‘Forest defenders’ use extreme tactics in fight to ‘stop cop city’

Activists say vandalism, violence justified to halt Atlanta training center

The tow truck was ultimately abandoned in what used to be DeKalb County parkland, its operator scared off with flying rocks and cans of sparkling water. Its tires slashed, windows smashed.

Pointed messages — “stop cop city” and an acronym calling “all cops” an expletive — were scrawled along the truck’s shiny white exterior in green spray paint. It was stripped for parts and other useful gear, its doors removed and added to a makeshift barricade set up nearby.

The rest was burned.

“The tow truck is no more,” those claiming responsibility later wrote in an anonymous online missive. “& we hope this serves as a warning to other tow trucks & various machines thinking about entering the forest to evict or destroy the woods, that you will inevitably suffer the same fate.”

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For months now, far-left activists have rallied against the looming construction of an Atlanta police training facility, a sprawling campus proposed for 85 city-owned acres in unincorporated DeKalb County.

They are a seemingly well-coordinated but nebulous group that includes police abolitionists, environmental extremists and anarchists. They call themselves “forest defenders” — and they are responsible for a growing list of aggressive, sometimes violent actions that have targeted anything and anyone with connections to the would-be training center.

A nearby piece of Intrenchment Creek Park has also become part of their focus. The land was acquired by a movie studio founder for development in a controversial land swap with DeKalb County. The tow truck intentionally set ablaze last month reportedly belonged to Ryan Millsap, the founder of the studio —Blackhall Studios, a firm he later sold to another company, which has since renamed it.

The “forest defenders” see it all as interconnected, as part of “the collision of two competing ideas of life and the future,” according to social media posts from various group members.

Credit: SCREENSHOT, SCENES.NOBLOGS.ORG

Credit: SCREENSHOT, SCENES.NOBLOGS.ORG

The new training facility — derisively dubbed “cop city” — would only exacerbate Atlanta’s and America’s policing problem, they say, further militarizing law enforcement and perpetuating the cycle of harm inflicted upon Black and brown people. Millsap’s property, they say, would become part of a capitalist “Hollywood dystopia.”

The creation of either would bring the destruction of huge swaths of one of the Atlanta area’s largest remaining greenspaces — and pollute whatever is left, the activists say.

There are plenty of regular residents and more mainstream environmental groups opposed to the project. But Michael K. Logan, who has studied extremism as an associate professor of criminal justice at Kennesaw State University, called it a “perfect storm” for far-left activists to rally around.

And while much of the work done thus far at the training center site has been preliminary, the land disturbance permits necessary for full-fledged construction to begin could be approved soon. Millsap recently began trying to assert control over the land swap property, which had largely continued to operate as a public park.

With the “defenders” firmly entrenched and appearing unlikely to leave voluntarily, the real storm may still loom somewhere over the horizon.

“My understanding,” said local community organizer Micah Herskind, “is that people are committed to seeing it through.”

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‘Stay ... out of the woods’

The Atlanta City Council voted last September to execute the land lease allowing the Atlanta Police Foundation to lead construction of the new training facility.

City leaders said then and today that existing facilities are outdated and hurt morale and recruitment, and that better training is key to criminal justice reform. The property off Key Road, they contend, is the only one large enough to accommodate the project.

Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is one of several large Atlanta metro corporations that have contributed financially to the project.

The lease was approved after nearly 17 hours of public comment, most of it in opposition. And within weeks, activists were building treehouses and platforms in the forest.

Things have escalated quickly from there.

A seemingly endless stream of construction machinery has been destroyed or otherwise sabotaged. Contractors and police officers have been chased off with rocks and other projectiles, including Molotov cocktails.

A pair of workers from the Department of Juvenile Justice parked their van in Intrenchment Creek Park to eat lunch one day and were attacked, according to a DeKalb County police report. Windows were broken, tires slashed.

“Innumerable trees” have reportedly been “spiked” — an illegal act that involves driving rods and nails into the trees, in hopes of damaging saws or injuring workers trying to cut them down.

Flock surveillance cameras installed along Key Road near the training center site have been toppled or damaged at least twice. A worker trying to replace one recently reported having his car window “damaged by gunfire” — although an anonymous poster to the activist site suggested only rocks were involved.

“Workers and pigs, we repeat: stay the (expletive) out of the woods,” a separate blog post said.

In May, officers from Atlanta PD and other agencies descended upon the forest to try and break up the encampments. At least two Molotov cocktails were thrown in their direction, flames exploding not far from squad cars. Seven arrests were made.

A few weeks after that incident, “four Molotov cocktails and an incendiary device” were thrown through a broken window of an At-Promise Center on Atlanta’s westside. The diversion center for at-risk youth is run by the Atlanta Police Foundation; officials have suggested the fire-bombing was tied to training center protests.

Rob Baskin, an APF spokesman, earlier this year compared the activists’ tactics to terrorism.

Dean Reeves, chairman of Gwinnett County-based construction company Reeves + Young, which was a contractor on the project, said they’re “stooping very low.”

“I just don’t have much respect for them,” he said.

Activists earlier this year protested at Reeves + Young headquarters. A group also made an appearance at Reeves’ home, hanging banners from the trees in his backyard.

That’s become a bit of a trend.

Protestors have long targeted another developer, Brasfield & Gorrie, for its role in the training center. The company’s offices in Atlanta and Cobb County have been vandalized multiple times. Executives have also been targeted.

Credit: Crime Stoppers Greater Atlanta

Credit: Crime Stoppers Greater Atlanta

Activists purportedly went to the church of one Brasfield & Gorrie vice president and passed out flyers that, in addition to listing his wife and children by name, informed congregation members that the executive was “choosing to serve mammon over the Lord.”

