“No cops, no jails, no linear fucking time” — Graffiti, Oakland, CA summer 2020
Atlanta, Georgia is a city in a forest. The neighborhoods and the woods wind around and through each other like so many rips and eddies in the creeks beneath the streets. In southeast Atlanta, a battle over the forest, the city, and, many contend, the world has been escalating for the past two years. Specifically in dispute is a 420+ acre portion of forest split by Intrenchment Creek, a vein of the South River Watershed. The west side of the creek is the site of the old Atlanta City Prison Farm and the east side is the public park previously known as Intrenchment Creek Park. Two years ago, the city of Atlanta and Dekalb County entered into two separate but intimately related processes to clear cut and develop both sides. On the west side of Intrenchment Creek, the land would be leased for 50 years to the Atlanta Police Foundation for 10 dollars a year to build a 90 million dollars, state-of-the-art police training compound, including a ten-block mock neighborhood, a shooting range, burn towers, explosives testing grounds, horse stables, and canine training facilities, among other macabre bells and whistles. On the east side the land would be swapped for an adjacent fifty-three-acre, already clear-cut property owned by former Blackhall Studios CEO Ryan Millsap for the construction of a Hollywood movie sound studio complex. Both of these deals were initiated behind closed doors, without publicity or public consultation.
A small group of local activists and concerned residents caught wind of the planned development and began a struggle to defend the forest. The stakes are manifold. On the one hand, Intrenchment Creek Park has functioned as a public park for many years, providing local residents green space for hiking, walking their dogs, mountain biking, running, picnicking, and general recreation. On the other, the threats posed by the construction of a militarized police training facility are immediately palpable in one of the Blackest major cities in the US, and the one with the largest income inequality.1 Furthermore, only a few years ago, the city of Atlanta had declared the forest one of its “four lungs” necessary for climate resilience.2 Because of global warming trends, extreme weather events such as severe rain and the concomitant uncontrollable flooding, heat waves, and potentially life-threatening wet bulb temperatures are only increasing in frequency, in the southeast and beyond. The forest is an important protector of urban life, absorbing excess rainfall to prevent flooding while cooling the air to stave off dangerous urban heat islands. Clearcutting the forest and sealing the earth beneath a concrete landscape would not only degrade residents’ quality of life, but potentially threaten their lives altogether.3
From the beginning, a diversity of forms of engagement has animated the struggle against Cop City and Hollywood Dystopia, as the two projects have been dubbed by the movement. First, construction equipment on the site was sabotaged and destroyed by militants, while lawsuits were initiated by environmental organizations like the South River Watershed Alliance. Then community awareness-raising and canvassing efforts by political organizations like Community Movement Builders began, alongside an encampment in the forest established by traveling eco-activists and kids who cared and had no other place to go. An important strategy that has emerged across these groups targets the projects’ various contractors, from insurance providers like Nationwide to construction companies like Brasfield & Gorrie, organizing call-in campaigns, office visits, and other forms of disruption to pressure the companies to drop the contracts, which would slow down and eventually immobilize the development. The construction company that initially signed with the Atlanta Police Foundation, Reeves Young, dropped their contract early in 2022, shortly after the movement initiated a campaign called “Stop Reeves Young.”4
In the past two years, virtually zero construction has occurred, and the movement was able to prevent any deforestation at all until April 2023. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction equipment has been demolished and hundreds of trees have been planted in the forest. The movement has grown from a few dozen concerned local residents to thousands of active participants across the country, organized into autonomous support networks, from interfaith communities to insurrectionary anarchists, from schoolchildren to environmental nonprofits. Another prominent element has been the involvement of Mvskoke people in the defense of their ancestral homeland.
