Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Teen Vogue.

On a gray, drizzly day last December, activists and organizers with the Atlanta-based Stop Cop City movement held a press conference on the edge of the Weelaunee Forest. Hours before, a massive police force had descended on Weelaunee, where a group of forest defenders have been living since 2021 to prevent the construction of a huge police militarization facility, called Cop City by local organizers. During the raid, police arrested five forest defenders, who were ultimately charged with domestic terrorism. The severe charges are a result of 2017 state legislation meant to further criminalize protests. 

A memorial graphic for Tortugita—or Tort—the forest defender who was shot and killed by the Georgia State Patrol in January, 2023. (N.O. Bonzo/Justseeds)

“It’s clear that if the public doesn’t respond… escalation is going to continue,” a representative of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund told the assembled press that day. “Are we going to end up in a situation where police are murdering protesters in order to advance not public safety but their particular political agenda in building Cop City?” 

These words turned out to be tragically prescient. Just over a month later, on January 18, Georgia State Patrol shot and killed a forest defender named Manuel Teran during a raid. On that same day, police made at least seven more arrests, leading to more domestic terrorism charges. Organizers say Teran, who went by the name Tortugita, had a deep commitment to nonviolent resistance. 

Full details of the shooting have yet to emerge. The official police narrative—which, as a rule, should be treated with skepticism—has been murky from the start. First, police said there may have been gunfire by an unseen shooter, which resulted in the nonfatal shooting of an officer; shortly after, police claimed that they were in conversation with a forest defender who then fired at them. 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigations claims there is no body camera footage of the shooting, as Georgia State Patrol officers are not equipped with body cams, and has refused to release the names of any officers involved. Other agencies that were present with body cams, including the Atlanta Police, are refusing to release whatever footage they have. Meanwhile, reports from the ground have suggested the possibility of accidental friendly fire.

As we wait for the full story to become clear, the fact remains: No one would have been killed had Atlanta’s leadership not rammed through the unpopular project known as Cop City.

The proposal for Cop City, officially known as the Public Safety Training Center, was publicly announced in 2021, and started getting attention that summer, when legislation was formally introduced. The $90 million facility would serve as a training center for Atlanta police and firefighters; the proposal includes the construction of a mock city in the forest, hence the moniker Cop City. The proposed site is the Weelaunee Forest (also known as the Atlanta Forest, or the South River Forest, though we will be using the original Muscogee name, Weelaunee). 

Referred to in an official report as one of the four “lungs” of the city of Atlanta, the forest is a critical bulwark against environmental disaster and serves as an important public good for the many residents who find joy in walking the forest’s trails. In a city already facing dangerous heat waves (projected to worsen) and flooding (also projected to worsen) as a result of the climate crisis, the protection that ecologically rich land provides cannot be overstated. Both the Weelaunee Forest and the South River, which winds through it, are teeming with life. 

The original plans proposed destroying nearly 400 acres of forest land and replacing it with the training center at the site of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. This is land that already bears the scars of state violence: It was stolen from Muscogee-Creek people in the 1800s, where many incarcerated Black laborers were forced to work on behalf of the state in the 1900s, and is currently surrounded by carceral facilities, including a detention center for children and a Georgia Department of Corrections facility that houses seriously ill people and pregnant people in state custody.Atlanta residents mobilized quickly against the plan. A broad coalition emerged, opposing the project through an intersectional lens that highlighted the environmental ramifications of destroying forest land amid climate disaster; the threat a massive police-expansion plan poses to Black, brown, and poor communities just one year after Atlanta police killed Rayshard Brooks; the connections between police expansion, gentrification, and the displacement of Atlanta’s Black and low-income residents; and the utter lack of transparency with which the construction planning had unfolded. 

Countless residents called in to public meetings, voicing their opposition as the proposal advanced through the council’s committee process. Several Atlanta neighborhood associations closest to the proposed site even passed resolutions rejecting the plan. Throughout the summer, Atlanta residents and organizers marched, petitioned, canvassed, protested, and spoke repeatedly at public council meetings, building overwhelming opposition in the city against the project.

On the day of the final vote, residents called in and left more than 17 hours of public comments, the vast majority of which opposed Cop City. But when it came time to vote on proposed legislation to lease the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation to build Cop City, Atlanta’s city council hardly mentioned the public comments, approving the legislation by a vote of 10 to 4.

