In the depths of the Atlanta South River Forest, activists destroy construction equipment to protect the health of the environment, the city and its people. Coining themselves “forest defenders,” a group of Atlanta based environmental advocates have taken up residence in the forest, protesting the construction of a $90M, 85-acre police training facility, also known as Cop City.
Cop City will serve as a training ground for Atlanta police officers to practice urban warfare to be used against Atlantans. This should unsettle Atlanta’s community, because the police system will be training in a facility with multiple shooting ranges and mock infrastructure, allowing them to practice violent raids and other harmful strategies of urban policing.
But activists are not just opposing the wasteful expenditure of taxpayer dollars on Cop City; they are also protesting the way it intertwines the racism exacerbated by police brutality with environmental injustice, leaving no community unharmed. And Emory is complicit — as a prominent member of the greater Atlanta community, the University has the responsibility to use its power and influence to speak out against this harm. Instead, Emory escalates the harm of Cop City through silence.
The environmental aftermath
The South River Forest is the city’s largest watershed and floodplain, serving as an important filter for air pollution as well as a shield against increasing temperatures from climate change. Destroying this forest will leave Atlanta vulnerable to the harmful effects of ecosystem degradation and rising temperatures, which would only be exacerbated by the urban heat island of the bustling city.
The plans for this facility have been in the works since April 2021 and were voted into fruition in September 2021. The project was briefly stalled in late January but was quickly resolved as Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens announced that the facility would be slightly amended to include a 100 tree buffer and sidewalks and to move the firing range further away from the residential areas near the site. These amendments allowed the project to receive its construction permit from DeKalb County.
As the construction of Cop City moves forward, Atlanta’s communities of color are hit the hardest — both by the environmental impacts and by the consequences of prioritizing policing over community aid.
Nearly every person in greater Atlanta — perhaps even Georgia — will be negatively impacted by Cop City. The groups presently gathered in Weelaunee Forest are all there to protest its creation for different reasons. Every Atlantan should be concerned with the idea of creating a base — the largest one of its kind in the U.S. — meant to train the officers who police their neighborhoods. Cop City aims to increase the effectiveness of policing in Atlanta — this kind of training has the possibility of having detrimental effects on the safety of Atlanta neighborhoods. For example, the officers charged with the killing of Tyre Nichols were part of the Memphis Police Department’s Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION) unit. This unit is responsible for extremely violent policing in Memphis’ neighborhoods, including intimidation, harassment and outright violence toward citizens. Environmental activists are crying out at the prospect of this facility bringing environmental disaster upon the forest. For example, the shooting ranges would likely cause heavy-metal pollution and the fire drills executed in the “Burn Building” would run the risk of destroying even more of the woods.
Beyond being a valuable part of the Atlanta ecosystem, these woods have cultural significance to many groups. The forest is the ancestral land of the Muscogee Indigenous peoples, some of whom have also come together to protest in the woods. This land also has a history of oppressing African Americans through prison labor. This police training facility will sit directly on top of the remains of a former state prison farm that used penal labor throughout the early 20th century. Historically, prison labor like this disproportionately imprisoned African Americans and subjected them to abuse, discrimination and abhorrent living and working conditions on top of unpaid labor — modern day slavery. But instead of recognizing this painful past and educating Atlantans about it, the city seeks to continue the land’s legacy of violence.
The project catalyzed the unjust killing of environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita. An unidentified police officer shot and killed Tortuguita during their protest against Cop City. The tragedy occurred during an operation overseen by the Atlanta and Dekalb County police, the Georgia State Patrol, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI, who were dispatched to limit the amount of protesting in the forest.
Tortuguita’s death has been described as “unprecedented in the history of U.S. environmental activism,” but it is not an isolated incident. Police brutality and militant policing negatively affect almost all social movements and disproportionately harm people of color. Tortuguita’s killing serves as yet another reminder that police officers and other government officials will do whatever they can to silence dissident voices. It’s essential to view Cop City for what it truly is: an opportunity for the police system to practice violent military strategy and endanger our community and environment.
The news of Tortuguita’s death and the Stop Cop City movement has touched our community. Student groups and coalitions across campus, such as Emory Students for Prison Education, Activism & Resistance (Emory SPEAR) and Stop Cop City Emory have united to express their grief and anger at their wrongful killing.
