On the surface, the texture of the soil is gritty, sandy loam. Metamorphic rocks lie underneath, formed in the Mississippian period of the Paleozoic era. That’s at least 298 million years ago, around the time when ancestors of conifers came to life—forebearers of the loblolly pines that tower above the South River Forest today.
One late November evening in 2021, the sandy loam felt the weight of several dozen members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, hypnotically dancing in a circle here for the first time in nearly 200 years—since before the federal government forced tens of thousands of Native Americans to leave the Southeast in the 1830s. Not far from the entrance to Intrenchment Creek Park, a fire sent flames against a darkening sky, surrounded by shuffling feet marking time, using turtle shells stuffed with pebbles. There was a high-pitched call and response in a language unfamiliar to most of the several hundred Atlanta residents and others gathered. “The birds stopped singing when we danced,” a Muscogee (Creek) woman later remarked to Craig Womack, another member of the nation who participated in what is known as a stomp dance.
“It was emotional, on all kinds of levels,” recalled Womack, who recently retired as a professor of English at Emory University, where he taught Native American literature and other subjects. “As a Creek person, when you’re dancing, it feels like you’re connecting to the center of yourself. We believe songs are prayers.”
Just outside the Atlanta city limits, the South River Forest spreads north of Constitution Road and east of Moreland Avenue. The land includes the remains of an old prison farm and the park bordering Intrenchment Creek, whose headwaters form downtown, running under the state capitol. The neighborhoods closest to the forest—like Thomasville Heights, Gresham Park, Lakewood—are mostly Black, with large shares of low-income residents. They’ve endured a fraught history of development, with six landfills nearby, five prisons, two demolished public housing sites, and a host of trucking and other industrial companies.
“Weelaunee,” a Muscogee (Creek) term for “brown water,” is what activists call this forest; tribal members from Oklahoma, where most now live, performed their stomp dance that fall evening on the forest’s behalf. Six months earlier, in March, then Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had announced plans to build a massive police and fire department training center in the South River Forest. The proposal for the facility was developed by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a nonprofit that uses private dollars to support policing in a variety of ways—from building youth centers through funding a citywide system of surveillance cameras.
In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved leasing the land to the APF to build, among other things, a “mock village” for police training, complete with a “hotel/nightclub” and a “convenience store”; backers say the center is needed to fight violent crime and to promote morale and retention among police and firefighters, who currently train out of “substandard” facilities. The training center would be among the largest of its kind in the country, at an estimated cost of $90 million—$30 million of which will come from the City of Atlanta, and $60 million from the foundation.
Opponents of the plan had invited the Muscogee (Creek) to visit the forest. The land in its current state is a mix of what remains of the old prison farm, decades of trash, and the kind of creeping secondary growth sustained by the Southern climate. The idea was to connect to the forest through ancient rituals, in order to imagine a different future for the land.
Bottoms’s announcement brought out a loose but wide-ranging coalition of critics, including the Georgia chapter of the nation’s largest environmental organization, the Nature Conservancy; the South River Watershed Alliance, a veteran of many legal battles on behalf of the river; and civic figures like Ryan Gravel, who conceived the Atlanta BeltLine. Opponents also included an anonymous media collective who have dug into the fraught history of the prison, and a series of area schools—forming a network of hundreds of children and their families, including the Highlander School, a nearby private, pre-K school that includes social justice and environmental science in its curriculum. Several neighborhood associations have also come out in opposition, including the East Atlanta Community Association and South Atlantans for Neighborhood Development, as well as activist groups such as Community Movement Builders. And of course there are the “forest defenders,” protesters who’ve spent the past year-plus occupying the forest, living in trees and on the ground; some have engaged in vandalism against property tied to what they refer to as “Cop City.”
