I love Atlanta, not because it is a perfect city but because it is the site of so many struggles for freedom—no matter how Republicans may abuse that word—in the midst of a region of oppression. That is why I must oppose the project to destroy a vast swath of the city’s forest in the name of a center for the enhancement of police violence and a gentrification driving film studio. No good can come of this environmental destruction or these terrible purposes for which it is being enacted.
Like many, I joined the protests after the murder of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin and his accomplices. I have seen terrible police violence directed at protestors, known at least one person injured so badly by the APD that they lost their memory of what happened to them. I have marched for Rayshard Brooks, who should still be with us today. And I have hiked through the forests of this city, felt how much cooler they are in the midst of summer when the street becomes a cooking surface, and from that experience alone could plainly tell how essential they are to our survival on this planet.
The APD calls their project a “Social Justice Center,” but it includes dog kennels, a firing range, and a mock city in which to practice shooting tear gas, stun grenades, and “rubber” bullets—as well as ordinary lead bullets—at protestors. Though these deadly weapons are often euphemized as “non-lethal,” they can easily be used to harm and inflict permanent injury. Despite official policy to the contrary, police often aim “rubber” bullets—nearly as large as a fist and hard—at the head, which at close range can be fatal, and can also result in skull fractures and lost eyes. Stun grenades, explosive devices in every sense, can blow off hands. These “non-lethal” grenades sometimes fail to explode, becoming unexploded ordinance that litters neighborhoods with hazards deadly to unaware passersby and children. Tear gas— banned from use in warfare—releases toxic heavy metals into the environment where it is used and is known for inducing heavy, irregular periods for people exposed to it. A cousin of mine in Portland who witnessed the protests there told me that after the police used tear gas in a neighborhood of that city, which at times entered people’s homes, the elementary school playground had to be closed for heavy metal contamination. These weapons are not tools of peace, they are tools of war – tools too cruel to be used on the very population the police claim they protect. We do not need this so-called “social justice center” in Atlanta. Its name is nothing more than an exercise in double speak, and its purpose is nothing less than the violent intimidation of social justice movements. Remember: police would have used these means to quash Stonewall. They certainly used every bit of violence available to them to attack those who demanded justice for Floyd.
In this country, police funding is expanded at the cost of virtually every other social service that would go to a better end, and the result is not greater safety or less crime but a strategy of locking people in cages behind walls and barbed wire, often—as in Atlanta—on old plantations, so as to hide from sight the unsightly problem of endemic inequality. Instead of enhancing the APD’s means of violence with a new social injustice center, we should be building affordable housing, funding schools equally, and ensuring everyone has access to healthcare. Our city is sick with an immense wealth gap between rich and poor, white and Black, and we should be doing everything we can to address it—not building the infrastructure to repress calls for justice.
Now, I have also surveyed the wasteland left by Blackhall Studios when they wantonly bulldozed a wetland forest only to discover that, it being a wetland after all, it was unsuitable for building. That wasteland, piled high with the detritus of backfill, I am told, is to become a public park, but the muddy, trash strewn state of the land itself begs to differ. Only an unhealthful park could sit there, a skin of green disguising the refuse. Beside it, though, is perfectly good forest that is already a lovely park and shall hopefully remain one. Beneath its canopy, old trees keep it degrees cooler in the summer, the lights of fireflies like ten thousand stars, and bird song filling the air as wind gently sways the vault of this earthly cathedral. Its desecration would be like burning a church.
We do not need to become more Hollywood than Hollywood. Whatever the talk of jobs, most of them go to relocating people from Hollywood, who in turn gentrify south Atlanta, raising the rents of those who live there. The film studio will accelerate and intensify this gentrification so that whatever investments Hollywood might make in the community they will ultimately be just for Hollywood. This is not an economic policy that will benefit the people, the working class Atlantans, but will enrich those who exploit the city as a tax haven while driving inequality. Atlanta has a culturally rich, home-grown music scene known for giving back to the city and its communities, especially where support is needed most. It has never had half as much support from state and local government as the film studios but is at least twice as deserving. Moreover, it does not endanger the environment in which we all must live, having never engaged in any comparable scale of land destruction.
Whatever detractors might say speaking in the inevitable tired cliché of “outside agitators,” as if the history of that phrase’s usage had not wholly discredited it, Defend the Atlanta Forest is a local grassroots movement. Integral to the movement are the very Muscogee the U.S. forcibly disinherited from the forest that I am told they know as Weelaunee. Yes, there are people who have blocked bulldozers and stopped construction directly by being in the way of it. Instead of calling them “criminals” we should be praising the bravery of their civil disobedience.
The earth itself is on fire. Even the slightest blade of grass between us and destruction is worth saving. Whatever survives this era of decimation will be the rope holding us from the abyss. We must fight simply to hold onto this rope, for the desire for profit—like a craving for nicotine—would have us let go.