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Building a mass movement to stop Cop City

Erwin Freed of Workers’ Voice writes on the ongoing struggle against the construction of Cop City in Atlanta, which has become a front-line battle against the carceral state.

Yesterday, a heavily armed contingent of Atlanta cops and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three board members of a group that has assisted people arrested for trying to stop the construction of Cop City. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF) has provided bail and legal support to local activists since the 2020 Black liberation uprisings. According to The Intercept, the ASF “has also provided grants to support an array of anti-repression work in Atlanta, including to groups working with unhoused trans youth, Black worker-owned cooperatives, and abolitionist community builders.” I carried one every day for a month and a half last year

The arrested ASF board members are being charged with “money laundering” and “charity fraud.” For months, prosecutors have been framing the ASF as a criminal organization laundering money through “legitimate non-profits,” and there have been rumors of potential RICO charges, for which these arrests may provide the opening salvo.

The struggle against Cop City in Atlanta has become a flashpoint of front-line mobilization against the carceral state and a testing ground for state repression. Three years after millions of people went into the streets to demand defunding the police, the ruling class and the Biden administration are expanding and intensifying policing.

Cop Cities represent a new stage of militarized policing. They are facilities meant to simulate actual conditions of urban warfare in order to train as many cops as possible in these tactics. They are being proposed and constructed all around the country; a similar facility just went online in Chicago and others are in formation in Las Vegas and in central New Jersey.

Chicago’s $170 million “Police and Fire Training Academy” opened In January of this year. The project was pushed through a divided city council five years ago by the outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, despite massive “No Cop Academy” protests. The complex will contain a large “scenario village” of buildings, backyards, and alleys to mimic a setting for urban warfare.

Cop City Atlanta would cover an area that is nearly three times the size of the facility in Chicago. It would include a full city block, helicopter landing pads, gun ranges, and explosion testing facilities, at some points within 250 feet of residential housing.

The movement to Stop Cop City is the most prominent continuation of the George Floyd uprisings at a national level. In response, police have charged 42 people with trumped-up and baseless “domestic terrorism” charges and murdered an activist, Manny “Tortuguita” Paez-Teran, in cold blood. The success or failure of Stop Cop City will have a major effect on all struggles against the many manifestations of capitalist oppression, destruction, and exploitation. The corporations and their political representatives, the Democratic and Republican parties, have been fighting for policies that would result in more cops, more pipelines, more theft of Indigenous land, and more poverty and precarity. A victory of the movement in Atlanta would be a blow to capital and give strength to all social and labor movements.

Cop City and the Weelaunee Forest

Cop City is the name given by the movement to a planned militarized police-training facility that would be built on the ashes of over 85 acres of Weelaunee Forest—the traditional Mvskoke [Muscogee] name for South River Forest. Weelaunee roughly translates to “green/brown/yellow water.” Alongside the police training facility is the planned construction of Shadowbox Studios’ huge Hollywood-style sound studio, which we can expect will use its proximity to the militarized training facility to produce “copaganda,” likewise propaganda media for the U.S. military and, of course, destroy even more of the forest.

The Weelaunee Forest is one of the largest urban forests in the country. It runs through large parts of Atlanta, helping to provide tree cover for the area (one of Atlanta’s more affectionate nicknames is “a City in the Forest”). Urban forests are essential to healthy communities. They help to reduce the urban heat island effect, which is getting worse as the world’s temperature continues to rise, and they help to counteract air pollution and flooding. Moreover, the Weelaunee Forest is a very beautiful space. There are constant sounds of wildlife, many areas for community recreation, and always people going on walks, hanging out, and spending time together.

The message "Stop Cop City" is painted in red graffiti on a white building located behind a fence along the Proctor Creek Greenway Trail in Atlanta, GA.
The message “Stop Cop City” is painted in graffiti along the Proctor Creek Greenway Trail in Atlanta, GA. Photo Credit: Tyler Lahti.

The location of Cop City is not an accident. The city authorities chose the area known as the Old Prison Farm, which is a former plantation turned forced-labor camp, stolen from the Muscogee in the decade before the Trail of Tears. The Old Prison Farm is an area of great pain. It should be the home of reforestation, of rematriation (Land Back), of healing. Instead, the cops, the state, and the capitalists are trying to turn it into Cop City.

