A music festival organized by members of the Stop Cop City movement came to a fiery end Sunday evening, with at least 35 arrests.
Roughly 1,000 people gathered near the Weelaunee Forest for the second day of a music festival. The unrest began when a group of protesters, separate from the music festival, entered the construction site where land clearing has already begun and set fire to multiple construction vehicles.
Following the violence at the construction site, police arrived at the music festival, where they began to arrest concertgoers and at least one legal observer. Gov. Brian Kemp praised law enforcement officers for “bringing peace and order back to the site” and once again called the actions by protesters “domestic terrorism.”
A press release from Defend the Atlanta Forest described law enforcement actions against music festivalgoers as a vicious retaliation for the outside protesters burning construction vehicles. A video posted on Twitter shows an officer using a stun gun and tackling a man as he attempts to flee, while other festivalgoers play with their dogs and look on.
As of Monday morning, 23 people were being charged with domestic terrorism.
Here’s what you need to know about “Cop City”
As the family of Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán was holding a press conference on the steps of the DeKalb County courthouse last month, a coalition of Georgia law enforcement teams were conducting another SWAT operation at the forest encampment where Paez Terán had been killed by police while protesting the planned “Cop City” training facility.
The SWAT team in the Feb. 6 sweep was needed to ensure the site was “safe and secure,” law enforcement officials said, as they escorted construction workers and machinery to the site. Construction is set to begin on the controversial, 385-acre Atlanta Public Safety Training Center despite escalating protests and a global “Stop Cop City” movement opposing the facility.
Since December, 19 people have been charged with domestic terrorism for protesting the training facility, charges that have been widely criticized for their severity. Last month, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency and mobilized a thousand National Guard troops to Atlanta to dissuade further protests.
“We will begin to start talking to our construction partners and just start making a plan to move forward,” Mayor Andre Dickens said during a press conference last week.
The family of Paez Terán, who was one of the few activists of color involved in the forest occupation, is calling for a meeting with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, which is overseeing the investigation into his death. The Atlanta Police Department began releasing body camera footage of the fatal shooting on Wednesday evening, which showed officers assisting in a sweep in the lead up to incident and their reactions afterward. The footage does not explicitly show the deadly exchange between Terán and law enforcement.
“Killing a person who was sleeping in the forest does not make sense to me,” said Belkis Terán, the activist’s mother. Police have said Paez Terán shot first and was killed by the returning gunfire. The autopsy showed that they had been shot more than a dozen times.
As questions swirl around Paez Terán’s death, activists’ options for stopping the police training facility are dwindling. A land disturbance permit has been issued that allows construction workers to begin digging on the site, local officials said.
Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond have signed a memorandum of understanding that makes adjustments to the facility plan in an effort to reduce the center’s impact on people who live in the surrounding area: a minimum 100-foot tree buffer along all residential areas; a pavilion for community meetings and events; and a firing range that’s moved further away from residences.
Still, dispute around the facility — as well as its impact on the environment and surrounding neighborhoods — remains contentious. Here’s a look at how the controversy over “Cop City” developed:
History of the land
Until the 1830s, the Weelaunee Forest — now called the South River Forest, located southeast of Atlanta — was occupied by the Muscogee people. The Muscogee were known as the first tribe to become “civilized” through George Washington’s civilization plan, a six-step plan to disrupt Native culture, occupy native land, and teach Indigenous people how to live like white settlers.
The Muscogee were forcefully removed from the forest in the 1830s through the “Trail of Tears,” a decades-long movement to forcibly remove Indigenous people from their homelands, resulting in thousands of deaths. Following their removal, the land was purchased by plantation owner Lochlin Johnson. During the Civil War, it was the site of the Battle of Atlanta.
In 1918, 1,250 acres of the forest were bought by the Bureau of Prisons and United States Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta for $160,000. Until the early 1990s, the land was used as a prison farm. Hundreds of incarcerated people worked and tilled the land, growing vegetables and handling livestock, including pigs and cows. By 1959, the farm generated an annual profit of $115,000, or roughly $1.2 million in 2023 dollars, for the prison system. However, by the 1990s, the Bureau of Prisons abandoned the farm.
Following the closure of the prison farm, the land was divided between DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta. While some of the land has been used — a middle school was built on a portion of it — much of the area has remained idle. Turning into a hotbed for illegal dumping, the South River, which runs through the forest, has become one of the most contaminated water sources in the region. Another 40 acres of the land has been leased to Blackhall Studios, which has plans for a soundstage, in a controversial land swap deal with DeKalb.
Why officials say the facility is needed
Following the social unrest and protests in 2020, the Atlanta Police Department experienced more resignations and retirements than usual. The police union attributed this to low morale and lack of support for officers.
“For us to have these facilities, there’s going to be a boom in morale,” said Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum at a press conference Tuesday. “We will see a boost in our recruitment and retention efforts.”
The new Public Safety Training Center will replace the old police academy in Hapeville and Atlanta Fire Rescue training facility in Lakewood. In 2021, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms described both facilities as “simply deplorable.”
