Atlanta Is Building a “Cop City” on the Site of a Former Prison Farm

Atlanta is constructing a massive police militarization complex on the site of a former prison farm. Residents are overwhelmingly opposed — but business interests, police, and city government are pushing ahead with the proposed “Cop City.”

A photo taken at the site of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm in the South River Forest in Atlanta, Georgia. (Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm)

The City of Atlanta is pushing forward with a plan to build an expensive new police militarization complex in the middle of one of the city’s last remaining green spaces. The efforts to begin construction on what has become to be known as “Cop City” are grotesquely undemocratic, with residents living near the proposed facility overwhelmingly voicing their opposition. So far, Cop City’s proponents — a coalition of business interests, the police, and the city government — are undeterred by the public outcry.

The development is slated for the South River Forest. Located in Southeast Atlanta and stretching into neighboring DeKalb County, the forest encompasses 3,500 acres of land. South River Forest is one of the largest remaining green spaces in the city, and organizers have been working to develop it as a conservation area since 2000.

This particular piece of land has a fraught history, especially for the black residents who represent the majority of South Atlanta. Situated in the center of the South River Forest is the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. The city owns the prison farm’s 350 acres, and according to former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, it’s the only viable place for Cop City to be built.

Residents and environmental groups question why the facility can’t be constructed in another area of the city, or indeed if the facility needs to be built at all. They wonder whether the $90 million price tag might be put to better use developing the Old Atlanta Prison Farm as public-use green space, or for other infrastructure projects and social services for the people living nearby.

Despite these objections, construction is ready to begin, with only a contingent of activists protesting and occupying the site standing in the way. Opponents of Cop City face an uphill battle but remain steadfast in their commitment to protecting the South River Forest and nearby residents from a clear-cut example of environmental racism.

The Dishonor of the “Honor Farm”

For many, the ruins of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm represent a chance at reclamation and redemption. They find cause for hope not just in the ongoing process of reforestation in the old farmlands but in redeeming a piece of land that was used for hyperexploited labor until as recently as 1990.

Once a slave plantation, the parcel was sold to the City of Atlanta after the Civil War. There have been attempts to sanitize the legacy of what was christened the “Honor Farm,” so named because guards didn’t carry weapons and inmates didn’t try to escape. According to a historical account published in 1999, the farm was a place where low-risk inmates could enjoy better living conditions and be rehabilitated through an honest day’s work.

A more recent investigation into the history of the farm paints a much less charitable picture. Reporters found credible evidence of systemic abuse, torture, overcrowding, neglect, and racialized violence throughout the prison farm’s history, as well as the possibility that unmarked graves of prisoners exist on the grounds. Kwame Ture was also held there briefly as a political prisoner during the civil rights movement.

This history makes it all the more objectionable that former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta Police Foundation pushed for the construction of a military camp for cops on the ruins of the farm. As with the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, proponents of Cop City have trafficked in euphemisms:

When she was still in office as mayor, Bottoms claimed that for the sake of keeping communities safe, a “twenty-first-century facility” was needed for the purposes of improving the training, morale, and retention of officers. It was for this reason that the police budget was recently increased by 7 percent despite widespread protests in the city calling for a decrease and the reallocation of funds to social services. Bottoms left office in January of this year, but her successor, Andre Dickens, voted to approve Cop City when he was on the city council.

Bottoms’s stated commitment to keeping her city safe at the end of her term is complicated by the lack of evidence that increasing the funding and the number of cops — much less boosting their morale with a tactical amusement park — has any real effect on crime rates. There is far better evidence showing that solutions like increasing employment, ensuring access to well-maintained public spaces, and providing mental health services have a greater effect on lowering crime.

But solutions based on meeting the material needs of poor and working people are not popular with the business and real estate interests who fund both the Atlanta Police Foundation and the campaigns of city officials. They’d rather have police sweep away the social ills caused by inequality — never mind that the carceral solution ultimately intensifies inequality and the social problems that come with it.

