color photograph of about fifty people standing and sitting outside in a forest clearing. many wear face masks, t-shirts or flannels, and long pants, and most are looking at something to the right of the frame
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MARCH 4: Environmental activists hold a rally and a march through the Weelaunee Forest March 4, 2023, in Atlanta. Intent upon stopping the building of what they have called Cop City, the environmentalists were evicted from the forest in January, resulting in the killing by police of Manuel Terán, a young activist and medic. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

On March 5, during a Stop Cop City “week of action” in Atlanta, organizers held a music festival that drew over 1,000 people, some of whom later joined an action about a mile away at a Cop City construction site. Police arrested about 35 people and jailed 23 of them on domestic terrorism charges. All but one—a legal observer—were denied bond. The arrests, subsequent domestic terrorism charges, and bond denials are the natural continuation of the violent repression of land defenders and, more broadly, radical left groups in Atlanta and beyond. 

The police response to the activists attempting to stop Cop City has consistently been violent—as policing always is. On Jan. 18, Georgia State Patrol shot and killed a 26-year-old queer, Indigenous-Venezuelan protester named Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, whose hands were raised when they were shot. Many who attended the week of action were honoring their memory and continuing their work against the destruction of the forest. 

As forest defenders and community members fighting to stop Cop City encounter escalating police violence and state repression, we must continue to resist attempts to expand the definitions of crime. The carceral state will continue to weaponize the legal expansions of crime against those it more consistently oppresses. 

The movement to Stop Cop City began two years ago, with organizers most recently holding their fifth week of action that included a march near Weelaunee People’s Park and reoccupying the forest after police raids in January. Weelaunee Forest, originally stolen from the Muscogee Creek people, is at risk because of a planned tactical training compound that would destroy 85 acres of forest for the proliferation of the police state. DeKalb County officials also want to trade away 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park—part of Weelaunee Forest—in a land swap to expand Blackhall Studios, a local film studio. 

The domestic terrorism charges—which Human Rights Watch and more than 30 other organizations describe as “draconian” and “disproportionate to the alleged offenses committed”—are intended to chill protests and dissuade people from rising against the state. But notably, the bill that enabled these charges was never designed to be used in this manner. The protesters were charged under a domestic terrorism statute that legislators passed in 2017 in response to the white supremacist attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 

The bill should not include peaceful protest, but its scope has expanded to serve the state’s agenda by targeting those who dare to fight against climate devastation and the prison-industrial complex—as is often the case. Since 2017, 45 state governments have considered implementing 265 anti-protest bills, 39 of which have been enacted in 20 states. This agenda is explicit at the federal level as well, with the Senate introducing the ​​​​Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2020, which would create criminal penalties for impeding or disrupting the operations or construction of pipeline facilities. The bill has been held in the House without action since August 2020. In 2021, however, the Biden administration included so-called environmental extremists as a category of domestic terrorists

“The recent arrests of land defenders and organizers with domestic terrorism charges make clear that the security state and carceral state are organized as a fundamentally regressive legal infrastructure that targets Black, Indigenous, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, racialized, and left communities by its very design,” says activist and writer Harsha Walia. Because of the carceral state’s design, its violence cannot be turned around, which means including white supremacist organizations in anti-terrorism legal infrastructure will never have its intended effect. 

Walia elaborates that because “‘terrorism’ is a state-defined term … any call for more criminalization and securitization will expand the racial discourse of terrorism and and increase state repression”—exactly as we’ve seen in Atlanta. Even though it can be tempting to push for punishment when it comes to white supremacists or killer cops, we must remember that the carceral state’s purpose is not to hold accountable those who have committed great violence or to deliver justice for those who are victims of it. The carceral state’s purpose is to repress and oppress the most marginalized among us, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, Muslim, queer, leftist, sex-working, and disabled. Any expansion will come at the expense of those communities, not the intended targets. That is why protesting Cop City must go hand in hand with protesting the hiring of more cops, the building of more jails, and, yes, the passage of laws that make the criminalization of protests easier. 

We should consider what’s happening at Cop City a harbinger of the future of protest, as district attorneys charge environmental justice defenders; socialist, anarchist, communist, and leftist groups; and BIPOC with trumped up charges to lock them up while the planet burns and capitalists line their pockets. Micah Herskind, a local organizer based in Atlanta, points out to Prism that “the push to build Cop City is a particularly clear example of how all of our movements for justice are connected.” And so is the fight in opposition to it. People are struggling against “police violence and militarization, deforestation, climate disaster, gentrification, corporate control of our cities, and so much more,” said Herskind.  

The movement—and the state’s violent response against it—proves that there is no livable future without police abolition. Cop City is just one of many similar facilities being proposed in the U.S., and state commitment to repressing this movement shows us the strategies they will use to stop resistance everywhere. 

Opposing the carceral state must be our priority, even as it transforms and grows in insidious ways. That means that we must both rise against the state’s violent attempts to destroy the forest and build Cop City while also resisting the liberal urge to ask that same state to protect us using the very systems with which it oppresses us. 
You can take action in solidarity with the forest defenders in Atlanta from anywhere using resources like

Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarchafeminist, working to dismantle systems of white supremacist...