The openly racist and anti-working-class reality of Cop City is better understood when we realize that it is supposed to be constructed right in the middle of poor and working-class Black neighborhoods. For example, Gresham Park, one of the communities in unincorporated DeKalb County that borders the facility, is 76.5 percent Black. The government has turned the South River watershed in DeKalb County, one of the highest proportional-Black counties in the country, into a zone where environmental regulations do not apply. The conservation group South River Watershed Alliance, which opposed the original land swap deal that allows for the construction of Cop City and Shadowbox Studios, has pointed out that the county effectively does not have to abide by EPA regulations.

The environmental attacks by the state on predominantly Black communities in South Atlanta are connected to political disenfranchisement. The city of Atlanta did not have jurisdiction over the land on which Cop City is supposed to be built until it made a complicated land swap agreement with DeKalb County. The neighborhoods closest to the proposed facilities are in “unincorporated DeKalb County,” which means that despite living in metro Atlanta, the residents cannot vote in the city elections for mayor and city council. And those are the politicians who made the decisions to build Cop City. This is an emblematic example of the intersection between environmental racism, corporate power, Jim Crow-type disenfranchisement, and militarized policing.

The corporate “partnership” with government

Cop City was first imagined in 2017 in backroom negotiations between Atlanta city council members and people involved with the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). The APF is a shadowy organization whose funding and leadership come from Atlanta-based and multinational corporations like Home Depot, Norfolk Southern, and Delta. Connected with the APF also are multiple news agencies—most notoriously, Cox Enterprises, which is directly funding Cop City and which owns the only major daily newspaper serving the region, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That has a big impact on how the narrative around Cop City and the struggle against it are determined in so-called mainstream news.

The APF is the second-largest police foundation in the country, but it is by no means an outlier. Cooperation between corporations and the cops is a reality everywhere in the United States. Since the police function to protect and defend large-property owners and businesses, these entities cultivate special and privileged relationships with the police. Well-known examples include Target’s partnership with cops to carry out public-private surveillance in Minneapolis, Enbridge’s privately funding police to “protect” the Line 3 pipeline, and in Atlanta itself, where the APF teamed with the police to create “Operation Shield.” The APF’s website describes Operation Shield as “Atlanta Police Foundation’s core smart policing initiative. The program has installed a canopy of some three thousand cameras across every zone of the city, each designed to be networked in real time to the Atlanta Police Department’s Video Integration Center.”

The APF has effectively turned policing in Atlanta into a “public-private partnership.” During the George Floyd protests in 2020, the APF gave every Atlanta cop a $500 bonus and purchased at least twenty new police cars for the department. Currently, the foundation, which is the lessee of the Old Prison Farm, is building five houses for police officers in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. Almost 90 percent of Pittsburgh residents are Black, and the neighborhood is facing rapid gentrification. While most Atlantans are struggling to find housing, the APF is providing police officers with hundreds of free or reduced-cost apartments and houses around the city, with the expressed intention of getting more police on patrol and in community organizations. However, “community” policing is a false start. More cops always lead to more arrests and more police violence. Activists with the Black liberation organization Community Movement Builders are fighting against the construction of the five houses, under the slogan “No Cop Housing.”

Cooperation between big corporations and the police has very material reasons. The cops protect capital investment and property rights. This includes speculation in land and housing, as well as the construction of destructive industries like fossil fuel production.

The Cop City project has two major contributing causes, which are interconnected. First: Atlanta has one of the fastest rates of gentrification in the country. Walking through one of the city’s historically working-class Black neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, you see the huge new housing complexes under construction that are pushing out current residents. That is a lot of investment that capital wants to protect. Second: Elites want to turn the city into a playground for the wealthy. That includes everything from being the “Hollywood of the South,” to the “Tech Mecca of the Southeast,” to the host of major events like the 2026 FIFA World Cup.Atlanta Magazine gives a description of some of these trends in economic terms. Describing the price trajectory of a house on South Eugenia Place, a street in the almost entirely Black Grove Park neighborhood, the magazine states how the property

sold for just under $30,000 in 2008 and then for $49,000 in 2018. [In mid 2022], the house made its way back on the market for $339,000—a 593 percent appreciation in three years. … Some community members attribute these skyrocketing prices to Microsoft, Quarry Yards, Echo Street, Westside Park, and other major developments that have come or will open in the area soon.