These disparate groups have in common opposition to the training center, with sometimes differing rationales. Some see the importance of preserving intact forests, as ecosystems, amid a climate crisis increasingly being felt in the Southeast—but may support building the training center elsewhere. Some worry about further contaminating a forest and river that are already contaminated. Others question the wisdom of investing tens of millions of public dollars in policing—particularly to build a training center in a majority-Black area that has seen decades of disinvestment. Yet others see a connection between environmental contamination and the neglect of majority-Black neighborhoods in the Atlanta metro, concerns exacerbated by a haphazard process for collecting public input on the proposed facility. At the center of it all is a piece of land that has already endured centuries of contesting visions for what people in Atlanta, particularly Black people, need and deserve.
• • •
Womack returned to the forest in the spring of 2022, as part of a summit featuring fellow Muscogee (Creek) academics and others. They spoke in detail about the land and the region, including what Womack called “the intertwined history” of his people and Black people in the South; prior to the Civil War, some Southeastern tribes enslaved Black people, with thousands of descendants of Africans moving west in the 19th century with the Muscogee (Creek).
In the early 20th century, the City of Atlanta built a prison farm on the land, along what is now Key Road. A 1999 city planning document quotes a former prison official describing the farm’s philosophy as “associating the farming experience with better citizenry.” But the Atlanta Community Press Collective—an activist group that formed in opposition to the training center—argues that the earlier report mistakenly conflates three prison farms. The collective’s findings, based on newspaper stories and other archival material, suggest that the Key Road property is a place where thousands of prisoners were sent for petty crimes like public drunkenness, and suffered abuse and a lack of healthcare. The collective cited, for instance, a 1958 article from the Atlanta Daily World, a Black-owned newspaper, asserting that the prison farm had been “under the observation of the Negro community for some time” due to “alleged brutality, poor treatment of prisoners and molesting of women inmates.” The facility was finally closed in the 1990s, but the collective’s account raises as many questions as it answers, lacking source documents on issues such as fatalities associated with the prison farm.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the surrounding area became what urban planner Ryan Gravel has called a “regional dumping ground.” “There are a lot of terrible things in this part of the city,” Gravel told me. Residents there, he said, are more likely than other Atlantans to live near a landfill or prison. At least a quarter of the people in the area live in poverty, and more than two-thirds are people of color. In 2021, 662 out of the 701 students at McNair High School, which abuts the forest to the northeast, were Black, and nearly all were eligible for free school lunch. Those students, among other area residents, already hear gunshots from a practice range the Atlanta Police Department has used on the prison farm land for decades.
Intrenchment Creek and the waterway it flows into—the South River—have meanwhile been contaminated for decades, notably by untreated sewage; in April 2021, within weeks of Mayor Bottoms’s announcement on the proposed training center, a national organization called American Rivers included the South River in its annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.” “The degradation of the river goes with the community,” said Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance. “The community has struggled with pollution for a long time, and nobody cares.”
In 2017, the South River Forest became a key component of a 393-page “conceptual framework” commissioned by the City of Atlanta to serve as a “road map” for growth in the coming decades. Its bland title, The Atlanta City Design, reveals less about the document’s ambitions than its subtitle: “Aspiring to the Beloved Community.” Invoking Martin Luther King Jr., the report’s introduction seems to offer a pointed challenge to Atlanta’s power brokers: King’s goal, it says, “was not to fulfill our slogan, ‘a city too busy to hate.’ His goal was the beloved community.”
The report’s aim was to “address issues Atlantans care about—such as gentrification, affordability, and climate change—in ways other cities haven’t,” said Tim Keane, the former Atlanta planning commissioner, who hired Gravel for the project. I spoke with Keane last fall, when he was back in the city from Boise, where he accepted a similar job last year; he sounded nostalgic and maybe a bit regretful, like a coach who’s left the team before seeing his vision play out on the field. “When we started Atlanta City Design in 2016, the reason for doing it was that Atlanta was experiencing unprecedented growth,” Keane said, “and the moment in history was such an important one.” In December 2017, the city council unanimously approved its adoption into the city charter, a legal document akin to a constitution. That path was deliberate, according to Keane: “We said, ‘Let’s make it part of the city charter because it carries more weight.’”
