ATLANTA—Jacqueline Echols gazed wistfully at the trees as she walked along a paved trail in the South River Forest, giving each one a long, lingering stare as if they might disappear before her eyes.
“There’s so much life as it relates to the environment,” said Echols, the leader of an Atlanta preservationist group, “but it’s a race to save any of it at this point.”
For years, Echols has been among the environmentalists working to ensure that the gleaming skyscrapers, sprawling exurbs and ribbons of asphalt that proliferate throughout the metropolitan area will not rob Atlanta of its ability to be known as “a city in the forest.”
Now, Echols and her fellow activists find themselves at the center of a high-profile skirmish over green space that has already turned deadly.
At issue are plans by the Atlanta Police Foundation to build a $90 million, 85-acre public safety training center on land near the city’s southeastern border. Environmentalists view the proposal as the latest blow to green space preservation in a city where, according to one estimate, roughly half an acre of tree cover is lost each day. The loss of all of that foliage is about more than just aesthetics: the trees filter particulates from the air and help shade and cool the city, mitigating the urban heat island effect. The canopy also staves off harmful erosion from stormwater runoff and provides a habitat for birds and other wildlife.
Protests that have been going on for months at the South River Forest site intensified this week, drawing demonstrators from outside of Georgia. Roughly three dozen people were arrested in a clash between law enforcement and protesters on Sunday, authorities said, and rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails were thrown by demonstrators. On Monday, police said, 23 of those who were arrested were being charged with domestic terrorism—a felony—by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The demonstrations turned violent in January when a 26-year-old environmental activist was shot and killed by police officers who said they had been fired upon first.
Compounding questions of natural preservation and police militarization are what Echols and others see as an issue of social justice: the predominantly Black neighborhoods near the planned development site must once again bear an undue brunt of the ill effects of development.
“Couldn’t happen anywhere else in Atlanta,” said Echols, the leader of a local preservation group, as she drove past clusters of trees and police vehicles near the planned training center site on a recent Sunday. “Racism and degradation of Black neighborhoods and the impacts of discrimination. We are all old enough to know the reality of it.”
Echols, who is African American, added that for local officials “to take the position that this is all Black people deserve—because essentially that’s what you’re saying—it’s just absolutely astounding to me.”
Michael Julian Bond, son of the late civil rights activist Julian Bond and a member of Atlanta’s City Council, denied that race played a role in deciding where to put the training site.
“That’s not really an accurate depiction of the situation on the ground,” said Bond, who is African American. He said the South River site was chosen because it is one of the few city-owned properties that is relatively isolated from residential areas.
“There’s no place else that the city owns, or is within the city limits, that would be a mile in every direction from any residence other than this particular location,” Bond said. He also noted that city-owned land near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—the nation’s busiest—was off-limits because of regulations put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Of environmentalists’ fears about the fate of the tree canopy, Bond said, “I believe in tree preservation. So the fear that Atlanta’s going to mow down 380 acres of trees is just false.”
The footprint of the training center would roughly be mapped out on the site of a former prison on the grounds, so, Bond said “there’s no encroachment into the old growth forest.”
Bond said that the construction of the new public safety training facility was an essential part of the city’s efforts to attract and retain strong candidates for the Atlanta police force. He also said he was mindful of those who have expressed concerns about the militarization of the police. Citing his father’s legacy, Bond said he was deeply attuned to those issues, but he also owes taxpaying residents “the most pragmatic, fair-minded justifications” for the decisions he makes.
Authorities plan to build the center on city land in DeKalb County. The facility—which will train police, fire and corrections officials—has been derisively labeled “Cop City” by activists. Once complete, it will be one of the largest police training centers in the country with enough space to replicate the layout of city streets for deployment exercises.
The land in question was once the home of the Muscogee Creek Nation, who called the area the Weelaunee Forest. The site has also served as a plantation, a prison farm and, in the mid-1990s, a temporary training facility for Atlanta’s police and fire departments and a shooting range.
Many of those who live closest to the site question whether city officials did enough to consider alternative locations for the training center. Others also wonder if officials are downplaying the environmental impact of new construction—an argument that forms the basis of an attempt by community members to halt construction of the facility.
A county commissioner and a community advisory committee member have asked the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals to revoke the building permits that were issued for the training center, saying that the construction of the facility would adversely affect local water quality standards. A hearing is scheduled for April 12.
The defense attorney, Jon Schwartz, said the city’s planning department drafted a proposal to protect portions of the South River in 2017, but four years later the city council voted to use this tract for the training center.
“Because of decades of disinvestment, Intrenchment Creek is polluted with sediment, primarily from two city of Atlanta facilities that discharge untreated and partially treated sewage into the creek,” he said. “Clearing the site would send additional sediment into Intrenchment Creek which is prohibited under state law. We only ask for the city to follow the law and to honor its commitment for protecting the South River Forest.”
While community members wait for their chance to be heard by the zoning board, tensions remain high in the South River Forest, where demonstrators continue to mourn Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, the protester who was fatally shot by troopers on Jan. 18.
Activists have called for continued protests, both locally and nationally, around the planned center. Their efforts attracted the attention of communities of faith, who have been working with religious leaders in Atlanta to call attention to the social justice issues at work.
Rabbi Nate DeGroot, a national organizer with the Shalom Center, an organization that uses Jewish religious teachings as a foundation for social activism, said that his group has made plans to join the demonstrators—some of whom call themselves “forest protectors”—in Atlanta this week.
DeGroot said that preserving and protecting trees has long been part of the Jewish tradition. “And it’s a tradition that understands that humans are like trees of the field and that when the trees cry, when trees are destroyed, you can hear their cries, just like when human beings are harmed or destroyed, you can hear our cries,” DeGroot said. “And so we feel like it’s really a core part of what it means to be Jewish, to uplift the forest protectors who are attempting to protect the sanctity of this forest, protect the sanctity of the people who live in that community and in the surrounding neighborhood, who overwhelmingly oppose this project.”
Leo Seyij Allen, a Baptist minister from Decatur who has joined the coalition of faith leaders, said he worries about the mock city at the facility. There will be grocery stores, hospitals, possibly even a shopping center, but he said the community it will sit in is a food desert, and lacks access to affordable health care or a hospital or ample resources.
“Then what does that say about our own prophetic imagination as civic and community and faith leaders? So I really am encouraged by the opportunity that this specific moment presents,” Allen said. “For people of faith to work with elected officials, to work with government, to work with communities of color, to work with those in environmental justice, to come together and say we actually have an opportunity to do something different because there is always, if nothing else, a better way.”
A group of graduates of Spelman College, the historically Black, all-women’s college located about eight miles from the training center, have also begun to raise their voices in protest against the facility.
Saying the training center represents “a threat to the safety and well-being of the Spelman community itself,” more than four dozen alumni as of Tuesday had signed an open letter calling on school officials to denounce the project.
“Destroying a critical ecosystem to invest millions of dollars into a police terror institution is an act of environmental antiblackness of the highest degree,” the letter read.
Especially galling to many activists is that the center will be used to train officers for the Atlanta Police Department, which has its own fraught history of accusations of using excessive force. In June 2020, two weeks after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, an African American man who was suspected of drunk driving. The fast food restaurant parking lot where Brooks was killed sits about four miles away from the training center site.
Jasmine Burnett, organizing director for Community Movement Builders, a group of Black activists, said the people who are demanding more police are “wealthy elites” who live in Buckhead—an affluent Atlanta neighborhood sometimes called “the Beverly Hills of the South.”
“But they don’t want bomb testings or shooting ranges or high speed chases or a mock city of Atlanta to be built near their homes,” said Burnett.
Burnett said the facility is going to be built in a community that is “already disinvested in” and that authorities will use the facility as an “opportunity to increase the surveillance” of the residents who live there.
“It’s not surprising that they’re deciding to build this in close proximity to Black working class and poor communities,” she said. “It’s kind of in lockstep in how the city approaches its planning.”
“This community is already close to a youth detention center and so there’s already this kind of sense of over militarization,” Burnett added. “There’s already a shooting range there. People talk about how the gunshots impact their mental health. If you can hear bombs going off in your neighborhood like that, it is just a terror to have to endure. There are a lot of environmental concerns that intersect with this facility, even outside of the destruction of the trees.”
Atlanta has for years been an uncommonly lush community, where peachtrees, magnolias, oaks, Georgia pines and other trees covered nearly half of the city’s total area as recently as a decade and a half ago. But in recent years, the city has been losing some of the most distinctive parts of its ecological character to development, disease and drought.
Researchers even say the trees protect communities from disease.
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One researcher said he did not know about the construction of the proposed facility, but that he knows all about the hidden benefits of a forest. Some call it the dilution effect: While pathogens like West Nile virus circulate between wildlife and humans, there is less spillover to humans in forests that are more pristine and preserved, with more diverse species of birds.
“So in a way, the healthier the forest, the lower the chances that if people go in them, they will get exposed and bitten by mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus,” said Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Emory University.
Back in South River Forest, Echols continued to walk along the trail, nestled near the proposed facility. When she reached the end of it, she took a deep breath and turned her gaze to the waters of Constitution Lake.
Echols said her group, the South River Watershed Alliance, have been trying for years to expand public knowledge about the ecological importance of Atlanta’s tree canopy and the threats that it faces.
She let her worries wash over her.
She pulled out her cell phone and looked at a text message a friend sent her. It’s something she’s read over and over these past few weeks. It keeps her going, she said.
“Atlanta is in the process of cutting every tree,” Echols said. “Development is rampant in this city and it has been for a while. And with development trees are destroyed. And so it’s this piece of green space it’s called ‘the fourth lung of Atlanta’ because of its ability to filter the air and slow stormwater that reaches the creek and cleaning pollution from the water. Just innumerable benefits to the environment and to the community.”
In a letter responding to some of Echols’s concerns about the “city’s lungs,” a spokesman for the Atlanta Police Foundation said “in no way are we destroying ‘thousands of trees.’”
During her drive, Echols stopped by the house of Amy Taylor, who lives near the proposed facility and filed the lawsuit to block the construction. She agrees that Atlanta police need a better training facility—she just wants them to pick a different location for it.
“My problem with this whole issue is they can do it somewhere else,” Taylor said. “Somewhere that’s not in a residential neighborhood, somewhere that’s not tearing up 85 acres of forest. There’s plenty of concrete and abandoned buildings and facilities they could utilize and take their $90 million and make it better.”
Back in her car, as Echols rolled along the winding roads of the South River Forest, she said she and her fellow environmentalists are undaunted in their efforts to stop the project, despite the seemingly steep odds.
“We continue to fight,” Echols said. “The issue is too important to be ignored, no matter how futile it may seem.”