The Fight Against Atlanta’s Democrat-Backed “Cop City”

The conflict over the South River Forest in Atlanta grabbed national attention after police killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, an anarchist activist involved in an occupation aimed at preventing the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Police Foundation from building a “Public Safety Training Center” on the forest grounds. Activists opposed to the project have labeled it “Cop City.”

Anarchist activists have physically occupied parts of the forest. / Image: Crowina, WIkimedia Commons

Proposed to be built on one of Atlanta’s largest remaining forest areas, an estimated 70% of Atlanta residents oppose the project. The $90 million facility would span 85 acres and include a mock city for police to practice urban combat, shooting ranges, and a helicopter landing pad, along with other state-of-the-art resources for the police. Over 300 additional acres of forest space would consequently become the perimeter of the training facility, subject to the sounds of shooting practice, helicopter lands, and other ill effects of the close proximity to the facility.

Plans to build the facility have been partially stymied by groups of anarchist activists, who have physically occupied parts of the forest, along with the efforts of some Atlantans to organize protests and set up petitions. Despite their good intentions, however, small-scale “direct action” groups are no match for the forces of the bourgeois state.

Democrats pour public funds into policing

The unity of big business and the capitalist state is clearly illustrated by the project’s backers. The City of Atlanta—including the Democrat “affiliated” Mayor Andre Dickens and a majority of the City Council—supports the construction of the facility. It will finance the operation alongside the Atlanta Police Foundation, a non-profit proxy for corporations such as JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Amazon, and UPS. The City and the Foundation work together to strengthen the state’s ability to police the lives of working people, while the corporate gangsters who fund the Foundation go about amassing ever greater loot.

Regardless of how “progressive” the City Council or Mayor claim to be, the function of the state’s institutions is to do the bidding of the major corporations that really run Atlanta. Having been terrified by the mass demonstrations that rocked the city during the 2020 George Floyd movement, the government and big businesses behind need a “better-trained” police force for the inevitable next round of civil unrest. This also explains the nationwide efforts to strengthen and increase funding for the police, backed by both major political parties.

While the Police Foundation argues that the police force has been “starved for resources for 30-plus years,” the reality is the opposite. The City has 2,000 sworn police officers, and the Atlanta Police Department spent an exorbitant $277 million in taxpayer money in 2022. The department claims it needs more resources to fight a “crime wave,” as the number of homicides has increased in the city for three consecutive years, although most other crimes have remained at about the same levels. The root cause of this criminal activity is poverty and desperation, which inevitably leads to violence. Tackling the crisis of unaffordable housing and healthcare, providing proper funding for education, and guaranteeing jobs with a living wage would do much more to deal with crime than an inflated police budget or “training facility” could ever do.

The poverty rate in Atlanta currently stands at 18.5%, about 44% higher than the US average. Furthermore, as of 2022, Atlanta has the largest income inequality of any city in the US. In the absence of a fighting trade union movement and revolutionary party to organize and lead the struggle against dire and worsening conditions, a small minority have turned to criminality. Now, certain bourgeois politicians are cynically using this as an excuse to ramp up funding for the police.

Activist efforts to Stop Cop City

While the City and Police Foundation are in the initial stages of setting up the facility, they have run into the efforts of those committed to stopping the project from going through. The City Council approved the construction of the facility in September 2021, after hearing 17 hours’ worth of recorded public comment, which was overwhelmingly against the project. In response, a number of anarchist groups, including “radical environmentalists” and “police abolitionists,” have opted for “direct action” and an attempt at an occupation of the forest.

Some small demonstrations protesting the actions of the state have taken place in Atlanta. / Image: Tatsoi, Wikimedia Commons

Their aim is to prevent the cutting of trees by “putting their bodies on the line.” Setting up their tree houses and tents in the forest, they have created mutual aid structures with communal living. For over a year now, this has been the main activity of their efforts to halt the construction of the training facility. They have also engaged in sabotage of construction equipment, carried out arson attacks, and committed acts of vandalism. Some small demonstrations protesting the actions of the state have taken place in Atlanta as well.

We have no doubt that the activists involved in this struggle have the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the anarchists engaged in this struggle fail to see the bigger picture of how the capitalist system operates. This leads to serious problems of strategy and tactics. Individuals or small “autonomous” groupings cannot stop the actions of the bourgeois state. Even the most committed anarchists are no match for a professional police force, which has far more resources. The capitalist class that backs the police force has billions of dollars at its disposal. The anarchists may be successful in delaying certain actions of the state, but the police can either wait out the anarchists or simply arrest them, with use of lethal force if need be. As evidenced by the Occupy movement, the bourgeois state can win a “war of attrition,” if the only tactics used are simply “occupying a space” without any connection to the broader working class.

The tactic of forest occupation, in this case with the use of arms, also led to the tragic death of a 26-year old anarchist activist named Tortuguita. Georgia State Patrol Troopers claim that when asked to leave their tent, Tortuguita proceeded to shoot at the troopers, prompting a return of fire. While there is no evidence for this explanation of events—apart from the unreliable narrative of the troopers—what is not in doubt is that the latter shot Tortuguita at least 13 times. This is a very sad case but a preventable one. While Tortuiguita may or may not have been armed, it is clear that some anarchists in the forest are arming themselves, which will inevitably lead to conflicts with the police. Outmanned and outgunned, the anarchists cannot win this battle.

