Interview Generally one-sided conversation between journalist and source(s), lightly edited with no opportunity for response.
Resistance to Atlanta’s Cop City Ramps Up
Atlanta is a city built inside a forest, one that Indigenous Muscogee people call the Weelaunee Forest. In recent years, the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, has led an effort to build what would be the nation’s largest police training center on hundreds of acres of that forest land. The move sparked the creation of a broad coalition to protest the project, some opposed to forest destruction and others against police expansion. Together, these organizers are calling on Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens, and the city council to “Stop Cop City.”
Authorities have cracked down on the protests with mass arrests and, in some cases, are charging organizers with domestic terrorism. In January 2023, police raided an area where protesters were camping in the Weelaunee Forest, killing an environmental justice protester named Tortuguita.
Organizers designated March 4–11, 2023, a week of action in Atlanta aimed at shutting down Cop City. Kamau Franklin, the founder and director of the Atlanta-based grassroots organization Community Movement Builders, has been involved in the protests, pressuring city officials and organizing events. The organization’s website says, “CMB has been the leading Black organization on the ground fighting to StopCopCity since its construction was announced.” On March 7, Franklin spoke with YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar about the organizing efforts and the police crackdown, and why the effort to Stop Cop City is a story of national significance.
Minneapolis Activists: Invest in Communities, Not CopsA coalition of organizers and community members in Minneapolis, known as Reclaim the Block, advocates for divestment from the city’s police force and into more community-based initiatives and services. The broad coalition successfully petitioned the city to move funds out of the police force and into the newly created Office of Violence Prevention.Read Full Story
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sonali Kolhatkar: Tell me about this facility. The official name isn’t “Cop City”—that’s what it’s been sort of dubbed. It has a rather benign title of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center—that’s what the Atlanta Police Foundation calls it, which I imagine you consider a euphemism?
Kamau Franklin: [Laughing] Sorry, you caught me off guard there!
Yeah. Yes, we do consider [it] a euphemism for a militarized training center, which is meant to continue to over-police, particularly Black communities here in Atlanta, and, what we believe, is meant to train the police on how to stop and to criminalize social justice movements—particularly movements against police violence.
So, the very adoption of this idea of a militarized training center came after the 2020 uprisings, and that’s when Atlanta decided that it needed this sprawling militarized training center to be built in a forest in order to, again in our estimation, stop movements and continue to over-police Black and Brown communities.
Kolhatkar: So, this training center, if it is built, will it be something that just Atlanta-area police are trained in? Or, is it something that police from outside Atlanta, and even outside Georgia, are going to be invited into? Why would it be the nation’s largest police training center? Why does Atlanta need that?
Franklin: Exactly. Atlanta doesn’t need it. In fact, the Atlanta police are no bigger than the 20th-largest police department in the whole country. And so, why it needs the largest police training center is beyond me—except for the fact that this is part of a larger national strategy, we believe, around training police officers in common tactics and strategies, in essence, the building of some sort of nationalized police force.
Through documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, we’ve received information that the Atlanta Police Foundation, in its attempt to receive additional funding for this site, has [specified] that up to 43% of the police officers to be trained will be from outside of Georgia. So, this site is not just for Atlanta police, but this site is going to be a place of training for police officers across the country.
In addition, Georgia already has a program where it works directly with the Israeli police force. And so, what we tell people is that the training and tactics and strategies that the Israeli Police use against Palestinians are going to be exported here to the United States against Black communities, and that the training, tactics, and strategies used against Black communities are going to be exported to Palestine to be used against Palestinians.
And so, we know that this is not just a local effort, but the scope and size of this, the additional officers that are being trained from around the country, this is truly a national effort to train police—again, what we think coming out of 2020—to train police to stop movements, particularly to stop movements against police violence.
Resistance to Atlanta’s “Cop City” Intensifies from Rising Up With Sonali on Vimeo.
Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about what’s happened with the resistance. In January, there was a lot of activism against “Cop City,” and, in fact, tragically, police killed a person who went by the name Tortuguita. Tell me about who they were, why they were killed, and who killed them.
Franklin: Yeah, Tortuguita was one of the “Forest Defenders” who was camping in Weelaunee Forest to try to prevent, as an act of civil disobedience, the police foundation from going forward and cutting down nearly a hundred acres of forest.
We should state that, again through another Freedom of Information Act, we became aware, months before the killing of Tortuguita, that there was a task force that was formed—a task force of policing agencies including the Atlanta police, the DeKalb County police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even Homeland Security—that this task force got together to talk through bringing state terrorism charges against protesters who are opposed to Cop City. That these charges were something, that this state law had never been used before, but yet they were putting out the idea of doing this against organizers and activists.
In December, these different policing agencies made their first raid in the forest and arrested approximately six organizers, or six Forest Defenders, and charged them with the charge of domestic terrorism. As you mentioned, on Jan. 18, they made a second raid in the forest, and during that raid, they arrested another seven activists and charged them with domestic terrorism. And it was during that raid that they killed the young Forest Defender Tortuguita, claiming that that person took one shot at them and that they responded back in kind.
