Skip to main content

The Battle for ‘Cop City’

In an Atlanta forest slated for development, an activist movement has built a community — and they're vowing to defend it by any means necessary

W hatever the excavator driver had in mind for his morning, it’s pretty clear it wasn’t this. It’s not yet 8 a.m. on a Saturday in late July, and he’s dodging rocks and full cans of rosemary-grapefruit seltzer being flung from 20 yards away, and screaming at the impassive DeKalb County cop next to him to intervene. “Pull your gun out!” he yells in desperation. “Pull your gun out!”

The driver is here in Atlanta’s South River Forest on behalf of Ryan Millsap, a real-estate tycoon who’s been granted permission to bulldoze a huge swath of trees and put up a soundstage for the city’s booming film industry — “Hollywood Dystopia,” as the band of masked protesters hurling projectiles have taken to calling it. Millsap’s plans cover 40 acres of parkland on the eastern bank of Intrenchment Creek, which roughly divides a 300-acre pocket of this forest that has become a battleground. On the western side of the creek, the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation has laid claim to 85 acres of woods, which the Atlanta City Council voted last September to flatten in order to build a $90 million police- and fire-training complex that’s come to be known as “Cop City.”

A barricade erected by Defend the Atlanta Forest to complicate law enforcement entry onto the grounds.
Jack Crosbie

What the city didn’t expect was that the land would become home to a band of environmentalists and anarchists, loosely united under the banner Defend the Atlanta Forest, who are combating those plans at every turn. The “decentralized autonomous movement,” as they call themselves, consists of hundreds of local and out-of-state activists, several dozen of whom live full time in these woods, in a ramshackle network of tents and treehouses erected dozens of feet off the forest floor. By day, the group hosts meals procured through donated food and prepared via collective action, as well as teach-ins on resistance tactics and philosophies, skill shares, guided hikes, and other community events. By night, on the weekends, the scene often shifts to musical performances featuring local bands and DJs — a distinctly Atlanta mix of trap, hardcore, and electronica — plus a bar and substances of every sort, a chance to mosh for freedom and dance in defiance.

Months after the deals with Millsap and the APF were signed, the only thing being built in the South River Forest, it seems, is the next stage of a nationwide direct-action movement, people tired of losing in the traditional halls of power — be it Atlanta’s City Hall or America’s Supreme Court — who are ready to fight for something different.

“It’s not just a local struggle, it’s about two competing ways of life,” says a DAF protester who goes by the name Cicada. “The people who are destroying the forest live all over the country. People should feel empowered to hold them accountable, to feel like they’re capable of stopping this depravity.”

The excavator driver is the latest to be caught in the crossfire. His vehicle’s windows smashed, he backs it out of range of the assault. But the Dodge Ram truck he’d used to transport the excavator to the site is not so lucky. Clad in camo outfits and black T-shirts wrapped around their heads, the forest defenders are going nuts on it, busting out the windows and spray-painting the doors. The hood is open and someone is ripping at the inside. Another person starts hacking at the catalytic converter. The glove box is open: The truck is registered to Millsap. There is no way that vehicle gets out of here alive.

The cops’ guns stay in their holsters, but they make a feeble attempt to get the truck back. One gets on a megaphone: “All we want today is to reverse the truck out. Then we’ll leave. Is the truck operational?”

“Fuck you!” someone replies.

“Can you please confirm, is the truck operational?” the cop asks, sounding tired.

“You’re going to need a bigger tow truck!” someone yells, and the masks start laughing, still smashing away.

“Fuck you!” the driver yells, a sob in his voice. “Buy your own forest!”

Atlanta’s nickname is “the City in a Forest.” The city itself has the highest percentage of “urban tree canopy” in the U.S., and as its metropolitan center fades into suburbs, dense groves of pines and marshland dominate the landscape. For decades, activists, city planners, and development companies have fought over who owns what, and what goes where. That greater battle is now at its fiercest in this under-siege section of the South River Forest, which DAF has sworn to protect by any means necessary. These activists, many of whom have been living in the park since last November, say that the forest land — which they call Weelaunee, the name used by the native Muscogee Creek Nation, who inhabited it first — belongs to “the people,” regardless of who the legal titleholders may be.

