Atlanta needs a forest, not ‘Cop City’

Rev. Keyanna Jones and others protest in early March against plans to transform hundreds of acres of forest in Atlanta into a police training facility. — Rachael Warriner Rev. Keyanna Jones and others protest in early March against plans to transform hundreds of acres of forest in Atlanta into a police training facility. — Rachael Warriner

One sunny afternoon on a busy downtown corner, about 40 people walk single-file down the sidewalk. One lifts a megaphone and begins a chant. “Protect Weelaunee, the lungs of Atlanta. Defend the Forest!” The sound bounces off the skyscrapers.

At each intersection, heavily armed police meet the marchers. Three blocks later, a large police presence more than doubles the march’s size.

This was the scene during a week of action in early March to protest the proposed construction of “Cop City,” a project to tear down hundreds of acres of public forest in Atlanta and build a shooting range and mock urban block. It would become the largest police training facility in the United States.

Corporations like Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo and Home Depot have funneled $60 million to the project through tax-deductible donations to the Atlanta Police Foundation. A coalition of environmental groups, neighborhood associations, schools and racial justice organizations has worked for two years against this unholy alliance of policing and corporate interests.

Facing community opposition, Atlanta’s political leaders have responded with repression and police violence. Forty-two people face domestic terror­ism charges on weak grounds. On Jan. 18, Georgia State Patrol officers fatally shot Indigenous activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, whose hands were up while the officers fired 14 times.

In situations of intense repression, different communities choose different strategies of resistance. Predictably, media attention has focused on acts of property destruction by some protesters. These acts have drawn criticism and concern but have not scared away Anabaptists who feel called to join in this witness for peace and justice.

Anton Flores-Maisonet, a member of Atlanta Mennonite Church’s interim pastoral team, told a group of clergy: “I’m hearing too many Christians focused solely on the reactionary acts of protesters. However, our prophetic cry should denounce structural violence, including repressive policing, equating protest with domestic terrorism and using indefinite detention to suppress dissent and appease corporate interests. That’s what all concerned clergy should reject. I am thankful this faith-rooted coalition of experimenters with truth and nonviolence exists. Keep being creative in unmasking structural and repressive state violence.”

Jay Bergen, a pastor at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, said in a sermon: “Much of the week of action to #StopCopCity resembled Mennonite Disaster Service: You chop vegetables and wash dishes. You help rebuild tents and pavilions destroyed by police. You shovel dirt and take care of trees. You pick up trash. You sort donations and drive them to nearby community members in need. You hang out, make small talk and drink endless cups of bad coffee.”

Over 20 Anabaptist faith leaders joined their voices with 300 clergy signing on to a letter stating: “We declare with faith, commitment and hope that this land will be a part of healing, repair and the flourishing of all people in the greater Atlanta community and beyond. . . . We will not succumb to evil or systems or policies that bring harm and destruction. We will continue our work with justice and love until the day we can all live in peace as God’s children.”

Though not able to go to Atlanta, Jonathan and Sarah Nahar of Mennonite Mission Network’s “Stir Up Peace” video series and Melissa Florer-Bixler of Mennonite Church USA’s “Defund the Police? An Abolition Curriculum” helped draft the letter and organize an interfaith press conference for the letter’s presentation to the City Council.

“No matter where you live, there are roles for everyone who wants to be involved at this crucial inflection point of struggle that brings together a reverence for creation and a vision for nonlethal, relational versions of security,” Sarah Nahar said. “We don’t want Cop City to be built in Atlanta, or anywhere.”

The struggle over Cop City is far from over. As disciples of Jesus, we confess that we live in a broken world. We confess that we, too, are broken. Structural and interpersonal violence mar our fullness as God’s people. But we also confess that God’s wholeness envelops our brokenness. Jesus does not call us to only address brokenness when the conditions are perfect but to be in the brokenness, serving a kin-dom that offers wholeness: where all shall build houses and inhabit them, plant forests and eat from them, be at peace and unafraid.

While some others in this movement may use tactics that do not align with our values, we know the movement’s majority has commitments to peace, presence and spirited nonviolent direct action. These have created positive ripples and helped heal historic divides.

For our siblings in Christ who express more concern for property than human life and well-being and the life of the natural world, we invite you to come and see the fullness of God’s spirit found in the struggle for climate justice. From Gethsemane to Weelaunee, we are seeking to obey Jesus’ call today: to remain, watch and pray in these intense times.

Jay Bergen

Jay Bergen is the pastor at Germantown Mennonite Church (Pa.) in Philadelphia, and a volunteer organizer with the Coalition to Read More

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