Building Direct Democracy in an Atlanta Forest

Photograph Source: Chad Davis from Minneapolis, United States – CC BY 2.0

On the edge of a forest just south of Atlanta, I sat in the shade of a gazebo on a hot day in May of 2022, speaking to two activists. Parkgoers sweated in their short sleeves as they strolled past a concrete wall, on which graffiti said DEFEND THE FOREST over a fist sprouting up from roots like a squat tree trunk.

The two activists, along with many others, had taken the graffiti’s message to heart and were trying to stop large tracts of the South River Forest from being developed into a privately owned soundstage and a sprawling training center for police, dubbed Cop City. Since that day, the gazebo has been ripped apart by heavy equipment, eighteen activists have been charged with “domestic terrorism,” and one forest defender has been shot and killed by police.

Much has been said on the American left about the movement to defend the South Atlanta Forest, for good reason. For one thing, it is a coalition of individuals and organizations brought together by disparate concerns, especially about the environment (and environmental racism) and policing. For another, it has employed a diversity of tactics (from children’s marches to Molotov cocktails) without members of the movement scrambling to distance themselves from one another over these differences. It is also notable that one tactic, Earth First!-style tree-sits to prevent clearing, is being used in an unusually urban context. Activists have also mounted pressure campaigns against subcontractors hired by the main contractor, Brasfield & Gorrie, slowing down the project by creating financial disincentives to work on it.

One of the movement’s most remarkable features, however, is its insistence on treating public land as truly public—held in common by the people. Activists have not only camped out in the forest to prevent clearing but have continually held community events, inviting people from Atlanta and elsewhere to enjoy themselves in a green space, to see the land’s potential. These events have included barbecues and weekly dinners, concerts and raves, puppet shows, art shows, and skill shares where participants learn about plant identification, yoga, herbal medicine, and more. When a friend of mine went to Atlanta for work last August, I suggested he stop by the forest. He did and stumbled on a concert being given by one of his favorite singers, Raury, amid the trees. The forest has even hosted ritual events from different traditions, such as a witches’ bonfire and Sukkot and Shabbat ceremonies.

The fight to defend the forest has thus been grounded in a positive vision of people in active relationship with the land, in a shared enjoyment of public space—in democracy that grows from the ground up—even as elected officials, the wealthy, and the police have insisted on an alternative vision: one of unilateral decisions, prosecutorial intimidation, and brute force.

The details are complicated (see this timeline) but involve a public-private land swap, environmental concerns, and residents shut out of the decision-making process. The Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit supporter of the Atlanta Police Department with big corporate donors, wants to build a new $90-million police training facility on land owned by the city of Atlanta but lying outside city limits, in unincorporated Dekalb County. This means the largely Black residents who would be most affected did not elect those with the power to approve the military-grade facility, which was initially planned to include shooting ranges, an area for explosive tests, burn buildings for firefighters, and a mock city for practicing police raids (giving rise to the Cop City nickname). A related land swap transferred nearby Intrenchment Creek Park (site of the gazebo) to a private company, Blackhall Studios, to build a soundstage on—even though the parcel was given to Dekalb County in 2003 on condition it remain a park forever.

The environmental impacts of the proposed development helped galvanize initial opposition. The city-owned property that would hold the facility had been earmarked by Atlanta itself in a 2017 document as integral to plans to create “a massive urban park.” Environmentalists argued that destroying woodland would worsen flooding and raise temperatures—a shortsighted move in a changing climate. But local politicians said the facility was needed to boost local police morale and retention after the George Floyd uprising of 2020 (fueled in Atlanta by the killing of Rayshard Brooks as he ran away from police).

When a virtual city council meeting was held in September 2021 to hear from residents about Cop City, most who called in seemed unimpressed by the morale argument. Between environmental concerns and locals’ worries about noise and other disruptions, 17 hours of public comment was recorded—opposed to the project by a two-to-one ratio. Calls supporting Cop City came mostly from police officers and residents of wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Despite overwhelming opposition from the affected locals, the city council voted to approve the project.

