An Historic Direct Action in a Forest Outside Atlanta

DeKalb County, GA – In broad daylight Sunday, March 5, a group of about three hundred masked people wearing mostly camouflage and black clothing stormed the main police security outpost within the Weelaunee Forest at the proposed construction site of the ‘Cop City’ project. Demonstrators tore up silt fencing, and set an office trailer, two UTVs, a mobile surveillance tower, and a front end loader afire as police ran for cover. The group hurled rocks and fireworks at the retreating police, who repositioned to a smaller outpost across Key Road SE and worked furiously to close a gate behind them to establish a barrier between themselves and the advancing group.

The moment marked an historic turn in both the environmental and police abolitionist movements, as those seeking a climate-adaptive world without police went on the offensive. An action involving this level of mass participation in coordinated sabotage in defense of both the earth and disenfranchised communities is unprecedented in the modern environmental movement in the U.S.

Video: Hundreds of ‘Cop City’ Opponents Overrun a Police Surveillance Outpost in the South River Forest on March 5, 2023

Although urban uprisings against police violence have become a visible part of the modern anti-police movement since at least the Oscar Grant riots in Oakland, California in 2009, these events typically occur shortly after the police kill someone or after the officers responsible go unpunished. In preventing the construction of a police training facility, where cops from across the country will train in urban warfare tactics, the movement in Atlanta doesn’t wait for the police to harm communities, but instead proactively targets the origin of mass production of law enforcement officers and the replication of militarized techniques. 

In order to provide some insight into Sunday’s action, Unicorn Riot interviewed one anonymous participant about what it felt like, the motivations and strategies grounding it, and the future of the movement.

Unicorn Riot: What was your experience of the action on Sunday, March 5?

Anonymous Participant: I have never seen anything like it in this country. Aside from acts of mass, “spontaneous” rebellion such as riots or uprisings, this was the most serious act of direct action I have ever witnessed a crowd perform. It was hundreds of people in masks, many holding shields. Most wore camo or all-black. The crowd was tight but not in a formation. It wasn’t regimented. This wasn’t a military assault, it was only a march. The sun was up. The weather was warm. The music festival crowd cheered and applauded us as we passed them. I felt safe. I felt calm. The energy was not vengeful or menacing. It was serious, it was bold, but it was light. I really felt like I was with a group of people who want to make the world a better, freer, safer, place. We were chanting “we are unstoppable, another world is possible.” At the time, I really could feel that that was true. When we were close to the [proposed] construction site, we had a police [helicopter] hovering over us, we could see police inside of a fencing staring down at us and we paused. The people holding shields moved to the front. Everyone chanted and called out for those who had rocks or projectiles to move behind the shields. You have to understand, people had different objectives, different tools, dispositions etc. And not everyone wanted to be up front, to hold a shield, to throw objects. Some people were there as medics, or even to just hold space, to be present and supportive in a more unstructured way or an unplanned way I could say. When we approached the gate finally, it was not chaos, but it was something like it. Our crowd unleashed a wild burst of energy. It was incredible and I will never forget it. It was rhythmic almost. We devastated all of their work. The silt fencing, the vehicles, the trailer. Everything.

Crowds of militant direct action forest defenders march toward the ‘Cop City’ outpost on March 5, 2023 before chasing police away and destroying the site.

UR: What do you see as the goal and the broader strategy that the action fit into?

Anonymous Participant: I think that at this moment, defense of the land could form a serious and coherent strategy. I was someone who was uncertain about this before. I am not sure of the viability of permanent mass encampments after Tortuguita’s killing. Maybe I am wrong. In any case, I think that this marks a new possible way forward. Direct negation of the deforestation process. It’s not about destruction and mayhem. It’s about taking care of the world we want to build together. We have to be able to address the work they are doing when they do it. There are a lot of ways to do that. I do not care which way works, but in order to find the winning forms we will have to try many things. I think people want to work together with as many people as possible, but they also want to be effective. This demonstration allowed for both of those things to happen. I also think many people were fighting in memory of Tortuguita. “Viva viva Tortuguita” was a popular and recurring chant of the crowd.

UR: How do you see this action as fitting into the broader environmental movement in the U.S. and around the world?

