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“If you build it, we will burn it,” defiant and energized Defend the Forest Movement retakes ground

By: Matt Scott

Earlier this year, multiple police agencies engaged in a mass raid of the Weelaunee Forest, destroying campsites that existed in the forest for over a year, and a GSP swat team killed forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán. Forest Defender’s permanent occupation of Weelaunee ended after that raid, but the movement continued to fight.

In response to the bloody raid, activists called for supporters across the country to join them in a mass gathering known as a Week of Action in the Weelaunee Forest. The underlying question leading up to this week was, “would the violence of state repression succeed in chilling the growth of the Defend the Forest movement?”

By 10:30am on Saturday, the beginning of the week of action, about 50 activists arrived, some wearing camo, others in what they might call civilian clothes, and mostly all wearing masks. They began gathering near the playground at Gresham Park. Small groups unfurled banners listing just a few of demands of the movement: “Defend the Forest” and “Disarm Defund Dismantle.” 

The mood was festive. Families arrived with children running straight for the playground. Over a loudspeaker, protest anthems blared, while off to the side a group began overloading a small table with forest-themed bags and t-shirts for sale. One small group started a skank circle.

By 11:00 a.m., the scheduled start time, the crowd grew to over 200. A cluster of people wearing white T-shirts began throwing powdered ink in the air, decorating their uniforms for the week with children joyfully darting into the brightly-colored clouds while their parents watched from a clothing-safe distance away.

The community’s dedication to caring for each other became evident as pairs of volunteer medics patrolled the edges of the crowd, and water carriers passed out bottles while verbally reminding the crowd to hydrate. Passenger vans shuttled participants from a nearby church to alleviate parking issues seen in previous weeks of action.

Matthew Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Beloved Commune
Photo: Matt Scott, ACPC

At 11:30am a powder-paint covered Matthew Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Beloved Commune formally kicked the the rally off acknowledging the variety of individuals, tactics, and beliefs of those gathered. “There are many things we do not agree on,” Johnson began, “but we all came here to what?” he continued. “TO STOP COP CITY,” the crowd yelled in response.

After about an hour of speeches, one last group chant, “we have nothing to lose but our chains” announced the start of the march to from Gresham Park to Weelaunee People’s Park.

Over the course of the two-mile walk, the group’s energy remained charged. The diverse crowd chanted slogans like, “if you build it, we will burn it” in unison as drummers kept up a relentless beat, pushing the march forward.

Shields along the path to Weelaunee People’s Park
Photo: Matt Scott ACPC

Near the halfway point, makeshift shields lined the sides of the trail, which activists grabbed as they continued onward. The joyous mood shifted slightly as the protest closed in on the people’s park, passing over the remains of the bike path destroyed in December by film executive Ryan Millsap. Activists were uncertain what they were walking into, or whether the police would offer any resistance.

With no police in sight, the group finally arrived in the parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park, and the jubilant mood returned in earnest. The group gathered one final time around a speaker who led all those gathered in a combination chant and promise, “I will defend this land.”

Supplies stacked in the living room
Photo: Matt Scott ACPC

New comers and long-time local activists alike peeled off to make their way into the forest and set up camp. Trains of individuals carried jugs of water, compostable toilets, and other supplies needed to sustain camp life for the week. Two 275-gallon water containers lay in the nearby the space activists call the Living Room, a campfire in the middle just coming to life as the supply train arrived. The forest’s new residents broke off, moving further into the woods or returning to the parking lot to grab their own tents and sleeping bags.

Back in the parking lot a calm and quiet anticipation filled the air. Rumors spread that Ryan Milsap called the company who provided the 20-yard dumpster to try to have it removed, and that he later called DeKalb County police to have them remove the protesters themselves, but no police never entered the parking lot.  

The movement was once again living joyfully within in the forest it had promised to protect.

Makeshift memorial to Manuel Paez “Tortuguita” Terán on a concrete slab
from the destroyed bike path in Weelaunee People’s Park
Photo: Matt Scott ACPC

By ones and twos, attendees in the parking lot stopped at a makeshift shrine for Tortuguita, sometimes adding wildflowers or dropping off packs of Welch’s fruit snacks — Tortuguita’s favorite treat. Invariably their shoulders slumped downward. Hands would raise to their hearts almost involuntarily before landing in front, clasped together, eyes cast downward with more than the occasional tear, as they held space for their fallen comrade.

All across the forest, signs of regrowth and new life appeared. Small campsites began to crop up across the landscape – some nestled in sunnier spaces, others tucked into thickets providing shadier and cooler climate for their new residents. 

The trees themselves reflected this next phase. Sprigs of new growth leaves appeared on the ends of barren branches. Small white flowers bloomed along the periphery of the parking lot. 

After months of desolation — and death — life prevailed, and spring arrives in the forest. 

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