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Pollution & HealthWhy Environmentalists Should Oppose ‘Cop City’ and Defend the Atlanta Forest

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

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

Aditi Desai
|February 24, 2023

With an urban tree cover covering almost 48% of the town, Atlanta, Georgia, is sometimes called “a city in a forest.” In 2020, a report by the Atlanta Department of City Planning stressed the necessity for the ecological protection of Atlanta’s forest to avoid lack of critical habitats, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. It declared that Atlanta would “boldly protect and put money into two recent 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 exact same Department of City Planning — slated to change into an 85-acre, $90 million public safety training campus for Atlanta’s police department?

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 positioned. 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 personal 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, a lot of whom oppose this project, accountable for the remaining $30 million.

The police training facility is ready to be the biggest in america. It’s going to include a mock city to simulate real-world training, explosives testing sites, and shooting ranges, in line with official renderings. Its proposed site within 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 within the early 1800s. It also operated as a plantation and, most recently, a “prison farm” using incarcerated labor. The legacies of those systems endure to at the present time. 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 a number 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 certainly one of America’s “most endangered rivers” because of ongoing sewage pollution in the course of 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 didn’t initially mandate sewage cleanup in “non-priority areas,” most of which have the biggest 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’s unlikely that the county will give you the chance to give attention to all 103 project locations by the brand new deadline, leaving the community to proceed grappling with the results of environmental racism.

While “Cop City” is sited in DeKalb County, its consequences will probably be felt across the Atlanta Metropolitan Area. Forests in Atlanta remove about 19 million kilos of air pollutants every year and the South River Forest is taken into account certainly one of the biggest unspoiled areas left within the Atlanta metro area, in line with Deron Davis, former executive director on the Nature Conservancy of Georgia.

This tree cover is critical to reducing the urban heat island effect that raises temperatures in Atlanta by as much as 10 degrees. The primary half of 2022 was among the many hottest starts to a 12 months that Atlanta has seen since 1930. Moreover, with a 75% increase of heavy rainfall in Atlanta, green space is required to cut back storm water runoff. These advantages will probably be lost together 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 identified the role of police violence in normalizing environmental racism, which disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities. Black persons are thrice more likely to be killed by the police and die from asthma than white people, in line with reports. When Eric Garner was killed by Recent York City police from a chokehold in 2014, he was affected by asthma. As explained by Julie Sze, a professor on 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 usually not separate, but somewhat 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, referred to as Tortuguita — Spanish for “Little Turtle.” Environmental protests have long been met with corporate and state-sanctioned violence, but experts say that is the primary instance of U.S. police killing an environmental activist. And, when one considers the excessive and infrequently illegal use of force by police in social justice movements, it’s hard to consider this will probably be the last.

a habitation in a tree with a sign that says "stop destroying earth"

Activists occupying a tree within the South River Forest in opposition to the proposed police training facility that may destroy the forest. Photo: Crowina via Wikimedia Commons

In early February, six climate activists were arrested in Boston for protesting the development 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 motion 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 feel the police acted as a method to silence civil disobedience.

The weaponization of police force against climate activists and marginalized communities suffering by the hands of environmental racism can’t be ignored. Our struggles are interconnected.

That’s why I stand with the Atlanta Forest Defenders, and why I implore all environmentalists to become 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.


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