A Stop Cop City protest in Atlanta on January 22. Tatsoi, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday March 5 a joyful music festival near Weelaunee Forest in Atlanta, Georgia took a drastic turn when police arrived, pointing rifles at civilians.

The police detained 44 people, later charging 23 of them with domestic terrorism. All but one legal observer were denied bond. The police did not arrest people who were videotaped in black and camouflage engaged in acts of vandalism at a construction site, but instead tear-gassed and arrested peaceful people at the music festival more than a mile away. Citations noted mud on their shoes or having a jail support number on their arm as “probable cause.”

These domestic terrorism charges raise alarms regarding the First Amendment right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  

The Weelaunee forest, also known as South River Forest or Atlanta Forest, is in Dekalb County on Muscogee Creek land, surrounded by majority Black, low-income neighborhoods which benefit from its beauty and ecology. The Atlanta Police Foundation wants to lease 380 acres of the public forest. It proposes to pave 85 acres of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm to construct a training complex for police and firefighters.

The massive facility is dubbed ‘Cop City’ given its designs to include “a mock village including residential, school, nightlife and community areas, with structures such as a bank and a gas station; and a shooting range.” The price-tag? $90 million. The deforestation for construction will exacerbate existing environmental injustices such as stormwater flooding

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Environmental activists in Connecticut have been organizing peaceful events in solidarity with the movement for many months. Back in January, Bridgeport’s McLevy Green hosted a vigil honoring the life of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán — better known as Tortuguita — after the activist was shot to death by Atlanta police while seated with hands up. 

Since then, Stop Cop City CT has continued the pressure, and many of us traveled to Atlanta to participate in the Week of Action Music Festival in March. 

Day One began on a high note with powerful speeches and a drumline to lead the marching chants. I marveled at the beauty of the forest as we made our way along the path. A welcome tent offered fruit snacks, water, aromatherapy, and BBQ shared across generations, genders, and ethnicities. That evening I waded into a lively crowd filled with dancing, hula-hooping, moshing, bubble blowing, and the presence of one dog who seemingly belonged to no one.

But the next day, which started as a pleasant day of interviewing kids and their moms, suddenly turned into the traumatizing experience of being screamed at by armed police and witnessing civilians being arrested at gunpoint.

Katharine Morris Yehyun Kim

Why were we there, a thousand miles from home? Connecticut is connected to this story in many other ways besides protest.

AXA XL Reinsurance America, headquartered in Stamford is the insurer for the general contractor, Brasfield & Gorrie, leading the construction of ‘Cop City.’ 

Additionally, Corporation Services Company is the registered agent for companies owned by Ryan Millsap. Millsap is involved in a controversial and disputed land swap with DeKalb County in which he would acquire 40 acres of the forest. The South River Watershed Alliance and the South River Forest Coalition are suing Dekalb County and Blackhall Real Estate Phase II, LLC for the land swap and Millsap’s bulldozing of a trailhead and park entrance on the land. Corporation Services Company’s Hartford office has been urged by protestors to drop Millsap’s contracts. 

Wealthy white developers are turning a profit through shady deals sweetened with unkept promises of economic development at the expense of the natural environment and health of a Black and brown community. Sounds familiar! I could talk about Bridgeport’s Bassick High School or the quiet plans to build a new Port Jefferson ferry on the East End off Seaview Avenue, but let’s focus on the Save Remington Woods effort. Remington Woods is a 422-acre forest of ecological and archaeological significance housing countless animal species, a 23-acre lake, and indigenous burial and campsites, according to Sierra Club Connecticut.

Privately owned by Sporting Goods Properties, a Dupont Corporation subsidiary, Remington Woods is under remediation to remove military munitions to prepare for deforestation and development. Described as Bridgeport’s “last standing lung,” the deforestation would worsen the negative health impacts of air pollution in a community with disproportionately high asthma rates while destabilizing the local and global ecosystem.

Alas, the City of Bridgeport rezoned all of Remington Woods for commercial development despite climate science, logic, and the outpouring of Bridgeport residents at public hearings attempting to prevent it. This blatant act of ignoring constituents bonds Bridgeport to Atlanta in yet another tragic way. 

If activists supporting the Atlanta protests are unsuccessful and Cop City goes ahead, our state could be further enmeshed in what unfolds next.

Two key points of contention with the 85-acre ‘Cop City’ are the likelihood that the center would act as a national training facility, and the open invitation for police around the country to participate in training with the Israeli Police Force (IPF) through the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange.

In 2008, Connecticut’s own Stamford police used Homeland Security grant funding to travel to Israel to learn surveillance, anti-terrorist, and “specialized defense tactics” from Israeli Military and special operations units. Other U.S police departments have also trained in Israel despite their reported human rights violations.

Connecticut already has a heavy ledger of police brutality cases (including Steven Barrier, Jayson Negron, Mubarak Soulemane, Randy Cox, Zoe Dowdell, and too many others). Further militarization and training with IPF abroad or at ‘Cop City’ would only worsen the issue. Not to mention the risk of a dystopian surveillance state dubbed Operation Shield spreading from Atlanta. 

The movement at large raises alarms about the priorities of our nation, of our state.

At this stage in the climate crisis, in 2023, must we really persuade governments to preserve forests and protect our ecosystems? At what point do we say enough is enough and begin to prioritize life?

I implore all readers to think critically about the way media, surveillance, and militarization are poised to suppress people power, amid mass movements for social and environmental justice. I can only assume that environmental movements will strengthen as the climate crisis worsens, as predicted by the latest IPCC report

Is law enforcement detaining 44 people and later charging 23 of them with domestic terrorism for having muddy clothes at a peaceful music festival in a park a one-off cautionary tale or prominent foreshadowing? We’ll see.

Katharine Morris is a member of the CT Mirror’s Community Editorial Board