While one might initially understand the movement as animated by the anti-state, anti-police, Black liberation ethos generalized by the 2020 George Floyd Rebellion, as we will see, it is just as much moved by the spirit of territorial and ecological defense and indigenous sovereignty that gave life to the NoDAPL struggles at Standing Rock and elsewhere half a decade before. The lands of southeast Atlanta are ancestral Mvskoke territory, peoples who inhabited the area until the 1820’s when they were displaced along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma to make way for expanding plantation agriculture. The Mvskoke people call Intrenchment Creek, which runs through the forest under dispute, “Weelaunee,” meaning “yellow/brown water.” The movement has thus redubbed Intrenchment Creek Park the “Weelaunee People’s Park” and the forest generally the “Weelaunee Forest.”
There are two sides to every struggle, however. Ryan Millsap, for his part, is fighting for his property. Formerly the CEO of Blackhall Studios, Millsap is already the owner of thousands of properties across the southeast as the CEO of Irinda Capital Management, a private equity firm focused on real estate development. With Blackhall Studios, he acquired a 53-acre portion of already deforested land in the Gresham Park neighborhood of southeast Atlanta, neighboring Intrenchment Creek Park, intending to build a sound studio complex. However, environmental evaluations revealed the land to be a floodplain and therefore unfit for development; hence the agreement with Dekalb County to swap his 53-acre property for 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park, which would require clear-cutting for development. In April of 2021, Millsap sold Blackhall, which has since been renamed Shadowbox Studios. However, he retained ownership of the 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park, although his plans for the land remain unclear.
The land that Dekalb County traded away was a gift from The Trust for Public Land and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, made nearly twenty years ago with the specific intention of preserving Atlanta’s forested areas, stipulating that the land “shall be used in perpetuity as park property.”5 The 53 acres acquired by Dekalb County, which has been redubbed “Michelle Obama Park,” is already clear cut and is mostly covered in sand and gravel. While the county promises to develop the park with paved walking pathways and ADA-accessible playgrounds, many residents remain skeptical, citing ongoing lawsuits over the county’s sewage disposal in the South River as evidence of the county’s lack of accountability to its constituents.6 Because of its poor track record on environmental action, and the simple shadiness of the land swap deal itself, residents and members of groups like the South River Watershed Alliance have little trust in the county’s plans.7 Furthermore, as nice as an amenity-filled park would be, it isn’t a forest.
With these problems in mind, on February 12, 2021, the South River Watershed Alliance, the South River Forest Coalition, and a number of independent residents filed a lawsuit against Dekalb County and Blackhall Real Estate LLC8 to void the land swap, claiming the county did not have authority to make the swap in the first place.9 This legal action was accompanied by physical occupation of the park, not only to prevent its clear cutting but to disrupt Millsap’s claim of ownership. Millsap responded by hiring off-duty police officers10 and mobilizing official police escorts to accompany him to the forest with tow trucks, attempting to evict those on the site. While the park was still legally public access before February of 2023, when Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond declared it illegal to enter the area,11 Millsap had already barricaded the entrance to the park, attempting to obstruct residents’ access. He also posted “No Trespassing” signs, blocked the trailhead, destroyed the gazebo in the park entrance, and dug up the concrete in the parking lot.
In one humorous encounter, a tow truck operator whom Millsap hired to remove vehicles from the parking lot was met by a few dozen forest defenders who repelled him with projectiles before stripping his truck, which was registered under Millsap’s name, and setting it ablaze. He reportedly yelled as he retreated: “Buy your own forest!”12 The burnt-out truck shell remained in the parking lot for months, adorned with flowers and branches and spray-painted messages of love and solidarity. It was the first thing any visitor entering the park through the parking lot would see, memorializing the achievements of the movement and the defense of the forest.