Nature was key to the report’s vision. “South River Forest was the center of the plan,” said Gravel, the lead author of the report, which described the old prison farm land as “our last chance for a massive urban park in the city.” The 350 acres owned by Atlanta would allow the city to string together parcels in a green belt of more than 1,200 acres, connecting nearby properties like Constitution Lakes and Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve. The report conveyed a sense of urgency: “With all the growth in the city, we’ll never have another chance to do this.”
• • •
Four years later, the announcement of the training center surprised both Keane and Gravel. “No one ever expressed the idea of the police training facility” while he and Gravel were working on the city design document, Keane said. The APF—whose corporate donors include Amazon, Chick-fil-A, and Delta—has repeatedly pointed to the economic advantage conferred by the city’s ownership of the prison farm land, which the city has leased to the foundation for $10 annually. Jacqueline Echols shared with me a letter she’d received in September 2022 from APF spokesperson Robert Baskin, in response to concerns Echols raised; Baskin wrote that the forest land was “affordable, accessible, and unused, except as a dumping ground, for 30-plus years.” (Baskin declined to comment on the record.)
The plans were a surprise, as well, to the DeKalb County commissioners who represent districts encompassing the forest: District 3 commissioner Larry Johnson and Ted Terry, the commissioner for “Super” District 6, which covers the west side of the county. “When Mayor Bottoms announced it to the public, that’s when I heard about it,” Terry said. If elected and appointed officials weren’t apprised of the plans, they weren’t alone. “Nobody in the public knew about it,” Gravel said. “There was no process.” Gravel pointed out that even though the city owned the South River Forest site, its location in unincorporated DeKalb meant that plans wouldn’t be subject to review by a neighborhood planning unit (NPU), a process for gathering community input on major decisions such as land use.
Surprise was followed by opposition, and a city council vote on the plan—originally scheduled for early summer 2021—was pushed back until fall. The APF announced three virtual “listening sessions,” scheduled from July to September 2021. But in the first event, public comment was limited to 100 participants; the chat function for questions or comments was disabled in all three events. Micah Herskind, a public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights, obtained an email exchange in which APF chief operating officer Marshall Freeman later asked Jestin Johnson—then Atlanta’s deputy chief operations officer—to review a report that characterized the sessions as demonstrating “significant support for the project.” As Herskind reported in the digital magazine Mainline, Johnson replied that his impressions of the meetings were different: “the feedback and questions would not necessary [sic] confirm overwhelming support.”
The police foundation, elected officials, and others promoting the training center began publicly making the case that the new center is needed due to a rise in violent crime. In August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an editorial titled “Crime Wave Should Spur Action on Center”: “It’s safe to say that crime won’t politely observe the delay . . . This societal moment is too fraught with risk to lives and property to unduly delay the decision to move forward.” (The AJC—where I worked briefly as a reporter in 2022—is owned by Cox Enterprises. As former chair of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, Cox CEO Alex Taylor led a fundraising drive on behalf of the foundation and the training center. At least a dozen news and editorial pieces concerning the training center published in the last two years failed to mention this fact.)
Still, the data tell a more complicated story. While homicide rates have risen since the beginning of the pandemic, robberies per capita have steadily declined since 2014, and are less than a third of what they were in 2009; aggravated assaults, declining since 2018, began to rise again in 2020, but their levels are still lower than they were in 2014. Laura Huey, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario and the editor of the journal Police Practice and Research, said there’s scant research on whether specific aspects of police training contribute to reducing crime. “Police are not researchers. They don’t think, ‘We’ve got to test these things rigorously,’” she told me. “The biggest single driver of increasing training,” Huey said—referring both to adding new types of training and building new facilities—“is the media and special interest groups” such as police foundations. (Funneling money from corporate and other wealthy backers to local departments, police foundations are common in the U.S., though the APF is one of the country’s largest and most well-funded.) Huey said she thought the Atlanta training center would have “minimal impact” on violent crime.