To understand how something so blatantly antidemocratic can happen, we have to zoom out a bit. Cop City, though opposed by many people in Atlanta, is backed by a powerful mix of corporate, state, and media actors. 

(Dio Cramer/Justseeds)

The Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as the funding arm for many of the Atlanta Police Department’s projects and supplements the city’s already bloated policing budget, has led the charge on Cop City, whether promising the majority of funding ($60 million of $90 million total), selecting the Weelaunee Forest as the site of the proposed facility, or using its corporate backers to pressure city leadership to move forward with the plan despite widespread public opposition. 

Current and former members of Atlanta law enforcement have also used the opinion pages of local publications to push their agenda as a way to manufacture consent for the project. The public only became aware of the plans for Cop City in 2021, but the Atlanta Police Foundation had been quietly working on the proposed project since at least 2017.

In the summer of 2021, as public resistance to the project grew and a contentious city council vote was delayed, local media outlets began to publish articles in support of Cop City. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), the city’s paper of record, published an editorial portraying Cop City’s construction as the answer to the (nationwide) spike in gun violence, to which Atlanta was not immune. “Crime won’t politely observe the delay,” the editorial board wrote. Of course, Cop City is not projected to be completed for years, and that spike in gun violence has been a nationwide phenomenon, in all likelihood correlated to the COVID-19 pandemic and its itinerant trauma. 

A steady drumbeat of editorials and op-eds in favor of Cop City followed. In October, the AJC editorial board painted the Stop Cop City organizers as “violent,” accusing them of being “rogue” and “out of control” due to allegations that protesters had sabotaged construction machinery and pressured Cop City contractors: “We said it before, and we’ll say it again. The group of so-called activists trying to halt construction of Atlanta’s new police and fire training center… must be stopped.” 

The AJC is owned by Cox Enterprises, whose CEO, Alex Taylor, happens to be spearheading the private campaign to raise $60 million for Cop City’s construction. In an editorial board op-ed in August 2021, the AJC did not initially disclose that its CEO was leading this fundraising campaign, but online pushback seemed to compel a belated disclosure. Cox Enterprises has also recently acquired, among other things, the online outlet Axios. 

Furthermore, to date, despite significant public disapproval, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution has not published a single editorial or opinion piece in opposition to Cop City’s construction.

The strong response from Atlanta’s corporate and political elite is commensurate with the strength of the movement against Cop City. It is a diverse and decentralized movement; there are no appointed leaders or spokespeople; no legacy nonprofits, nor corporate backers driving strategy. The movement is made up of people in Atlanta and across the world who understand that the stakes could not be higher: The climate crisis poses an existential risk to all life on Earth. But the police will meet every righteous fight for a livable world with violence and death-making, the only tools at their disposal.

The movement’s tactics are as diverse as its participants. Stop Cop City actions range from preschooler-led marches that feature homemade signs (“I love you trees! Never cut down the trees!”) to radical, direct actions that repel attempts to begin the forest’s destruction. Since 2021, forest defenders have been living in the tree canopy they aim to protect. They have hosted potlucks, dance parties, food drives, and guided walks. Community gardens have been planted. Tree-sits for forest defenders have been built, destroyed by police raids, and built anew. Other organizers have taken on the important work of building solidarity, nationally and internationally, from France to Chile, from Oakland to Minneapolis. In a time of encroaching climate disaster and struggles against fascism and state violence worldwide, the story of the forest defenders resonates. Our struggles are linked.

After the police killing of Tortugita, the movement is going forward in a spirit of mourning and resistance. In Atlanta and across the country, people have hosted vigils and held protests. At one protest following Tortugita’s death, a police cruiser was burned and the windows of the Atlanta Police Foundation’s office building were smashed. Some federal lawmakers have supported calls for an independent investigation of Tortugita’s death. Many forest defenders have reaffirmed their commitment to defending Weelaunee despite the loss of their friend and the increased threat of violent repression. The movement, it seems, is not going anywhere. “This is my home now,” Tortugita told Bitter Southerner for a December story about the fight against Cop City. “We’ve built a nice community here.”

Hannah Riley is a freelance writer focused mostly on the harms of the criminal legal system. Micah Herskind is an organizer, policy advocate, and a co-creator of the #8ToAbolition political education project.