That year, the morning after the Atlanta City Council voted to approve building the new facility in South River Forest, Bottoms held a press conference with chiefs from Atlanta Police and Atlanta Fire Rescue.
Schierbaum, who served as project manager during this time, said, “Training is the lifeblood of all first responders.”
“This is a historic investment in public safety that will pay dividends in every community that we have, by giving our men and women the tools to be able to respond to your 911 call effectively,” Schierbaum said.
He continued to say that the latest training techniques will allow the Atlanta Police Department to reduce use of force occurrences, echoing the former mayor’s sentiment.
“I truly believe that the creation of this public safety training facility — where we can train with the expectations that people will treat our communities with respect — that they will be given the most up-to-date training, not to serve as warriors in our communities but to serve as guardians in our communities,” Bottoms said.
Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, said the new training facility will be the most important security measure introduced in a generation.
“We’re building this training center as a tribute to the community,” Wilkinson said. He continued that the new facility will be a “tribute to 21st century police reform” and “21st century policing,” because the main building, leadership institute, and classroom buildings will be open to the public.
What the campus includes
The 85-acre campus got its nickname “Cop City” because it will include a mock city for law enforcement to conduct real-world training exercises.
It will also have a 12-acre emergency vehicle operations course, 40 horse stalls and 40 acres of horse pasture for mounted patrol. There will be a kennel and training grounds for K9-units; and a shooting range, a training field and an outdoor amphitheater. The facility will also have a burn tower for Atlanta Fire Rescue to conduct training operations.
In addition to the 85 acres dedicated to “Cop City,” there are 90 acres of planned green space and 4 miles of trails that will be open to the public and connect to the South River Trail.
How it was approved
Initial plans date back to 2015, when the APD asked the Atlanta Police Foundation to look into the possibility of a new training facility. APF is a private nonprofit that works with the city and the police department to raise money, largely from corporate donors, for public safety initiatives in Atlanta.
The South River Forest location was chosen after APF explored available properties owned by the city of Atlanta. APF originally wanted to develop 150 acres for the facility, but the City Council asked to condense the site.
Over the next five years, APF collaborated with Atlanta Police and Atlanta Fire Rescue to design the center.
In January 2021, Bottoms announced her One Atlanta: One APD plan to address violent crime, pointing to exploration of “a new public safety training academy” as one of seven main actions. A few months later, Bottoms told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she wanted to see the new training academy built at the old Atlanta Prison Farm.
On Sept. 8, 2021, Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 to lease the land in the South River Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation for $10 per year.
Five of the 10 council members who voted in favor of the lease agreement remain in office. Dickens, at the time a council member, also voted for the plan.
The early opposition
Opposition to the center began before the City Council even approved the lease.
Among the early coalition of activist groups that campaigned against Cop City was Community Movement Builders, a collective of activists focused on serving poor and working-class Black communities.
“They are practicing how to make sure poor and working-class people stay in line. So when the police kill us in the streets again, like they did to Rayshard Brooks in 2020, they can control our protests and community response to how they continually murder our people,” member Kwame Olufemi is quoted as saying on the Stop Cop City website.
On the night of the City Council vote, protesters were arrested outside the home of then-council member Natalyn Archibong while holding “No Cop Academy” signs. Archibong was one of four council members to vote against the lease.
Cop City opponents argued that the money Atlanta plans to spend on the new training facility should be spent addressing housing, education, and infrastructure issues in the city. Skeptical of officials’ claims that the facility will improve police training, activists pointed out that Atlanta Police officer Garrett Rolfe had completed cultural awareness and de-escalation training in the months prior to killing Brooks in June 2020.
How is it being funded
The training facility is slated to cost $90 million, two-thirds of which will come from the Atlanta Police Foundation.
The foundation has said it plans to raise the $60 million from private and philanthropic donors. APF has a number of corporate backers, many of which also sit on the foundation’s board, including Delta Air Lines, Chick-fil-A, Waffle House, Home Depot, Amazon, Wells Fargo, and the Atlanta Hawks.
The remaining third will come from taxpayers. The city of Atlanta will pay $1 million annually over 30 years for the maintenance and operational costs.
Opponents have criticized the foundation, which was founded by former Mayor Shirley Franklin, for pushing the interests of its corporate backers and undermining the will of the voters.
The environmental importance
The city of Atlanta has repeatedly called the South River Forest one of the four “lungs” that keep the city stable and strong. The forest, its tree cover, and root system help filter rainwater and mitigate flooding by operating as a sponge during heavy storms; clean the region’s air by sucking up climate change-causing carbon dioxide into trees’ fibers; and reduce the city’s rising heat by providing shade and excess moisture stored in roots, trunks, and leaves on hot days.
Its climate importance has already been tested: In the aftermath of Atlanta’s worst-ever flooding event in 2009, scientists concluded that the forest’s sprawling tree cover and absorbent soil and roots were indispensable in protecting the area, which is expected to be impacted by rising temperatures, longer droughts, and more frequent tropical storms in the future.