Backers of the training center have also said that current facilities are old and outdated, and new ones are needed to boost morale among police and firefighters. “The issue around having a new police and fire facility had been festering for several decades, especially on the fire department side,” said city council member Michael Julian Bond. “It creates problems with recruitment and retention.”
Perhaps the most salient expression of public opposition to the training center proposal came on September 7 and 8, 2021, when the council received some 1,100 comments on the matter, lasting more than 17 hours. The comments came in advance of the council’s vote on the training center proposal. According to an analysis conducted by the press collective and Herskind, nearly 70 percent were in opposition. Bond, an at-large member of the Atlanta City Council who sits on the body’s public safety committee, told me he listened to the comments, and felt that some followed a “tactic to send prepared statements.” He wasn’t hearing the same level of opposition from his own constituents, he added.
Bond conceded that the process could have gone better. “The city owns the property and historically hasn’t had to talk to anybody about what they do with it,” he told me. “They weren’t in the habit of reaching out to the community—and got burned. There’s very little interaction with people who live around there. A mistake was made, not having more upfront engagement.” Still, Bond was one of 10 city council members who voted to approve the plans in September 2021. Four members voted in opposition.
The vote belied commitments that the city had made when adopting The Atlanta City Design into its charter. Before he was a DeKalb County commissioner, Ted Terry was mayor of Clarkston; in his seven years in the role, he twice oversaw the process of amending that city’s charter. “The way it was always told to me, the charter is your city’s constitution, and if something’s unconstitutional, there ought to be a way for citizens to seek redress,” he said. “If you’re going to take the time to amend your charter, then you should follow it.” But Bond, who’d previously voted to incorporate the City Design into Atlanta’s charter, said that wasn’t a vote to “amend the charter of the City of Atlanta in a legal sense,” but merely to accept the report. The City Design was “just a statement of goals and intentions,” he told me; voting it into the charter is “saying, ‘We accept this.’ It’s still just a document.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who was on the city council at the time, also voted to approve the facility. Jacqueline Echols told me she ran into Dickens at a meet-and-greet shortly before his election as mayor and implored him to consider the negative impacts of locating the training center on the prison farm land. (The two know each other from serving together on the Underwood Hills Neighborhood Association in the early 2000s.) “He said, ‘It’s already degraded—this will make it better,’” Echols recalled. “I said, ‘What would make it better is following through on the [City Design] plan.’ He just deflected. He also said it would improve police morale.” (Mayor Dickens’s office didn’t respond to several requests for comment.)
“I walked away from that event and said, ‘Well, on to Plan B,’” Echols recalled. “‘Plan B is to fight.’”
• • •
The Atlanta Police Foundation has often responded to concerns about community lack of input by pointing to the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Formed in October 2021, the committee includes community members from five DeKalb neighborhoods, three Atlanta neighborhoods, and one NPU, as well as representatives from Atlanta’s police and fire departments, Mayor Dickens’s office, and the city council. The committee’s purview is to make recommendations on “community engagement, key siting, design, and operating details,” according to the resolution creating the group.
The APF has characterized the committee’s work as a success; in a fall 2022 letter to Jacqueline Echols, APF spokesperson Baskin wrote that its members “came into the process skeptical, at best, of the Training Center. Today, 15 of the 17 members are supportive.” How much those members reflect public sentiment is unclear. In June 2022, the body voted to remove one member who was publicly critical of the project: Lily Ponitz, nominated to the committee by Commissioner Terry. Trained as an environmental engineer, Ponitz had written articles in local media outlets questioning the thoroughness of APF’s environmental assessment of the prison farm site. In an article published a month before her removal, Ponitz said the foundation had exercised “half-hearted due diligence, relying on a lack of accountability, no City of Atlanta oversight, and misleading the public.” After dismissing Ponitz, the committee released a Q&A explaining its vote (from which two members dissented and one abstained); the document said Ponitz had “consistently violated standard decorum to the detriment of the Committee’s operations and its positions.”
