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Opinion: Why Environmentalists Should Oppose ‘Cop City’ and Defend the Atlanta Forest

With an urban tree canopy covering almost 48% of the city, Atlanta, Georgia, is often referred to as “a city in a forest.” In 2020, a report by the Atlanta Department of City Planning stressed the need for the ecological protection of Atlanta’s forest to avoid loss of critical habitats, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. It declared that Atlanta would “boldly protect and invest in two new major regional parks: Chattahoochee River Park and South River Park.”

So, why is South River Forest — a greenspace dubbed “The Lungs of Atlanta” by the very same Department of City Planning — slated to become an 85-acre, $90 million public safety training campus for Atlanta’s police department?

Green forest with skyscrapers in the background.
A view of DeKalb County, Georgia. Photo: Seko Naotomo via Creative Commons

In April 2021, then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council proposed the creation of a police training center — known by opponents as “Cop City” — in DeKalb County, where South River Forest is located. The Atlanta City Council solicited public feedback in September 2021 and reviewed 17 hours of comments from over 1,100 Atlanta residents; 70% expressed opposition to the project. Environmental activists and community groups widely voiced concerns about protecting the forest.

Despite overwhelming dissent, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 to lease the South River Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a private non-profit that works with the City and the Atlanta Police Department on public safety initiatives. APF will fund $60 million of “Cop City” — leaving taxpayers, many of whom oppose this project, responsible for the remaining $30 million.

The police training facility is set to be the largest in the United States. It will include a mock city to simulate real-world training, explosives testing sites, and shooting ranges, according to official renderings. Its proposed site in the South River Forest has a chilling history of racist displacement and enslavement. The land was originally inhabited by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation before their forced displacement in the early 1800s. It also operated as a plantation and, most recently, a “prison farm” using incarcerated labor. The legacies of these systems endure to this day. In DeKalb County, which comprises the neighborhoods surrounding South River Forest, the population is predominantly Black; most residents live at or below the poverty level and have some of the country’s highest rates of poverty, asthma, and diabetes.

The community is systematically disenfranchised, creating an environmental justice crisis. In 2021, the South River was named one of America’s “most endangered rivers” due to ongoing sewage pollution during the last decade. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and DeKalb County agreed to repair the county’s sewage spills in “priority areas” by 2020. The EPA did not initially mandate sewage cleanup in “non-priority areas,” most of which have the largest concentration of Black residents in Georgia and make up two-thirds of the sewer system. DeKalb County missed the June 2020 deadline. As a response, the EPA negotiated an extension until 2025. Regardless, it is unlikely that the county will be able to focus on all 103 project locations by the new deadline, leaving the community to continue grappling with the effects of environmental racism.

While “Cop City” is sited in DeKalb County, its consequences will be felt across the Atlanta Metropolitan Area. Forests in Atlanta remove about 19 million pounds of air pollutants each year and the South River Forest is considered one of the largest unspoiled areas left in the Atlanta metro area, according to Deron Davis, former executive director at the Nature Conservancy of Georgia.

This tree canopy is critical to reducing the urban heat island effect that raises temperatures in Atlanta by up to 10 degrees. The first half of 2022 was among the hottest starts to a year that Atlanta has seen since 1930. Furthermore, with a 75% increase of heavy rainfall in Atlanta, green space is needed to reduce storm water runoff. These benefits will be lost along with the forest.

Despite the critical role that forests play, environmental impact assessments for “Cop City” have been criticized for being haphazard, misleading, or in some cases absent.

Environmental justice scholars have long pointed out the role of police violence in normalizing environmental racism, which disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police and die from asthma than white people, according to reports. When Eric Garner was killed by New York City police from a chokehold in 2014, he was suffering from asthma. As explained by Julie Sze, a professor at the University of California, Davis, Garner’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — elucidate the violence and death inflicted upon Black communities from air pollution and police brutality. Sze argues that applying an environmental justice lens shows that these causes of unjust, premature Black deaths are not separate, but rather inextricably linked.

“Cop City” stands to exacerbate environmental racism and militarized police violence. On January 18, 2023, an unidentified police officer shot and killed environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita — Spanish for “Little Turtle.” Environmental protests have long been met with corporate and state-sanctioned violence, but experts say this is the first instance of U.S. police killing an environmental activist. And, when one considers the excessive and often illegal use of force by police in social justice movements, it’s hard to believe this will be the last.

a habitation in a tree with a sign that says "stop destroying earth"
Activists occupying a tree in the South River Forest in opposition to the proposed police training facility that would destroy the forest. Photo: Crowina via Wikimedia Commons

In early February, six climate activists were arrested in Boston for protesting the construction of an electrical substation that bypassed all environmental permitting. In January. Greta Thunberg was detained by German police at a protest over the expansion of a coal mine. In April 2022, seven climate scientists were arrested after protesting for stronger climate action after the last United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. And after Tortuguita’s death, six environmental activists were arrested under domestic terrorism charges. In all these instances, I believe the police acted as a means to silence civil disobedience.

The weaponization of police force against climate activists and marginalized communities suffering at the hands of environmental racism cannot be ignored. Our struggles are interconnected.

That’s why I stand with the Atlanta Forest Defenders, and why I implore all environmentalists to get involved, to stop “Cop City” and defend the South River Forest and its nearby communities.

Aditi Desai is a graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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1 year ago

It seems to me a good idea to have a highly trained police force.