Demonstrators gathered Thursday outside the Charlotte office of Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the nation’s largest private construction companies, 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 facility after clearing 150 acres of Atlanta’s South River Forest.
Protesters said they oppose the $90 million project – dubbed “Cop City” by its critics – over concerns about the climate, police brutality and gentrification.
Thursday’s demonstration included about 50 protesters 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.
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“As ‘Cop City’ develops, the oppression and suffering of marginalized people will continue,” the groups wrote in a joint press release. “At a time when people’s right to bodily autonomy has been curtailed, corporations and governments continue to impose their control over our future and our voices.”
“It comes down to rights,” said Krysten Reilly of NoDa Tree Save. Reilly says the tree canopy is crucial to the urban environment. “It’s a public health issue and the community should have a say in it.”
What is “Cop City?”
In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved Ordinance-21-O-0367, which leased approximately 85 acres of Dekalb County green space to the Police Foundation for the development of a ” public safety training”, which is scheduled 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, the Atlanta council voted to allow construction to proceed.
The police foundation is described in the order as a nonprofit organization that “units the business and philanthropic community with the Atlanta Police Department to advance public safety.”
“We’re protesting to maintain Indigenous lands,” said Gray Maddrey, a member of the Charlotte Metro Democratic Socialists of America. “[The forest] is an area with a lot of black and low-income residents,” Maddrey said. The absence of forests will cause the region to “lose a vast carbon sink”.
A uploaded document to The police foundation’s website says 150 acres of the 380 acres of available green space will be used by the facility to “boost morale”, recruitment and retention. All 381 acres of the forest have previously been recommended for use.
Plans for the center include a “fictitious village” for tactical training. The village will include buildings designed to look like apartments, a hotel and a nightclub.
The city of Atlanta agreed to pay $30 million for the project, with the police foundation picking up the balance.
Additionally, Dekalb County deeded over 40 acres to Blackhall Studios to create one of the largest motion picture studios in the Southeast.
South River Forest History
The South River Forest, or the Weelaunee Forest, is the ancestral homeland of Muskogee Creek Native Americans. It offers the greatest forest cover of any major metropolitan area in North America. It is currently open to the public and part of the forest is used as a shooting range for the Atlanta Police Department.
Forest wetlands filter rainwater and prevent flooding in 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 waders.
Soon after the Muskogee Creek lands were settled, the area was used as a slave plantation. During the time of reconstruction, 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 connected,” said Tai, a representative from SEAC Village. “These are the same companies that funded the removal of abortion rights,” she said. “What are they going to win?”
Other targeted companies
Opposition to the project drew unwanted attention to the companies involved in the contract.
In October, following the Color of Change report, Coca-Cola resigned from the board of the police foundation. Last April, Reeves Young, a construction company hired to cut down trees, test the ground and inspect the area, pulled out of the contract.
Last month protesters reportedly smashed windows and vandalized the office of a consultancy firm involved in the project.