Demonstrators gathered Thursday outside the Charlotte office of Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the nation’s largest privately held construction firms, to protest a project more than 200 miles away, in Atlanta.
The Alabama-based company has a contract with the Atlanta Police Foundation to build a controversial police training center after clearing 150 acres of Atlanta’s South River Forest.
Demonstrators said they oppose the $90 million project — dubbed “Cop City” by its detractors — due to concerns about climate, police violence and gentrification.
Thursday’s protest included about 50 demonstrators representing several social justice organizations. Among them; Sunrise Movement Charlotte, SEAC Village, CLT Metro Democratic Socialists of America, NoDa Tree Save, Feed the Movement, Charlotte Uprising, Stop Cop City and Defend Atlanta Forest.
“With the development of ‘Cop City,’ the oppression and suffering of marginalized people will continue,” the groups wrote in a joint press-release. “During a time when people’s right to bodily autonomy has been restricted, corporations and governments continue to impose their control over our future and voices.”
“It comes down to rights,” said Krysten Reilly of NoDa Tree Save. Reilly says that tree canopy is crucial to the urban environment. “It’s a public health concern and the community should have a say.”
What is ‘Cop City?’
In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved Ordinance-21-O-0367, which leased about 85 acres of Dekalb County green space to the police foundation for the development of a “public safety training center,” projected to open at the end of 2023.
The green space includes the South River, or Weelaunee Forest. After more than 16 hours of public comment and a survey indicating widespread opposition to the project, Atlanta’s council voted to allow construction to move forward.
The police foundation is described in the ordinance as a nonprofit organization that “unites the business and philanthropic community with the Atlanta Police Department to make strides in public safety.”
“We’re protesting to maintain the Indigenous land,” said Gray Maddrey, a part of the Charlotte Metro Democratic Socialists of America. “[The forest] is an area where there are a lot of Black and low-income residents,” said Maddrey. The forest’s absence will cause the area to “lose a vast carbon-sink.”
A document uploaded to the police foundation’s website says 150 acres of the available 380-acre green space will be used by the facility for “morale-boosting,” recruitment and retention. All 381 acres of the forest were previously recommended for use.
Plans for the center include a “mock-village” for tactical training. The village will include buildings designed to resemble apartments, a hotel and a nightclub.
The city of Atlanta has agreed to pay $30 million toward the project, with the police foundation picking up the balance.
In addition, Dekalb County signed over 40 acres to Blackhall Studios to create one of the largest film studios in the Southeast.
History of the South River Forest
The South River Forest, or the Weelaunee Forest, is the ancestral homeland of the Muskogee Creek Native Americans. It provides the largest tree canopy of any major metropolitan area in North America. It is currently open to the public, and part of the forest is used as a firing range for the Atlanta Police Department.
The forest wetlands filter rainwater and prevent flooding to the nearby neighborhoods. It is also one of the last breeding grounds for many amphibians in the region, as well as an important migration site for wading birds.
Shortly after Muskogee Creek land was colonized, the area was used as a slave plantation. During the Reconstruction era, it served as a “prison farm,” where inmates were forced to work without pay.
“We all need to know that all of our struggles are intertwined,” said Tai, a representative of SEAC Village. “These are the same companies that funded the removal of abortion rights,” she said. “What are they going to gain?”
Other firms targeted
Opposition to the project has brought unwanted attention to companies involved in the contract.
In October, following Color of Change’s report, Coca-Cola stepped down from the police foundation’s board of trustees. This April, Reeves Young, a construction company enlisted to cut down trees, test soil and survey the area, pulled out of the contract.
Last month, protestors reportedly smashed windows and vandalized the office of a consulting firm involved in the project.