Illegal individual “actions” are counterproductive

In response to the killing of Tortuguita, small protests and vigils were held in several cities across the country. In Atlanta, the protests turned into rioting, with the windows of bank buildings smashed and two police cars set on fire. While we may sympathize with the fury of protestors against the murderous capitalist state, these actions have zero impact on the real functioning of the system. The banks can always pay to repair their buildings, and the police are flush with public dollars to purchase new cars. The real consequence of these actions is that the forces of repression are in fact strengthened. The police can paint the movement opposing the training facility as “dangerous,” justifying a general crackdown.

Lenin neatly summed up the real effects of such tactics:

It diverts the most active fighters from their real task, the task which is most important from the standpoint of the interests of the movement as a whole; and… it disorganizes the forces, not of the government, but of the revolution.

Lenin's portrait
Lenin criticized individualist tactics which “disorganize the forces, not of the government, but of the revolution.” / Image: public domain

By provoking an unwinnable conflict, the anarchists are allowing the state to set dangerous precedents. In December 2022, after a raid on the anarchists, five people were arrested on domestic terrorism charges, with indications at the time of writing that they may even be indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Explosive devices were found in the encampment, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. This followed months of “direct actions” by various anarchists, some of whom threw Molotov cocktails at police officers patrolling the site, while others destroyed construction equipment.

Although the Georgia law on domestic terrorism is rarely used, this charge sets a precedent for the state to use the law in the future, potentially against the labor movement. The law is indeed vague enough that a union leading a strike intent on “disabling critical infrastructure” could potentially be charged with domestic terrorism. There is no need for anyone in the movement to provoke the invocation of this law before the heavy battalions of the working class are ready for battle.

Similarly, on March 1, the Georgia House passed a bill that would reclassify “rioting” from being a misdemeanor to a felony charge. It is clear that the form of the previous protests have now provided a guise to strengthen the capitalist state’s ability to arrest and imprison protestors.

The strategy in vogue with many modern anarchists is “diversity of tactics,” which means that each individual will oppose the facility construction with whichever actions they personally think are effective. This is justified on the grounds of personal “autonomy,” since, according to this outlook, attempts to come up with a united, collectively disciplined plan of action would mean the oppression of the individual. For example, in response to the torching of a truck hauling construction equipment, one forest defender told a journalist for the New Yorker:

We don’t know if it was somebody we know or just, like, somebody taking an autonomous action. But we do know that vehicles are not human lives, and human lives will be taken if this forest is destroyed and a cop city is built.

By embracing “diversity of tactics,” the movement remains hampered and those who commit counterproductive acts of arson are let off the hook. After more than a year-and-a-half of occupation and individualist sabotage, we must ask: are these tactics in any way productive? Will they lead to the end goal of preventing the construction of the facility? Clearly, the answer is in the negative, and we can be certain that the anarchists will eventually be cleared out.

Mass struggle required

With the capitalists and their politicians using both the carrot and the stick, Mayor Andre Dickens announced the creation of a “task force” to get “community input” on the plans. Some small adjustments to the plans are proposed, but what is not up for debate or real “input” is the fact that the training center is going to be built, no matter what. Instead, the city offers new tweaks that might “reduce” the sound of gunshots from the police firing range for nearby residents, and the creation of a “recreation area” in the area around this enormous police facility, which will still clear almost 100 acres of natural land.

As one activist said, regarding the “task force”: “Take this money, that you plan on using to destroy a forest, and put it into housing, and healthcare, and fixing our streets, and childcare, and youth programs, alternatives to policing.” We wholeheartedly agree that a massive funding of social services is necessary—but only a workers’ government on a socialist program will be able to accomplish this.

Unlike the George Floyd uprising, “Stop Cop City” remains quite small and is by no means a mass movement. / Image: Joe Piette, Flickr

The fact is that “Stop Cop City” remains quite small and is by no means a mass movement. It arose during the ebb following the George Floyd uprising, which was a truly mass movement involving tens of millions of people, despite its lack of a clear class program. But that movement’s vast potential power, like that of the working class as a whole, cannot simply be replicated by the efforts of committed anarchists. When the workers are not mobilized to solve the problems of our class, no force in society can make up for this. This vacuum cannot be filled artificially, regardless of how hard one tries.

Small-scale efforts to “build movements” cannot come anywhere close to the massive social weight and power of the working class. This is because of the relationship of the working class to production: if we withhold our labor-power, not a light shines nor a wheel turns, and society comes grinding to a halt. Profits dry up, and the bourgeois state can be immobilized. In relation to Cop City, who would build the police training facility if none of the construction workers showed up to work, set up picket lines to prevent scabs from replacing them, and other workers organized solidarity strikes to ensure no building materials, construction equipment, and power made it to the job site?

While this prospect may seem abstract at the present time, capitalism itself is preparing precisely these kinds of opportunities in the next historical period. Serious socialist activists must use the “calm before the storm” to prepare for future upsurges and mass movements by building a serious class-struggle leadership across the country.

The capitalist class can easily handle rocks thrown at buildings or small-scale forest occupations. It has a much more difficult time dealing with mass strike action, especially when those strikes take up the question of economic and political power. Only the working class has the power to stop, not just “Cop City,” but capitalism itself.

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