Opinion: Why environmentalists should oppose ‘Cop City’ and defend the Atlanta forest
With an urban canopy covering almost 48% of the city, Atlanta, Georgia, is often called “a city in a forest”. In 2020, a report by the Atlanta Department of City Planning highlighted the need for ecological protection of the Atlanta Forest to prevent the loss of critical habitats, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. He said Atlanta would “boldly protect and invest in two new major regional parks: Chattahoochee River Park and South River Park.”
So why is the South River Forest a green space dubbed “Atlanta lungsby the same Department of Planning – which is expected to become an 85-acre, $90 million public safety training campus for the Atlanta Police Department?
In April 2021, then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council proposed the creation of a police training center – known to opponents as “Cop City – in DeKalb County, where the South River Forest is located. The Atlanta City Council sought public comment in September 2021 and considered 5 p.m. commentary more than 1,100 Atlanta residents; 70% expressed their opposition to the project. Environmental activists and community groups have widely voiced concerns about forest protection.
Despite overwhelming dissent, the Atlanta City Council voted 10 to 4 to lease the South River Forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a private, nonprofit organization that works with the city and Atlanta Police Department on public safety initiatives. The APF will fund $60 million of “Cop City” – leaving taxpayers, many of whom oppose the project, liable for the remaining $30 million.
The police training center is expected to be the largest in the United States. It will include a fictional city to simulate real-world training, explosives test sites and firing ranges, according to made official. Its proposed site in the South River Forest has a chilling history of racist displacement and slavery. The earth was initially inhabited by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation before their forced displacement in the early 1800s. It also operated as a plantation and more recently as a “penal farm” using incarcerated labor. The legacy of these systems continues today. In DeKalb Countywhich includes the neighborhoods surrounding the South River Forest, the population is predominantly black; most residents live at or below the poverty line and have some of the highest rates of poverty, asthma and diabetes in the country.
The community is systematically disenfranchised, creating an environmental justice crisis. In 2021 the South River was named one of the “America’s Most Threatened Rivers”” due to continued pollution of sewage over the past decade. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia Division of Environmental Protection, and DeKalb County agreed fix county sewage spills in “priority areas” by 2020. 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. In response, the EPA negotiated an extension to 2025. Either way, the county is unlikely to be able to focus on 103 project locations by the new deadline, letting the community continue to struggle with the effects of environmental racism.
While “Cop City” is located in DeKalb County, its consequences will be felt throughout the Atlanta metro area. Atlanta’s forests remove approximately 19 million pounds of air pollutants every year and the South River Forest is considered one of the largest preserved areas in metro Atlantaaccording to Deron Davis, former executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Georgia.
This canopy is key 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 debut of a year that Atlanta has seen since 1930. Moreover, with a 75% increase in heavy rain in Atlanta, green space is needed to reduce stormwater runoff. These benefits will be lost with the forest.
Environmental justice scholars have long pointed out the role of police violence in normalizing environmental racismWho disproportionately affects black and brown communities. Blacks are three times more likely to be killed by the police And die of asthma than whites, according to reports. When Eric Garner was killed by New York police following a strangulation in 2014, he suffered from asthma. As explain 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 on black communities by air pollution and police brutality. Sze argues that applying an environmental justice lens shows that these causes of unjust and premature black death are not separate, but rather inextricably linked.
“Cop City” is supposed to exacerbate environmental racism and militarized police violence. On January 18, 2023, an unidentified policeman shot dead environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita – Spanish for “Little Turtle”. Environmental protests have long been met with corporate and state violence, but experts say this is the first instance of US police killing an environmental activist. And, when you consider the excessive and often unlawful use of force by police in social justice movements, it’s hard to believe it will be the last.
At the beginning of February, six climate activists were arrested in Boston for protesting against the construction of an electrical substation that circumvented all environmental permits. In January. Greta Thunberg was arrested by German police during a demonstration against the expansion of a coal mine. In April 2022, seven climatologists were arrested after protesting for stronger climate action following the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And after Tortuguita’s death, six environmental activists were arrested on charges of domestic terrorism. In all of these cases, I believe the police acted as a means of silencing civil disobedience.
The militarization of police forces against climate activists and marginalized communities suffering from environmental racism cannot be ignored. Our struggles are interconnected.
This is why I support Atlanta Forest Defenders and why I implore all environmentalists to get involved, stop “Cop City” and defend the South River Forest and its neighboring communities.
Aditi Desai is a graduate student at Columbia University MS in Sustainability Management program.