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‘Cop City’ Opposition Spreads Beyond Georgia Forest Defenders

Above Photo: A makeshift memorial is seen near Atlanta, Georgia. Cheney Orr / AFP/Getty Images.

Law enforcement training center has drawn attention and concern from a broad range of local and national US voices who worry about its impact.

Atlanta, Georgia – The headlines surrounding the “Cop City” project in Atlanta have focused on the death of Manuel Paez Terán, a 26-year-old killed when police fired at least 12 shots during a raid on the forest where the eco-activist, who went by Tortuguita, and others had been camped out, seeking to stop the building of a police and fire department training center.

But in fact the movement opposed to the center – planned for the South River forest in an area south-east of the Georgia city – has drawn attention and concern from a broad range of local and national US voices who worry about the social and environmental impact of the huge complex.

Two editorials on the $90m, 85-acre project, called “Cop City” by activists, recently appeared in the New York Times, both calling attention to flaws in the democratic process that led Atlanta city council to approve the training center in late 2021.

Students and faculty from Atlanta-area schools Emory University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and other historically Black schools also issued statements this week, urging the schools to denounce the project.

Three members of Congress – Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush and Senator Ed Markey – have called for an independent investigation into Tortuguita’s death, who law enforcement officials say fired first, wounding a Georgia state patrol officer.

The Georgia bureau of investigation (GBI) has released a photo of the pistol that the activist allegedly used and the “Firearms Transaction Record” for the gun. An officer or officers – it’s still unclear which – then shot Tortuguita at least 12 times, killing the activist, according to the family’s attorneys. The GBI said there’s no body-cam footage of the shooting. The Guardian also asked if there is any drone, film or video camera recording of the incident; a spokesperson wrote that she is “not aware of any video of the incident”.

Meanwhile, the DeKalb county commissioner, Ted Terry, whose district includes the South River forest, and environmentalist Jackie Echols, of the South River Watershed Alliance, say they have been rebuffed or ignored in attempts to have the county reject Atlanta’s applications for permits to begin construction of the training center, due to alleged violations of the Clean Water Act the project would incur.

The county approved the “land disturbance permit” anyway last week. The Atlanta mayor, Andre Dickens, and the DeKalb county CEO, Michael Thurmond, held a press conference without advising Terry of the decision in advance. “I’m being boxed out of the process,” said Terry, a former state director of the Sierra Club.

Dickens and Thurmond referred several times to a committee meant to represent communities surrounding the forest, which are mostly Black, with large shares of low-income residents.

But the permit approval led a member of the same committee to file an appeal seeking to stop the project this week, also calling it a violation of the Clean Water Act.

Meanwhile, another member has resigned in protest of the killing of Tortuguita.

Tortuguita had been staying in South River forest for about six months, at times in tree houses, when dozens of officers swept through the forest on 18 January. The activist was one of dozens of “forest defenders” who formed part of a loose coalition of people trying to protect the forest.

At least 85 acres of the forest is under threat from the training center, while another 40 acres is under threat from Ryan Millsap, former owner of Blackhall Film Studios, who made a deal with DeKalb county to swap the forest land for another parcel.

Nicole Morado, who served on the community stakeholder advisory committee, meant to offer input on the training center since its inception in late 2021, told the Guardian: “It doesn’t sit well with me, to be affiliated with a project that has resulted in somebody’s life being taken.”

Morado said that the shooting confirmed her “worst fear”, and that her resignation from the committee was effective on the day it took place, but hadn’t been made public until this week.

The shooting came as a year-plus of growing opposition to both projects threatening the forest had drawn increasing national attention.

Although the “forest defenders” on the site of the two projects were responsible for much of that attention, many local voices had expressed support for the forest since the Cop City project was announced in March, 2021 – and before.

Five years earlier, in 2017, the city of Atlanta had included in its charter, or constitution, a plan to protect the South River forest as key to mitigating climate change in the Atlanta metro area.

More recently, opposition to development in South River forest has included neighborhood associations, established environmental groups such as the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, local schools, Atlanta-area citizens and others. About 70% of more than 1,000 comments to Atlanta city council in advance of their September 2021 vote on the project also opposed the project, according to an independent analysis.

Still, not only was the project approved, but a multi-jurisdictional taskforce including Atlanta and DeKalb county police, the GBI, the Georgia state patrol and the FBI began staging sweeps of the forest to try to clear the area of protesters.

Some of the protesters in and out of the forest committed acts of vandalism against machinery and businesses linked to both projects. To date, at least 18 activists have been arrested in the forest and during a protest, charged under a state domestic terrorism law.

Both Tortuguita’s killing and use of state law in this manner are firsts in US environmental activism history, according to experts. These actions have also been matched by strident rhetoric from police and politicians in Georgia, including the Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, seeking to define a largely peaceful protest movement – often focused on environmental and racial justice issues – as terrorism, and those who participate in it as terrorists.

“I thought they – the Atlanta police department, the DeKalb county police and the rest – were doing a bad job of escalating things,” said Morado in explaining her decision to resign from the committee. “My fear was that something like this would happen.”

Meanwhile, Amy Taylor, also a member of the advisory committee, filed an appeal of the recent permit that DeKalb county had given the city of Atlanta to begin work on Cop City. Atlanta owns a parcel that includes the 85-acre training center planned, but it is located in DeKalb.

Taylor, a member of the committee representing the nearby neighborhood of Starlight Heights, said her appeal of the permit was “premised on the fact that the South River [a tributary of which runs through the forest] is of poor quality according to the EPA, and sediment in the river has exceeded the legal point allowable. Any development will contribute to the pollution of the river,” she said. “It’s a clear violation of the Clean Water Act.

“My community doesn’t want this,” she said, adding the training center should not be built in the forest.

Also this week, more than 100 healthcare professionals and students signed a letter urging Dr Claire Sterk, former president of Emory University, to leave the board of the Atlanta police foundation, the organization behind the training center.

Faculty of Morehouse College – the school Martin Luther King Jr graduated from – also signed a letter in opposition to the project, and students from several historically Black schools in Atlanta attended a meeting in opposition to the center.

Taylor’s concerns regarding the environmental impact on Intrenchment Creek, a tributary of South River, had already been expressed for months by the South River Watershed Alliance, an environmental organization that has been working on behalf of the river for more than a decade.

Jackie Echols, president of the organization’s board, had the organization’s attorney send letters first to DeKalb county and, on 25 January, to the state environmental protection division, outlining the concerns about how building the training center would increase the sediment load in the creek, negatively impacting all life in its waters and violating the Clean Water Act.

Echols said she received no answer. “No one has addressed this,” she said.

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