Above Photo: Unicorn Riot and Atlanta Community Press Collective.
“The Amount Of Solidarity Is Incredible Here.”
Atlanta, Georgia – “A massive victory,” is how one participant, “Jean,” who spoke to It’s Going Down in a recent interview, described this weekend’s mobilization against “Cop City” in Atlanta. The movement is currently at a high-point, following an outpouring of support and rage over the brutal murder of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an anarchist and forest defender, who was shot and killed by law enforcement during a raid on tree-sits and protest encampments on January 18th. Statements of solidarity and support have come in from across the Left and the environmental movement, spanning from the Sierra Club and 350.org, to grassroots collectives and organizations all over the US and the world.
This weekend also shows that the movement has staying power. For over two years, the autonomous and decentralized struggle to defend the Weelaunee forest has fought to oppose the construction of a massive corporate backed, 85 acre police counter-insurgency training facility, as well as a contested land grab by Ryan Milsap of Blackhall Studios, the company behind such films as Venom and the Jumanji reboots. Groups such as Community Movement Builders, which organizes in “working-class and poor Black communities” and local environmental coalitions have been at the the forefront of this battle, which has been marked by everything from marches organized by local school children to targeted property destruction claimed via anonymous communiques on websites like Scenes from the Atlanta Forest.
As one forest defender described on a recent podcast:
People used to like to use this term: diversity of tactics, and we’ve gone a step further, we’ve created something that actually mimics the forest itself, this is an ecosystem of tactics. So it’s not a bunch of things working against or in-spite of each other, its several tactics working in conjunction and in relation to each other. Everything from the Muskogee stomp dance to marches of preschoolers to leafleting the community old-school style, to windows being smashed, to people building tree-houses in the forest and refusing to move. [It’s] punk shows and dance parties and religious services and garden planting…and a lot of these things are difficult for some people to understand why they matter; why they’re connected to each other, but its important to understand that we have to reach every aspect of human society.
According to folks on the ground, over 1,000 people answered the call to take part in the most recent “week of action” which kicked off this Saturday, marking the largest number of supporters which has ever mobilized, as things began in the early morning on Saturday, March 4th. Around 10: 30 AM, protesters gathered at Gresham Park, listening to various speakers, ranging from local organizers with Community Movement Builders to clergy, before marching nearly two miles through the forest to Weelaunee People’s Park, the site of some of the movement’s first public gatherings, and the remnants of a gazebo and paved trails which were destroyed by workers, hired by Ryan Milsap.
After arriving at Weelaunee People’s Park, the crowd then began setting up tents to camp in, communal kitchens, and a sound-stage for a two-day music festival featuring a plethora of musical acts spanning a wide variety of genres. Over 1,000 people soon filled the space, enjoying literature tables and food, while volunteers, forest defenders, and festival participants worked to cook, set up sanitation, and created all sorts of communal infrastructure. “It was an incredible project of social reproduction,” Jean stated, complete with “full kitchens, hand washing, bathrooms, food, and multiple kitchen stations.”
The Atlanta Community Press Collective describes here the initial mobilization which began on Saturday morning:
By 10:30am on Saturday, the beginning of the week of action, about 50 activists arrived [and] began gathering near the playground at Gresham Park. The mood was festive. Families arrived with children running straight for the playground…By 11:00am, the scheduled start time, the crowd grew to over 200. Passenger vans shuttled participants from a nearby church to alleviate parking concerns of previous weeks of action.
At 11:30am a powder-paint covered Matthew Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Beloved Commune formally kicked the the rally off acknowledging the variety of individuals, tactics, and beliefs of those gathered. “There are many things we do not agree on,” Johnson began, “but we all came here to what?” he continued. “TO STOP COP CITY,” the crowd yelled in response.
After about an hour of speeches, one last group chant, “we have nothing to lose but our chains” announced the start of the march to from Gresham Park to Weelaunee People’s Park. Over the course of the two-mile walk, the group’s energy remained charged. The diverse crowd chanted slogans like, “if you build it, we will burn it” in unison as drummers kept up a relentless beat, pushing the march forward.
With no police in sight, the group finally arrived in the parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park, and the jubilant mood returned in earnest. The group gathered one final time around a speaker who led all those gathered in a combination chant and promise, “I will defend this land.”
After spending the night in the forest, on the second day the music festival continued, while an autonomous group of around 200 forest defenders converged on where the construction site for “Cop City” was based. There, marchers according to Unicorn Riot:
[A] march of several hundred opponents of the project (generally known as ‘forest defenders’) took over a police surveillance outpost along a power line clearing near Intrenchment Creek. The crowd set off fireworks and threw other projectiles over the barbed wire fence of the outpost, causing the police to retreat.