From other information we’ve received from people in the community, it has become obvious to us that that police narrative cannot be trusted and it’s basically a lie. The police narrative fell apart instantly when people in the community said that they heard a sudden burst of gunfire. And later, that was backed up by videotape evidence that was released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, that in the background you could hear a sudden burst of fire, and the police themselves remarked, who weren’t on the scene, that that was “suppressed fire,” which [is] code for cop fire.
We find it incredibly difficult to believe that of all the different agencies that I named earlier—Atlanta police, DeKalb County police, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia troopers, interagency SWAT teams, and, by some news accounts, even the FBI—that no agency had body cameras on during the time of their confrontation with Tortuguita.
They had other body camera images that could be seen in different places, but somehow, over a dozen police officers surrounding a tent did not have one body camera on to film the incident.
They expect us to believe that someone sitting in a cloth tent—that they described as “barricaded”—that someone sitting in a cloth tent decided to shoot once at the police, and then the police returned fire.
Tortuguita was shot over 13 times. So many times was the young person shot that the autopsy, which was done by the family, couldn’t determine the exact amount [of shots], because [you] couldn’t tell what was an entry wound and what was an exit wound.
So, we feel that this obviously needs an independent investigation. But more importantly, this is the first time that a Forest Defender, a climate justice activist, has been killed by the police in the United States.
And this very violence is one of the reasons why we oppose Cop City, because it’s these militarized actions which lead to the death of not only protesters, but people out in the street, who are going about their daily business when they interact with the police.
Kolhatkar: So, tell me about the coalition that has formed to resist Cop City. Tortuguita considered themselves a Forest Defender. A lot of people outside Atlanta don’t know this—I didn’t realize this—that Atlanta is actually a city in a forest. It’s called the Atlanta Forest. Indigenous folks call it the Weelaunee Forest. So, there’s been a coalition of many different kinds of progressive groups coming together to oppose this Cop City from various angles, who are united with one goal, right?
Franklin: Yes, I mean, there’s folks who are climate justice activists and organizers, environmental organizations, civil rights groups, groups like ours that are grassroots organizers, folks of many different ideological persuasions, autonomous organizers, anarchist organizers. There has been a great amount of ideological and ethnic and racial diversity in terms of what this movement has been.
And so, when folks try to suggest that this is a movement of outsiders, it’s because they’ve never seen that the homegrown Atlanta organizers, or the people who’ve lived here for over 10, 15, 20 years, are the people who are centered in this movement to stop Cop City.
This movement has gone on for over two years. And it invites folks to come in from outside, right? We don’t buy into the “outside agitator” narrative that the police and the political class like to throw on us. We invite organizers and activists to come from around the country, in fact, from around the world, to take part in these demonstrations. We see that as part of the history, or historical roots of organizing and activism.
Let’s just remember that people like Dr. King were called “outside agitators,” people in the civil rights movement were called “outside agitators.” Anytime people fight for justice, the politicians of the status quo usually like to call people “outside agitators” when they’re fighting for justice. And so, this has been a diverse movement, a movement of many, many, many different stripes, and it’s one that’s continuing to this day.
Kolhatkar: So, this week is a week of action, but it began with more arrests on Sunday, and also what seemed like a really aggressive action, if you will, by activists? Tell me what happened on Sunday—there was one vehicle that was set on fire, and, of course, usually when there’s any kind of property destruction, the police like to cast this as equivalent to when human bodies and human beings are harmed. And so, the groups, the activists participating in that, and, by extension, everybody else has been cast as “violent” and “aggressive.” So, what actually happened this past weekend?
Franklin: Sure. Well, you know, the actual week of organizing started on the Saturday, and on that Saturday, there was a large demonstration. People took walks through the forest, actually went to the place where Tortuguita was killed. And then on Sunday, there was a music concert that had been planned where many different artists came out to perform.
There were some who decided to engage in a direct action that didn’t start at the music festival. That direct action went straight to the campsite that’s been blocked off by the police. And in that action, which was meant to destroy the property that’s going to be used to build Cop City, there were police agents already there. There was a back and forth between the police and the organizers and activists. The police called for more backup. At the scene, to our knowledge, there weren’t many, if any, arrests.
But what the police did was that they decided to go break up the music festival and begin to make additional arrests there. And so there were 35 arrests in total. Twenty-three of those were charged with domestic terrorism. That’s in addition to the other 19 who were previously charged with domestic terrorism.
We must make sure that we’re clear: The overwhelming majority of people who’ve been arrested with the charge of domestic terrorism have been people who’ve been either sitting in trees and tree huts or people who’ve been sitting in tents.
And even [for] those people who are actively engaged [in] acts of civil disobedience, so direct action, it’s one thing to charge people with assault, or vandalism, or trespassing, or even arson. It’s another thing to label folks and to then charge them with domestic terrorist accusations. That is meant to criminalize the movement, that is meant to harm the movement in general, and basically to squash dissent.
So that is part of what we are really, really rallying around—that we understand at the state agencies, this is not about them charging people with certain crimes. This is about them overcharging and trying to present the movement as violent so that people will look the other way and allow them to build this militarized center.
