A demolished bike path is shown in the South River Forest near the site of a planned police training center in DeKalb County, Ga., Thursday, March 9, 2023. Activists have been protesting the center's planned construction for more than a year, derisively calling it "Cop City." Activists have been protesting the center's planned construction for more than a year, derisively calling it "Cop City." Credit: RJ Rico / AP

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Brian Pitman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a member of the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university.

He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national  Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

On Jan. 18, police in Georgia raided an encampment at the Weelaunee Forest in Atlanta where protestors have been mobilizing against the building of “Cop City,” a proposed $90 million training ground for police and firefighters that includes a mock city within 85 acres of the forest. That day, police killed Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, a 26-year-old activist protesting against the construction. An autopsy ordered by the family found that Tortuguita was likely sitting cross-legged with his hands up when he was shot.

The police murder of Tortuguita raised the public consciousness of the fight against “Cop City,” a fight that began when the city officially revealed its plans in 2021, mere months after large demonstrations against policing in Atlanta after police killed Rayshard Brooks. As a state that has experienced its own issues with police  targeting of activists, as  well  as  overall accountability, and corporate interference on climate change, there are many reasons for Mainers to be concerned.

First, the process has been a circumvention of the democratic ideals the U.S. purports to value. Since 2017, “Cop CIty” has been largely buoyed by the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). APF is a nonprofit that “helps fund local policing initiatives through public-private partnerships.” Corporations involved with the foundation include  Coca-Cola, Delta, Waffle House, the Home Depot, and Cox Enterprises, owner of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). With these corporate backers, the foundation has pledged to raise most of the funds for the project, arguing that the facility will help boost morale and recruitment efforts while using its resources, like the AJC to “manufacture consent” for “Cop City.” One APF backer, Chase Bank, even canceled a protestor’s bank account.

The public, however, continues to be firmly against the project. Activists argue that “Cop City” is part of corporate/political pushback to the uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, and that the facility will be utilized not just by Atlanta police, but police across the country to refine the counterinsurgency tactics used during those uprisings.

Another concern involves the deployment of domestic terrorism charges. Forty-two people have been charged under the 2017-amended Georgia domestic terrorism law and face 35 years in prison, including Mainer, Francis Carroll. This law, passed in the aftermath of Dylan Roof’s targeted mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, defines domestic terrorism, among other things, as to “intimidate the civilian population of this state or any of its political subdivisions,” and to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government…by intimidation or coercion.” Many of these protestors have been denied bail, keeping them inside the notorious  Fulton County Jail. These domestic terror laws have been part of a nationwide, bipartisan strategy, which some have argued is a threat to First Amendment rights.

A third concern is the environment. If the project moves forward, the Weelaunee Forest, considered one of the four “lungs” of the city, will be partially destroyed. These forests across the city are responsible for removing approximately 19 million pounds of pollutants every year. Activist organizations are concerned about the environmental impact of the facility on polluting the South River, arguing it is part of a broader attack on the health of Black communities. Currently, the forest serves as a public park with beautiful, natural scenery. All of this will change if “Cop City” is built.  

Further, “Cop City” will continue the violent, historical legacy of the former land of the Muscogee-Creek people. After this land was stolen, Georgia used it as a site for violent, forced prison labor. Organizations, such as the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Community Movement Builders have been at the front of the resistance, raising alarm that the ramifications of “Cop City,” if built, stretch far beyond Atlanta.