Anonymous Participant: Acts of sabotage have a long history within environmental movements, within anti-colonial movements, all kinds of struggles. Specifically, I think that large-scale land reclamations in places throughout Latin America are a powerful example for movements in the US to study. I think that the US environmental movement has adapted itself to strategies that work well for small groups. Essentially, they have embraced somewhat specialized, training-intensive, forms of resistance. That has allowed people to do a lot of things. But I think that this other format of action, of unspecialized resistance, may have a better horizon to it. It’s an open question. We will see what works. But I think all movements have a lot to learn from the tactics employed during the George Floyd 2020 rebellion, and people should be thinking about that in specific and applicable terms. And innovating on that, even. It’s not good enough to nostalgize events, or to compare movements across contexts. We have to be creative. We have to keep an open and light spirit about things. Maybe in a few months I [will] say “OK, actually we made a mistake in March. It seems like we should have done X or Y.” Actions can only be really judged by the effects they have in the world, by what they make possible. We have to finally move away from fetishistic or moralistic forms of action. We cannot dedicate our politics to tactics.

UR: Do you think an action like this has precedent within the environmental movement?

Anonymous Participant: It certainly does. For one thing, Indigenous people have been engaged in actions like this for a long time. It depends on how we understand an ‘environmental movement,’ I suppose. In the current framework of ‘Soulevements de la terre’ in France, acts of mass sabotage have devastated large job sites repeatedly. It’s hard to discuss because, of course, anti-colonial struggles often relate themselves to their landbase. And certainly actions like this, and far beyond, are regular features within some of those movements. But in the US, no. I don’t believe something quite like this has ever occurred. Maybe I am wrong.

UR: How do you interpret the police response to the action?

Anonymous Participant: I think the Governor must have called in a panic. The police came into the forest an hour later, and a mile away on the total opposite end of the area. They attacked a music festival. Random people. And they were just kind of going nuts. I think it was a symbolic intervention. A serious attack, no doubt. But chiefly symbolic. The current administration has to prove to the ruling class, to all of the corporate interests and investors working within the Atlanta Committee for Progress, that they have a handle on the situation. They have to prove to Delta, to The Woodruff Foundation, to Bank of America, etc that they can suppress the resistance. The charges against these poor concert-goers are completely specious. They are supposed to make people scared, perhaps. Or to make people blame the movement, to disidentify with direct action. But I think it’s having the opposite effect. If anything, people are beginning to see the need for more serious self-defense. We are seeing that the ruling class is not afraid to unleash fascism to defend itself. A few days after the protest, a group of people, a small group, were passing out fliers about the movement downtown. Riot police arrived and made dispersal orders. We are no longer living in a democratic society, for what that’s worth. Not for the moment. That could change, of course. But if this is the case, if the Mayor is willing to throw everything out the window, to jeopardize his entire government in order to hold onto this project, [then] the situation will escalate to historic proportions. Soon, nobody will be able to stop what is developing.

UR: The police have circulated zoomed-in video allegedly showing people fleeing the site of the action and changing clothes. They claim (without concrete evidence) that all those arrested participated in the direct action. How do you respond to that?

Anonymous Participant: It’s kind of funny footage. They want this to be like their smoking gun. Anyway, they have to prove that these are the people that committed criminal acts, and that they arrested those people. They haven’t done that. During the initial bond hearing, the prosecutor argued in court that everyone at the festival was guilty because they chanted “Stop Cop City.” This is what we are actually dealing with. Unabashed suppression of free speech. Some people changed out of their clothing. So what? I heard people walking around telling concert goers to take off any camo or black clothes if they didn’t want to be blamed. Personally, I saw a friend of mine wearing a balaclava ironically or like just for fashion. He had shorts and a t-shirt on, he didn’t go to the protest it was just like a fun fashion statement. I told him to take it off. Maybe there is footage of him! This is the level of “proof” they are rolling out for cable TV. It’s a sign of their desperation that they are actually attempting to legitimize collective punishment.

Editor’s Note: Unicorn Riot wants to make clear that this interview is only one participant’s perspective, and it is not meant as a comprehensive report about March 5, 2023, but a glimpse into at least one person’s experience.

Unicorn Riot's coverage on the movement to defend the Atlanta Forest:

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