“In the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprisings in 2020, and the recent murders of Tyre Nichols and Tortuguita, it is clear that increased policing and militarism is not a solution, but a problem,” wrote Wittika Chaplet (23C), who is a member of Stop Cop City Emory student coalition. Chaplet also noted that it is crucial to recognize and support the residents of Gresham Park, whose community has already been adversely impacted by Cop City through an increase in violent policing.
Cop City is not a new development, nor is the Emory community’s resolute revulsion to the plans. In fact, the Wheel’s Editorial Board addressed this controversy last year when the plans were first announced. The Wheel called on the Emory administration and University President Gregory Fenves to stand against Cop City and condemn the violence – a symptom of underlying structural problems – that would inevitably follow the proposal. In the past year, University administrators have failed to advocate against the project and defend the Atlanta community, leaving local activists like Tortuguita as the only glimmer of hope against the Atlanta city council and the looming development of Cop City. While the University has repeatedly made efforts to recognize the history of the Muscogee people and Emory’s establishment on top of their ancestral land, that same kind of recognition and respect is sorely lacking in their response to Cop City.
Fenves and the Emory administration have been pleated again because of their immense influence on Atlanta infrastructure and Cop City itself. Emory is the number one employer in Atlanta, surpassing even Delta Airlines. The University owns millions of dollars worth of real estate across the city and surrounding areas. This dominating presence in the Atlanta economy alone demonstrates the University’s vast influence; if Emory were to make clear its reservations about the proposal and leverage its power, concessions protecting against Cop City’s insidiousness could be made.
Additionally, Fenves currently sits on the Board of Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP), which focuses on addressing the “most critical issues facing Atlanta,” with their key focal points including advancing infrastructure, culture and quality of life. If you have doubts about the significance of this position, we urge you to look at the list of other members on this board. Fenves sits alongside CEOs and presidents of influential and wealthy corporations, companies and institutions across Atlanta and the United States like Coca-Cola, Mercedes and Delta Airlines. Yet, none of these prominent business owners and officials are moving to stop the development of Cop City.
“President Fenves is an ACP board member and is proud to work with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens on the mayor’s priorities for Atlanta,” Assistant Vice President of University Communications and Marketing Laura Diamond wrote in an email comment to the Wheel.
Diamond explained that the University is not tied to the Atlanta Police Foundation, but that they support local and state police on public safety initiatives. Diamond also wrote that Emory is working with ACP “to support positive change on issues of critical importance to our city.”
The optimistic mission statement of ACP conflicts with the Foundation’s active funding and promotion of Atlanta Cop City. Furthermore, former University President, Claire E. Sterk, was previously a member of the Board of Trustees of the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), one of the major players in building the $90 million police training facility. However, Sterk no longer serves on the Atlanta Police Foundation
“While the APF Board of Trustees gives advice and counsel to APF’s executive director, the decision to build the Public Safety Training Center at the selection of the site was a decision made by the mayor of Atlanta, requiring the approval of the City Council,” Sterk wrote in an email statement to the Wheel.
Sterk said that the APF did not make the decision to build Cop City, instead pointing to the City Council and Mayor Dickens. However, Sterk did recognize that the role of the APF was to support the mayor’s decision and “to raise financial resources for the project.
“Volunteer members must ensure that the organization’s initiatives align with its mission,” wrote Sterk, of making Atlanta “the safest large city in the country.”
While it may be true that Emory doesn’t have much impact on the actual direction of Cop City, Emory has neglected to take an active stance against it. Consequently, a group of Emory and Atlanta Healthcare workers and students have drafted a letter to demand that Associate Professor of Surgery Douglas Murphy step down from the APF board on the basis that the interests of APF stand directly against the values of healthcare professionals. They previously also urged the same of Sterk, but have since noted that they were informed she no longer serves on the Board. They urge that other healthcare and medical professionals sign on in support.
Outside of Emory, a group of faculty and staff from Morehouse College (Ga.), released a statement on Feb. 2 condemning Cop City and urging others to do the same. There is no reason that Emory cannot follow their example and use its power and influence to speak out against this affront to our city’s most vulnerable communities.
As one of the primary investors in Atlanta, Emory has the responsibility to speak out and its silence is beyond complicit. Although Fenves likely could not have single-handedly stopped the project, we implore him now to inform Emory’s community of his stance on Cop City. He, along with the University, must oppose all of the harm that Cop City will inflict on Atlanta and its most marginalized community members.
While Emory takes its time deciding on which side of history it will stand, student groups, Atlanta community members and the brave activists on the ground will continue to fight. Angela Davis once said that it is in collectivities we find hope. So it will be through collectivities that we protect our forest, our city and our home.