The Future of American Environmental Protests May Be Unfolding in a Forest Outside Atlanta

Deadly violence against environmental protesters could become a reality in the United States.

A demonstrator holds a sign protesting the death of activist Manuel Teran, who went by Tortuguita, in Atlanta on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Tortuguita was killed Wednesday, Jan. 18, after authorities said the 26-year-old shot a state trooper. They are the first environmental activist killed by law enforcement in the United States. R.J. Rico/AP

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The past two weeks have marked a significant escalation in the years-long struggle over the proposed construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center (PSTC), a $90 million project that would be built on nearly 100 acres of city-owned land in an unincorporated section of DeKalb County—Georgia’s fourth largest county that encompasses a sliver of southeast Atlanta. The forest—once the homeland of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, then the site of a slave plantation and notorious prison camp—for at least a year has been occupied by activists who call themselves “forest defenders.” They have camped among the trees with the goal of blocking the construction of the PSTC, a massive complex for law enforcement that would include training and recreational facilities.  For them and other opponents of the project, PSTC is known instead as “Cop City.”

On January 18, a multi-agency task force that included Atlanta police, the Georgia State Patrol, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided what they estimated to be about 25 campsites throughout the forest. During the operation, a Georgia state patrol trooper shot and killed a 26-year-old activist named Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who went by the nickname “Tortuguita.” The state’s Bureau of Investigation released a statement claiming that officers approached Terán in a tent, and then Terán shot at a state trooper first, wounding him, before officers returned fire. Law enforcement has said there is no body camera footage. 

Fellow activists dispute this account and have called for an independent investigation. Terán’s mother, who is originally from Venezuela but now lives in Panama City, Panama told The Guardian that she believes her child was “murdered in cold blood” and that she will work to “clear Manuel’s name.” Protests following Terán’s killing led to a police cruiser in flames and smashed windows at the Atlanta Police Foundation headquarters, Wells Fargo, and Truist Bank branches in downtown Atlanta. In response, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp called a state of emergency and activated the Georgia National Guard (though they were not deployed).

In his State of the State address the day before the state of emergency was declared, Kemp decried the violence of “out-of-state rioters” and applauded the police response to the protests. “That’s just the latest example of why here in Georgia, we’ll always back the blue!” he said. 

In countries in the global south that are on the frontiers of resource extraction, being an environmental activist is extraordinarily dangerous. A 2021 Global Witness report estimated 1,700 environmental activists have been killed in the last decade. But, as Kate Aronoff wrote in The New Republic, Terán’s death is a worrisome sign that this deadly violence against environmental protesters could become a reality in the United States, too. Terán’s death is the first known example of someone killed by law enforcement while engaged in environmental “land defense” activism.

“This idea that violence against environmentalists is something we only see in the jungles of Brazil, has really made us blind to the situation we’ve now found ourselves in in the United States,” says Will Potter, Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Civil Rights Fellow with the University of Denver Animal Law Program who has reported extensively on environmental activism.

In a 2017 proposal commissioned by the city of Atlanta, the land proposed for “Cop City,” one of the largest remaining green spaces in the Atlanta metro area, was slotted for conservation, not for new development. Indeed the document described the forest as one of the four “lungs of Atlanta”—a reference to its tree canopy. Soon after the city adopted the proposal into its charter, urban planner Ryan Gravel, an author of the report, began to work on the overall conservation plan with The Nature Conservancy.

But in March 2021, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that the PSTC would be built on the same swath of land. Among many amenities, the sprawling compound would include a “mock city for real-world training,” complete with a “faux nightclub and convenience store,” earning the nickname “Cop City.” The Atlanta Police Foundation—a private non-profit that lobbies and fundraises on behalf of the Atlanta Police Department— is behind the proposal for the facility. In a promotional video, it is described as “A World Class Training Campus For A World Class City.” The group plans to pay $60 million for the PSTC, while the other $30 million would be from public funds. If built, it would be one of the largest police training centers in the country.

A large and ideologically diverse coalition opposed the project and managed to scale it back from the original plan of 150 acres to 85 acres. In September 2021 the city council approved the new scaled-back PSTC proposal in a 10-4 vote. Bottoms, Atlanta’s recently elected Mayor Andre Dickens (who had voted for the PSTC as a council member), and Governor Brian Kemp all have argued that the project is necessary to increase police morale and retention in order to combat Atlanta’s recent rise in violent crime.

But the scaled-back proposal did little to decrease opposition to the project. In an op-ed, last May that appeared in a local news site SaportaReport, Lily Ponitz, an environmental engineer and member of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the PSTC, wrote that the proposal was missing the necessary environmental assessment. “They are doing less than the minimum to meet the legally-defined standards for environmental site assessment reporting,she wrote, “and are breaking the trust of stakeholders and the terms of their Ground Lease Agreement with the City of Atlanta.” In June, the committee voted to remove Ponitz from her position.

