Atlanta fights against $90 million dollar “urban warfare” corporate-backed police training facility

Three years later, corporations have forgotten promises made during the height of the anti-police brutality movement. Atlanta activists have not

January 26, 2023 by Natalia Marques
Atlantans attend a vigil memorializing slain activist Tortuguita on Wednesday, January 18 (Photo: Party for Socialism and Liberation—Atlanta)

On June 7, 2021, then Atlanta city councilwoman Joyce Sheperd introduced a city ordinance to lease 381 acres of public land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for a police training facility, then budgeted at $80.6 million dollars. “To her surprise,” writes the activist group Defend the Atlanta Forest, this ordinance was met with massive public opposition. 

Leading up to a meeting on June 16, 2021 of Atlanta city council’s finance executive committee, Atlanta residents called in 3 hours and 41 minutes of public comments in the form of pre-recorded messages. Most comments were in opposition to the project. Protesters showed up at Shepherd’s house during the meeting itself, chanting “No Cop City! Keep Atlanta green!” The construction of the training facility would cut down part of Atlanta’s South River Forest, which provides environmental protection against flooding and extreme heat. Shepherd quickly arranged to have police cars stationed outside of her home in response to the peaceful protest.

On September 6, 2021, Atlanta residents called in over 17 hours worth of public comment regarding the new training facility ordinance—of the 1,166 comments called in, 70% of them were opposed to the project. The Atlanta City Council ignored the overwhelming opposition and voted 10-4 in favor of building what activists have dubbed “Cop City”.

Cop City, if built, will contain a mock city of Atlanta, where police will practice urban warfare tactics. The facility will also include a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad, explosive testing areas, firing range, and an emergency vehicle driving course. The price tag on the project has since ballooned to $90 million dollars—$60 million to be raised by the Atlanta Police Foundation and $30 million coming from the pockets of Atlanta residents. 

Atlanta has one of the largest Black populations out of US cities, with almost half of Atlanta residents being African American. 18.5% of Atlantans live in poverty, a rate which is higher than that national average of 11.6%. “Operation Shield”, another Atlanta Police Foundation project launched in 2007, developed a network of 11,000 cameras and license plate readers, rendering Atlanta the most surveilled city in the country.

Defend the Atlanta Forest, a group which has emerged as a leader of the opposition to Cop City, writes, “At over 300 acres, Cop City will be the largest police training facility in the United States and is slated to include a mock city where police will train with firearms, tear gas, helicopters, and explosive devices to repress protest and mass unrest, much as they did during the 2020 George Floyd protests. Cop City will hyper-militarize law enforcement, equipping police with a site to train for the suppression of Atlanta’s diverse Black and working-class communities.”

Who’s backing Cop City? 

The anti-police brutality protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 caused a cultural shockwave, forcing the hand of even the most powerful corporations. Companies released statement after statement condemning police violence and racism. Some of those same corporations have become the most significant backers of Cop City.

Six days after the death of Floyd, shipping and retail giant Amazon tweeted, “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop.” Private logistics company UPS pledged millions of dollars towards racial justice organizations and historically Black universities following the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. In 2020, Wells Fargo bank claimed that it had paused donations to police foundations.

All of these major corporations have become a part of the corporate network now backing Cop City. Other companies in this network include, but are not limited to, Inspire Brands (which includes Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dunkin Donuts, and others), Waffle House, Chick-fil-a, JPMorgan Chase, and Home Depot. Many top executives at these companies have existing or former ties to police organizations across the country, including the Atlanta Police Foundation.

Activist dies fighting Cop City

Many resisting the construction of Cop City have labeled themselves “forest defenders,” in regards to the hundreds of acres of forest set to be destroyed through the building of the police training facility. One such forest defender, Tortuguita, was killed on January 18 during SWAT operations to clear up a protest camp in the Weelaunee Forest, which activists have been occupying for over a year to resist Cop City construction.

Georgia State Patrol (GSP) troopers claim that 26-year-old Tortuguita refused to exit their tent and shot at officers, injuring one. Police then responded by shooting and killing the activist. However, activists are demanding an investigation into the murder, as GSP claims there is no body camera footage and Tortuguita was not known to own or carry a gun.

Tortuguita’s death is not an outlier, and is in fact part of a pattern of criminalization of protest in Atlanta: “forest defenders” have been beaten, pepper sprayed, violently arrested, or otherwise attacked by police since June 2021.

There have been several protest actions following Tortuguita’s murder, including an explosive protest on Saturday, January 21, which right-wing officials slammed as “terrorism” due to incidents of property destruction. Infamous Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Green published a string of tweets demanding that “BLM” and “Antifa” protesters be labeled as “domestic terrorists”.

One of the accusations hurled at protesters by authorities is an old one: that those demonstrating are in fact not from Atlanta or are not part of the communities most affected by policing. This “outside agitator” conspiracy is identical to accusations against 2020 anti-police brutality protesters: that those opposed to police violence are not genuinely oppressed or working class, instead, they were wealthy white people looking to stir up trouble.

In response, Atlanta activists have dug up an interesting piece of information about Cop City: almost half—43%—of trainees at the facility would be recruited from out of state. A massive influx of police from across the country would convene in Atlanta to learn the latest tactics in police repression. These police trainees are the true “outside agitators”, activists say, and also a reason why anyone in the US, not only those from Atlanta, has a vested interest in fighting the construction of Cop City.