By: Micah Herskind, Scalawag
This story was originally published by Scalawag as a part of A Week of Writing: Stop Cop City. Click to read this story with an interactive timeline of events.
Content warning: This essay mentions state-sanctioned murder.
The struggle to Stop Cop City is not just a battle over the creation of a $90 million police urban warfare center. It’s not just a fight to protect the 381 acres of forest land, known as one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta, currently under threat of destruction. It’s not just a conflict over how the city invests the over $30 million it has pledged to the project, to be supplemented by at least $60 million in private funding.
The movement is all of those things. But even more fundamentally, the struggle to Stop Cop City is a battle for the future of Atlanta. It’s a struggle over who the city is for: the city’s corporate and state ruling class actors who have demanded that Cop City be built, or the people of Atlanta who have consistently voiced their opposition and demanded a different vision for the city. It is a fight over who the city belongs to; over who Atlanta is run for and who it is run against; over who is welcome to live and enjoy life here, and who is expected to simply labor here for low wages and under constant surveillance.
In January 2023, Cop City claimed its first life when a joint task force of local and state police officers marched into the Weelaunee Forest and assassinated Tortuguita, a 26-year-old queer, Indigenous-Venezuelan forest defender. The project has already claimed the lives of trees in the forest, as clear cutting began in March 2023. Cop City has already stolen the freedom of 42 people who have been charged with domestic terrorism, and of the dozens more who were violently arrested while protesting the project.
As the struggle to stop Cop City has gone national and international, it has also left many wondering: given so much widespread opposition, why is the city of Atlanta so intent on building Cop City? And if they insist on building Cop City, why build it atop such precious forest land? And why now, when the plans were first proposed as early as 2017 and the city had previously committed to protecting and preserving the land in question?
Making sense of the drive to build Cop City requires understanding the shifting dynamics of class and racial domination in Atlanta, marked by organized abandonment: the state’s retreat from the provision of social welfare and the interrelated build up of policing and imprisonment to manage inequality’s outcomes. Or as abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore put it: “profound austerity and the iron fist necessary to impose it.”
Cop City is the Atlanta ruling class’s chosen solution to a set of interrelated crises produced by decades of organized abandonment in Atlanta. As Gilmore explains, crisis means “instability that can be fixed only through radical measures, which include developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions out of what already exists.” These crises included the threat and reality of mass uprisings against police violence, extreme and racialized income inequality and displacement, corporate media narratives in the wake of the 2020 uprisings that threatened the image of the city as a safe place for capital investment and development, and a municipal secession movement that threatened to rob the city of nearly half of its tax revenue following the uprisings.
Designed and propelled by a mix of state, corporate, and nonprofit actors, Cop City would address the overlapping crises facing Atlanta in three ways. First, it would provide a material investment in police capacity on the heels of the uprisings, a project to prepare for and prevent future rebellion. Second, it would represent an ideological investment in the image of Atlanta, signaling to corporations and those attracted by the influx of tech and other high-paying jobs that Atlanta is a stable, securitized city that will protect their interests. And third, Cop City would constitute a geographical investment—one that refashions publicly owned land in a disinvested area into something new while opening up new opportunities for development. In other words, to borrow from Gilmore, Cop City is a partially geographical solution to a set of crises facing and generated by the city—a means through which a coalition of state and corporate actors have chosen to address years of organized abandonment and its outcomes.
ORGANIZED ABANDONMENT AND THE ATLANTA WAY
When thousands of Atlantans took to the streets during the nationwide uprisings of 2020, they were responding to more than the recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. They were responding to decades of social disinvestment, displacement, and police expansion, and calling for a reversal of these dynamics.
