December 20, 2022 – For Immediate Release
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On December 17, 175 people gathered in Brownwood Park in East Atlanta to declare their support for the six activists recently charged with domestic terrorism, and to demonstrate their continued opposition to “Cop City,” a proposed 300 acre, $90 million police training facility in Atlanta’s largest urban forest. These charges resulted from an interagency raid on tree sitters which included the Atlanta Police Department, Dekalb County Police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and the Department of Homeland Security. The training facility, though widely opposed by the public, local neighbors, and environmentalists, has been approved by the city, although construction has been delayed for over a year by protestors occupying the forest.
Those gathered shared their experiences in the movement, and denounced the erroneous charges brought against the 6 young people as politically motivated attacks on freedom of speech. One participant summed it up clearly: “They are trying to separate the tree sitters from all of us. They represent the movement to them so they are charging them with terrorism. But we are all forest defenders. We are all in the movement. And we won’t be scared away from this. We won’t stop until the APF stops Cop City.”
The movement against Cop City has been diverse and vibrant since its inception, with widespread support from many community organizations, and a variety of tactics, including public comment, marches of pre-schoolers, tree-sits, and sabotage.
Kamau, of Community Movement Builders, said “We cannot allow these young people to spend their lives in prison for doing things we all think was right. We enjoy being peaceful. But we have to understand that what the police and state want is to make sure that they are the only ones who get to use force. They are the ones with the night sticks and the guns and the courts. They are building things like Cop City because they are seeing that people are waking up.”
These arrests and trumped up charges come at a time when both journalists and prominent civil rights advocates are concerned about multiple threats to free speech and the media. One prominent autonomous news source, It’s Going Down, was banned from Twitter on the same day as the arrests, shortly after notorious right-wing troll Andy Ngo posted spurious claims about the arrestees and engaged in direct conversation with Elon Musk on Twitter. This purge of journalists silenced any voices which could contradict the false and dangerous claims being posted by right-wing actors, completing a closed narrative loop in which the APD lied about the arrests and prominent right-wing accounts reposted and exaggerated their lies.
In addition to social media bans, multiple civil rights attorneys have noted that the APD’s own claims about the arrest are dangerous to First Amendment rights. APD Assistant Chief Carven Tyus explicitly defined people traveling from out of state to protest as domestic terrorists, and bragged about using the city’s hands-free driving law as a pretext to arrest someone filming the operation.
As police increasingly turn to opaque algorithms and social media for their own operations, the confluence between Elon Musk’s arbitrary control over who can speak on Twitter, his apparent support for and collaboration with extreme-right personalities and conspiracy theorists, and local police using trumped up charges is extremely concerning, and points towards a future in which right-wing biases are baked into both social media and policing algorithms.
Background on Cop City and the Weelaunee Forest:
The two parcels of land (Intrechment Creek Park and the Old Atlanta Prison Farm) are the two largest sections of the South River Forest, which activists call by its indigenous Muscogee/Creek name, Weelaunee. The Old Atlanta Prison Farm is the proposed site of a state-of-the-art police training compound widely known as “Cop City” (although pro-police advocates call the facility a number of names, including the Public Safety Training Center or PSTC).
This plan developed shortly after Atlanta Police officer Garrett Rolfe killed Rayshard Brooks in 2020, sparking large scale protests and unrest and leading many community groups and activists to demand that a section of the police budget be redirected to public services including after-school programs, public childcare facilities, health clinics, and libraries. Instead, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and activists with a non-profit organization called the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) agreed to build Cop City, initially under the name “Institute for Social Justice,” which they hoped community members would interpret in a neutral or even progressive development. The APF in general allows corporate giants such as Coca Cola, the Home Depot, Cox Enterprises, Wells Fargo, Equifax, and Delta to donate to the police, as well as a network of wealthy families listed on the Foundation’s site. The Foundation forms something of a “slush fund” for the police, allowing them to use the investments of dark money sources for weaponry, equipment, cameras, supplies, banquet dinners, suit and tie events, and other unclear purposes.
The land at Intrenchment Creek Park — which currently is a public park used extensively by cyclists and others in the majority-Black area — is site of a scandalous land-swap debacle orchestrated by Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and real estate giant Ryan Milsap. Milsap is also the former CEO of Blackhall/Shadowbox studios. In 2021, Blackhall and Michael Thurmond worked out a plan to swap a parcel of land currently owned by the film studio — a parcel which is currently a clear cut located adjacent to the South River Forest — for Intrenchment Creek Park. Community groups and lawyers are sounding the alarm about this agreement, as it lays a dangerous groundwork for giving away public assets. After the dubious land swap was passed in the County Commissioners, a lawsuit has placed the swap on hold. In the meantime, Milsap sold most of his shares of Blackhall to a hedge fund he is also on the board of. In the sale, he exempted the parcel of land that is currently Intrenchment Creek Park, and instead “gave” the parcel to himself. He now claims to be the sole owner of the land, and claims the right to do anything with it that he pleases. He is often seen giving orders to Dekalb County Police during protests in the park.
Since the summer of 2021, thousands of community members in Atlanta, as well as hundreds of activists from elsewhere, have organized to oppose these two developments, often under the slogans “defend the Atlanta forest” and “stop Cop City.”