Sarah Wasilewski was sleeping in a hammock in Atlanta’s South River Forest one morning in January when she was awakened by police in full combat gear charging at her with their guns drawn.
She and two other Pittsburghers were camping near the proposed site of a controversial $90 million police training facility when they were arrested on Jan. 18. They were there to oppose the Atlanta facility, dubbed “Cop City.” Now, they’re among the first people to be charged under Georgia’s anti-domestic terrorism law passed in 2017.
Some Pittsburghers have joined a loosely-knit coalition of community groups, environmental activists, and prison abolitionists opposing the training center, going against the will of some of Georgia’s wealthiest and most institutionally powerful interests.
But the controversy hits closer to home. Local activists are also voicing concerns about Pittsburgh’s plans for its own expensive police training center, which they worry would fuel police militarization, pollution, and violence against Black Pittsburghers. Some see what’s happening in Atlanta as a precursor to what could unfold here.
Here’s what has gone down in Georgia:
Initial construction appears to be underway on the Atlanta training center, amid reports of escalating state repression against protesters, including what experts are calling the first police killing of an environmental activist in modern U.S. history.
The training center, which proponents call the Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training, would include a mock city for police to practice raids (which opponents term “urban warfare”) as well as a shooting range and explosives testing site. Building the center would require clearcutting dozens of acres of the South River Forest, which environmental conservationists say will worsen the region’s heatwaves, flooding, and heavy metals pollution.
Despite significant opposition, plans for the facility have been pushed through official channels by the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit group almost entirely funded by major corporations, including Home Depot, Amazon, UPS, and Delta Airlines. The foundation is reportedly fronting two-thirds of the facility’s $90 million price tag.
After failing to halt the project by appealing to elected officials, a grassroots, decentralized movement emerged. The movement has been staging encampments throughout the forest, occupying trees slated for destruction in “tree-sits,” and sabotaging construction equipment.
In recent months, Georgia authorities have sought to characterize Cop City protesters as “terrorists,” slapping domestic terrorism charges on individuals like Wasilewski. Her arrest warrant does not accuse her of any harmful or dangerous actions, but charges her because of her alleged affiliation with the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement, being a “known member of a prison abolition movement,” and trespassing in the South River Forest.
Wasilewski tells Pittsburgh City Paper she had spent the days before her arrest cleaning up wreckage from a recent police raid and real estate tycoon Ryan Millsap’s demolition of a public park within the forest, which he claims to own through a legally-contested land swap.
“They're definitely trying to make it look like we're a bunch of thugs in the woods, and my experience there was it's a bunch of, like, tree-hugging hippies,” she tells City Paper.
“It’s very clear that they don’t actually think we’re terrorists,” she adds, noting that the police declined to search her bags or belongings, although they did confiscate her cell phone and car, neither of which has been returned to her. “Their tactic now is just to incarcerate anyone who gets in their way.”
Wasilewski spent four days in DeKalb County Jail before being released on $15,000 bail, which she says she could not have paid without the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a group committed to legal support for Cop City protesters. She has yet to be officially indicted and may eventually have to return to Atlanta to stand trial. Subsequent protesters charged with domestic terrorism are currently held at the county jail, some without bail and some with bail assigned at $355,000.
“I know they’re doing that to scare everyone,” Wasilewski tells City Paper, arguing the police hope to squash further opposition. “If they succeed, and we go to prison, they're obviously ruining a bunch of people's lives, but that means they can do that for every potential protester.”
Civil liberties experts have also condemned the arrests and the contentious law underpinning them.
“Laws like this quell speech, and it’s really supposed to do nothing but make sure that you do not criticize the government,” Christopher Bruce, policy and advocacy director for the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Al Jazeera.
Wasilewski, and other local representatives working for racial justice tell City Paper they see parallels between Cop City and an expensive police training center planned for Pittsburgh.
In 2020, the City of Pittsburgh acquired the former Veterans Affairs Hospital in Lincoln-Lemington from the federal government, at no cost, in order to build a regional training facility for police and emergency responders. A proposal to develop the 168-acre parcel have been in the works since at least 2018, and despite the absence of concrete plans, city officials have recently said the project will cost more than $120 million.
