several hundred Atlanta residents and others gathered. “The birds stopped singing when we danced,” a Muscogee (Creek) woman later remarked to Craig Womack, another member of the nation who participated in what is known as a stomp dance.

“It was emotional, on all kinds of levels,” recalled Womack, who recently retired as a professor of English at Emory University, where he taught Native American literature and other subjects. “As a Creek person, when you’re dancing, it feels like you’re connecting to the center of yourself. We believe songs are prayers.”

Conclusion: Police state

The Atlanta Police Foundation is a private nonprofit that channels corporate money into policing initiatives and advocating for increasing police budgets. Among those sitting on its board of trustees are leaders of UPS, Wells Fargo, Home Depot, Equifax, and Delta Air Lines.

Furthermore, the CEO of Cox Enterprise is leading the fundraising effort for Cop City. Cox Enterprises just happens to own major media outlets like Axios and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

The fight against Cop City has pitted these pro-police and corporate interests against the local community and a wider population of environmental activists and social justice leaders in a lopsided battle over the future of Atlanta’s green space. Case in point, police regularly use plastic bullets and pepper spray to remove activists from the forest.

  • While individuals who shot at substations in the Pacific Northwest—cutting power to thousands—were only charged with conspiracy, six forest defenders were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. The culprits behind half a dozen other attacks on power substations across the country have not yet been identified.

Then, last week, the stakes escalated when police shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel Terán, a forest defender who went by the nickname Tortuguita, in the first known instance of an environmental activist killed by U.S. police. The officers claim that Terán failed to comply with demands to clear the area and fired first, injuring an officer, but have not yet provided evidence to back that up.

The GBI, which operates under Republican governor Brian Kemp’s orders, has released scant information and on Thursday night told the Guardian no body-cam footage of the shooting exists. At least a half-dozen other protesters who were in the forest at the time have communicated to other activists that one, single series of shots could be heard. They believe the state trooper could have been shot by another officer, or by his own firearm.

Which all goes to the point of what is being fought over. It is not just the militarization of police at the center of the South River Forest dispute, though that is arguably a noble enough cause to justify resistance. It is young and old, Black, Hispanic, and Native American peoples fighting to protect a green space at the intersection of factual past and potential future oppression. A land where Native Americans were forcibly removed; a land where slaves toiled on plantations and later on a prison farm; a land that holds a promise of a healthier and safer life through clean air and clean water… or more urban warfare police violence.