21st-century Atlanta has featured rapid, publicly subsidized development and gentrification, the further disintegration of the social safety net, the expansion of surveillance and policing, and rising inequality. Since 1990, the share of the city’s Black population has decreased from 67 percent to 48 percent, while the median family income and the share of adults with a college degree in the city doubled. Investment firms have gobbled up the housing stock, with bulk buyers accumulating over 65,000 single-family homes throughout the Atlanta metro area in the past decade. As the city has attracted major tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Honeywell—and along with them more middle and upper class white people—the city has pushed its Black and working class further out of the city. Choices by policymakers have made Atlanta a lucrative place for big business, but a difficult place to live for the rest of residents. In 2022, for example, Atlanta was named by Money as the best place to live and was identified by Realtor Magazine as the top real estate market in the country. The same year, Atlanta was proclaimed the most unequal city in the country; relatedly, Atlanta is the most surveilled city in the U.S.
How did we get here? Atlanta has long been home to what is known as “the Atlanta Way”––the strategic partnership between Black political leadership and white economic elites that work in service of corporations and upper-class white communities and to the detriment of lower-income Black and working-class communities. While historians such as Maurice Hobson, Adira Drake Rodriguez, and Dan Immergluck have documented the long history of the Atlanta Way throughout the 1900s, we can begin with the leadup to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a key accelerant of the Atlanta Way. As Immergluck notes, the decisions made in preparation for the Games “effectively set the stage for long-term gentrification and exclusion in the city, focusing primarily on making the city more attractive to a more affluent set of prospective citizens.”
Atlanta underwent a fundamental transformation in its effort to attract the 1996 Olympics. As Hobson has documented, city and corporate leaders worked together to fashion an image of the city that “had it all: the citizens, the dynamism, and the charm along with an economic and social robustness that made it one of the world’s most vibrant new cities.” This meant infrastructural upgrades and new Olympic stadiums, but it also entailed a redefinition of who the city was for. As geographer Seth Gustafson has argued, the reshaping of Atlanta was tied to goals of reshaping the demographic image of the city as “one without the homeless, public housing residents, and other low-income Atlantans who were also predominantly racial minorities.” Through new (and publicly subsidized) Olympic infrastructure, the destruction of public housing, and the displacement of low-income residents, Atlanta worked to “create an image of itself as a prosperous, authentically global city.”
The vision for a world class Atlanta was charted by a coalition of state and corporate actors, who did their work through “public-private partnerships” like the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and downtown boosters like Central Atlanta Progress (CAP). The Olympification of the city was a process that included, among other changes, the displacement of roughly 30,000 people between 1990 and 1996; the illegal arrest over 9,000 homeless people in 1995 and 1996, in part through the Atlanta Police Department’s use of pre-printed tickets with categories filled out for “African American,” “Male,” and “Homeless”; a partnership between the City and Travelers Aid, a nonprofit organization that purchased one-way tickets out of town for homeless people, who were reportedly required to sign pledges not to return; the demolition of public housing like Techwood Homes, the U.S.’s oldest federally subsidized public housing project; the passage of new city laws hyper-criminalizing homelessness and the construction of a 1,300 bed municipal jail downtown to clear mostly Black homeless people from the streets; and the destruction of neighborhoods like Summerhill, replaced by an Olympic stadium.
As housing activist Anita Beaty has argued, the Olympics were “a dry run, a dress rehearsal for the developers and the elites to take over the city, to take over the planning, housing construction—to eliminate public housing.” And as Beaty notes, while the pattern of “demonizing of poor and homeless Atlantans by the moneyed power elite did not begin with the Olympics…the 1996 Summer Olympic Games gave that practice the adrenaline it needed to become the city’s prevailing, even blatant, public policy.”
In the following decades, demonizing the poor and catering to elites did indeed become the city’s prevailing and blatant public policy, seen perhaps most clearly in the city’s posture toward major development projects and the gentrification that accompanies them. For example, the Beltline, a publicly subsidized and privately constructed 22-mile path around the city, has drastically raised property values in the surrounding neighborhoods since construction began in the early 2000s. And as Immergluck has documented, while city officials promised in the plans for the Beltline to set aside funding for affordable housing and to keep people in their homes as property values rose, in practice they instead focused on building trails and parks that would raise property values while accelerating gentrification.