Former Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto initially proposed relocating police and emergency services headquarters, the police training academy, animal control, and the city’s vehicle repair shop to the Lincoln-Lemington site. Current Mayor Ed Gainey’s spokesperson Maria Montaño tells City Paper the scope of the project has since narrowed to focus on police training facilities, and that, despite the reduction in scope, the estimated cost of the project remains over $120 million.
Montaño did not answer City Paper’s questions about how the city intends to fund the more than $120 million project, except to say that the administration doesn’t “see a role or opportunity for private funding.” The 2023 capital budget has kept $17 million in future capital bonds, first proposed by Peduto in 2021, to fund the training center. Beyond that, it remains unclear where the money will come from.
“The concern in Atlanta is also the concern here,” says Muhammad Ali Nasir, advocacy, policy, and civic engagement coordinator for the activist arts nonprofit 1Hood.
Since the Atlanta Police Foundation estimates that 43% of trainees at the new center will come from out-of-state, opponents argue that its construction would contribute to increased police militarization across the country and the globe.
“Cop City, if built, will set a new precedent for police militarization, not just in Atlanta, not just in the southeast, not just in the country, but in the world,“ says Jonah Sylvester, an organizer with the Weelaunee Defense Society of Pittsburgh.
Nasir says he is concerned both that Pittsburgh police might train at the Atlanta facility and that a $120 million city investment in police training would further exacerbate what he already considers an excessive militarization of local police.
“I literally watched police rolling down in armored vehicles in the streets of Downtown. We’ve seen them deploy military tactics on peaceful protesters, completely unprovoked,” Nasir tells City Paper, recalling his experience of the Pittsburgh Police response to the May 30, 2020 protest against the police murder of George Floyd.
Nasir is also concerned by the Atlanta and proposed Pittsburgh centers’ location within predominantly Black neighborhoods.
“The similarity is a little stark to me because Lincoln-Lemington is 65% Black, the same way that [the closest neighborhood to Cop City] is 75% Black… We know that that training is going to be deployed against primarily Black people, that’s kind of the bottom line,” he says.
Although Black people make up less than a quarter of the Pittsburgh population, police data from 2019 shows that more than 60% of the time Pittsburgh officers used force, it was against Black individuals, and that 71.4% of the subjects of all frisks were Black.
Pittsburgh activists also share Cop City opponents’ concerns that police operations, especially those involving munitions and explosives, inflict environmental harm in the surrounding area.
The Peduto administration initially framed the project as green and sustainable, but Meghsha Barner, legal advocate at the Abolitionist Law Center, tells City Paper a new police training center is neither green nor environmentally sustainable.
“Similar to Cop City, politicians claim this is an environmentally sound choice, when we know militarized police contribute to pollution, and money poured into police coffers could instead be used to actually make Pittsburgh a greener, safer city,” they say.
Last week, Pittsburgh organizers held a week of educational and advocacy events in solidarity with the movement to stop Cop City, from a letter-writing campaign to currently incarcerated forest defenders and workshops on transformative justice.
Next week, organizers in Atlanta are calling for a Week of Action from March 4 to 11, inviting the public to come to the forest for a two-day music festival, as well as discussions, workshops, and other ways to get involved in the movement.
“It is an invitation for everyone and anyone interested in stopping Cop City to come to Atlanta to join the movement,” says Sylvester. “And truly, everyone, including, you know, mothers and grandparents — whoever you are, this is the time to come to Atlanta.”
As for Pittsburgh’s training center, in November 2022, city officials said there is no timeline for when construction will begin. Last year, City Council reallocated $1.4 million set aside for the project to a string of infrastructure improvements throughout the city.
Barnes says the recent reallocation of funds indicates that “Pittsburgh realizes that money allocated to this project is better spent elsewhere.”
“We hope that trend continues,” they say. “Pittsburgh doesn’t need or want a Cop City.”
Visit StopCopCitySolidarity.org for information on the March 4-11 Week of Action.