Black homeownership in metro Atlanta recently increased a few percentage points this year, but it is still well below the pre-2008 rates, as housing prices and rents have been on the rise with increasing speculation by large corporations. Atlanta ranks in the bottom fifth of major U.S. cities for Black homeownership relative to its Black population, meaning that the increase in property values is largely not being realized by Black residents.

A 2022 article titled “Investor purchases of rental housing and gentrification in Atlanta” on the Housing Policy Blog asks the question, “Are investor purchases of rental properties linked to evictions, gentrification, and the displacement of Black residents?” The answer it finds is that “a new analysis of rental investment activity in metro Atlanta … reveals exactly this. Over a 6-year period, neighborhoods in Atlanta where investors purchased apartment buildings saw a 33% increase in the likelihood of an eviction spike.”

Beyond pure eviction statistics, the numbers give a picture of gentrification’s racial dimensions. Over a six-year period, these neighborhoods lost 166 Black residents and gained 109 white residents, compared to adjacent neighborhoods without such purchases. The article continues: “Atlanta has been a majority-Black city since the civil rights era … Yet from 2000 to 2010, Atlanta showed a marked decline in Black residents.” Black residents declined by 11.3 percent, whereas the white population grew by 16.5 percent. In the 2010s, large increases in renter cost burdens and a 16 percent decrease in the number of affordable rentals in the Atlanta region increased the departure of low-income residents, many of them Black. In sum, capitalist landlords are pricing out working-class Black residents and using the police to enforce racialized evictions.

Another major factor behind Cop Cities is a desire by elites to maintain a stranglehold on dissent. The urgency for new militarized police training facilities aligns with governmental responses to the Ferguson uprisings in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, the Standing Rock movement in 2016, and especially the George Floyd protests in 2020. Just as in the 1960s, when police, white supremacists, and the military collaborated in constructing Riotsvilles, the state today is developing Cop Cities to practice “counter-insurgency” tactics in preparation for the next mass movement. “Counter-insurgency” is the term used by the police to describe what is in actuality state repression. They use this in the context of fighting against mobilizations of the working class and oppressed, despite the fact that mass protests are not armed insurgencies.

Repression of the movement—and responses

While the plans for Cop City were formulated as far back as 2017, they were kept hidden from the public until 2021. The facility is expected to cost at least $90 million, with $60 million coming from the APF and an additional $30 million from Atlanta taxpayers. Recently, the APF said it has not been able to raise all of the funds, and the city now faces a vote to approve an additional $31 million for the project. The vote on additional funds is an opportunity for the movement to force city officials to end the project.

When Cop City was announced, community members immediately began organizing against its construction. In the lead-up to the city council vote on whether or not to allow the project to move forward, residents of the nearest communities held a number of street demonstrations, mass meetings, canvassing events, potluck dinners, and other occasions to help build awareness about and opposition to the training facility. At that city council meeting, a large majority of Atlantans opposed Cop City. In the public commentary, seventy percent of residents were opposed, and the thirty percent in favor were connected to the APF, the police department, or reside in the wealthier parts of the city—some of which are threatening secession if the city does not give more money to policing.

After the city council vote passed and the Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens gave his full support to Cop City, forest defenders began occupying Weelaunee, creating communities of struggle to directly oppose construction. At the same time, residents have always continued fighting against Cop City through all available channels, including mass meetings, youth-led street protests, community events, and more. Opposition to Cop City is deeply felt and fierce.

Just as in the 1960s, when police, white supremacists, and the military collaborated in constructing Riotsvilles, the state today is developing Cop Cities to practice “counter-insurgency” tactics in preparation for the next mass movement.

As the movement continued, the state became increasingly violent in its attacks. Raids on the forest encampments got more intense as last year came to a close. In December, using a barrage of chemical weapons and rubber bullets, police arrested forest defenders and began charging them with domestic terrorism. On Jan. 18 of this year, police murdered Manny Paez-Teran, known in the movement as Tort or Tortuguita. Since then, cops have tried to paint a narrative that they were acting in self-defense, but the reality is that they were the aggressors—storming into a peaceful encampment for no reason other than to save the mayor’s reputation in the face of worried investors.