Ryan Millsap (supported by his tow truck driver), on the other hand, is concerned with the integrity of his property. He is concerned with the future. He has made an investment, and he wants it to pay off. He must protect the value, both use and exchange, of his new acquisition for it to bear fruit through further development. After selling off Blackhall Studios, Millsap announced plans for a project he’s calling Blackhall Americana, an action movie and TV series streaming platform he hopes will “rival Netflix.”13 Millsap explains the content of the planned project as “drama that escalates to some sort of physical danger;” “definitely PG-13 and above. It’s fast cars, big guns, beautiful men and beautiful women. I think there’s a massive amount of money to be made to these kind of shows to the marketplace [sic].”14 He continues that “a significant portion of my wealth is going into this,” but he hasn’t named the location for the studio because he says he hasn’t closed on the property yet. While it would be speculation to think that the property in question is the Intrenchment Creek Park property specifically, it would also be hard to imagine that a two-year lawsuit disputing the legality of his new acquisition and an international movement against him, a movement that has physically repelled him when he’s tried to enter the forest (ostensibly “his”), plays no role in the lack of clarity about his plans. It’s difficult to plan when the future is uncertain, disrupted, as we’ll see, from below.
In September 2021, on the other side of Intrenchment Creek, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) signed its lease on 381 acres of forest owned by the city of Atlanta and located in unincorporated Dekalb County for the construction of its “Public Safety Training Center.”15 Because the land is owned by the city, zoned residential, and the APF is a private nonprofit, a series of legal steps was necessary to rezone the area for development. Though the APF challenged the development’s designation as “private,” since it would be used for “government infrastructure,” one legal requirement has been some sort of “community input.” The APF itself therefore created a Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee (CSAC), only after the lease had been signed, for this function. The CSAC has spent much of its time focused on the protest movement, as opposed to reviewing the development plans, removed one of its members for publicly criticizing the development,16 and saw another member resign from the committee in the wake of the murder of a protestor in the forest on January 18, 2023.17
In the summer of 2022 local organizers called for people from around the country to visit the forest for a week of action—an opportunity for people to join the struggle through a week of events, community building, and protest.18 In the lead-up to the week, APD Interim Assistant Chief Carven Tyus told the CSAC that the Dekalb County Police Department was increasing patrols and using undercover officers to secure the area. He assured the CSAC that the Atlanta Police Department (APD) had connected its video surveillance to a “Video Integration Center,” allowing live monitoring, and that the Georgia Bureau of Investigations and the FBI would track “electronic signals” to identify suspects of potential illegal activity. Asked later whether “electronic signals” meant that authorities were monitoring cell phone conversations or usage data in the area, Tyus answered: “While we have no intention of monitoring private conversations, we will utilize every technology at our disposal to ensure that our communities remain safe from anarchy and private property does not continue to be vandalized and defaced.”19 Similarly, Alison Clark, the chair of CSAC, responded to incidents of sabotage by saying: “I think it’s quite crazy. Vandalizing property… is completely unhelpful.”20 Just like for Millsap, property and its defense is at the center of the state’s discourse.
Another complication to the planned development is the cross-jurisdictional character of southeast Atlanta. While the land leased to the APF is owned by the city, which is the seat of Fulton County, it is located in Dekalb County, and the city must therefore abide by the latter’s zoning and environmental regulations. The overlapping jurisdictions has had impacts on the project since Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond announced that the county had finally granted the city a land disturbance permit (LDP) on January 31, 2023, a document that peculiarly does not include reference to the APF, the site’s actual developer. The LDP authorizes clearing of the site to begin as an initial step towards construction, a process that involves further review and assessment by Dekalb County officials.21
When Brent Scarbrough & Co., one of the APF’s construction contractors, began work following the issuance of the LDP, however, an appeal was filed in Fulton County Superior Court by Amy Taylor, a Dekalb County resident and member of CSAC, on grounds that as proposed the project would create more sediment runoff into Intrenchment Creek than is allowable under both state and federal law.22 Confusion ensued about whether the appeal legally required work to stop on the site until it was resolved. Dave Wilkinson, President and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation stated in an email that “we plan to move full speed ahead” despite the appeal, while community advocates like the Atlanta Community Press Collective (ACPC) argued that “continuing construction while an appeal is under consideration violates Dekalb County law.”23
In mid-February, the Fulton County Superior court ruled against a temporary construction injunction filed in the wake of the appeal, and the APF reiterated that it would continue its operations until a stop work order was issued by Dekalb County.24 Finally, after the first major clearcutting of the entire project, Dekalb County issued a stop work order on April 6, 2023, citing issues with the silt fencing required for erosion control.25 Later that same day, however, the County rescinded the order,26 revealing the vulnerability of a parcel of land caught between the city and the county. Dekalb County has hesitated to claim authority over the project because the land is owned by the city of Atlanta. The latter, of course, isn’t asking any questions. In the end, neither the city nor the County have taken real responsibility for the enforcement of any regulations on construction.