Both Cop City and Hollywood Dystopia have been hotly contested at every stage of development. From its announcement in 2017, the APF’s mega-facility faced stiff resistance from a broad coalition of community associations, environmental groups, and racial-justice organizations. The City Council’s final days of deliberation over the project were overwhelmed by 17 hours of prerecorded comments, around 70 percent of them negative, from more than 1,100 individual Atlanta residents. The Millsap deal, meanwhile — a land swap in which the developer gets to commandeer parkland, including biking and hiking trails, while promising to give back space for a new park north of the existing trailhead — is currently facing a lawsuit brought by the South River Forest Coalition and the South River Watershed Alliance, who allege that Millsap and DeKalb County officials failed to perform due diligence in their negotiations. Despite the legal snafu, Millsap continues to claim the land, and has repeatedly sent construction crews there.

The city, too, has not been shy about sending cops through Old Prison Farm — a neglected patch of land on the creek’s western side that has largely lain fallow since the correctional facility for which it’s named closed in 1995 — to root out occupiers by trashing food caches and destroying tree stands. (The forest defenders, in turn, are now bolting curved strips of sheet metal called “squirrel traps” to the trees they build in to ward off police climbers.) In May, Atlanta police arrested eight people after a raid on the site, alleging that suspects had thrown Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers. Who owns the forest, it seems, may ultimately be determined by whose boots are the last left on its ground.

When I arrived at the South River woods for a three-day stay in late July, I didn’t have to check in with construction managers, or cops, or anyone who carried the force of the state. Instead, I came to a small gazebo at the trailhead, where the forest’s residents had set up a welcome table. A woman who called herself Aggie agreed to show me to the DAF camp, but only after I satisfactorily proved I wasn’t a cop. The fear of police is ever present, for good reason. As if on cue, a DeKalb County police cruiser pulled into the parking lot as I was introducing myself, making a slow lap, the cops inside taking pictures of license plates.

Jack Crosbie

Residents have responded to the police presence with a strict and exuberant security culture: No one uses real names, faces must be obscured in photos, and details about life outside the forest are rarely provided in small talk. Instead, everyone becomes a “forest creature,” with a new name, a new purpose, and sometimes even new ways of expressing their identity. Forest names are often inspired by flora and fauna — I met “Pigweed,” “Thorn,” “Bunny,” and “Slug.” The names are often whimsical, but their intent is clear: to shield the people in the forest from surveillance and identification by the authorities set against them.

These tactics have been honed through a long history of radical organizing, well-represented in the camp. Obscuring features of individuals in a group with similar masks and clothing is the core of a tactic called “black bloc,” which has been used for decades by anti-fascist demonstrators to protect their identity. (In the forest, it’s more of “camo bloc.”) Other strategies — like the tree-sits and camp kitchens — come from activists with experience: The forest has attracted veterans of the Standing Rock, Line 3, and Bayou Bridge pipeline actions, among others.

As in the case of those protests, DAF’s activists have come for a specific reason — to oppose the development projects threatening the land — but their political ideology is far from monolithic. There are anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, communists, socialists, and likely every flavor and distinction in between. Many have been involved in Atlanta’s local anarchist and community-organizing scene; some worked on mutual-aid projects during Covid, or participated in the George Floyd protests, or helped organize traditional union campaigns at their workplaces. Those from out of town learned about the forest through “movement media,” social media, and word of mouth, sacrificing vacation time or their jobs altogether to visit the forest. What unites them, however, is their commitment to direct action: They are here not to vote or petition, but to defend the land with their bodies.

Not everyone in the forest was happy to see me. On my first night, a person in a black ski mask approached to question my intentions, or just challenge my commitment. “Are you the journalist from Rolling Stone?” they asked. “What do you have to lose here? Your job?” I said I supposed so. What if the cops “fucking shoot someone” they said. “What if someone loses their life?” I didn’t have an answer.

Most of my interactions with forest defenders are far more pleasant. As Aggie takes me through the woods, she points out landmarks. There’s a barricade set up to block one of the main trails, near a site where police and construction workers had driven in a small bulldozer some weeks before. After a five-minute walk, the trail opens up into a sparsely wooded pine grove called the “living room,” which is carpeted with a springy layer of needles on which a handful of people are sitting, chatting, or stretched out asleep. A few tables bend under the weight of heavy steel pots of food (lentils, rice, pasta), cooked in bulk by the camp’s kitchen, about 50 yards away, down a hill. It features no running water but does have an ingenious system of bucket filters, standing plastic sinks, and foot pumps in its place. Chores are organized ad hoc. I take a turn at the dish pit one evening and work until someone else wanders down from the living room and offers to finish up — no schedule, no supervisor, no stress.

