By Candice Bernd / Truthout
The DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday unanimously denied three plaintiffs’ legal appeal of the land disturbance permit for the Atlanta Police Foundation’s 85-acre, $90 million police militarization and training complex dubbed “Cop City” by a coalition of racial justice, abolitionist, Indigenous and environmental activists.
If built, the compound would be one of the largest police training facilities in the country, featuring several shooting ranges, a helicopter landing base, an area for explosives training, and an entire mock city for officers to game out tactics to suppress protests and uprisings. The compound is already being built in the South River Forest, the largest forested watershed of any urban area in the country.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jon Schwartz, argued that the county’s planning director erred in issuing Cop City’s permit because its construction would violate the Georgia Water Quality Control Act due to stormwater runoff discharging sediment into South River’s Intrenchment Creek above effluent limits set by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) under both the Quality Control Act and the federal Clean Water Act. The Georgia EPD likewise erred, Schwartz argued, when it authorized and approved the project’s erosion control plan as a part of its permit requirements.
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Separately, a federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked a federal rule in Georgia and 23 other states designed to protect thousands of waterways across the nation, temporarily nullifying at least part of the plaintiffs’ argument regarding water quality protection.
While some Zoning Board members expressed reservations about the project’s location and concerns about its environmental impacts, they unanimously agreed that the questions the plaintiffs’ appeal raised were beyond the scope of the Zoning Board’s mandate in determining whether DeKalb County, not EPD, did its due diligence when approving the permit.
Schwartz said that he is planning to appeal the Zoning Board’s decision to the DeKalb County Georgia Superior Court once he receives the Zoning Board’s official, written decision. “The reason that we’ve gotten to this is because the state [EPD] has not been willing to enforce the law for decades,” Schwartz told Truthout, referring to a precedent set by the EPD in the watershed in regard to other development projects threatening the forest.
Among those development projects includes former Blackhall Studios owner Ryan Millsap’s 2020 deal with DeKalb County to swap 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park land for another piece of land nearby.
“The reason that we’ve gotten to this is because the state [EPD] has not been willing to enforce the law for decades.”
For more than a year, training center project opponents with the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement, known as “Forest Defenders,” have camped out in “Weelaunee People’s Park” in an effort to blockade Cop City’s construction as well as the land swap. The movement renamed the park for the Mvskoke word for the river and watershed to highlight the tribe’s forced relocation from the area in the 1830s.
On January 18, Forest Defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known more widely by their chosen name of “Tortuguita,” became first environmental activist to be killed on U.S. soil while protesting after they were shot by a Georgia state patrol SWAT team during a law enforcement raid on the forest.
Forest Defenders tell Truthout the forest is now effectively cleared of protesters after a law enforcement raid following a March 24 executive order closing the park to the public. Police arrested at least one personduring the March 27 raid, which follows several other raids targeting the forest, including the January raid that resulted in the police-perpetrated killing of Tortuguita.
Forest Defenders said police destroyed a memorial to Tortuguita they had built in the parking lot of the Weelaunee People’s Park during the most recent raid. They also reported that Atlanta police and project contractors began to cut trees at the proposed site on March 31 to begin the construction process.
According to documents the DeKalb County Department of Planning and Sustainability submitted to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, the project’s land disturbance permit allows for “phase 1” construction processes that include sedimentary control and security measures. The Superior Court of Fulton County issued an order in February denying a request for a temporary restraining order that would halt clearing and construction work prior to Wednesday’s Zoning Board decision.
“The Superior Court did not give us a temporary restraining order to stop it, right, but it doesn’t make [construction activity prior to the April 12 Zoning Board decision] legal. The county ordinance still says that for residentially zoned property, the permit is stayed pending the decision by the [Zoning Board],” Schwartz, who also filed the February injunction request, told Truthout.
On April 6, DeKalb County Planning and Sustainability officials issued a stop-work order at the proposed site due to malfunctioning silt fencing and other erosion-control measures that put construction out of compliance with “best management practices” as required under its permit. But the stop-work order remained in place for only an hour and 41 minutes after a reported conversation between the county’s chief building official and county inspectors ordered to monitor the site by the Fulton County Superior Court, who reported the site as in compliance.
“We know they are clear-cutting every single night, every single day. They think that by itself will stifle the movement,” Atlanta-based Forest Defender “Saturn,” who requested a pseudonym due to heavy police repression, told Truthout. “They have 40 to 50 police officers surrounding the site at all times, and they’re clearing as fast as possible.”
The clearing of both trees and protesters comes after revelations from recently obtained police incident reports that police fired rounds from a pepperball gun into Tortuguita’s closed tent before the alleged exchange of gunfire that resulted in the 26-year-old’s death on the morning of January 18. Police initially claimed that Tortuguita had fired first, injuring a Georgia state trooper.
“We know they are clear-cutting every single night, every single day. They think that by itself will stifle the movement.”
The incident reports indicated that the pepperballs were followed by gunshots police believed were coming from inside the tent, causing officers to fire a hail of bullets into the tent, killing Tortuguita. The reports also revealed that police rendered medical assistance to the injured Georgia state trooper but did not immediately do the same for Tortuguita.
The revelations add to other evidence that contradicts the official police narrative of Tortuguita’s shooting, including an independent autopsy commissioned by the Paez Terán family showing the activist had bullet-exit wounds in both hands. The autopsy determined Tortuguita had been sitting “crossed-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg,” with their palms up and facing inward when they were killed by a Georgia State Patrol SWAT team, who are not required to wear body cameras. The autopsy showed Tortuguita was shot at least 14 times by multiple handguns and shotguns.
While the report indicated that it was impossible to tell whether Tortuguita had been holding a firearm at the time of the shooting, it determined that their body did not show evidence of gunpowder soot or residue that would be consistent with firing a weapon at officers. The incident reports and autopsy finding add to questions already raised by body-worn camera video released by the Atlanta Police Department showing officers who were not at the immediate scene suggesting that the Georgia state trooper Tortuguita allegedly shot was instead shot by friendly fire — something Forest Defenders have alleged from the beginning.
The Paez Terán family have joined community activists in calling for investigation of the shooting completely independent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, DeKalb County police and the Atlanta Police Department. They want agencies to share the evidence they have gathered with the family in a face-to-face meeting.
The incident reports also reveal the extent to which officers were fed false narratives about Forest Defenders as “domestic terrorists” before entering the forest on January 18, including the suggestion that officers could become infected with sexually transmitted diseases if protesters in the trees were to throw feces and urine on them. Police used the phrase “domestic terrorist” or “domestic terrorists” at least nine times in the 20-page incident reports.
At least 42 people have been charged with domestic terrorism carrying up to 35 years in prison, 23 of them swept up during a March 5 mass arrest after a subset of activists allegedly broke off from a music festival in the park and set equipment at a training center construction site on fire. Some also allegedly hurled fireworks and Molotov cocktails at police. Law enforcement, failing to apprehend specific individuals at the site itself, indiscriminately targeted festivalgoers with arrest.
Many arrestees are being forced to endure abusive conditions in county jails, with at least 26 being denied bond entirely, including eight arrested on March 5, and others receiving exorbitantly high bonds they can’t afford. Prosecutors have yet to indict any of the arrestees. Georgia law stipulates prosecutors have 90 days to bring a case to a grand jury before they must grant bail.
“[Prosecutors] are really stretching to fit a square peg into a round hole with this first-ever prosecution of domestic terrorism.”
The March 5 arrest warrants cite the presence of muddy clothes, shields, and a jail support number written on arrestees’ bodies to attempt to link them to property destruction that happened a mile away from music festival, but defense attorneys have pointed out that none of these factors serves as definitive evidence of guilt.
While prosecutors previously hit Stop Cop City arrestees with misdemeanor charges in addition to domestic terrorism, they filed blanket charges of domestic terrorism for festival attendees arrested on March 5. The state’s domestic terrorism law requires a predicate felony offense.
Civil Liberties Defense Center Director Lauren Regan told Truthoutthat she doesn’t expect the domestic terrorism charges to stick. The Georgia state domestic terrorism statute, passed after white supremacist Dylann Roof’s mass shooting of Black churchgoers in 2017, was never meant to be applied this way, she said. “[Prosecutors] are really stretching to fit a square peg into a round hole with this first-ever prosecution of domestic terrorism,” Regan told Truthout. Still, she noted the Cop City cases were the first examples of prosecutors using the untested state statute.
Forest Defender Saturn tells Truthout that the police crackdown and recent clearing activity in the forest has prompted the movement to reorient itself and shift tactics, expanding its focus to a national campaign targeting Cop City’s funders and contractors via distributed affinity group networks across the country, as law enforcement continues to strictly guard the site of the proposed training compound and the park remains barricaded.
“The movement is realizing it doesn’t have to be in a specific location. We can be anywhere…. Activity can happen anywhere in any city, and we’re getting to that stage of growth where it doesn’t need to be in just one place.”
Local solidarity groups are increasingly taking up the banner of “Weelaunee Defense Society” in cities across the country to coordinate national fundraising and campaigns targeting Cop City’s investors and contractors. Additionally, local unions and worker solidarity groups, including the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and Home Depot Workers United, which is working to unionize Cop City-investor Home Depot, have released statements opposing the project.
“The movement is realizing it doesn’t have to be in a specific location,” Saturn told Truthout, referring to the Weelaunee Forest. “We can be anywhere…. Activity can happen anywhere in any city, and we’re getting to that stage of growth where it doesn’t need to be in just one place.”
Candice Bernd is senior editor/staff reporter at Truthout. Her work has also appeared in several other publications, including The Nation, In These Times, the Texas Observer, The Real News Network, Salon, Rewire News Group, Sludge, YES! Magazineand Earth Island Journal. Her work has received awards from the San Francisco Press Club, the Fort Worth chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and the Dallas Peace and Justice Center. Follow her on Twitter: @CandiceBernd.