Public to private transfers of wealth in the service of major development continued apace in the following years. There’s the $1.6 billion Mercedes Benz stadium for the Atlanta Falcons in downtown Atlanta, opened in 2017, which received an estimated $700-900 million in public funds through a socialize-the-costs, privatize-the-profits financing scheme. There’s the $142.5 million from the city in 2016 for a renovated State Farm Arena, home to the Atlanta Hawks. There’s the 2017 sale of the Turner Field stadium to Georgia State University––a deal that received roughly $5 million in tax breaks, and was fought by community members who established a tent city and demanded a community benefits agreement to offset the gentrification that would accompany the new mixed-use development. And there’s the fiercely resisted $1.9 billion subsidy for “The Gulch,” a plan approved in 2018 that transferred significant public dollars and 40 acres of publicly owned land in downtown Atlanta to a private developer for the creation of office, retail, and hotel space and mostly unaffordable housing.
As Atlanta has poured money into major development projects, city leadership has refused to capture the increased tax revenue associated with its investments. Sometimes this happens through financing mechanisms that divert new tax revenues from the area surrounding the development back into the corporations behind the projects, siphoning money away from schools and other public goods. Other times, it is done by failing to adequately assess the value of major commercial properties (meaning they are taxed at far less than they are worth). For example, as Immergluck has shown, as part of the deal to create the Ponce City Market (PCM) mixed use redevelopment, the company that bought the building received an 8.5 year tax freeze on its property value (at just $5.2 million), resulting in a loss of tens of millions of tax dollars from a property that has an estimated worth of $1 billion. Meanwhile, the area surrounding PCM has featured rapid gentrification, with the population of the area declining from 78 percent Black in 2000 to 38 percent in 2017, while the white population increased by 280 percent.
In total, according to former Invest Atlanta board member Julian Bené, Atlanta and Fulton County are leaving approximately $500 million in annual tax revenue on the table as commercial properties have been chronically under appraised—leading to significant corporate underpayment of taxes. At the same time, money for affordable housing has been scarce, as funding promises have been made and broken. In 2017, as the housing crisis continued, the city officially closed Peachtree and Pine, Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter (and the largest homeless shelter in the Southeast), deepening the decimation of options for unhoused people.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) budget has continued to grow, from roughly $130 million in 2000 to $283 million in 2023. Today, policing accounts for a third of Atlanta’s annual budget. The Atlanta Police Foundation, the largest police foundation in the country founded in 2003, helped establish Operation Shield—an ever-growing network of over 3,300 surveillance cameras throughout the city. APD has continued to kill and maim, while filling up Atlanta-area jails, like the Fulton County Jail, where 90 percent of people detained are Black.
Despite the Atlanta Way’s hostility toward low-income and working-class Black people, the 2010s saw some promising reforms, won through a combination of sustained struggle and mass mobilizations. In 2013, organizers successfully defeated a sex worker banishment ordinance, followed by the 2015 creation of Atlanta’s first alternatives-to-policing program to meet—instead of criminalizing—people’s needs. In 2018, the City passed local bail reform legislation in response to pressure and threat of lawsuit from advocates, leading to a significant decrease in the city jail’s daily population. The same year, migrant justice organizers successfully pressured Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to cut the city’s ties with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. One year later, following a campaign led by formerly incarcerated women of color, the City passed a resolution to close the Atlanta City Detention Center—the city’s 1,300-bed jail built in preparation for the 1996 Olympics—and repurpose it into a community resource center. Amid severe inequality there was, it seemed, an encouraging trend.
A BREAKING POINT
Then came 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide uprisings. In May 2020, people took to the streets for weeks following the release of video footage showing the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters smashed windows and burned police cars in righteous anger. The demand to defund and abolish the police, and to invest in community safety, went mainstream. Protests in Atlanta and across the country intensified again just a couple weeks later, following the June 12 murder of Rayshard Brooks, who was approached and murdered by Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe while sleeping in his car at a Wendy’s.