Ponitz told me that, during the six monthly meetings she attended, she and three other committee members were the only ones asking questions about environmental aspects of the project. As for concerns of the wider community, she said, “from my involvement in the committee, I can say there’s no way for us to know about the community—we would’ve talked about how to survey community members, make our neighbors aware of the project, get their opinions, and bring them back. The narrative is: Everyone is in favor of this, no one opposes it.”
“Members of our committee are very aware of the arguments made both in favor and in opposition to the development,” said chair Alison Clark, who lives in Boulder Walk, the neighborhood closest to the forest. But Clark said the committee’s job isn’t to debate the merits of the training center itself; it’s to serve as a voice for the residents of the surrounding communities as the design and construction of the center are underway. The committee has successfully requested, for instance, that a planned firing range be moved away from a residential-facing side of the training center and toward a more industrial-facing part, and that sound-baffling material be installed around the range.
Clark said committee members have engaged their neighbors in a variety of ways, including social media, one-on-one conversations, and small group meetings. In 2023, she hopes to hold larger meetings and focus groups to solicit feedback. “The goal would be to have the Atlanta Police Foundation, the City of Atlanta, and DeKalb County there—an opportunity to engage with the people responsible for the project, and have them directly respond to community members,” she told me. When we spoke in late fall, Clark said she was “waiting for it to be a little safer” to hold such a meeting.
Meanwhile, activists—some with groups like Community Movement Builders and Showing Up for Racial Justice—were canvassing residents and holding public meetings; the city council vote seemed to catalyze, rather than dampen, public opposition. In November, organizers held a town hall at the Little Five Points Community Center. Nearly 100 people attended, including about a dozen from neighborhoods near the forest. Jimlia Ruffin, a mother of four who has lived in the area for 33 years, spoke. “This is something we’re going to look at for years to come,” she said, referring to decisions on how to use the land. “Why would we let them take something from us?” Gloria White, who had just moved to the area near South River Forest in July, said, “Me as a Black woman living in Atlanta—if there’s a Cop City, there’s no place for me.”
Several weeks later, some of the activists involved in organizing the town hall were talking to residents shopping at a Food Town Market a few minutes’ drive from Intrenchment Creek Park. Lakeisha Allen, a 42-year-old mother of five, said she’s heard gunshots from the practice range for 13 years: “I’ve been hearing police the whole time.” Allen said many of her neighbors who are elderly “want more police,” but that she was disappointed in how the process had played out: “They’re not gonna come and talk to us. If you don’t want nobody to know your plans, why would you? They do Black people like that.”
Standing nearby, Nikita Thornton, a hairstylist in the shopping center, said, “It goes deeper than the police and everything. We want nice things too. We’re not dirty, nasty people. A nice park, it would be a lot of people on board for this, instead of what they’re planning.” Alan Reese, a customer of Thornton’s, addressed the timing of the plans, announced less than a year after the police killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests. “It’s almost having a deaf ear to what the police department represents,” he said. “It’s disrespectful putting it in a Black community, if we’re listening to what the community is saying.”
Clark’s concerns about safely meeting with community members were a reference to the so-called “forest defenders.” About 50 to 100 people, their efforts bolstered in practical ways such as food and gear donations by supporters in Atlanta and elsewhere, have been camping in tents and in the trees on both sides of Intrenchment Creek for more than a year. Some stay for a few nights, others for months. Their purpose, and their rallying cry: Stop Cop City.
On a bright afternoon last October, my daughter, Jesse, who photographed the stomp dance and Muscogee summit, arranged for us to meet Tortuguita near the entrance to Intrenchment Creek Park, which activists had dubbed “Weelaunee People’s Park.” Like all those I’d meet while visiting the forest, Tortuguita (“Little Turtle”) had adopted a pseudonym, this one owing to their Venezuelan heritage. They wore a camo shirt, black jeans, and scuffed black boots, bearing the marks of living outdoors for the greater part of six months.