The Definition of Environmental Racism

The construction of Cop City represents an opportunity cost in the form of funds that could actually benefit Atlantans. But that’s not all. There are also environmental concerns that city officials are blithely ignoring. The Atlanta Police Foundation claims that precautions will be taken to limit the environmental impact of Cop City on the rest of the forest and nearby residential areas, but environmental experts have serious questions about these claims.

For one thing, having a shooting range near a waterway poses a lead contamination risk for wildlife and people who come into contact with it; the Environmental Protection Agency advises against placing shooting ranges near waterways for this reason. The proposed area for Cop City is uphill from a tributary that feeds into the South River through a waterway known as Intrenchment Creek. This poses a serious threat to wildlife and those who go fishing in the South River — fishing being the state-designated use for it.

The South River Forest is already home to a police shooting range, situated across the road from the Old Prison Farm. Spent shell casings have been found in the forest, alongside spent flash-bang grenades and other police munitions that contain dangerous heavy metals. The South River is already burdened by industrial pollution produced by urban areas of both Atlanta and DeKalb County and currently ranks number four on a list of the country’s most endangered rivers. Likewise, the area is beset with illegal dumping grounds, wastewater treatment facilities, prisons, and other externalities of industrialization. That these environmental hazards are concentrated in the majority-black southeastern part of the city and are seldom found in affluent and largely white sections like Buckhead is the definition of environmental racism.

The environmental risks that Cop City poses for residents are clear, and the city’s attempts to allay those concerns have been half-hearted at best. The inclusion of an urban farm in the APD’s plans as an attempt at greenwashing the project is especially galling, considering that the heavy metal runoff from shooting ranges and explosives training could render any food produced dangerous to eat.

There’s No Democracy in Cop City

Residents of Southeastern Atlanta and southeastern DeKalb County haven’t bought into the advertised benefits of Cop City. Last September the Atlanta City Council heard public comments from 1,100 residents, with 70 percent of people calling in to oppose the project.

Cop City has been an undemocratic undertaking from the beginning. Plans were devised without public input and in secret between the city council, the Atlanta Police Foundation, and the various business interests that fund both institutions. Neighboring DeKalb County, where part of the land resides, is unincorporated, and its local government had no say in the matter.

Activists have taken to occupying the forest and physically preventing construction. Several groups have set up camps on both the proposed site for Cop City and another piece of forest recently acquired by the movie production studio Blackhall Studios in a controversial land swap with DeKalb County. These occupations have resulted in violent clashes between police and protesters. Police representatives have dismissed protesters as outside agitators, vowing to “not be deterred by the acts of a few that do not represent our community.”

Frankie Davis, an activist currently camping at the site, told Jacobin that this version of events erases the very real issues residents have with Cop City.

People across the city are angry at these projects. . . . They’re angry these sketchy land deals are getting pushed into the county where the residents don’t really have any representation. They’re angry about the increased danger of flooding and heat events in black neighborhoods in South Atlanta. . . . Given all this justified anger, there’s a lot of popular support for the limited and proportionate practice of self-defense by frontliners. There’s a lot of respect across the city for people who are willing to fight to defend our forest and our shared future.

It’s evident that Cop City is something that is being done to the citizens of Southeast Atlanta, not for them. It also proves hollow the promise of representation politics that Keisha Lance Bottoms went from expressing fear for her four black sons possibly being killed by police to leading a scheme to further militarize law enforcement and increase their numbers. Much like the military and prisons, police also enjoy an industrial complex that has supplied them with military-style weapons and equipment and the implicit idea that whatever violence they choose to inflict upon the people they “serve” is for the greater good.

However, the fact that this project has been so undemocratic represents a shift in the way community members view policing. Residents, local organizations, and environmentalists have joined together in a movement Davis describes as “decentralized, diverse, and popular.” Average working people are letting city officials know what they really need to make their community safer. Hopefully, someone will listen before lasting damage is done.