On a Wednesday night in September 2021, Charlotte* sat handcuffed on the ground outside of Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong’s East Atlanta home. To their left and right were 10 more protesters with their hands secured behind their backs, staring up at 13 Atlanta police officers.
Less than an hour before, the protesters’ shouts rang through the night, audible in the background of Archibong’s Zoom call, where the City Council debated a proposal for a $90 million police-training facility south of Atlanta. The proposal, nicknamed “Cop City” by organizers, came in the wake of a national movement to defund the police and threatened to raze 85 acres of Atlanta’s South River Forest.
To Charlotte, an Atlanta resident who works in native plant habitat restoration, the destruction of this forest in the most-canopied city in America felt personal. Charlotte explains that the South River Forest sits on a resource-rich watershed previously occupied by the Muscogee (Creek) people. But about 100 years ago, the land was developed for the Atlanta Prison Farm, a notoriously abusive facility that exploited prisoners for agricultural labor. The current fight to protect the land is rooted in reclaiming its tarnished history, but also in combating the widespread community harm that a police-training facility would create.
“Police abolition is very intersectional with climate justice, housing justice, and all of these issues related to resources,” Charlotte says. “At the end of the day, police are beholden to and protect the systems of resource hoarding that benefit corporate elite and wealthy people.”
To combat the destruction of the forest and the construction of the facility, Atlanta residents formed a coalition in spring 2021. Over the next year, the Stop Cop City movement would mobilize thousands of Atlanta residents to take on corporations, cops, bulldozers, and the White supremacy in their midst.
Policing Versus Public Safety
When America erupted in protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Atlanta was fighting to avenge one of its own. On June 12, 2020, less than three weeks after Floyd was killed, Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe fatally shot 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, wounding the city’s Black community and inciting national outcry.
In the following days, cracks appeared in the Atlanta Police Department. Police Chief Erika Shields resigned from the post she’d held since 2016, and APD officers staged a “blue flu,” calling in sick en masse to protest the felony murder charges brought against Rolfe. Two days into the strike—about a week after Brooks’ murder—the Atlanta Police Foundation announced $500 bonuses for every Atlanta police officer to “stem attrition and boost morale,” according to a statement.
The Atlanta Police Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports APD by funding additional technology, training, and resources that are not included in the city’s already robust budget. According to a 2021 report by Color of Change and LittleSis, there are police foundations in nearly every major city in the U.S., and Atlanta’s boasts corporate sponsors like Amazon, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Chick-fil-A, and Uber, making it possible to issue payouts, like the post-blue-flu bonuses, or to fund massive policing projects, like the proposed training facility.
As 2020 wore on, APD reinstated Rolfe, who was awaiting trial for Brooks’ murder, and Atlanta City Council voted to increase APD’s budget. On March 31, 2021, then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans for the construction of a “new public safety training facility” in the 300-acre South River Forest for Atlanta’s police and fire departments in an effort to increase resources available to officers and improve morale on the force.
For abolitionist organizers and South Atlanta residents, this was a clear threat to their physical environment and community safety.
Organizing a Resistance
By the time news of the Cop City proposal hit the press, Jasmine Burnett was a veteran organizer for Black liberation and a longtime skeptic of the Atlanta Police Foundation.
“It’s important as organizers to be able to raise contradictions,” she says. “The people who are killing us can’t also be the people who are keeping us safe, so how do we talk about safety in a way that reflects our material conditions?”
In July of 2020, Burnett and a few friends formed a coalition called Defund APD, Refund Communities. Its purpose was to divert funding from APD’s $215 million budget, which was 13% of Atlanta’s budget in 2021, and reinvest the money in communities. DARC was an affiliated working group of the Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, but it was composed of both DSA and non-DSA-affiliated members—anyone was welcome. The group focused on building community awareness for the budget through education: Members canvassed neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by police violence and created a media campaign called Not Our Budget.
In April 2021, a few months before Atlanta City Council planned to vote on the next year’s budget, DARC connected with the budding coalition of Atlanta organizations called Stop Cop City. The groups quickly developed specialties: Community Movement Builders organized direct actions and protests; Sunrise Atlanta raised awareness for the environmental impact of Cop City; and DARC coordinated canvassing and communication with Atlanta DSA, which provided funding.
By mid-summer 2021, the organizers hosted near-weekly actions in the South Atlanta Forest. The events ranged from community nurturing, such as potlucks, reading groups, and barbecues, to movement building, such as protests, teach-ins, and canvassing.