Similar autonomous communities, like the three-week Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Seattle, have sprung up as part of wider protest movements before, but the DAF camp feels remarkable for its longevity and efficiency. “There’s a culture of experimentation and encouragement to make or find your own identity here,” says a tall, rangy camp citizen in her early thirties who goes by Candycane. “For a lot of people, these struggles are the only places we can experience that.”

In the living room one afternoon, I meet Mac, 22, who says they hail from a tiny conservative town in the Midwest. Mac had quit their office job back in May to participate in the movement. I ask why. “It seems simple,” they reply. “Work is hell. The forest is beautiful. The goal of protecting what sustains us and destroying what destroys us is the most important thing.”

Wolfqueen, a Black woman in her thirties, states flatly that she’s not here for the protest. “I’m aware that it’s happening,” she says, “but I’m here for the reason this protest exists: to use the land that belongs to us.”

After dark, the activist community hosts dance parties with live music complete with a sound system, rain cover, and a bar. The drinks are cheap, and free if you pay for them by picking up forest floor trash. Jack Crosbie

As the sun goes down, what the land is used for changes radically. Kids from the city trickle into the forest for semiregular music festivals here, smudging pristine sneakers in the dirt as they follow a trail of glow sticks and LED lights from the parking lot to the living room. A bar offers beers for $3, White Claws for $4, and a shot for $5 — free if you bring the bartenders six pieces of trash collected from the forest floor.

The ad hoc fests are organized by DAF, which has a good bit of overlap with the DIY music scene. The fests represent the movement’s attempt to harness its energy and show the city what it will lose if developers like Millsap and the APF get their way. On the nights I’m there, the crowd thrashes underneath a precarious network of tarps, sloshed and euphoric on whatever it’s on, stamping dust clouds in the dirt dance floor. Thunderstorms soak shirts and bow the massive tarp roof held up by wooden pillars that have to be adjusted by hand when they’re knocked askew by the mosh pit. A tiny, generator-powered PA system punches way above its weight, blasting sound out to the fringes of the scattered tent city. The lineup is stacked with a diverse mix of local acts plus a handful of out-of-town groups. Noise pop, indie, and emo are all represented, but the sound trends heavily toward hardcore and rap — two of Atlanta’s strongest scenes — before the performances give way to midnight DJ sets that last until nearly sunrise.

The bands bring a frenetic energy to every set. Becca Harvey, an Atlanta-based artist who goes by Girlpuppy, tells me she played her songs stripped-down and guitar-heavy, at a faster BPM than they were recorded, to fit the vibe of the forest — and also because she and her band couldn’t get all their usual equipment into the woods. “It was like, ‘Let’s just try all this shit out,’” Harvey says. “Even if it was the worst show I’ve ever played, it was more important that we were able to show people the space.”

If it’s her worst, I don’t notice: Whoever is engineering the generator-powered sound board does heroic work, especially given that they can switch from Girlpuppy’s sad-girl alt-rock to brutal hardcore acts like Ambush to an underground rap set like Yung Burdy within minutes. The festival peaks with an unhinged performance by the Detroit act Hi-Tech, best described as a DJ set with two full-time hype men going crazy in front of the turntables. I tap out after that, heading back to my tent, but the party that night rages on until close to 5 a.m.

Shortly after Ryan Millsap’s seized truck is set on fire on Saturday morning, a group gathers in the living room to listen to Craig Womack, a former English professor from Emory University who is also an expert on the Muscogee Creek peoples indigenous to the area. The movement has made an effort to bring in representatives from the Muscogee Nation to participate on their native lands. But when Womack sits down, he’s flustered. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m still a little scrambled from the conflagration in the parking lot.” Womack says his theory of resistance centers on nonviolence, but he doesn’t expect that standard from every party to a movement. He does expect violence to be strategic. “If you’ve got a day where you’re going to have a talk, and people are coming through the parking lot,” he points out, “maybe don’t set fire to the parking lot.”

There are murmurs of assent and dissent from the crowd. Several people agree, while others mention that these sorts of freedoms are what keep the movement “autonomous.” Any group can take any action it wants at any time. Still, the action seems to have consequences: A panel on “urban ecological features” scheduled for later in the day is canceled. (DeKalb County police later confirm to Rolling Stone that the incident is being investigated by detectives and a fire-department arson unit.) During that night’s music fest, the burned-out truck becomes a popular backdrop for selfies.

