Protesters gathered in New York to rally against Atlanta “Cop City” on March 9, 2023. Image credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
Southeast of downtown Atlanta, 300 acres of the Weelaunee Forest—one of the region’s largest remaining green spaces—are on the city’s chopping block. The trees seem to whisper a martyr’s name—Tortuguita—as wind whistles through the pines. Atlanta has long been known as “the city in the forest.” Visitors and residents still marvel that there is so much forest left in the countryside that surrounds. But if the city proceeds with the planned 85-acre police training facility protestors refer to as “Cop City,” there may be fewer pines in the countryside soon.
The Weelaunee Forest is haunted—by its past and the things that happened there, by what could have happened there, and by what is happening there now. What haunts the forest are the specters of convict labor, slavery, and the genocide of Native American people; it is also haunted by the futures we may yet chose to pursue, and have failed to pursue—an Atlanta where public housing projects were not razed by 2011, an Atlanta where Tortuguita is still alive.
Startled by his father’s ghost, Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaims that “the time is out of joint.” Specters from the past can haunt the present, while Karl Marx’s specter of communism haunts the future.
Recognizing a haunting is not a way to erase what already has happened—but to show that a different fate is possible. Georgia’s history tends to repeat itself—cycles of violence that haunt both backward and forward. It is impossible to understand the current “Stop Cop City” protests without understanding all that came before, all the violence that has been done in the name of “progress” or “the American dream.” To understand why we must Defend the Forest or stop “Cop City,” we have to first see and know what haunts these places. To know how to change the story, we must know what the story has been.
In 2021, a Black Democrat, Andre Dickens, was elected as Atlanta’s Mayor, running on crime and “public safety.” He inherited a proposal first made by his predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, to erect a training facility for police officers—what critics called “Cop City”—in the Weelaunee Forest.
When the City Council gave the green light for construction of “Cop City” to begin in fall 2021, activists organized protests against the plan, in the name of both environmental and racial justice. The protesters write “defend the forest” on planks of wood, because the forest stands for everything “Cop City” opposes. In December 2022, a number of protesters started to be arrested on domestic terrorism charges, and in January, one of them, a 27-year-old environmental and queer activist named Tortuguita, was killed by police officers. According to a subsequent independent autopsy, Tortuguita was probably sitting cross-legged with their hands up when they were shot. The autopsy further revealed that they “had at least 57 gunshot wounds in their body.”
A few weeks later, in an abortive attempt to curtail the protests, Atlanta’s Mayor announced the creation of a task force for providing input or recommendations for the training facility. This 40-person task force, however, will be entirely appointed by Dickens, not to mention the task force will primarily give recommendations for how to use the green space or ways to memorialize the site. There is a deep and distinct irony in memorializing a site full of violence to allow further violence to grow there. A memorial without substantial change, without a different path forward, is pointless.
In recent news reports about “Сop Сity,” many reporters are “stunned,” “shocked,” “surprised.” But Atlanta is built on cycles of violence, and it is the permeating violence of convict labor, slavery, and settler colonialism that has led us here. To ignore the history of the city, of the forest, is to ignore how we fix it: to ignore looking at the roots of the tree, at how far back this goes.
The forest is haunted; it attempts to catch its breath, to heal. It gasps, but the cycle begins again. It’s haunted by what came before: the Indigenous peoples forced to leave behind their homeland, the cotton plantations that enslaved people erected after they had been forcibly resettled, a prison farm that only shut down 30 years ago.
The prison farm began in 1920 and reached peak production during the 1950s. By then, slavery, convict leasing, and chain gangs had all been made illegal in Georgia, but the racial violence at the root of them merely shifted forms into legal versions of slavery. The prison farm produced crops, livestock, and dairy to generate money for the City of Atlanta: profit at the hands of extended slavery in the twentieth century.
It was known as “Honor Farm” because it was supposedly an honor for the criminals who labored there—typically convicts with lighter sentences. This name was a misnomer, however, as the farm perpetuated violence in the form of overcrowding, lack of healthcare, rapes of Black women by white guards, and heinous punishments such as leg irons or solitary confinement in “the hole.”