Roughly a week after Brooks was killed, on June 20, the Atlanta City Council considered a budget amendment that would later be known as the Rayshard Brooks bill, framed widely as a bill to defund the Atlanta Police Department. While the bill itself was not a true “defund” bill—it would have merely withheld 50 percent of APD’s budget until the mayor’s office and City Council formulated a plan to “reimagine public safety”—it was nonetheless symbolically hefty, a test of whether Atlanta electeds would heed community calls or not. The Council ultimately voted it down by a margin of 8-7.
During this time, organizers, community members, and Brooks’ family members had taken over the burned-down Wendy’s where police stole Brooks’ life, declaring it the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center (RBPC) and installing an autonomous community space with parties, showers, gardens, community art, a library, and more. The RBPC was demolished weeks later by city workers who were escorted by police after the tragic death of 8-year-old Secoria Turner, who was killed during a conflict gone wrong on July 4.
In some ways, the narrow down-vote of the Rayshard Brooks Bill marked a turning point—not in the nature of the ruling class consensus or the “Atlanta Way,” but in the way it manifested in Atlanta politicians’ outward posture toward policing and incarceration. In the months that followed the uprisings, there was a palpable sense of backlash in the city.
Police revolted, with 170 officers calling out sick in the days after Atlanta police were charged for the death of Rayshard Brooks. They were quickly rewarded with $500 bonuses, funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation and authorized by Bottoms, the then-mayor. “Crime wave” narratives took off, as corporate media outlets in Atlanta and across the country promoted the idea that crime was out of control, that no one was safe, that police were demoralized, and that the defund movement was responsible (these narratives, of course, turned out to be almost entirely false). Corporations, organized through “public private partnerships” like the Atlanta Committee for Progress, made crime a central issue, pledging to work with city leadership to fight gang violence, car break-ins, and nuisance properties, while stirring up moral panics around street racing and “water boys,” or Black children selling water bottles at street intersections.
Seizing on and amplifying crime fears, the disproportionately white and wealthy area of Northeast Atlanta known as Buckhead launched a newly organized secession movement in July 2020, falsely touting the supposedly rampant crime in the area. Buckhead accounts for roughly 40 percent of the City’s tax base, and its attempt to de-annex from the city of Atlanta and create a new city immediately caused panic among Atlanta liberals who feared the loss of tax revenue and control that would accompany secession.
It was in this climate that, just one year later in September 2021, the Atlanta City Council voted to approve Cop City despite mass community opposition. The people had been in the streets, the city’s wealthiest area was threatening to secede over a crime panic, Atlanta’s corporate class was demanding stability, and long-standing patterns of organized abandonment were coming to a head.
CAPITALIZING ON THE CRISIS
It was a web of corporate, state, police, media, university, and nonprofit actors that came together in this time—often through the vehicle of the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF)—to push forward the Cop City proposal. APF had been working on the plans for Cop City as early as 2017, even approaching council members, long before they went public. But the plans didn’t appear to be considered in earnest until years later, and were not publicly announced until spring of 2021, when Bottoms, the then-mayor, created an advisory committee to rubber stamp the Atlanta Police Foundation’s recommendations for Cop City.
The announcement came on the heels of rollbacks to reforms and promises Atlanta leadership had made just years earlier. In November 2020, the Atlanta City Council rolled back its 2018 bail reform after racist fear mongering around street racing, an effort led by the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. In December 2020, three councilmembers—one of whom, Matt Westmoreland, had voted for the “defund” bill—announced that they were donating $125,000 from their office budgets to the “Buckhead Security Plan,” investing further in surveillance and policing in the Buckhead area. The final report of the committee tasked with providing a path to repurposing the city jail into a community resource center was ignored, as the mayor opted instead to keep the jail open (a decision made official in August of 2022, when the city leased 700 beds at the jail to Fulton County). More broadly, crime and its relationship to the Buckhead secession movement was central to the 2022 mayoral election cycle, with each of the candidates pledging to crack down on crime, hire more police officers, and keep the city intact.