More recently, somewhere between 10 and 15 activists showed up to protest outside another executive’s Cobb County home.

Elsewhere, a late July post on the activists’ “Scenes from the Atlanta Forest” blog touted the creation of an all-new website: one that features photos and home addresses for dozens of Atlanta police officers.

The AJC sent multiple inquiries and requests for interviews to email addresses associated with the training center activists. Sean Wolters, who was described as “a participant in the movement,” responded.

He said people “can’t wait for someone to come and save us from global warming” — and wholeheartedly endorsed the more extreme tactics some forest defenders have taken.

“The fact is that work machines are still showing up to raze the forest with dozens of cops to protect them, so of course these tactics are necessary,” Wolters wrote. “What is necessary justifies itself.”

Anywhere from a handful to a few dozen “defenders” are entrenched in the forest at any given time.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

‘Hyperlocal and global’

Who, exactly, are these folks?

Authorities and officials have made it a point to paint the most extreme activists as outside agitators.

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens described the opposition as a “bandwagon on the Internet.” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said he hadn’t heard a lot of opposition “in terms of residents that I can identify.”

After May’s attempted crackdown on Key Road, Atlanta police highlighted that only one of the seven people arrested was from Georgia.

A Massachusetts man who was arrested that day, Phillip A. Flagg, was reportedly involved in the much-publicized 2016 protests over the Dakota Access pipeline. Per media reports, he also lived in a Virginia oak tree for almost a year while protesting the construction of the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline.

Two weeks ago, seven activists were arrested after a much larger group walked through a Brasfield & Gorrie construction site on the campus of Georgia State University. Jail dockets list all of them as being from either Brooklyn, N.Y., Asheville, N.C., or El Paso, Texas.

Additional police incident reports obtained by the AJC show that Atlanta-area residents have at times been tied to the protests. And there absolutely is local opposition to the training center.

Credit: SCREENSHOT, SCENES.NOBLOGS.ORG

Credit: SCREENSHOT, SCENES.NOBLOGS.ORG

A recent DeKalb County commission meeting featured a number of public comments from self-described DeKalb residents who expressed support for a resolution that calls for more intensive environmental and noise studies at the site. Commissioner Ted Terry, the resolution’s sponsor, said it’s the most public comments the board has received on one issue during his two-year tenure.

More mainstream groups like the South River Watershed Alliance have also decried the project and, at times, at least loosely allied themselves with those that have taken up residence in the woods.

Community Movement Builders, a Black-led organizing group based out of southwest Atlanta, has lobbied against the training center, too.

The level of local involvement in the actual forest defender movement is otherwise hard to pinpoint.

Activists have balked at suggestions they don’t have local support and said they consider the efforts of non-Atlantans to be a continuance of the opposition residents have expressed since former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the training center idea last spring.

Wolters said the movement wouldn’t work “without the vast majority of people being local.” Herskind called it “both hyperlocal and global.”

Like-minded activists have claimed responsibility for vandalism of at least nine different offices for one subcontractor reportedly tied to the training center project. Locations span the entire country, from Oakland, Kansas City and Columbus, OH. to Tallahassee, New York City and Erie, PA.

Brasfield & Gorrie’s corporate headquarters in Birmingham, AL., has also been hit. And last month, activists chained themselves to the company’s building in Charlotte, N.C.

Other leftist groups have, according to organizers, held discussions or fundraisers in support of the “stop cop city” movement in places as far flung as Athens, Greece. Some members of the Muscogee tribe, whose ancestors were among those originally driven from the forest in question, have also lent their support.

Activists have taken to calling the forest by its Muscogee name, Weelaunee.

“There’s joy in our fight. This spirit, this forest, will never be able to be contained,” a tree-sitter identified only as “Prickly Pear” wrote in a letter recently posted online.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

‘Dedicated to winning’

The Atlanta Police Department has largely gone mum on the forest defender matter. Requests for an interview with leadership or a statement for this story were declined. The department also declined a records request for any incident reports, citing an ongoing investigation.

The exact nature of that investigation, and any others, is unclear.

The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been involved in the youth center investigation. Local police have also suggested the FBI was looking into “attempts of intimidation,” but the bureau’s role in any bigger picture probe remains hazy.

An FBI spokesperson said the agency doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

Any time machinery enters the forest these days, whether off Key Road or the Millsap property, it usually does so with a police escort. And it’s usually met with resistance, be it verbal, physical or both.

How and when it will all end is anyone’s guess.

In a recent email to DeKalb police Chief Mirtha Ramos and other county officials, Alison Clark — a local resident and the chair of Atlanta’s controversial training center advisory committee — called the forest defenders “terrorists.” She expressed concern about the county department’s lack of action in locking down the Millsap property and suggested “bringing in the National Guard” as a potential solution.

“Those choosing to violate the law and terrorize community and beyond should not be given a pass,” Clark wrote.

Bradley Gibson, the vice president of a remote control aviation club that has operated out of Intrenchment Creek Park for years, agrees.

In an “open letter” sent to various media members and public officials, Gibson blamed activists for thousands of dollars of damage inflicted during a recent music festival they held in the woods. Gibson said they destroyed the club’s work tables and other expensive equipment and blocked off access to the airfield using “tires, wood, and dog feces.”

“As a modestly funded club,” he said, “I am not sure we will survive this.”

Wolters — who claimed 1,000 people attended the illicit music festival on the last weekend of July — said that activists and their supporters will “continue to do what it takes to make the world a safer, freer, and more sustainable place.”

They are “dedicated to winning,” he said.

“In this respect,” Wolters said, “it is up to the Police Foundation and to Ryan Millsap to determine how far things go.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC