In an Atlanta forest slated for development, an activist movement has built a community — and they’re vowing to defend it by any means necessary
By Jack Crosbie, September 3, 2022
Whatever the excavator driver had in mind for his morning, it’s pretty clear it wasn’t this. It’s not yet 8 a.m. on a Saturday in late July, and he’s dodging rocks and full cans of rosemary-grapefruit seltzer being flung from 20 yards away, and screaming at the impassive DeKalb County cop next to him to intervene. “Pull your gun out!” he yells in desperation. “Pull your gun out!”
The driver is here in Atlanta’s South River Forest on behalf of Ryan Millsap, a real-estate tycoon who’s been granted permission to bulldoze a huge swath of trees and put up a soundstage for the city’s booming film industry — “Hollywood Dystopia,” as the band of masked protesters hurling projectiles have taken to calling it. Millsap’s plans cover 40 acres of parkland on the eastern bank of Intrenchment Creek, which roughly divides a 300-acre pocket of this forest that has become a battleground. On the western side of the creek, the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation has laid claim to 85 acres of woods, which the Atlanta City Council voted last September to flatten in order to build a $90 million police- and fire-training complex that’s come to be known as “Cop City.”
What the city didn’t expect was that the land would become home to a band of environmentalists and anarchists, loosely united under the banner Defend the Atlanta Forest, who are combating those plans at every turn. The “decentralized autonomous movement,” as they call themselves, consists of hundreds of local and out-of-state activists, several dozen of whom live full time in these woods, in a ramshackle network of tents and treehouses erected dozens of feet off the forest floor. By day, the group hosts meals procured through donated food and prepared via collective action, as well as teach-ins on resistance tactics and philosophies, skill shares, guided hikes, and other community events. By night, on the weekends, the scene often shifts to musical performances featuring local bands and DJs — a distinctly Atlanta mix of trap, hardcore, and electronica — plus a bar and substances of every sort, a chance to mosh for freedom and dance in defiance.