Announcing the Cop City plans, Bottoms, the former mayor, argued that the facility would “improve officer morale and retention” following the supposed dip in morale and increased vacancies after the 2020 uprisings. Likewise, the Atlanta Police Foundation touted the proposed facility’s size and state-of-the-art nature, giving it a “tremendous amount of appeal” to other Georgia law enforcement agencies. An FAQ from the APF argued that nowhere else could accommodate the department’s needs, and that Cop City would be a “beacon for what we call 21st Century policing.” Dave Wilkinson, APF’s CEO, echoed these talking points at a September 2021 press conference, saying that APF is “building this training center as a tribute to the community,” and that it is “the most important security measure that this city could introduce in our generation.” The plan’s proponents frequently tied building Cop City to social justice, arguing that it would provide the “most up-to-date methods of community policing, including de-escalation tactics and cultural awareness.” In fact, the original proposed name for Cop City was the Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training—a name that was quickly scratched, perhaps as even the project’s proponents realized this was a bridge too far.
The Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP)—a public-private partnership of top business, university, and nonprofit leaders—quickly announced their support for the project, tying it to their mission of “[accelerating] Atlanta’s competitiveness for attracting residents, businesses, and investment, with a high priority on public safety, while expanding economic opportunity for all.” ACP’s then-Board Chair, Alex Taylor, also happened to be the CEO of Cox Enterprises, the owner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the AJC, Atlanta’s paper of record). While regularly failing to disclose its relationship to Cop City or the fact that its parent company donated $10 million to the project, the AJC repeatedly published pieces in favor of the project. For example, an editorial in August 2021 after the project temporarily stalled in the City Council argued that supposedly improved training at Cop City “may well save lives during routine encounters with the public.” Of course, the Editorial Board didn’t cite any information to justify this claim, and certainly did not acknowledge, for example, that the Atlanta police officer who killed Rayshard Brooks underwent over 2,000 hours of training.
As the plan met community resistance, APF and the corporations backing it leveraged the threat of Buckhead secession and narratives about rising crime to demand the plan be pushed through. As emails obtained through an open record request show, during the summer of 2021, the Atlanta Police Foundation heavily pressured the mayor’s office to push for the approval of the legislation. In the leadup to a June 2021 committee vote, APF’s CEO Dave Wilkinson sent an email to Jon Keen, the city’s then-Chief Operations Officer and mayor’s right-hand man, acknowledging that council members needed “cover” to support the project (due to widespread opposition), while also demanding that the mayor push forward on Cop City, given frustration from major CEOs over the “crime surge and lack of support for public safety over the past year.”
In that same batch of open records, Wilkinson forwarded an email from someone who he identified as a “prominent CEO” on the Atlanta Committee for Progress, who wrote to Wilkinson that he is struggling with the “shootings over the past few weeks, parties in the streets this weekend and the water boys running around on scooters”––all the products of organized abandonment. “The current situation must stop ASAP,” the anonymous CEO writes, “or I and others will have to turn all of our support toward the Buckhead City movement.”
Similarly, suggested scripts pumped out to the Atlanta Police Foundation’s email list during the summer of 2020 encouraged residents to call the city council, identify as Buckhead residents, and demand the building of Cop City: “Hi, my name is _______ and I live in Buckhead, and I am concerned with the uptick in crime, and something must be done! Please vote yes on the building of the Public Safety Training Center.”
It all made for a perfect storm, and in September 2021, despite massive community opposition and over 17 hours of public comment, the vast majority of it against Cop City, City Council sided with the Atlanta Police Foundation and voted 10-4 to approve the plan.
RESOLVING THE CRISIS
Though the public justifications for Cop City revolved rather tightly around policing and the need to combat rising crime, even those who voted for the plan knew that the facility would not be built for at least two years after its approval. In other words, Cop City would by no means be an immediate response to crime concerns. And in fact, though the categories of crime that many claimed signaled citywide lawlessness (rather than, for example, the woes of a pandemic in the midst of organized abandonment) have come down, that certainly hasn’t led to a pause on the project. So why was Cop City put forward as the solution to the various crises facing Atlanta? What would building Cop City accomplish for Atlanta, and why did they choose the Weelaunee Forest for its creation?