Kolhatkar: So, in other words, they’re using the resistance to Cop City as justification for Cop City. What about Atlanta’s mayor Andre Dickens and Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp? How have leaders in Georgia and Atlanta responded to what seems to be widespread resistance to this training center?
Franklin: I think basically what’s happened is that these leaders, these so-called leaders, have doubled down on their aggressive tactics. And so, what we have here in Atlanta is that you have a moderate-to-liberal Black Democratic mayor who has teamed up with a right-wing white supremacist Republican governor to stomp out activism and organizing around Cop City. Because the one thing that both of these leaders agree with—and they’ve even gotten support, of course, from the moderate Democratic presidential administration through the FBI and the Justice Department, and Homeland Security—so all of these different political elites support the police. All of these different political elites support or get support from the corporations that support the police. And so, they have been continually aligned in their opposition to the movement to Stop Cop City.
In addition to that, here in Atlanta, in the northern part of Atlanta, we have a place called Buckhead, which has threatened to secede from Atlanta and to form its own city on a false narrative of there being a crime wave. If Buckhead was its own city, it would be the 12th-safest city in the country. But what this city is doing—and this is a majority-white part of the city—is putting pressure on Republicans to support its secession bid.
Basically, the governor of Georgia told the mayor of Atlanta—and again, these are through emails—that he likes the job that he’s doing on policing, i.e., he likes the job that he’s doing by responding to Buckhead, and he likes the job he’s doing by pushing forward Cop City.
And so recently, in the State Assembly, the Republicans basically put down the vote to have Buckhead secede. So basically, the governor is promising the mayor that as long as you continue to do the job that I think is good in terms of over-policing, you have my support in keeping Buckhead, which is basically the economic engine of Atlanta, connected to Atlanta.
And so, these folks again are working hand in hand to build this militarized operation because it fits their political interests and their political needs, and they don’t care that the city itself, the majority of the city—remember, when this vote was taken to bring forth police, 70% of the people who called in said they were opposed to Cop City—but yet the city council and the mayor went ahead anyway and voted this in and have tried to move this forward.
Kolhatkar: One of the signs that I’m seeing in images coming out of the resistance to Cop City is a slogan, “No Hollywood dystopia.” What does that mean?
Franklin: Well, in addition to the building of Cop City, there was another attempt to build a movie studio in Weelaunee Forest. At the time, it was called Blackhall Studios. And so, in addition to the 300 acres which were rented to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private foundation, to do the training for a public entity, another, over 200 to 300 acres, was designated to be used to build Blackhall Studios.
And so, the “Hollywood dystopia” conversation is that at the same time they’re ripping apart a forest to build this militarized training center, they’re also ripping apart a part of the forest to build a Hollywood studio. And so, apparently, the forest is no good to anybody, in terms of these elite circles, unless it’s torn down.
Kolhatkar: Maybe there’s an interesting symbolism there, because Hollywood has been, for decades, the perpetrator of “copaganda,” and you just pointed out the liberal mayor, Dickens, who is, like President Biden, very much pro-police. So, liberal forces and Hollywood have lined up behind police in spite of whatever lip service they paid to Black Lives Matter in summer 2020. So finally, let’s wrap up this conversation with looking at why you think this ought to be a national story and how people outside of Atlanta can express solidarity, especially those who got activated in the summer of 2020 in the largest mass movement in American history.
Franklin: Yeah, well, we think this is a national and international story because of some of the points made earlier. The idea of Cop City is basically the idea of training police all around the country with connections to police departments all around the world in tactical and strategic ways, we think, to shut down movements.
This idea was birthed after the 2020 uprisings when the Atlanta policing establishment, and the political establishment, and the corporate establishment felt that Atlanta did not control protest here. And this is the outcome: to militarize the police further and give them a place to train for that militarized outlook that they can bring back on the community.
And again, this will continue the over-policing of Black and Brown communities. And so, nothing was solved in 2020. This issue is still alive. Instead of talking about defunding, or talking about abolition of the police, or alternatives to public safety, the city of Atlanta has doubled down on its policing tactics and has invited other policing agencies to come here and train with them.
So, this is very much a national issue. We want people to get involved wherever they are. They can get involved—you know, we’re doing this week of action—by coming here to Atlanta. They can get involved where they’re located, on the website of CommunityMovementBuilders.org. We have a “Stop Cop City” page, which lists some of the actions that people can take: everything from calling and chastising these corporations, to calling and chastising these developers who are actually working on the building of Cop City, calling the mayor, calling the city council.
We have petitions. We’re going to start a fight soon to stop the DNC from coming to Atlanta, to stop FIFA, the World Cup, from coming to Atlanta. We must make Atlanta pay a political price for their actions, and we can only do that through a national effort.
And so, we welcome those who were part of the 2020 struggle who have to understand that that struggle was not completed. In fact, it was diverted into mass elections, into political elections. And we have to get back out in the streets. We have to continue organizing. And that is the way that we fight back against police violence and police terror.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com