YIR: Jewish Activists Oppose ‘Cop City’ Construction
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YIR: Jewish Activists Oppose ‘Cop City’ Construction

The controversial project calls for construction of an 85-acre, $90 million police and fire training center, on 300 acres that the City of Atlanta owns across the city line in DeKalb County.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A banner strung between the trees near the planned site of Atlanta’s police training facility.
A banner strung between the trees near the planned site of Atlanta’s police training facility.

Protests and legal procedures related to the planned Atlanta Public Safety Center — derisively referred to opponents as “Cop City” — will continue in 2024.

Within the protest movement is a small cohort of Jewish young adults, who feel religiously, politically, and ideologically apart from Atlanta’s mainstream Jewish community.

The controversial project calls for construction of an 85-acre, $90 million police and fire training center, on 300 acres that the City of Atlanta owns across the city line in DeKalb County. The area in question is bordered by Key Road SE, Bouldercrest Road, and Constitution Road SE.

One major theme of protest has been the militarization of police, that the training site will teach “urban warfare” tactics that will be employed against minority communities and to train police from beyond Georgia. Conservation groups contend that development will degrade the tree canopy in Atlanta — sometimes called “the city in the woods.” Residents in the heavily minority neighborhoods worry about flooding in low-lying areas.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has called the city’s existing training facilities “woefully insufficient.” The new facility would serve the police and fire departments, the 911 call center, and K-9 units. Plans call for a shooting range, a “mock city” and a “burn building,” with the remainder of the acreage developed for recreation use.

The protesters call the woods “Weelaunee,” meaning “brown water” in the language of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe, for whom the South River Forest was home until about 200 years ago. After being displaced by white settlers, the tribe was forced west, to what the federal government called the “Indian territory” in Oklahoma.

The training center land has been, over time, the site of a plantation, a Civil War battlefield, and a city prison farm. Police have used sections as a firing range and for explosives disposal. Tires and other debris have been dumped there illegally.

Protests began soon after the city announced plans in April 2021. The past year saw marches and a music festival, as well as vandalism and clashes with law enforcement officers posted around the construction site.

Media attention grew after Jan. 18, 2023, when a protester camped in the woods adjacent to the construction site was killed during a police “clearing operation.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that Manuel Esteban Paez Terбn fired a handgun, wounding a Georgia State Police officer, before being killed by return fire. An autopsy determined that the 26-year-old known as “Tortuguita” suffered 57 gunshot wounds. The GBI announced in October that no criminal charges would be filed against the state troopers.

More than 60 protesters have been indicted on charges that include violation of the state’s terrorism statute, in an alleged conspiracy to attract “anti-police, anti-government, and anti-development people from around the country.” The American Civil Liberties Union called the indictments a “breathtakingly broad and unprecedented use of state terrorist, anti-racketeering, and money laundering laws.”

The year ahead also will see continuing legal action surrounding efforts to place a referendum on the proposed training center on the November ballot.

Much of the “Stop Cop City” activity took place in DeKalb County’s 136-acre Intrenchment Creek Park, which draws its name from the creek separating it from City of Atlanta property.

Jewish opponents held religious events in the park. Before it was closed to public access in March, they observed Shabbat and Havdalah, held High Holy Days services, built and occupied a sukkaht, lighted a menorah during Chanukah, planted trees on Tu B’shvat, and gathered for a Megillah reading on Purim.

Their activities — and anti-Israel politics — rankled some in Atlanta’s mainstream Jewish community. “Despicable” was an adjective used in emails circulated among communal and religious leaders, which also included a statement of support for the training center and a caution to Rabbi Mike Rothbaum, of Congregation Bet Haverim, who led Shabbat services in the woods and participated in other events.

In an article published in March by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rothbaum said of the protesters: “They’re living Jewish values more legitimately, more sincerely than some of the biggest institutions.”

In an email obtained by the AJT, Jay Kaiman, president of The Marcus Foundation, wrote: “You have created [an] adverse relationship with local law enforcement . . . Think hard about the path you are pursuing as a leader of the Jewish community. Anyone of these law enforcement officers would take their lives to protect you.”

Two Jewish activists, Ayeola Omolara Kaplan and Adam Brunell — “a queer Black woman [and] a white agender person” — published an article on the online site, Atmos, titled, “Why Cop City Goes Against Jewish Values.”

They wrote: “For many Jewish Atlantans like ourselves, our Judaism is deeply tied to the effort to defend the forest from Cop City — and the interlocking issues it raises: climate justice, police militarization and violence, nature conservation, and racial justice . . . As Jews, we have stood in solidarity with the Black community in Atlanta before. It is now time for us to do so again. This is not just a question of Jews standing in solidarity with another community. It’s also about Jewish people standing up for each other: Black Jews are impacted by this, too.”

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