Cop City and the Escalating War on Environmental Defenders

From laws targeting fossil fuel protests to the crackdown on Stop Cop City activists, corporations are calling in militarized law enforcement to crush dissent.

Basav Sen and Gabrielle Colchete

Law enforcement drive past the planned site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, Georgia, on February 6, 2023. (Photo by CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images)

The fight in Atlanta over Cop City, a massive police training facility, has turned into ground zero for overlapping crises facing our country: the climate emergency, vast political and economic inequality, ever-militarizing police forces and systemic racism. 

If we want a democracy healthy enough to solve these crises, it’s worth paying attention to what is happening in the South River Forest.

On May 31, in a disturbing move shortly before Atlanta’s City Council approved more funding for the facility, Georgia law enforcement arrested three members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides activists with legal support and bail money. 

Organized bail support for activists is a longstanding tradition, exemplified by the historical precedent of churches and community groups raising funds to bail Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders out of jail. Now, however, the authorities are deeming such acts money laundering” and charity fraud.” 

In reality, the fund was targeted for supporting the Stop Cop City movement, which opposes the police training facility. 

Many in the community fear the Cop City facility will be used to train police in counterinsurgency, further militarizing an already armed and equipped force. In a city with wide wealth and income disparities, more militarized policing fits into what community activist Micah Herskind describes as the state’s retreat from the provision of social welfare and the interrelated build-up of policing and imprisonment to manage inequality’s outcomes.” 

The facility is largely funded by the corporate-backed Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), whose donors include Amazon, JP Morgan Chase, Home Depot and Wells Fargo. Militarized policing is a growing concern in the United States, and corporate-funded militarized policing raises further unease about law enforcement becoming directly beholden to corporate interests. 

As local resident Brad Beadles put it, When private corporate donors are able to fund militarized training facilities for the police, they are essentially buying off the police. They are making it clear who the police work for.”

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Cop City also has adverse environmental justice effects. Building the facility will require cutting down part of an urban forest adjacent to a majority-Black, working class community.

Urban forests provide critical environmental benefits for nearby residents. They filter pollutants from the air, store carbon, and mitigate floods and the urban heat island effect. Destroying community access to nature and outdoor recreation also negatively impacts mental health, as individuals with less access to green spaces have higher prevalence of mental distress, anxiety and depression. 

Cutting down forests anywhere in an age of climate crisis is a bad idea, but doing it next to a working-class Black community is particularly egregious when there are already nationwide racial disparities in urban heat island exposure and access to greenspaces. By 2050, summer high temperatures in the Atlanta metropolitan area are predicted to be 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they are today, making preservation of Atlanta’s tree coverage all the more imperative.

Repressing the popular will

The arrests of the bail fund organizers are only one example of state repression against the Stop Cop City movement.

In a January raid on a protest encampment in the forest, police killed Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, an activist also known as Tortuguita. Police claim Tortuguita shot first, but have refused to provide proof. Results from two independent autopsies contradict the official story, raising the possibility that this was a cover-up of a friendly fire” accident between police officers — or worse, an assassination. 

Activists in the movement have also been arrested on domestic terrorism” charges for having muddy shoes or having legal support numbers written on their arms — prosecutorial overreach with clear intent to intimidate.The state is using violence and terror to try to stamp out a movement opposing a facility meant to train law enforcement in violence and terror. 

Environmental activists reoccupy the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest Atlanta that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Residents of Atlanta have spoken out against Cop City. A September 2021 City Council hearing on the subject received 17 hours of testimony, with about 70 percent against the project. The Council approved the project regardless.

In June 2023, the Council held a hearing on approving more public funding for Cop City. This time, they heard 13 hours of testimony, with the overwhelming majority in opposition. Once again, the Council approved the funding anyway.

Criminalizing protest

The criminalization of protest in Atlanta is part of a years-long trend.

In a 2020 Institute for Policy Studies report called Muzzling Dissent: How Corporate Influence over Politics Has Fueled Anti-Protest Laws, we examined state repression of oil and gas infrastructure protesters with so-called Critical Infrastructure Protection” laws. 

Similar to the Cop City project in Atlanta, the communities impacted by the oil and gas projects we studied had high levels of economic insecurity and were overwhelmingly Black, Indigenous or poor white people. We examined pipeline resistance struggles in three different states — a Black environmental justice community in Louisiana with the highest rates of cancer in the country, an Indigenous nation fighting to protect their cultural resources in Minnesota and impoverished Appalachian communities in West Virginia.