Opponents of Cop City had used all the city-approved means at their disposal—public comments, courts, peaceful protests—to make their voices heard. Whether or not they were heard, they certainly weren’t heeded. Instead, city councilors went ahead with a project developed by the unaccountable Atlanta Police Foundation and funded by $30 million of taxpayer money, with the remaining $60 million coming from corporate sponsors such as Delta Airlines, Wells Fargo, UPS, the Home Depot—even my beloved Waffle House. The failure of the “democratic process” to change a top-down decree to build Cop City on public land with public money is seldom mentioned by local officials expressing shock that opposition started to take less legal, and more militant, forms.

Ryan Millsap, who talked the city into a land swap to build a huge soundstage on Intrenchment Creek Park, then sold his film company but retained ownership of the property. He has so far declined to explain any new plans for its development, but in July he blocked public access to the park and in December he demolished the gazebo, though the terms of the swap required public access be maintained until equivalent facilities were built elsewhere. Police did nothing to stop this apparent flouting of the agreement, but activists took matters into their own hands, blocking and torching heavy equipment—and Millsap’s pickup.

The veneer of a democratic civic process has gotten vanishingly thin as one member after another of the citizen’s advisory committee for the project has defected from the Cop City consensus. One member, an environmental engineer, was taken off the board after voicing criticism of the project. Another has filed an appeal of the land-disturbance permit for construction. Still another resigned after the tragic climax of the government’s efforts to impose their will on the land: the killing of a protester by police.

Before that day, police had raided the activists’ camp repeatedly, slashing tents and wrecking other equipment. (This kind of property damage never seems to merit outcry from officials, no more than when it’s inflicted on homeless encampments elsewhere.) Raids had been met with thrown stones and fireworks; one activist told me last year that they had succeeded in making “police afraid of the forest,” an unpredictable space full of shadowy opponents.

Nonetheless, protesters were arrested during these raids, some later charged with “domestic terrorism” under a vague state law passed after Dylann Roof’s mass murder of Black churchgoers. The law is not being used against white supremacist murderers but apparently to intimidate activists, since no more concrete charges have been brought against the so-called terrorists than trespassing. (This parallels the aggressive prosecution of environmentalist Jessica Reznicek, whose sabotage of pipeline equipment resulted in an eight-year sentence with a domestic terrorism enhancement.)

Then, on January 18, a multi-agency police force raided the woods and again began slashing tents and rounding up activists. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a forest defender named Manuel Teran (called Tortuguita by their comrades) disobeyed orders and shot at Georgia State Patrol officers, who returned fire. An autopsy later showed Tortuguita was shot at least a dozen times. One officer went to the hospital with a bullet wound and recovered.

Authorities said no body cameras recorded the killing, but eventually released videos that caught the sound of gunfire from farther away. On camera, a heavily armored police officer notes the shots sounded like suppressed fire. This would be consistent with the guns carried by the Georgia State Patrol but not the recovered firearm said to belong to Tortuguita. The wearer of the body cam even says, “Man, you fucked your own officer up.”

Exactly what happened may never be known to those not on the scene, but activists have loudly doubted that Tortuguita—on record as an advocate of nonviolence—would have fired on officers. Law enforcement in the area does not have a sterling reputation for honesty; in a notorious 2006 case, Atlanta police executed a no-knock raid of a 92-year-old woman’s home, who in her surprise fired above the home invaders’ heads. They shot her to death and planted drugs in the house, claiming she had hit them when they had, in fact, shot each other.

 How to interpret Tortuguita’s killing is the most emotionally charged of many disputes over meaning in Atlanta. The core questions are: who does the land belong to, and who belongs to the land? Activists emphasize that the area’s Black residents were shut out of the decision-making process, and that the land’s history has long been tied to oppression. For much of the 20th century, the city-owned property was a prison farm run on unfree, racialized labor. It is very possible the site holds unmarked graves from this period. Long before, the area belonged to the Muscogee Creek people, until they were pushed off the land by white settlers. Activists have connected the present fight to this original injustice, and in November 2021 Muscogee people from Oklahoma returned to perform a stomp ceremony on their ancestral land for the first time in centuries. Forest defenders refer to the woods by its Muscogee name, the Weelaunee Forest.