Before we entered the forest, Tortuguita pointed out that those defending the land were not a monolith. “Is it a movement? Is it an organization? Is it both? I’m not part of an organization,” they said. Tortuguita cited the differences in approaches between those staying on public land in the park, and those who had crossed the creek to the planned location of the training center, which had been fenced off and posted with “no trespassing” warnings. The latter required more stealth. Helicopters crossed the forest about 50 feet above the tree line regularly, Tortuguita said—including on the night before our visit.
As we entered the forest on the park side, light from the sun at its zenith filtered through the trees, striking in its calming effect. We passed through the “living room,” a clearing where several people sat with a dog, while another brought five-gallon jugs of water to a nearby folding table. Several hundred yards down winding paths, we came across the “kitchen,” complete with shelves of canned food and a gas stove. A visitor brought a new sleeping bag to give to one of the people staying in the forest, standing nearby dressed in camo from head to toe.
“I’m interested in community-building,” Tortuguita said. “We have a decentralized supply network here—different people bring different things.” Further toward Intrenchment Creek, we came across another person building a platform with lumber in order to raise his tent off the ground. “It gets pretty muddy here when it rains,” he said, adding, “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Some defenders and their allies have been implicated in several dozen acts of violence or vandalism, both within the South River Forest and elsewhere. These actions include burning a truck that belonged to Ryan Millsap, who made a deal with DeKalb County to swap 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park land for another parcel when he was owner of Blackhall film studios. Millsap has since sold the company, and a lawsuit has been filed to prevent the land exchange. There’s also been vandalism and civil disobedience at several companies associated with the training center plans. In a July 19, 2022, email, Atlanta City Council member Dustin Hillis asked Dave Wilkinson, the CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation: “Any progress from FBI/GBI/AG Office on hauling these terrorists in?”
Several weeks later, on August 3, spokesperson Baskin wrote Bryan Thomas, Mayor Dickens’s director of communications: “We’ve ceded the narrative to our opponents—who at best represent a persistent group of environmentalists and ‘defund the police’ extremists, whose principal strategy is to embrace violence.” (Both documents were shared with me by a community group that had obtained them through an open records request.) The actions of the forest defenders have also been condemned by some who have opposed building the training center in South River Forest: Nancy Clair McInaney, the board chair of the Nature Conservancy’s Georgia chapter, told me her organization “abhors violence.”
But several environmental historians noted that these types of scenarios—tree-sitting and other direct actions against development projects, met by vilification from media, law enforcement, and the local political power structure—aren’t new: They’ve characterized a type of environmental protest since the 1980s, when activists battled loggers in the Pacific Northwest. Two differences in Atlanta: the urban, Southern setting, and the confluence of environmental and social justice issues in the South River Forest.
“This case brings together old-style environmental activism and newer issues in an urban setting,” said Keith Woodhouse, professor of history at Northwestern University and author of The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism. “They’re certainly concerned about the protection of the ecosystem, but they’re thinking about the urban tree canopy, greenhouse gases, environmental justice issues, and then of course the claim the forest will be sacrificed for greater militarization of the police force. It’s a sophisticated view of what greenspace in an urban area might mean.”
The tactics harken back to Earth First, he said—the group that became known for “going beyond civil disobedience and tree-sitting protests to tree-spiking, cutting down billboards, and pouring sand into gas tanks of bulldozers, among other activities,” as the Arizona Daily Star wrote in its 2022 obituary of founder David Foreman. Politicians and journalists also called Earth First members terrorists, and Foreman was the subject of an FBI investigation that lasted several years. Although Earth First and similar groups were also repudiated for some time by other, more mainstream environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, their tactics never produced any serious injury, Woodhouse said. And some mainstream groups came to agree with several of Earth First’s demands, which were eventually achieved—including banning clear-cutting trees on public lands and removing dams on rivers to protect wildlife. “Radical ideas are radical until they’re not,” Woodhouse said.