Quite a different picture is painted, however, when one considers the policing of the movement against the development. Especially during weeks of action, but not only then, multi-agency taskforces including the Atlanta Police Department, the Dekalb County Police Department, the Dekalb County Sheriff, the Georgia State Patrol, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, and sometimes officers from other counties, patrol the area and set up checkpoints, usually culminating in some type of raid on the forest resulting in wanton use of force and arrests. Of the larger number of people arrested in association with the movement, forty-two have been charged with Domestic Terrorism, which carries a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison. The complicated questions of jurisdiction seem to resolve themselves when the issue is security and repression.
On November 27, 2021, a delegation of Mvskoke people arrived in the Weelaunee Forest from eastern Oklahoma for a ceremonial stomp dance, attended by close to 300 people.27 The return of Mvskoke people to their territory under the auspices of a struggle to prevent the construction of a police training facility and Hollywood sound studio enacted a rejection of the received history of the land. That history progresses from the expulsion of the Mvskoke people, through forty years of plantation agriculture based on chattel slavery, to the establishment of the Atlanta City Prison Farm, and finally to the projects proposed by the city of Atlanta starting in 2021. What we perceive in this version of history is a line of reformist progress predicated on the clearing of the territory of its original inhabitants. Not only this, but as the progress of this history advances towards the future, the past is not only ordered in a neatly chronological way, but is in fact obscured. When the past is conceived of as passed, its presence in the present is erased, and its memory is buried. Because the “ancient” Mvskoke people were made quick work of, so the settler logic goes, the progress of history was allowed to unfold. Joe Peery, co-manager of the South River Forest Coalition, characterizes his perspective on the intentions of the APF: “They cannot wait. They just want to go in and bulldoze everything and then write the history the way that they want to write it.”28
Contesting this possibility, on March 8, 2023, ceremonial leaders of the Mvskoke people interrupted a city of Atlanta municipal meeting to serve an eviction notice. As they were “welcomed to leave”29 by city council members, and Mayor Andre Dickens fled through a back door, they read: we “hereby give notice to Mayor Andre Dicken [sic], the Atlanta City Council, the Atlanta Police Department, the Atlanta Police Foundation, the Dekalb County Sheriff's office, and so-called ‘Cop City’ that you must immediately vacate Mvskoke homelands and cease violence and policing of Indigenous and Black people in Mvskoke lands.”30 They went on to describe the bloody history of the land and tie the struggle of displaced Indigenous people to hyper-policed Black people in Atlanta.
From the 1820s until the Emancipation Proclamation, 35 individuals have been identified by name as facing the brutality of plantation slavery on the site of the Weelaunee Forest.31 Following emancipation, a prison farm emerged from the shell of the plantation. Hundreds of individuals labored on the Atlanta City Prison Farm, a dairy farm supplying other Atlanta city prisons, during its sixty-nine years of operation. From 1920 to 1989, the farm held captive individuals for periods long and short, from the few days that Stokely Carmichael was stowed there at the height of the civil rights movement to the eternity that could condemn those deposited in the countless unmarked graves on the site. Now, in the wake of the George Floyd Rebellion, the City of Atlanta seeks a further refinement of form: the “Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.” As the internal limits of mass incarceration as a way to deal with populations rendered surplus to capital have been overrun, and the concomitant proliferation of policing has provoked the most dynamic wave of antagonism in the past half century in the United States, “public safety” and “police training” become the issues to concretize in infrastructure.
