Forest Defense Is Self-Defense

Activists camp out in Atlanta’s forest to block a massive police training center

By Micah Herskind

Photos By Irina Rozovsky

“The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is moving forward,” declared Mayor Andre Dickens on April 19. “Because we need it.” Behind him, filling the steps of city hall, stood rows of besuited Black men (and two or three Black women). Among them was Civil Rights icon and former Atlanta mayor Andy Young. 

“We’re gonna be cussed out and blamed,” Young told a local news channel, with a stern shake of his head. “Until it works.”

The project is better known as Cop City — a massive facility slated to be built on 381 acres of city-owned land in the Weelaunee Forest that will be used to train a militarized police force. Plans include a mock city for urban warfare practice. Dickens, hailed as a young progressive leader, had assembled this pageant of other Black luminaries as a show of force. The city’s elite, the message was, want cops to get better at doing their jobs — namely, terrorizing Black people and consuming an enormous portion of the municipal budget. And they are willing to cut down a forest and the humans within it to do so. The press conference was held almost exactly three months after police shot and killed Manuel Esteban Paez Téran, or “Tortuguita,” a 26-year-old queer activist who was protesting at an encampment known as Defend Atlanta Forest, Stop Cop City. Tortuguita was unarmed.

We have entered a new era of cynical identity politics. Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, Eric Adams in New York, London Breed in San Francisco, and Dickens in Atlanta, all are playing a similar, audacious game: framing their expansion of the police state as a part of Black radical tradition, and situating protesters as outsiders who do not understand what their cities’ most vulnerable residents (read: Black people) need and want. They leverage their racial identities to this point, and, as in Atlanta, they receive support from a Black elite that is more concerned with representation and power for themselves than liberation for their brethren. It is a contemptible sleight of hand.

The fight to stop Cop City is a call to action for the left. The front line is there, at the intersection of environmental justice and abolition. We must protect the land to have any future. The forest already struggles to clean the polluted air of DeKalb County and its loss would create ripples of further environmental and health hazards. We must destroy the police state to have any future as a liberated people. While the elite use the rhetoric and visuals of Black radicalism, the activists at the Stop Cop City camp are enacting Black radical praxis. 

In late March, Lux sent organizer Micah Herskind and photographer Irena Rozovsky — both Georgia residents — to document the protestors camped in the Weelaunee Forest. The day they visited, the DeKalb County CEO announced an executive order closing the park. As we go to press, no one is living there, and the area is totally surrounded by cops. These photos capture a moment in time before the latest crackdown. But this ebb and flow between police raids and direct action has been constant since shortly after Cop City was greenlit in September 2021. Activist gatherings are still planned for the months to come; what will happen next is uncertain. 

Like every revolutionary who has truly sought liberation, the Cop City activists are fighting for their lives and yours. What happens in Atlanta will be repeated again. We need to take lessons from this fight for the next one. 

Tortuguita should be alive. But their spirit lives on. Their comrades carry their name and work forward. In the Stop Cop City camp, the movement lives. —Cheryl Rivera

(main image) “Forest Defense is Self-Defense” is one of many refrains of the movement. The slogan is not an exaggeration: though known as “the city in a forest,” Atlanta’s tree canopy has declined at an alarming rate in recent decades. The Weelaunee Forest is one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta, helping to reduce flooding, clean the air, and bring down temperatures. Home to over 175 species of wildlife, including endangered and threatened plants and fish, the forest is located in a majority Black, deeply disinvested area of DeKalb County with high rates of asthma, industrial waste sites, prisons that cage both adults and children, and an endangered river. The neighborhood, the city, and the world cannot afford to lose more forest space. Forest defense IS self-defense.

A picture of a person in a purple shirt adjusting their hair in a crudely fashioned tent

“I feel really safe and held in the forest,” Jesse told me. “I feel like I’ve developed a really consistent and beautiful and reciprocal relationship with the forest and the park, just by being here and investing my energy and time and connecting with other people on this land.” Jesse has lived in Atlanta for 10 years, and has been coming to the forest for the past two, exploring its beauty and community as an antidote to the alienation from nature generated by capitalism. As a member of the Weelaunee Coalition, Jesse has worked to bring educators, children, and Muscogee folks into the movement, while working on mutual aid projects at the forest such as the Comrade Care Clinic, which offers therapy, acupuncture, free food, and more to support those who have faced trauma and violence at the hands of the state. 

Ahead of the March Week of Action, Jesse helped set up a free tent, “where people can leave things they have an abundance of” or take what they need. “It became an impromptu welcome tent before the welcome tent was fully set up, and just kind of a portal before you enter the forest to connect with people,” Jesse said. Even when things don’t go according to plan — like when the chairs went missing from the tent — there is faith that we have enough to go around. “I think someone thought the chairs were a gift, so they were taken. But someone will bring chairs again one day.”

Photo of a tree opening with a dresser at the bottom

A wooden dresser, with what appears to be an altar arranged on top, sitting in a hollow tree in the Weelaunee Forest. For many, the forest became not just a place to camp, but a home. A place of deep community, where people made meaning together.

Photo of a stack of wooden logs and furniture stack in a cumbersome fashion

Stop Cop City is part of a broader struggle against state and corporate devastation of public land. Besides the training center, Atlanta activists also oppose a controversial “land swap” deal that would transfer county-owned public park land in the same forest to billionaire developer Ryan Millsap for destruction and redevelopment. The land swap is being challenged in court, and, until March 24, the property remained open to the public. The park became a hub of the Stop Cop City movement — with regular food distributions, free closets, political education, workshops, religious ceremonies, and other mutual aid offerings. Many protesters also camped on park land. 