Material Investment in Policing
This is not the first time that police expansion has followed rebellion. As detailed in the 2022 documentary, Riotsville, U.S.A., the parallels between the response to the uprisings and rebellions of the 1960s and today are eerie. In the 1960s—following uprisings in areas like Newark, Watts, and Detroit—the U.S. military constructed mock cities on military bases. These bases were referred to as “Riotsvilles” where, much like the plans for Cop City, law enforcement could role play responses to uprisings and protests.
More recently, in 2019, Chicago’s City Council and mayor approved a plan proposed in 2017 for what organizers branded “Cop Academy”—a $128 million dollar police training center that, like Atlanta’s proposed Cop City, would include a “tactical scenario village” with a full fake city block. While Chicago’s political leadership made many of the same claims in pushing for Cop Academy that Atlanta’s leadership has—better trained, “reformed” police—#NoCopAcademy organizers made the connections between the slashing of social services and massive investment in police infrastructure in a majority Black part of the city that had faced significant disinvestment.
Just as Cop City followed Cop Academy, new proposals for similar facilities have continued to emerge across the country in recent years. Tarrant County, Texas is considering a proposal for a new $50 million police training center, modeled after a $101 million facility completed in 2015 in Fort Worth. In Hawaiʻi, officials have proposed a new several hundred million dollar, 243 acre campus to be built on former plantation land and current agricultural land that would be used for a range of police and fire agencies (though, as of March 2023, the project has been paused). Officials have reportedly justified the plan in part to prepare for rising sea levels and climate change—another sign that policing will be central to the state’s response to climate crisis. In New Jersey, the governor has proposed a new $120 million state police training center. The City of Pittsburgh is also considering a plan for a new 168 acre facility with a projected price tag of over $120 million. In Michigan, the National Guard is seeking to more than double the size of Camp Grayling, its current military training complex, from 148,000 acres to 320,000—a plan “to bolster capacity for modern training” that would threaten the forest land and river included in plans for the site. (We should remember that the National Guard played a key role in the response to the 2020 uprisings, and were called in by Georgia Governor Kemp in response to protests following the murder of Tortuguita.)
Expanding police infrastructure to control the masses is certainly not limited to the United States (though the U.S. has long exported and perfected its counterinsurgent police tactics overseas). Israel, for example, is home to the Urban Warfare Training Center known by the soldiers who train there as “Mini Gaza”––a $45 million dollar, 60-acre facility that is “meant to simulate the urban environments in which Israel’s soldiers often operate.” Beyond urban warfare training to combat so-called terrorism (recall, both Palestinian freedom fighters and Stop Cop City protesters have been called terrorists), the link between Israel and Georgia is even deeper, as the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) program has operated since the 1990s as an exchange between Israeli and Georgia police forces.
Cop City is thus part of a historic and ongoing pattern of governments at home and abroad, expanding police and jail infrastructure and honing urban repression tactics in response to, and in preparation for, uprisings and threats categorized as terrorism. And importantly, Cop City is one major piece of the broader lockdown strategy. While Atlanta’s leadership works to build Cop City, they have also threatened to withhold funding for policing alternatives, expanded the city’s network of surveillance cameras, and opened new police precincts. As Atlanta leadership reversed its promise to close and repurpose the city jail, Fulton County (where Atlanta is located) is considering a proposal for a new $2 billion jail that would double the county’s jail capacity.
Ideological Investment in the City’s Image
While Cop City offers a material investment in Atlanta’s police capacity, it is also an investment in a particular image of Atlanta that is friendly and welcoming to major events, tech and real estate capital, and middle and upper-class, white newcomers.