Gresham Park, the closest community to the forest, is 77 percent Black. Its residents will feel the effects of lost park space and increased police presence first. Yet several activists I speak to also acknowledge that the movement has struggled to build relationships with surrounding communities; direct confrontations with police are, by their nature, disruptive. Still, the defenders see their fight as multifaceted and nationwide: Actions may take place in the forest, but the movement crops up all over the city. One defender tells me several of their friends were recently arrested for participating in an action at a construction site operated by a company contracted to work on the forest’s destruction. Days later, another source goes dark for hours, then replies to say they’d been arrested for a different action in the city. And submissions on Scenes, an anonymous online message board the DAF uses for updates and news, show banner drops, office vandalism, and sympathetic protests outside of development executives’ residences in places as far away as Nebraska, New York City, Orlando, the Twin Cities, and elsewhere.

“Cop City expands beyond this forest,” Thorn tells me one afternoon. “It expands beyond Atlanta, throughout the entire country. There are a lot more people [out there] that are down to fight against that.”

While the parties and communal gatherings take place on the eastern bank of Intrenchment Creek, crossing the water requires more trust and carries more risk. Technically, it is city-owned land, now being leased to the APF via the City Council’s September 2021 vote, and if all goes as planned, the training facility — set to include driving courses, gun ranges, mock buildings, and burn structures for tactical drills — will be open by late 2023. That means anyone caught on its future site risks a trip straight to jail for trespassing, a threat that makes life on the west side quieter and far more secretive.

A good portion of the activity there takes place in what are effectively armored treehouses, which the cops have worked to tear down. A few weeks back, they came in force, slashing holes in the forest-dwellers’ water reservoirs. They hired an arborist who scaled trunks to dismantle tree stands, while police officers made reckless cuts through neighboring trees in a cluster of stands known as “Spite City.” Within days, though, the tree sitters had rebuilt, naming their new cluster “Vengeance Village.”

On Saturday, my plans to join a supply run from the east-side kitchen to these tree dwellers are delayed when heavy rain makes the creek impassible. But the next morning, two defenders, Eggplant and Vervain, agree to take me in by another route. We drive in a wide loop around the forest, stashing our vehicles on a quiet residential street near a small trailhead that leads into the otherwise fenced-off Old Prison Farm side. As we enter, Eggplant pulls up the hood of their ghillie suit, a matching camouflage jacket and pants covered in dangling cloth foliage. Vervain opts to wrap a T-shirt around their head.

Forest inhabitants go to great lengths to conceal their identities — and their movements.
Jack Crosbie

“A lot of what living on this side is, is just sitting in trees, hiding in the forest very quietly, watching,” Eggplant says.

We visit several tree stands, to which Eggplant and Vervain signal. There is no response. Still, Eggplant says someone likely saw us come in. Not much escapes the eyes hiding in the forest. The pair lead me up to the Old Prison Farm ruins, covered in graffiti, empty beer bottles lying on benches and rusted steel tables in dark cells. Teens come here to party; dirt bikers have been riding the hiking trails for years.

On our way out of the dilapidated building, Eggplant stops. “Do you hear that?” they ask. “Voices.” We all freeze. I think I hear a murmur in the background. Police activity is lighter on the weekends, but it’s not uncommon for foot patrols to roam the forest, looking for food caches, tree stands, or forest defenders caught unawares. Eggplant creeps to the old prison building’s entrance, letting off a low whistle. Poo-wee. Poo-wee. No response. “OK,” they say. “I think we’re fine. But let’s leave soon.”

The forest camp, on both sides of the river, exists in defiance of the state, but also at its mercy. Nearly everyone here knows they can be swept out by force at any time. When the big raid comes, though, multiple forest defenders have told me, there will be a lot of people who don’t go quietly.

The fight is getting uglier, and the net is tightening. While Atlanta and DeKalb County police have largely focused their actions to this point on the far side of the forest, leaving the DAF communal village relatively untouched, that may be changing: Three days after I depart, cops and workers start clear-cutting trees near the remote-control airfield on the park side, possibly in an attempt to create an access route for machinery that won’t get through the well-defended parking lot. A tire barricade went up in flames during that clash, belching black smoke above the forest.

Not long from now, the camp could be cleared, the tree-sits torn down, the defenders jailed. But what will linger, perhaps, is the growing sense among America’s younger generations that there are ways to enact change outside of the traditional halls of power.

During my final hours with DAF, a slim person with buzzed hair and scattered tattoos approaches me at camp. They introduce themselves as Cardboard and say they’ve been living across the creek, in the trees, for more than seven months. I ask Cardboard why they’d chosen to stay on that side, to sacrifice even more comfort and assume even more risk.

“I fucking hate the police,” they say. “And I want to be free.”