The small amount of information that the cops have released about Tort’s murder is vague and contradictory. But an independent autopsy by Tort’s family indicates that Tort was shot at least 57 times while sitting cross-legged with their hands up. The Georgia Medical Examiner’s report indicates there was no gunpowder on Tort’s hands during the autopsy, which directly contradicts the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s claim that there was residue. Officers responsible for Tort’s death have been named, and the movement is demanding justice for Tortuguita and an independent investigation into their death. Three activists exercising their democratic rights to share flyers publicizing some of the facts around Tort’s murder are now facing felony charges.

At the end of January, after Tort’s murder and while trying to head off potential protests around the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a “state of emergency,” effectively creating a situation of martial law and giving himself the ability to mobilize the national guard against activists at a moment’s notice. Despite this threat, students from the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs], protested in the street against Cop City.

Since Tort was killed, solidarity protests and other events have taken place around the country. The movement gained a new sense of urgency and popular support. Two weeks of action were called, one nationwide and the other to bring supporters to Atlanta. People protested (and continue to protest) at the offices of APF’s backers and Cop City’s corporate sponsors. During the second week of action, a number of events to build support and connection throughout the city were organized, but the cops had different plans.

During the weekend of March 4 and 5, Stop Cop City supporters and broader community members attended a music festival to benefit the movement in Intrenchment Creek Park, renamed by the movement as Weelaunee People’s Park. On the second day of the music festival, cops descended on the gathering and terrorized it. They used a few acts of alleged property destruction at the Cop City construction site as a pretext. In reality, the construction site incident and the music festival were unrelated prior to the police’s attack on the festival. People at the music festival had no idea why there was suddenly a swarm of officers from several police departments pulling guns and threatening to shoot them.

Around three dozen people were detained, completely arbitrarily. Eyewitness reports indicate that people who lived in Atlanta and nearby areas were quickly let go. However, 23 people were charged with domestic terrorism—despite being in a public park. The “evidence” against them appears to be mostly that they were wearing black and muddied clothing. This is the state’s “proof” of a criminal terrorist conspiracy! In reality, it is an unconstitutional collective punishment.

Georgia’s state domestic terrorism law was put in place as a response to the racist mass shooting by white supremacist Dylann Roof at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. The pretense for the law was to fight racist violence, but in actuality, it is being used to target and repress anti-racist activists. Further, we have to understand that anti-protest laws are being introduced at all levels of government to silence and repress social activists. The state is defending the interests of the big polluters, the prison industrial complex, and the weapons manufacturers. State governments have introduced many so-called “critical infrastructure” bills that allow for special charges against anti-pipeline activists.

On the federal level, the government used the January 6 riots as a justification for new laws and procedures to fight “domestic violent extremists.” While the Democrats pat themselves on the back for fighting Trumpism, the laws and actions themselves are blatantly directed at the Left. To give one concrete example: Environmental justice advocates, Black liberation activists, and socialists and anarchists are specifically named as likely domestic violent extremists in Biden’s 2021 National Security Strategy report—all to justify increased surveillance and policing to protect the current system.

What is next for the movement?

If Cop City is built, it will mean police from around the country and probably internationally will use the facility to train in extreme anti-community and anti-protest tactics. Every person interested in defending civil liberties, fighting back against police power, protecting ecosystems, and building a better world can be involved in this fight.

There are Stop Cop City actions in and around Atlanta and all over the United States many times a week. These include some large and militant campus demonstrations at universities and colleges around Atlanta; a series of actions to allow a University of North Carolina law student facing domestic terrorism charges to attend classes, which mobilized hundreds; a coalition-organized teach-in in Greensboro, N.C.; and many more. These are especially significant because activists understand that the state is taking a special interest in surveilling this movement around the country, and students in Atlanta in particular are facing threats from their schools for being involved in organizing.