Think back to the 1996 Olympics, and the moves city leadership made to rebrand Atlanta as a world class city by demolishing public housing, displacing poor and Black residents, building a jail and using it to lock up homeless people, lining the pockets of developers, and investing in events-based infrastructure. Think of the projects since then: the Beltline, major mixed-use commercial properties, stadiums, the Gulch—all projects that have enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the city for the corporations and individuals who flood in, as Black and working-class residents are criminalized, evicted, and priced out of the city.
Atlanta prides itself on being a world class city, focusing on its ability to attract major events and tourism. In recent years, Atlanta has hosted the 2019 Super Bowl, the 2021 NBA All Star Game, and the 2021 World Series, and is preparing to serve as one of the host cities for the 2026 FIFA World Cup (which the city is preparing for, in part, by recruiting at least 400 additional police officers). Mayor Andre Dickens and other Atlanta boosters also poured significant time and resources into an unsuccessful bid for the 2024 Democratic National Convention and the supposed revenues and prestige it would generate for the city—a process through which leadership emphasized the city’s hotel capacity, scheduled improvements to its event infrastructure, and its ability to collaborate with at least 27 other police and fire departments in the metro Atlanta area.
Attracting big business and big events requires investing in policing and surveillance as a promise of stability and safety for those who would come here. As historian Destin Jenkins has demonstrated, even a city’s ability to borrow money to finance projects is tied to its investments in policing and the bond market’s perception of a city’s stability—perceptions that are deeply threatened by mass uprisings.
In that sense, Cop City is meant to play a stabilizing role for Atlanta’s image in the wake of the uprisings; it is as much about the reality of Atlanta’s police capacity as it is the story told about Atlanta’s police capacity. Cop City is meant to communicate that Atlanta is a place that takes “public safety” and the protection of property seriously: a place where people with money can come and safely turn that money into more money.
Geographical Investment in Future Development
Cop City as an investment in Atlanta’s police capacity and image doesn’t explain why the forest that was officially slated by the city in 2017 for incorporation into a broader stretch of park land was chosen as the site for the project. Why, as climate catastrophe worsens, destroy more of Atlanta’s already diminishing and much acclaimed tree canopy?
There are various elements of the land that might make it appealing to the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation as the site for Cop City. Perhaps most importantly, this land—originally stolen from Muscogee-Creek people, and later used to incarcerate Black people made to labor for the city—is city-owned land. It is “free” for the city to destroy, convert, and develop, as it so chooses. Additionally, the land is located within a majority Black, and deeply disinvested area of DeKalb County: it is surrounded by a number of carceral facilities and industrial waste-producing sites, has been used as a shooting range by the Atlanta Police Department, and is home to one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S. Further, though the city owns the land, it falls outside of city limits, meaning it is not subject to the traditionally more demanding community input processes required within the city, and its residents do not have any formal political representation on the Atlanta City Council.
But the Weelaunee Forest is not just a seemingly convenient location for Cop City; it also represents an opportunity for the city to repurpose publicly owned land in a way that materially and ideologically invests in policing while serving the area up for future development.
Consider what’s happening in the surrounding area: directly adjacent to the site, and part of the same stretch of forest land, is public park land owned by DeKalb County, known as Intrenchment Creek Park (ICP). In 2020, the DeKalb County Commission approved a highly controversial deal to “swap” 40 acres of ICP land with developer Ryan Millsap and his company, Blackhall Studios, in exchange for what advocates have argued is far less valuable land. As of April 2023, the proposed land swap is still being challenged in court. And while Millsap’s original stated plan was to take the ICP land and convert it into an expanded Hollywood soundstage, Millsap has since sold Blackhall Studios and now claims to independently own the land. It is unclear exactly how he plans to use it—but it is clear that he plans to destroy the parkland, as he has already (illegally) started to do. As one reporter concluded, “In the end, Blackhall Studios was really just a real estate play.”