Community research groups have taken up the task of investigating, compiling, and sharing the obscured past of the forest. The Atlanta Community Press Collective, for instance, released a multi-part series on the untold stories of the prison farm land, a document widely circulated and referenced among forest defenders and sympathizers.32 In the first part of the series, the ACPC clarifies its understanding of “History as a Solid” in which the act of remembering and documenting the past “ more than abstract narrative. It is flesh and blood.” They frame their work as animated by an impulse beyond simply “history for its own sake,” and instead “argue for preservation on the basis of its material effects on the people of the past and the present,” and emphasize that “it is necessary to situate these records in their full, living context.”33 For the ACPC, then, the past is not passed, is not dead and gone, terminated and inert, but rather “living,” mobile, with “material effects” on the present.
While the city of Atlanta might conceive of the past two hundred years of development on the land now (once again) known of as the Weelaunee Forest as a more-or-less linear trajectory of continuous progress, based on the removal of the Mvskoke people and moving towards ever improved modalities of social management, we might instead take seriously the point of departure. Rather than the “left to right” unfolding of history, we might consider the tactics and communications of the movement, such as the Mvskoke stomp dance ceremony, the eviction notice issued to the City of Atlanta, or the grassroots research initiatives of the ACPC rooted in popular calls to “question a framework where the depths of slavery remain in the past,”34 to conceive of the successive social forms operating in this portion of forest in southeast Atlanta as temporal layers sedimented one atop the other making up our present: history as a solid.
When the Mvskoke people travel to their geographical origin in the Weelaunee Forest for a stomp dance ceremony, as a part of the movement to stop Cop City, or serve an eviction notice to the city of Atlanta itself, the movement contradicts the dominant temporality, interceding in the futural progression of historical development and violating the premise that the expulsion of the Mvskoke people from their homelands is an already concluded past event. Rather than an orientation towards a future that leaves the past behind, or towards a past to which we might romantically return, the stomp dance and the reading of the eviction notice realize a living present stratum underpinning the history of the forest. As articulated by groups like the ACPC, the struggle against Cop City and Hollywood Dystopia seeks to harness and wield the vitality of the past as it exists within and animates the present. In the ceremonies of stomping or evicting, a stratum of the past accelerates in the present, or, we might say more clearly, bores a hole through the sedimentary layers to reveal their vertical stratification and temporal coextension. For the partisans of the Weelaunee Forest, the past of the Indigenous expulsion and genocide is not passed, but is an actively contested terrain of struggle, “in flesh and blood,” in the present.
“Only the historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious”
—Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Thesis VI
The struggle to defend the forest did not set out to make martyrs. However, on January 18, 2023, during a multi-agency raid on the encampment in the forest where 30 or so forest defenders were living in tents, treehouses, and makeshift shelters, multiple Georgia State Patrol officers opened fire on Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, striking them at least 57 times.35 An independent autopsy concluded that Paez was seated cross-legged with both hands raised when the hail of bullets engulfed them.36 With the killing of Paez, the struggle over the past that animated the defense of the Weelaunee Forest took on an immediate and visceral force.