A large gathering of environmental and anti-racism anti-police protestors marching through NYC by several buildings including a Starbucks in the left corner of the photo are holding signs. A prominent sign with a white backdrop upfront reads “STOP COP CITY” in large black writing, followed by the line “NYC Supports Atlanta Forest Defenders” in smaller black writing, with a row of green trees taking up about half the sign. Other signs in the background of the photo include a green sign reading “Defend the forest everywhere stop cop city,” a cardboard sign reads “Defund the police, invest in black communities,’ another cardboard sign reads “Police do not protect people, they protect property,” and another sign reads “Uproot the system.”
A solidarity protest in NYC in support of the Atlanta Forrest Defenders. Photo Credit: Felton Davis.

There have been incredible examples of people and community members nationwide initiating protests, educational events, and meetings. At the same time, these remain largely isolated from one another without a collective, democratic, and transparent body to bring new people into the movement who can take responsibility for its politics and character.

Weaknesses of the movement so far include adherence to what is termed “diversity of tactics” and the tendency to diffuse organizing work into small, effectively independent groups rather than working for the formation of a unified mass movement. While supporters of “diversity of tactics” as a principle claim that this method gives the movement its “vitality” and allows for continuous mobilization, the reality is that this approach has isolated the movement from other social forces and left it internally atomized. There is currently no clear direction for how to fight against Cop City on a national level in a way that can mobilize the thousands of people needed to win against the state. This provides a basis for a number of concerns, from basic security to carrying out truly mass mobilizations.

When demonstrations are organized in small groups, without space for public discussion and planning, basic steps like organizing marshals and security teams, having a clear idea of who is responsible for actions, and having the broadest, most representative decision-making bodies become very difficult.

In order to build the movement in a way that becomes attractive to working and oppressed people, it is necessary for organizers to be upfront about who is involved, what the risks of participation are, and how safety concerns will be addressed. One positive example of this method of functioning in the movement was the March 8 Community Movement Builders-led demonstration in front of the King Center. There, a coalition was built and publicly announced, and organizers made clear that the demonstration would be peaceful, marshaled, and a space for Black Atlantans to make their voices heard.

Organizers of all of these efforts have a path before them to begin to develop a coalition-based model of organizing that allows for the largest possible mobilizations through collective discussion, transparency and accountability, and a strategy that includes mass, nationally organized actions. Organizing actions in this way is not an attack against the “autonomy” of activists and forest defenders but rather would allow for the greatest possible coordination and public impact of events.

This method could also begin to develop the movement in a way that would allow for reversing the almost complete absence of the labor movement from the fight against Cop City—as well as from the defense effort for victimized protesters. This absence is not the fault of Stop Cop City activists but of the union officialdom, which has generally disengaged the trade unions from struggles around social issues while also tending to side with the police and their “unions.”

At the same time, there are important examples of labor actions against Cop City and related state repression. Some are through trade unions and their leadership. For example, the Indiana University Graduate Workers Coalition (United Electrical) and the University of Connecticut Graduate and Postdoc Employees Union (GEUP-UAW 6950) both put out inspiring statements (here and here) standing with the Stop Cop City Movement as a whole. International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) General President Jimmy Williams Jr. released an important statement calling for an end to the repression of the forest defenders.

Other examples of labor activity in the movement are not through unions per se but have been collective actions taken by co-workers in a shop, usually academics. These include over 50 Morehouse College faculty, 55 Georgia State University professors, and dozens of Emory University public health faculty members, graduate students, alumni, and undergrads all writing their own respective collective letters calling for Cop City to be stopped.

An important focal point of organizing is around the specific fight to get the charges dropped against the indicted activists. These charges are a huge escalation by the state and would set a horrible precedent. They must be vigorously opposed. There are many opportunities to do this; all organizations with an interest in defending democratic rights can be involved—trade unions, socialist organizations, climate groups, racial justice and immigrant organizations, student groups, and many more.

The politicians are not interested in stopping Cop City or in defending democratic rights. The way forward to Stop Cop City is through making connections, through collective organizing, through building a real mass movement that has the ability and support all around the country. This can be done and is beginning to happen, but it is an uneven process and needs to be developed on a larger scale with more open collaboration. If we can bring this together, we can build even stronger fightbacks against the Cop City proposals in Atlanta, Las Vegas, New Jersey, and everywhere!

Featured image credit: Chad Davis; modified by Tempest.

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Erwin Freed View All

Erwin Freed es miembro de Workers’ Voice y activista de Stop Cop City.