Limiting the amount of tree cover could intensify some of the region’s most significant climate challenges as the state continues to get hotter and wetter. Atlanta is the 19th fastest-warming city in the U.S., and over the last 70 years, it has experienced a 75% increase in heavy rainstorms and flooding events.
Some experts believe the burn tower sites and shooting ranges on the facility could cause toxic chemicals to seep into the South River and Intrenchment Creek, which run through the forest. Residents also say that the new facility will limit access to green spaces and trails that have improved the quality of life and equity in the surrounding area.
Origins of the Stop Cop City movement
Within weeks of the city’s land lease to the APF in 2021, Atlanta and DeKalb residents quickly mobilized against the facility under the Stop Cop City moniker.
Residents and activists connected the project’s environmental ramifications to gentrification and a potential increase in policing power after Black Lives Matter protests and Brooks’ death. Proponents of the facility contend that the training site is needed to address a spike in gun violence in Atlanta and diminished morale among officers, but opponents see it as another example of increased funding for law enforcement in place of support for community development.
Between June and September 2021, thousands of Atlanta residents called into public City Council meetings, with many of them opposed to the project. During the 17 hours of public comment, over a thousand people addressed the council; 70% expressed opposition to Cop City.
At the same time, the Stop Cop City movement took to the ground, as residents and activists marched, protested, and petitioned against the proposal. Paez Terán was one of more than a dozen activists, sometimes referred to as the Atlanta Forest Defenders, who moved into the South River Forest in late 2021, taking refuge in the tree canopy they want to save.
The group has hosted food drives, guided forest tours, and community gardening sessions. Their camps had been cleared by law enforcement multiple times before the interactions turned deadly last month.
Opposition from local residents
Beyond the environmental impact, much of the local opposition has focused on the political implications of building a massive police training facility in this majority Black area, where residents say they are already over-policed.
Residents in unincorporated DeKalb and the east Atlanta neighborhoods that border the area have been resistant to the new training facility from the beginning. They have cited a desire to maintain greenspace for the community and have called for the $90 million to fund other public projects.
While she was running for City Council, current member Liliana Bakhtiari tweeted her opposition to the center a week after Bottoms made the announcement.
“To state the obvious, we should not be pouring City of Atlanta resources into unincorporated DeKalb… we have plenty of underfunded departments and neighborhoods who could use that funding, within the City limits,” Bakhtiari wrote. “This property would be much better served as a resource for the broader community; it’s prime real estate and ecology to become something like a Serenbe in the city, rather than a gun range for police when there’s already one of those literally 1/4 of a mile away.”
Opponents of Cop City also have said their public safety concerns can be met by diverting the $30 million dollars of taxpayer money to crime prevention initiatives like housing and food access.
How global opposition grew
Since the killing of Paez Terán, organizations across the globe have shown their support for the activists working to stop Cop City. A solidarity statement organized by a collective under the name “Defend Weelaunee Forest” has been signed by nearly 500 global organizations and another 1,500 individuals across the Americas and Europe.
Before last month’s violence, Stop Cop City organizers had worked to create a toolkit for organizations and individuals to plan their own local protests and actions in support of the South River Forest. Dozens of cities across the country participated.
The movement has struck a chord with similar environmental fights worldwide as roughly 15 billion trees are cut down every year. In Lützerath, Germany, where residents occupied a forest after a coal company proposed to raze the green space in favor of a coal mine, protesters have shown support for the struggle in Atlanta.
Criticism has also grown around officials’ decision to prosecute protesters under Georgia’s domestic terrorism law, and some have questioned the law itself, which was passed in 2017.
“The statute establishes overly broad, far-reaching limitations that restrict public dissent of the government and criminalizes violators with severe and excessive penalties,” Chris Bruce, policy director at the ACLU of Georgia, told the AJC.
Fights around similar training facilities
Following the first mass Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, similar police training facilities have popped up nationwide. In 2015, New York developed a $950 million training facility and mock city following the killing of Eric Garner. A $170 million facility in Chicago was designed after a string of police killings between 2014 and 2016, including Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, and Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson.
Opposition to these facilities has been predicated on their massive price tags, followed by a lack of improvement in training techniques. A Washington Post investigation last year found that over the last decade, local, state, and federal money for training has skyrocketed, but there has been “little guidance or oversight” on what is actually taught to new officers.
For years, organizers, mostly young adults, led a movement to block Chicago’s facility under the name “No Cop Academy.” Similar to Atlantan activists, many Chicago residents viewed the proposal as an act of disinvestment, instead calling for “public resources devoted to services that do not involve the Chicago Police Department, such as education and youth programs.”
For over two years, the youth-led movement staged sit-ins at City Council meetings, protests, and teach-ins at schools, community centers, and parks. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents surveyed by No Cop Academy in the community directly surrounding Chicago’s facility said they did not want it in their neighborhood. Despite community opposition, the facility was ushered through and approved right before the COVID-19 pandemic began, opening its doors in January 2023.
This story has been updated.