Before there was a prison farm, a plantation stood amid the pines. In the Weelaunee Forest specifically, a plantation was owned by DeKalb County Leader Lochlin Johnson: the plantation was one of the most productive in Georgia. In the 1830s, as the Indigenous peoples were violently removed, cotton plantations moved in. Slavery permeates Georgia’s history, its violence and cruelty responsible for the streets, the buildings, the landscape. It is impossible to see Georgia and not see the shadows, the haunts of slavery. Enslaved people paved the roads, built the plantations, lived and died on Georgia soil. Enslaved hands built Georgia. All of Georgia is haunted, and the forest is haunted again.
The forest weeps for what it has been witness to: haunted this time with a genocide and destruction of lands.
The Weelaunee Forest was once home to thousands of Muscogee people. But then Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as U.S. President in 1829, having primarily run on a platform appealing to poor whites, promising them land. Soon after his inauguration, Jackson announced his intent to forcibly remove Indigenous tribes from their homes—including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole Nations, and others that lived east of the Mississippi.
The same year Jackson was elected, gold was discovered in Georgia, which led to a rapid influx of white wannabe settlers entering Georgia and destroying the land to see what it would yield. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes, Muscogee people called white settler squatters ecunnaunuxulgee—“people greedily grasping over the lands of the red people.”
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed, ceding all Cherokee lands to the government as a trade for a spot out in “Indian Country,” where the government would forcibly relocate many tribes via the Trail of Tears in 1838.
The Muscogee Nation’s land was ceded in a variety of treaties, and they were removed to Oklahoma, where they have a reservation today. In 1832, 21,792 Muscogee Indians lived in Georgia and Alabama. 20 years after the Trail of Tears, only 13,537 Muscogee remained in Oklahoma.
Currently, the Muscogee Nation is the third-largest federally recognized tribe. They live far from the Weelaunee Forest, yet their removal and their stories haunt it still. The violence of the forest began here, and the forced removal and genocide has paved the way for all that has come after.
In the beginning, the forest stretched far as the eye can see, hushed with the sounds of wildlife rustling the leaves. The Muscogee tribe cared for this land. They did not “own” the forest, not in the way that settlers will soon stake their claim and rip up the earth for profit. They took care of the forest, as the forest took care of them.
But just as it did then, settler violence once again threatens to transform the forest from a space of harmony and healing to a place of violence and appropriation. And yet the haunting presences remind us that there are other possibilities to choose from.
In a letter written by Morehouse College, faculty members write that “we must listen to and learn from this history. We must study how state violence directed against Black, Indigenous, People of Color [BIPOC]—as well as working-class people of all colors—reproduces itself in different ways over generations. We must listen to the voices of those most affected by police violence and abuse.”
Listening is only one half of the solution: the next is to advocate for real change. Morehouse faculty end their letter with the proposal to “call upon our civic leaders and fellow educators in Atlanta to denounce ‘Cop City,’ to take immediate action to cancel the project, and to respond to the will of the people.” The forest defenders—activists sitting in on behalf of both the forest and those its destruction will harm—are emblematic of this real change. And there are other ways to support the forest defenders and the vision of an Atlanta without “Cop City.” Donate to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides those arrested, broadly and for those charged in “Cop City” protests, representation, bail, and jail support. Email the Atlanta Regional Commission’s director to hold them responsible for the greenspace requirements in their own lease legislation. Boycott academic conferences or events in Atlanta.
One ghost that haunts Atlanta is the ghost of settler colonial violence, a violence which has twisted and turned as the years have gone by.
There is always another choice though: another ghost that, like Marx’s specter of communism, promises positive change.
A welcome specter that haunts “Cop City” is the Forest Defenders—activists currently donating their time and money and efforts because they believe in the potential beauty of an Atlanta purged of racism, the beauty of a city surrounded by forest—the beauty of the place where the civil rights movement was born, where citizens to this day fight against the gentrification threatening to swallow the city’s environs whole. The Forest Defenders promise change and transformation for the current and future Atlanta, if only we listen.
The life cycle of the Weelaunee Forest begins with harmony.
Where does it end?
Juliana Jones-Beaton is a graduate student at the University of Delaware, studying fungal networks and possibilities in post-1989 speculative fiction.