As the organizers’ efforts ramped up, the facility plan progressed. On June 7, Atlanta City Council voted to pass the 2022 city budget with a $15 million increase in police funding, a disheartening conclusion for protesters after a year of DARC mobilization. Additionally, Councilwoman Joyce Shepard, who represents coalition member Community Movement Builders’ district, introduced an ordinance to officially fork over 381 acres of forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation at a rate of $10 per year for 50 years.
Stop Cop City doubled down, hosting a week of community action in the South River Forest to build community and raise awareness of what was at risk.
Following the Money
Nolan Huber-Rhoades, a resident of Oakland City in Atlanta and a former DARC organizer, explains that the movement isn’t just about tearing down Cop City and APD—it’s about building people power, community, and an alternate narrative about policing. A doctoral candidate at Beulah Heights University, Huber-Rhoades’ abolition efforts are informed by his research about narrative paradigm theory, which examines the ways people think about the world around them through stories, or “paradigms.”
Plans like Cop City that aim to “improve” policing, Huber-Rhoades explains, are put forth in a paradigm that believes the police are meant to serve and protect, but abolitionist movements like Defund the Police operate in a paradigm that recognizes that police protect property and property owners.
As the movement grew louder, organizers identified key players behind Cop City, including the Atlanta Police Foundation’s corporate backers. Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color of Change, dove into researching the foundation, discovering that several international, Atlanta-based corporations sat on the Foundation’s board and funneled millions of dollars into the organization.
“We realized that not only were [police foundations] private entities, but they were being funded by some of the same corporations who were in the midst of publicly declaring their allegiance to Black communities,” Roberts says.
At the time, Coca-Cola embodied the hypocrisy Roberts describes—in June 2020, the corporation broadcast a message in Times Square urging New Yorkers to “admit we can do more,” “right wrongs,” and “listen and create a better future and end racism.” The company donated $500,000 to 100 Black Men of America, according to its website. Representatives from Coca-Cola also sit on the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation.
In late August and early September, Roberts worked with Stop Cop City organizers to stage protests at Coca-Cola’s headquarters. After public scrutiny and closed-door meetings with organizers, Coca-Cola gave up its seat on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s board in October, privately telling Color of Change that its advocacy impacted the decision.
This would turn out to be one of the movement’s few lasting victories.
On Sept. 8, 2021, Atlanta City Council voted on Councilwoman Shepard’s Cop City ordinance. Leading up to the vote, the Council received 17 hours of public comment from 1,144 individuals, more than two-thirds of whom advocated against the authorization of a ground lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation of the South River Forest. When Charlotte was released from police custody at 3:30 the morning after being arrested outside of Councilwoman Archibong’s house, they heard that the ordinance had passed, 10–4.
Charlotte reflects on the news with a sense of inevitability. “There was nothing we could have done to change [City Council’s] minds. This vote wasn’t about what the people of Atlanta wanted; it was about what the City Council’s donors were pressuring them to do,” they say.
Following the vote, inter-movement tensions in the coalition boiled over, including dissent between member organizations about representation in the coalition and alleged dismissal of Black voices. So DARC dissolved, but the work to stop Cop City continues.
“The decentralization of [Stop Cop City] meant that if one organization went down, there was still a broad base of people to keep fighting,” Huber-Rhoades says.
Burnett has since become the organizing director of another member organization of the coalition: Community Movement Builders, a nonprofit collective cultivating mutual aid in southeast Atlanta with the goal of creating a liberated zone. The group’s recent efforts focus on the Pittsburgh neighborhood—this past election cycle, they un-elected their Atlanta City Councilmember, Joyce Shepard, who had brought forth the Cop City ordinance.
In November 2021, Charlotte and other organizers connected with local Muscogee leaders to perform a stomp dance in the South River Forest, and in December, they worked to support the infrastructure of an ongoing encampment for forest defenders protesting the development of the training facility.
In January 2022, the bulldozers came, but dozens of organizers stood their ground, facing skirmishes with DeKalb County Police that have resulted in a handful of arrests.
As the forest has been leveled before their eyes and APD’s budget inflates further, organizers foster community in the sanctuary of the South River Forest.
“In all movements of resistance, we need to be building what we hope to replace the systems of extraction with,” Charlotte says. “Abolition is about creation as much as it is about letting go of and dismantling systems that don’t serve us.”
*YES! has granted this source anonymity after they provided evidence of legitimate concerns for their safety connected to their organizing work. Read more about YES!’s policy regarding veiled sources here.
Mira Sydow is a journalist, community organizer, and undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. She was born in Philadelphia but grew up in an immigrant community in the suburbs of Atlanta. Mira now serves as Features Editor of 34th Street Magazine, and her freelance work has been published in Teen Vogue. She is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. She can be reached through her website: mirasydow.me or her email: [email protected]