Once the plan passed, environmental protesters—some of whom are veterans of past protests against oil pipelines like Line 3 in Minnesota and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia—staged decentralized direct action in the forest. The protesters work under the broad banner of Defend the Atlanta Forest, but often refer to the forest by its Muscogee name “Weelaunee.” They met with a delegation of Muscogee people who traveled to the forest from Oklahoma earlier this summer. They also built a community for themselves, with free concerts, yoga classes, and even games of bingo

The confrontational tactics of “Cop City” opponents —which range from nonviolent tree-sits to destroying a work crew’s truck—aren’t exactly new in the history of radical environmental activism. But this protest is singular because of its target: the same police who will be called on to repress future environmental movements. “What makes this campaign pretty ominous to law enforcement and people like Governor Kemp in Georgia, is [opponents of Cop City are] uniting and connecting all of these threads,” Potter explains. Unlike protesters who sit in trees in endangered forests throughout North America, he says, the Atlanta forest defenders are combining that environmentalist ethos with a critique of the policing apparatus in the US. In addition, the history of the area informs their actions because it “is connected to a prison plantation that has also been part of this land. And it’s connected to a war on indigenous people, that stretches back for hundreds of years. It isn’t just an environmental campaign.”

Potter’s 2011 book Green Is The New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege  is the story of how we got here. Beginning in the mid to late 1990’s, so-called “eco-terrorists” were the FBI’s top domestic terror concern—more so than white supremacists, anti-government militias, and anti-abortion groups. Potter argues that corporate lobbying by fur, biomedical, and other industries was primarily responsible for the disproportionate focus on environmental activists by the federal government. For the next 30 years, radical environmental movements that committed acts of property destruction but did not hurt any humans or animals were crushed by terrorism charges in what Potter dubbed “The Green Scare.” Like the anti-communist Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, Potter writes that the crackdown on so-called “eco-terrorists” was to “push a political agenda, instill fear, and chill dissent.” 

“The use of the term ‘terrorist’ is a very, very effective way for the media and the state to drive a wedge within these movements, and to discourage people from being involved in these kinds of actions,” says David Pellow, Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pellow, (whose class I once took as a college student), studied the radical environmental groups of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, whose members became poster children for eco-terrorism. “The irony is that the reason why we have these radical movements and formations is precisely because mainstream tactics and strategies aren’t working,” he notes.

In the same raid that led to Terán’s death, seven other forest defenders were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism under a 2017 law that expanded the designation of the statute. As Alleen Brown reports in Grist, there are now 19 people who have been charged with domestic terrorism in connection to the Stop Cop City protests. According to arrest warrants that Brown reviewed, the basis of the charges rests on the claim that “Defend the Atlanta Forest” is a “group” that the department of Homeland Security has formally called “Domestic Violent Extremists.”

“Nine are alleged to have committed no specific illegal actions beyond misdemeanor trespassing,” she writes. “Instead, their mere association with a group committed to defending the forest appears to be the foundation for declaring them terrorists.” They face potentially 35 years in prison.

“Whatever the charges that the [district attorney] gave or the police gave, those are the charges that were properly assigned and they will be defended,” Mayor Dickens recently said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editorial Board. 

The forest occupation is one part of a broader movement in opposition to PSTC. By most accounts, the plan for the police facility is broadly opposed by residents of Atlanta and communities surrounding the site. In a September 2021 city council meeting that opened for public comment, there were 17 hours of pre-recorded comments from over 1,100 Atlanta residents. According to an estimate tallied by the outlet Mainline, 70% of those comments were opposed, while 30% approved. Other protests have been organized by police and prison abolition organizations, neighborhood associations, and environmental groups. Before the plan was passed, opponents organized demonstrations, circulated petitions, called local representatives, canvassed neighborhoods, even staged a children’s march, and more. 

“We were coming out of a time of abolish the police and defund the police rhetoric and finding alternatives for public safety,” says Kamau Franklin of the Black-led, Atlanta-based organization Community Movement Builders, which fights against gentrification and police brutality in the city. “Instead of doing anything of the sort, the city decided to double down. A militarized police base that is going to cut down 100 acres of forest is a disastrous idea that no one asked for.”

Who did ask for Cop City? The Atlanta Police Foundation and their funders, which include a veritable who’s who of Atlanta corporations: Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Cox Enterprises, who own the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As Franklin points out, all of these companies were willing to make statements in favor of racial justice and Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020. 

In a press conference on Tuesday, January 31, Mayor Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, announced a new agreement that would clear the way for construction to continue. Protesters gathered outside city hall. Among the signs and placards was a photograph of Terán. Afterward, the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a group of activist writers and researchers, issued a statement calling for a worldwide “Week of Solidarity to Stop Cop City,” from February 19-26.

Franklin describes the PSTC as “militarized police center” and argues that it will eventually further sanction the over-policing of Black communities. “We won’t be cowered by a right-wing governor, nor will we be cowered by a moderate liberal mayor, Franklin says.”We must keep on and persevere and do the work of the movement. And that’s exactly what we plan to do.”

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