Meanwhile, current Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens has disputed that the area at issue even is a forest, saying, “This is Atlanta, and we know forests. This facility would not be built over a forest.” This desperate definitional gambit seems to rest on the idea that the woods on the prison farm site are relatively new, and composed less of hardwood trees than of softwoods and “invasive species”—as if no nonnative species could form part of a healthy ecosystem.

In a curious way, this emphasis on invasive species mirrors another piece of the official narrative about Weelaunee Forest: that the forest defenders are mostly “outside agitators,” stirring up trouble that Georgians want no part of. This is a very old trope, as liberal Northerners who came down during the civil rights struggle were often called the same thing. Cop City opponents have pointed out the hypocrisy of this messaging, since the Atlanta Police Department itself estimates that 43% of trainees at the new facility will come from out of state. I would add that the business-friendly government of Atlanta has never been at pains to stop the free flow of capital from beyond Georgia, or of visitors spending tourist dollars. It is only outsiders concerned with the environment who are suspect—apparently the wrong shade of green.

Do new woods growing over old injustices constitute a forest? To whom does that forest belong—the public, elected officials, the officials’ corporate sponsors? Or perhaps to itself, its trees, water, animals? What property is sacrosanct—trees and paths on public land, a gazebo shading parkgoers, or construction equipment and the windows of the Atlanta Police Foundation (smashed during a march after Tortuguita’s killing)? And who is a terrorist? A smiling 26-year-old who tried to protect the land, or the paramilitary force that invaded a camp with guns drawn?

It remains to be seen how these questions will be answered in Atlanta, but the answers concern us all. The problem of militarized police killing with impunity is an American problem. So is the struggle for democratic ownership of the commons against developers’ and corporations’ priorities (profits, and the police to protect them). So is the need for green space in a warming world, space that can cool our cities and stave off flooding, space that will renew us and remind us where we come from.

For now, city officials seem to be on the defensive. On January 31, they announced new “compromises” around the project’s environmental protections, even though, effectively, nothing had changed. On February 7th, Mayor Andre Dickens lost his cool repeatedly at a meeting with Georgia HBCU students who asked hard questions and sometimes booed him—though he never went so far as to accuse them of being outside agitators. The powers-that-be may have overplayed their hand—trying to quash a movement, they instead created a martyr.

After Tortuguita’s killing, Atlanta’s public radio station WABE held a conversation about Cop City between one liberal and one conservative pundit, who agreed on the bottom line: Cop City would be built as the conclusion to a “democratic process.” As the Republican strategist said, “It’s not like this is some right-wing administration in Atlanta that’s foisting this on this Democratic city. This is a Democratic-led city making this decision.”

What is increasingly obvious to people everywhere is that the party making decisions is often immaterial, as neither works for the people. Cop City is spilling the open secret of who counts in this system of governance: police over other citizens, and corporations most of all.

Driving out of Atlanta the day after Tortuguita was killed, I passed the entrance to Doll’s Head Trail, a quirky recent addition to the larger South Atlanta Forest. The trail is dotted with dolls that have been arranged with other discarded objects to make a creepy-cute public art project, started by one underemployed carpenter and grown with the help of other volunteers. Though its makers might not characterize it this way, the trail is anarchism in action: individuals taking it upon themselves to act without asking permission; idiosyncratic visions joining to make the commons better for all. It’s an organic process that mirrors nature’s opportunistic growth and mutualism, one that can’t be understood by a top-down government or the extractive logic of capital, and it’s sending down new roots in the Atlanta forest.

Walter Smelt III lives in Massachusetts and teaches writing and humanities for local colleges. He holds a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Florida and another in religion, literature, and culture from Harvard Divinity School. His poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Subtropics, Poetry East, and Redivider.