While the Cop City proposal itself might seem like less of an obvious real estate play—the city will technically retain ownership of the land, even as control of the land shifts to the Atlanta Police Foundation—the City has consistently put forward the site’s proposed “greenspace, parklands, and trails for the benefit of residents of DeKalb, Atlanta, and the general public,” framing the project as offering enhancements to the surrounding area. Reflecting Atlanta’s pattern of “green gentrification” as seen in projects like the Beltline, any parks and greenspace built by the City will not be for the benefit of those who currently live in the area, but rather those who will be attracted by new development.
Given the centrality of real estate development to the 21st century Atlanta Way and the web of corporate interests behind Cop City and the Atlanta Police Foundation, it’s not hard to see how the destruction and development of the Weelaunee Forest, whether by Millsap or APF, begins to create new markets for real estate development and displacement in what is currently a majority Black working-class area of the metro Atlanta area.
While the pledged $60 million of private funding for Cop City has been framed as a boon for the city—the city gets a state-of-the-art police and fire training facility for a third of the price!—here’s another way of looking at it: Cop City is a project that allows the already-powerful Atlanta Police Foundation to dole out over $30 million worth of public money and $60 million worth of tax-sheltered private donations into non-competitive contracts for the destruction and redevelopment of forest land, while tilling the soil for future development in the area. At the same time, the City can cash in on new revenue streams generated by renting the facilities to other police departments and even film studios looking to use the space.
When you take the fact of city-owned land being transformed into Cop City, with flashy renderings of supposedly significant park and community space, and county-owned park land being transferred to a private developer to use as he will, a different image of the space comes together: through transfer from public to private or privately controlled land, an entire stretch of forest land has instead been slated for various forms of destruction and development. And if the plans for Cop City and the land swap go through, both the land and its surrounding neighborhoods will be fundamentally transformed, as current residents are pushed out and new, wealthier white residents move in.
So, why Cop City, why here, and why now? Because following the 2020 uprisings, Atlanta’s leadership chose to repurpose city-owned land in a way that shored up police legitimacy, signaled to corporate elites and upper-class white communities that Atlanta is safe for their interests, opened up new real estate markets for hungry developers, defanged crime narratives and the threat of Buckhead secession, doled out $90 million in tax-shielded or public dollars to many of the companies that make up Atlanta’s ruling-class, and promised protection and stability for capital in an increasingly unstable world.
It didn’t have to be this way. Nothing about the City of Atlanta’s response to the uprisings and the subsequent revolt by police and corporate actors was predetermined. No one needed to die; no trees had to be cut down; no one had to be jailed on trumped-up charges.
But this is the Atlanta Way. And with its chosen resolution to the crises generated by decades of organized abandonment, Atlanta’s leadership has produced a new crisis, in the form of a tenacious, big tent movement to Stop Cop City that has taken on national and international dimensions—a movement that only continues to grow.
It didn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. The struggle is not over; the movement goes on. The Atlanta Police Foundation’s CEO stated in April 2021 that Cop City would be ready for use by police officers in under two years. But here we are, over two years later, and there is no Cop City in sight. Despite what the interests behind Cop City would have us believe, nothing is inevitable.
We can’t always guarantee that we’ll win, but we can guarantee that we’ll fight. For our futures. For the trees that give us life. For public dollars to be put toward public wellbeing. For a city run by and for the people, rather than the powerful. For Tortuguita’s memory, and for the memories of so many more whose lives were stolen by police. We’ll continue to fight, and we’ll continue to say: trees give life, police take it. Viva, viva, Tortuguita!
Micah Herskind is an organizer and writer based in Atlanta, GA. You can find him on Twitter at @micahinatl.
Scalawag is a journalism and storytelling organization that works in solidarity with oppressed communities in the South to disrupt and shift the narratives that keep power and wealth in the hands of the few. Read more stories from Atlanta organizers featured in Scalawag’s A Week of Writing: Stop Cop City.
Contribute to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to support the legal defense of Forest Defenders facing domestic terrorism charges, and learn more about the ongoing fight to #StopCopCity and defend the Atlanta forest.