Following the initial wave of public protest, the city scaled back its plans for the training facility, reducing its footprint by half—to 85 acres, down from the original 150—while making commitments to preserve the surrounding land as a 265-acre public park. The Nature Conservancy is now turning its attention to that promise, rather than the ongoing campaign against the training center. Ryan Gravel, too, has shifted some of his focus. “Eighty-five acres doesn’t kill the whole thing,” he said. He drew attention to the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, opened to little fanfare in late 2021 on nearby land that was part of the original City Design proposal. He and the Nature Conservancy are “still working on advancing the larger vision as best we can,” Gravel said.
Others remain firm in trying to stop the project altogether. In late fall 2022, an attorney working with the South River Watershed Alliance sent a letter to DeKalb County expressing concerns that developing the site would increase the amount of stormwater runoff going into Intrenchment Creek, which would increase sediment in the water and run afoul of federal regulations. Though Atlanta owns the land, its location in DeKalb means the county has to sign off on what’s called a land disturbance permit for work on the project to begin. Jacqueline Echols said she hoped the letter would pressure the city and the foundation to “find another place” for the center.
The end of the year approaching, the defenders in the forest dug in further: Someone built an outdoor cafe of sorts, in the park entrance at the edge of the forest, to serve as a place for potlucks and other gatherings. Plans for the spring’s garden included more eggplants. But as this article was going to press, police from Atlanta and DeKalb County raided the forest, employing what one APD officer later described as “chemical irritants” to force the tree sitters out of their trees, and making a total of 12 arrests. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced “domestic terrorism” charges, carrying up to 35 years in prison, against five activists.
Just after the arrests, I saw a photo on Twitter that I recognized. The last time I’d visited the forest was mid-October, during the Jewish holiday Sukkot, which is associated with the fall harvest. I’d been at a protest for this story and someone there asked if I was Jewish. When I said yes, he invited me to a Friday service—a Sabbath—at the forest that coincided with the end of Sukkot. Although not observant, I said yes. I rushed to get there before sunset.
During Sukkot, you eat and spend time with others inside a temporary hut called a sukkah, with a roof made of natural materials. In the “Living Room” of the forest, a sukkah topped with pine boughs filled with a group of Jews and non-Jews, a candle gaining on the dimming sun. A woman sang a blessing, the first time I had heard so much Hebrew in several decades. Shalom aleichem: “May peace be upon you.” The words, 3,000 years old. Crickets throbbed. Leaves crackled underfoot.
The sukkah was left up in the ensuing months as a “symbol of the movement’s resolve,” according to the tweet. But it didn’t survive the police raid. In the photo, you see poles cut from trees used to hold up the sukkah lying in an angled heap, a piece of canvas that had served as one of the structure’s walls hanging off one of them. The image was jarring, and looked a bit like a white flag on a battlefield.
Editor’s Note: This story, which appears in Atlanta magazine’s February 2023 issue, went to the printer at the end of December 2022. On the morning of January 18, 2023, police raided the forest again, shooting and killing one protester: the person referred to in this piece as Tortuguita, who was identified after their death as Manuel Terán, and who was remembered at a candlelight vigil in Little Five Points later that day. A state trooper was also shot and in intensive care following surgery; police say they were fired on first, though few details about the raid have emerged, and activists are calling for the release of body cam footage. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation initially said no such footage exists, but some body camera footage from the Atlanta Police Department was released in February. The GBI says ballistics indicate the bullet that shot the trooper came from Terán’s legally purchased firearm. In March, an autopsy commissioned by Terán’s family stated that Terán was in a seated position with hands up when they were shot, but could not determine if Terán was holding a gun. In April, an autopsy from the DeKalb County Medical Examiner showed that Terán had been shot at least 57 times and had no gunpowder on their hands, but the autopsy was unable to determine Terán’s position. The family has filed a lawsuit.