Barricades of tires and other debris were set up at the outpost entrance and two UTVs, a Front End Loader, office trailer, and mobile surveillance tower were destroyed and set on fire. Several port-a-potties were tipped and barbed wire fences bent, twisted and rendered insecure.
Police have made repeated statements to the press about the throwing of “Molotov cocktails,” in an effort to paint a picture of human life being threatened, however the only violence against human beings reported was later in the evening at the hands of the police. In fact, as the New York Times reporter on the ground at the demonstration wrote of the targeted property destruction, “As vehicles were set ablaze, law enforcement officers looked on and initially did not intervene.”
These actions destroyed recent progress made on the Cop City project and its infrastructure, setting back development which has already been marked by construction delays, lawsuits, protests, and companies dropping out.
After the Cop City construction site was damaged and set on fire, the group of protesters left the area, while law enforcement then slowly began to amass at Welaunee People’s Park where the music festival was taking place, over a mile away. “Tina,” who was at the music festival throughout the day spoke to It’s Going Down in a recent interview, stating that hundreds of people were at the music festival, largely from the local Atlanta area. “It was going really well, [then ] cops lined up on the road, they came in opposite of the music festival. They would bring in a couple cars; this lasted a few hours.”
In video coverage from Unicorn Riot, police can be seen walking into the festival-area with high powered automatic weapons and in videos posted to Twitter, people at the music festival, some with dogs and small children, are seen running from the police. “Cops were picking off random music festival attendees,” reported Jean, who also stated police were heard screaming, “We’re gonna fucking kill you motherfucker.”
“They came out in full force, [but] the crowd stayed together,” Jean stated, as police deployed pepper-balls and tasers on concert goers and rolled out a Bearcat unit along with an LRAD, a machine which uses a painful sound cannon against large crowds.
In the face of this violence, according to Tina, the several hundred people still at the festival self-organized to get people rides out of the park and shuttle them to safety. When police threatened mass arrest, people locked arms and chanted that they had children there and demanded to be released, to which police finally relented, allowing people to leave the area in groups. According to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, at least 35 people were arrested late Sunday.
Jean was quick to note that the main force on the ground was the Georgia State Patrol (GSP), the same agency which is behind the murder of Tortuguita, is locally referred to as “cowboys,” and is known for being largely white. Last year, Georgia “agreed to pay a $4.8 million legal settlement to the family of a Black man who was fatally shot by a state trooper trying to pull him over for a broken tail light.”
Ironically, a police statement released late Sunday claimed (correctly) that those at the music festival were, “peaceful,” yet this did not stop them from brutalizing a crowd filled with families and even young children. The statement read, “A group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to conduct a coordinated attack on construction equipment…” If this is so, then why did police knowingly threaten hundreds of “peaceful” people with arrest and even possible violent death?
Where does the movement go from here?
Already, like clockwork Marjorie Taylor Greene, fresh from CPAC, where speakers called for the literal “eradication” of transgender people, is tweeting about “ANTIFA” and “Communists,” while the police are again trotting out civil-rights era tropes of “outside agitators.” But people like Jean don’t buy that these attacks will stick like perhaps they once did. “The amount of solidarity is incredible here, the outside agitator tropes are not flying in the forest struggle. From church groups to pre-schools to HBCUs, everyone is enthusiastically embracing that this is not a “local struggle” and are asking people around the country to contribute,” Jean stated. “Along with the action [in Downtown Atlanta] on January 21st, this is a show of emergent movement strength: the numbers, people showing up from around the country, the strong local showing of Atlantans, the ability of a group to cohere and take action…”
What happens next in the forest remains to be seen. When emerging movements are attacked by police they often grow, as they did when cops in New York mass arrested Occupy Wall Street protesters on a bridge in Brooklyn or attempted to brutalize Water Protectors at Standing Rock with attack dogs. As Jean argued, “The sort of absolute lack of disciple on the state’s side is horrible for us, but also incredibly advantageous in the long run.”
Staring at the photos of smoke billowing from the husks of burned out police cars in the Atlanta forest, its hard not to compare them to the images of youth standing triumphantly in front of the burning third precinct in Minneapolis back in 2020, only days after George Floyd’s murder. While it is unclear where things will go from here, if the state was planning on isolating forest defenders and attempting to scare the wider public from getting involved by slapping people with trumped up charges, then perhaps they should consider defunding their “training” facility and re-investing in a new PR firm, because the fight to stop Cop City isn’t going anywhere.