In an attempt to demoralize protesters and intimidate newcomers, last December, Millsap sent a construction team to illegally destroy the entrance to the park, tearing up the concrete and smashing a beloved gazebo (seen at left). But the destruction didn’t stop people from gathering, as hundreds did when they re-claimed control of the park at the beginning of a “Week of action to Stop Cop City” this March.

A hand holds a mask made from a paper plate toward the sky

A paper plate turned into a mask left over from a music festival connected to the March Week of Action, which was complete with live bands, free food, political education, and a bouncy house for children. On the second day, police raided the festival, rushing to the scene after activists held a direct action, over a mile away, to sabotage construction machinery. Twenty-three people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, and all but one were denied bond at their initial court appearances — for “evidence” such as wearing all black, having a jail support number written on their arm, or having mud on their shoes. Near the end of the raid, police attempted to arrest a group of about 100 people who remained, including children and families. They linked arms and refused to leave unless they could all leave together, chanting “We have kids,” and “Let us go!” Their solidarity kept them safe.

A photo of a man leaning back gesturing at a forest behind him

“Magical. Healing.” That’s how Yarraw describes a little under a month of living in the forest. A long time activist, Yarraw was drawn to the forest by the murder of Tortuguita. Tortuguita’s name, Yarraw says, is regularly invoked; drinks are opened and offerings are made. “Every time any beer goes in the dirt, it’s ‘Viva, viva, Tortuguita.’” Items were added daily to an altar in their honor. 

Life for forest defenders is often quiet. People gather around the fire, cook for each other, sing, talk. Some do yoga. Many enjoy the serenity of the forest. When we visited in March, there were about six people living in Yarraw’s camp, and more throughout the forest. Yarraw says many of them are young people who quit jobs in the service industry. They come knowing that people have been hit with terrorism charges, and could face decades in prison, or even death, like Tortuguita. “We are the forest commune,” Yarraw said. “We are the bad youths.”

Photo of a campground and objects spread out on dirt

A scene from the Living Room, a gathering space in the Weelaunee Forest “where community comes together to share food, play music, dance, exchange ideas, camp, meet new people, and enjoy being with nature and friends,” says organizer Johnna Gadomski. Located in a grove of pine trees, the area stays cool and shaded even in the hot Atlanta summers — a perfect example of how intact forest lowers temperatures in the surrounding area. Families visiting the forest defenders sometimes stopped by for a snack, and the children would run around and play. Though the Living Room is now off-limits like the rest of the forest, Gadomski remembers it as “a place of laughter, hope, inspiration, collaboration, togetherness, and love” where she hopes to be able to gather again soon. It has been destroyed by police before, and it can be built by the people again.

Photo of a seated man in front of a tent covered with graffiti

A resident of a nearby neighborhood, who preferred to remain anonymous, comes to the park from time to time to check in on what’s going on. Atlanta’s mainstream media can be an unreliable source of information on the controversy — the city government puts out constant propaganda, and it certainly helps that the most prominent news outlets in the city are owned by companies that are funding Cop City. “When you look at the tactics they’re using, they’re trying to intimidate people against even coming to the park at this point,” the neighbor told us. “And they’re even using media to perpetuate that, to be like ‘Oh there’s gonna be raids, don’t go out.’ That’s bullshit…I come out and meet people and hang out…It’s a park. There’s people.” 

He supports the movement’s strategy of pressuring donors and contractors, and worries about the potential of police infiltrating the movement. “I do think a lot of people are gonna get in some really bad situations from this, and I don’t think those people deserve that,” Like many, he is motivated by a desire to keep others safe. He thinks the movement stands a chance of winning — though it is possible the city could just decide to put the facility elsewhere. Ultimately, “No one wants a whole bunch of cops around their shit, especially when they’re Black. Nowadays, unless you’re rich…you probably don’t like cops.”

Photo of somebody pouring a clear liquid into their mouth from a glass jar

There is a sharp divide between the story the state tells about the forest and the reality of life there. The executive order closing the park cited “dangerous and possibly life-threatening conditions” for visitors. Officials trotted out pictures of supposed “booby traps” placed throughout the forest. On the same day, in the same park, participants in a workshop learned how to distill wisteria blossoms to infuse simple syrups and wines, pictured above. Cyclists rode the paths that wind through the forest. Two men flew their RC helicopters over a field connected to the park. Irena and I walked all throughout the forest. The only time I felt fear was when I saw police cars drive by the perimeter. Local government has painted the movement as an act of domestic terrorism, and used that idea as cover for violence against protesters and for the closure of public land. But those who visit the forest, or who talk to a forest defender, or who simply attend an herbalism workshop, know differently.

A photo of a man sitting on the ground of a homemade tent

Dami, an Indigenous organizer from Tennessee, came to the Weelaunee Forest for the March Week of Action, and stuck around. They had been here before, and upon their return, found a forest teeming with life and energy. “It was so alive, and there were so many tents, and so many people here. It’s so much love, and care, it feels like my tribe. My family.” Some are drawn to the forest to stop police expansion, while others are more motivated to protect the forest itself and everything in between and beyond. What binds them, says Dami, is “the same shared enemy, the same shared end goal, even if our hearts are telling us to do it for different reasons.”

“They’re locking our friends in cages,” says Dami. But no one is giving up hope. “We’re powerful. I know that, and I know that we can stop this.”

Cheryl Rivera is an editor at Lux.

Micah Herskind is an organizer and writer.