Versions of Critical Infrastructure Protection” legislation in Louisiana and West Virginia (which have the laws on the books), and Minnesota (where the legislature passed a bill that was subsequently vetoed by the governor), all included similar language that identified varying types of fossil fuel infrastructure as critical infrastructure” and criminalized entering these sites with the threat of felony charges. 

Many versions of the bill also held supposed co-conspirators” of such activities liable. These types of charges criminalize participation in a group or social movement involved in protesting, which parallels many of the police repression tactics against Stop Cop City, also known as the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement. 

Forest defenders who were arrested in Atlanta have often faced domestic terrorism” enhancement charges in addition to felony trespassing” due to their association with the Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement, which prosecutors claim is a criminal organization” under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

In Muzzling Dissent, we identified how the fossil fuel industry is weaponizing the term critical infrastructure protection” — which is historically associated with safeguarding infrastructure that serves a vital function for communities, such as roads and bridges — to restrict the ability of communities to protect themselves against destructive oil and gas projects. 

The State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta are now weaponizing RICO, a 1970s law to prosecute violent mafia activity, against an autonomous and decentralized environmental justice movement.

Similarly, the State of Georgia and the City of Atlanta are now weaponizing RICO, a 1970s law to prosecute violent mafia activity, against an autonomous and decentralized environmental justice movement. 

Corporate capture

Critical Infrastructure Protection” laws are most successful in states with the most concentrated fossil fuel industry power at a time when domestic oil and gas production is at a record high. 

In all three of our case studies, the Critical Infrastructure Protection” bills were led by state legislators who took large campaign donations from oil and gas companies. In fact, the original model text for the bills was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a non-profit heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry and closely tied to many of the policy makers who passed the bills.

Muzzling Dissent was ultimately an illustration of how unfettered corporate power leads to the criminalization of community resistance against wealthy, private interests. Similarly, it’s no coincidence that Cop City is being built in a heavily corporatized city.

Atlanta has been dubbed the Silicon Peach” because of its position as one of the fastest growing urban technology hubs in the United States. In addition to a booming technology sector, recent tax cuts for the film industry have made Atlanta a new hotspot for high-budget entertainment studios. 

Atlanta is also home to Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta Airlines and Home Depot — each of which are represented on the APF’s Board of Directors (with the recent exception of Coca-Cola, which stepped down after Color of Change exposed the corruption and controversies surrounding the foundation). 

The unwillingness of the majority of elected-officials in Atlanta to acknowledge the widespread opposition to Cop City is a testament to the power of the corporate-backed APF. 

Undermining democracy

The recent Congressional intervention to force construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is also consistent with the trend of powerful corporate interests promoting militarized state repression to protect their interests against the popular will.

Stop Mount Valley Pipeline rally held in front of the White House in Washington D.C. on June 08, 2023. Stop Mount (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the architect of the provision benefiting MVP in the debt ceiling bill, gets the most oil and gas industry money of any federal legislator. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who made the back-room deal with Manchin to force the pipeline’s approval, has received more than $300,000 from MVP developer NextEra Energy.

While the MVP deal does not directly criminalize dissent, it closes off regulatory and legal tools for project-impacted communities to fight back, making protest and direct action even more indispensable. It requires regulatory agencies to issue all permits for the project without going through the customary review process that projects usually have to go through, cutting communities out of intervening in permitting processes by filing comments in regulatory dockets. It also exempts permits issued to the MVP from judicial review, closing off the courts as another venue for communities to fight back.

When the so-called proper channels” for communities to resist harmful corporate projects are made inaccessible, protest tactics are sometimes seen as the only choice left for those fighting to defend their communities. And as the crackdown in Atlanta shows, such protest tactics can lead to activists being locked up, creating a chilling effect for those engaging in dissent.

This trend is a serious threat to social movement organizing. The first step in fighting back is to develop a shared understanding of militarization of law enforcement, stigmatization of protest, and corporate capture of government — not as isolated evils, but as an intertwined strategy to undermine democracy.

In the meantime, Stop Cop City organizers are circulating a petition to put the issue before voters on the ballot for municipal elections on November 7. If the organizers collect enough signatures to put the decision on Cop City question on the ballot, voters will get to choose whether or not to lease the city-owned land for the project. Despite their opponents’ best efforts, Atlanta Forest Defenders have not given up on democracy. They are taking their case against Cop City directly to the people of Atlanta, asserting organized people power as the antidote to concentrated corporate power.

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Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Gabrielle Colchete is a former IPS Next Leader.

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