Atlanta Fights to Save Its Forest 

Atlanta, GA – A harsh chorus of chants and drums erupted in the late afternoon silence of the upscale Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, Georgia, Monday, punctuated by the pops of fireworks and the barks of dogs.

A group of 30-40 protestors chanting “Stop Cop City!” converged on the home of Shepherd Long, Principal of Long Engineering, an engineering firm subcontracted to do surveying and other pre-construction work on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Public Safety Training Center, currently scheduled to open in late 2023.

A protestor reads aloud a prepared statement demanding that Long Engineering withdraw from their contract to help build the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Public Safety Training Center, known as “Cop City.” (Photo contributed by Ryan Fatica)

One member of the group read aloud a prepared statement demanding the company pull out of their contract with Brasfield and Gorrie, the general contractor hired by the Atlanta Police Foundation, the project’s main architect. “We want our children and neighbors to be able to breathe clean air and experience the vastness of the Atlanta forest, NOT be victims of a domestic war zone,” they shouted. “You have the power to stop that.”

Protestors threw smoke bombs and shot off Roman candles outside the home of Shephard Long, Principal of Long Engineering, LLC. (Photo contributed by Ryan Fatica)

The group distributed fliers alerting neighbors to the work Long and his company are doing in DeKalb County. In their prepared statement, the protestors made a clear request of Long: “We hold no ill will towards you personally, we just want you to make this one right decision. We know Long Engineering has many other contracts with many other companies. We are only here to ask you to drop this one company, Brasfield and Gorrie, until they drop their contract with the Atlanta Police Foundation.”

After about ten minutes, the group quickly dispersed without incident.

Protestors distributed fliers alerting neighbors to Shephard Long’s participation in the destruction of the Atlanta Forest. (Photo contributed by Ryan Fatica)

Representatives of both Long Engineering and its parent company, Atlas Technical Consultants, LLC declined to comment on the protest.

“Week of Action” vs. “Cop City”

The event was one of many taking place during a ‘week of action’ against the proposed training facility organized by the Defend the Atlanta Forest campaign. The week’s schedule includes meals, discussions and camping in the Atlanta Forest as well as concerts, protests and film screenings in the city.

Activists from throughout the country have converged on Atlanta this week to oppose the construction of the police training facility and the destruction of the forest upon which the project depends. Dubbed “Cop City” by its critics, the 85-acre police training facility carries a price tag of $90 million for its initial phase. In September, 2021, Atlanta’s City Council approved a proposal to construct the facility within a huge swath of forested land in unincorporated DeKalb county southeast of Atlanta. 

The particular parcel of land slated to become a police training center is the former home of a city-run prison farm, which operated in the area from 1920 to 1989. The facility was used to house prisoners from Atlanta who were forced to work on the farm raising food for the city’s prison population. Since its closure, the city has maintained its ownership of the land, using it as a dumping ground while the forest around it slowly engulfed its collapsing carceral infrastructure.

A barricade constructed by forest defenders amidst the decaying infrastructure of the old Atlanta Prison Farm. (Photo contributed by Ryan Fatica)

Other sections of the forest are also in danger of destruction. Blackhall Studios, which operates a large campus for film and television production near the forest, owns several tracts of land in and near the Atlanta Forest which it recently swapped with DeKalb County. In exchange for their land, the county has granted Blackhall forty acres of forested land called Intrenchment Creek Park just west of the planned police facility.

The company plans to raze the forest to build a $400 million film studio to expand upon its current holdings in the area. The resulting studio would be the largest in the state and would solidify Georgia’s new position as the “Hollywood of the South.” Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the swap, claiming that the deal made by the county was unlawful.

A banner made by a child protestor hangs from a treehouse in the threatened Atlanta Forest reading “Forever stop cutting down the trees.” (Photo contributed by Ryan Fatica)

A diverse coalition of organizations and individuals have coalesced in an attempt to prevent the destruction of the forest on a variety of grounds—environmental advocacy, racial justice, police and prison abolition, indigenous rights, and the preservation of urban green space. Resistance to the project has taken a variety of shapes, from lawsuits and lobbying to construction of barricades, sabotage, claims of tree spiking and occupation of the forest. Even a children’s group has gotten involved in the campaign. 

Environmental organizations, such as the South River Forest Coalition, have opposed both the police facility and the Blackhall swap, arguing against the loss of green space, the destruction of forested land in the midst of climate change, and the impact on water quality and wildlife. The group Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm has proposed an alternate vision for the forest, which includes a dog park, community gardens, sports fields and a nature preserve.

Those who oppose the expansion of police power have also come out against the Atlanta Police Foundation’s project, placing it within the lineage of the expansion of the “prison-industrial complex.”  Such critics claim that the training facility will further expand police militarization in the aftermath of nationwide calls in the summer of 2020 and beyond to defund and even abolish policing infrastructure.

The proposed police training facility is slated to include a “mock village” with a “gas station/bank, bar/nightclub, school, residential homes, apartments…park/splash pad” and “training warehouse” for training in police tactics.

The plans have raised concerns that one thing the facility is intended to do is train officers to put down urban insurrections such as those that occurred in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

A sign nailed to a tree in the threatened Atlanta Forest warns of danger from spikes driven into trees by protestors (Photo Credit: Ryan Fatica for Unicorn Riot)

Indigenous activists have also opposed the facility’s construction. In November 2021 and April 2022, Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) people and other Indigenous activists gathered in the South River Forest, traditionally called Welaunee, to engage in a re-matriation process with the land. Welaunee, which means “green/brown/yellow water,” was traditionally Mvskoke land before a series of wars, forcible removal and coerced and one-sided treaties finally pushed them from their land one year before the founding of DeKalb County in 1822.

Immediately after Mvkoke dispossession of the land, the tract that later became the Prison Farm was acquired by George Key, who ran it as a plantation fueled by the forced labor of African slaves until it was purchased by the City of Atlanta in 1911. 

Long Engineering is one of several contractors targeted by the campaign to defend the forest. The training facility’s general contractor, Brasfield and Gorrie, hired Long Engineering to survey the site and provide other pre-construction support.

A cable bridge constructed by protestors occupying the Atlanta Forest spans Intrenchment Creek. (Photo contributed by Ryan Fatica)

In March, the Atlanta Police Foundation quietly announced that Reeves Young, another subcontractor hired for “preconstruction land prep,” had “concluded its work.” The announcement came after the company was the target of a powerful pressure campaign demanding that it withdraw from its contract to assist in the destruction of the forest. Protestors paid a visit to Reeves Young’s corporate office and reportedly chased their workers out of the forest and attacked their equipment. 

Those opposing the facility quickly declared victory, claiming that the company had pulled out of its contract due their campaign. “The APF [Atlanta Police Foundation] would have us believe that Reeves Young was contracted to do nothing more than hire a bulldozer and walk alongside Long Engineering work crews as they planted a few surveying stakes and did some soil testing,” the group leading the campaign wrote in a press release.  

The Defend the Atlanta Forest campaign’s week of action has also included workshops, cultural and recreational events, yoga classes and even a clothing swap. On May 11, cyclists gathered at the Intrenchment Creek Trailhead for a group bike ride around the Atlanta Forest. 

Cyclists stop for a break in front of the decaying ruins of the old Atlanta Prison Farm during a group bike ride against the destruction of the Atlanta Forest. (Photo contributed by Ridley Seawood)

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