Over the course of the following weeks, dozens of actions were carried out around the world in “mourning” and “vengeance,” from vigils and marches to clandestine attacks on funders and supporters of cop city, resulting in burned out Bank of America and Wells Fargo branches and briefly occupied or artistically redecorated Atlas Consultants and Greenberg Traurig offices. Collected on a blog site for the movement called “Scenes from the Atlanta Forest,” communiqués from the actions made clear the orientation of the struggle relative to the murder of Paez: a renewed, vital obligation was made to see the fight through, to realize the futures stolen from those whose blood has been shed surviving in or defending the forest. Autonomous groups were formed with names like “Joint Taskforce to Avenge Tortuguita”37 and “Autonomous Tortuguita Revenge Committee.”38 Countless communiqués emphasize that “action must be taken to honor Tortuguita” and that in the wake of their murder “it is our collective responsibility to interfere with [cop city’s] operations in any way we can.”39 Another wrote that “[e]ven after the night [of solidarity actions across the country] has ended, we cannot forgot [sic] what Tortuguita died fighting for. We must pick up the mantle in its stead”40 and that the actions carried out were “to honor Tortuguita and [are] a commitment to never stop fighting, to never stop avenging them.”41 These are only a few examples among dozens of similar statements that clarify the movement’s commitment to fighting “for the ghosts of savage rebels,” as articulated in spray-paint on the side of a building on the site of the old Atlanta City Prison Farm, a message present months before Tortuguita’s murder.42 And what is a ghost but the presence of the past in the present?
In a press conference during the fifth week of action in Atlanta, and before she spread her child’s ashes in the forest they were killed defending, Belkis Terán, Tortuguita’s mother, spoke to roaring applause: “Tortuguita is alive… and we have to continue [their] legacy… My prayer is that the blood of my [child] will speak in all our hearts.”43 We might read Terán’s words in concert with the ACPC’s conception of history as a solid, emphasizing another layer of the present in which the past is “living,” as her child lives on in the continuation of the struggle, their blood animating and speaking through the actions of those who continue to fight. Alongside the ubiquity of Paez’s image and invocation throughout the movement, the language of the communiqués and of Paez’s mother help to reveal the obligation to the past as an animating force in the struggle against cop city: “we have to continue” their legacy; “we must pick up the mantle in its stead;” “it is our collective responsibility to interfere” with the development of the forest. Forest defenders, in their writings and speeches, orient their action around a responsibility not just to each other and the land they are defending, but crucially to those that have come before, to realize the struggle those who came before them were precluded from continuing themselves; they fight “for the ghosts of savage rebels.”
“Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of the now silent ones?”
—Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Thesis II
Few would argue that the protection of the integrity and continuity of property, as exemplified by the securitization of the forest and the drastic police repression against the movement to defend it,44 is not one of the central charges of the modern state. Property, however, carries a temporal dimension: if it cannot be secured for tomorrow, what worth does it have? Understanding the state’s role as the defender of property and property’s necessary futurity, we might then consider the classic articulation of the state’s monopoly on violence as homologous to its monopoly on the future: at any moment, the state has the right to kill. This right to kill functions as a specter hovering over the population, always potentially realizable at some point in the future. That the ability to kill is codified as a “right” is important. Through its monopoly on the legal and morally righteous use of violence, its right to kill, the state attempts to establish a monopoly on the future through inaugurating a rights-based discourse that is necessarily self-referential: the state alone must be able to predict, or else prevent or punish, the types of activity undertaken in its domain, and is therefore self-ordained as the sole enforcer and guarantor of rights, including those that apply to itself (we might consider the bureaucratic processes that follow police murders, for instance). This rights-based discourse, emerging from the state’s fundamental right to kill, in turn underlies the state’s role as protector of property: namely, the right to property. Only state actors are authorized to take direct action for the protection, transferal, or destruction of property; all others must appeal to the state, whether by calling the police, filing a permit, signing a lease, or taking some other recourse to state enforcement. These forms of appeal are constitutively futural: while they may include and encompass the present, they also stipulate something about what can and cannot be done from a given moment forward. Property relations, in terms of who owns property and what they can do with it, are to be guaranteed in the future by the state.
Given the elemental nature of the futural logic of property and its protection by the state’s right to kill, we might then apprehend state-derived rights in general as essentially futural questions. Just as the elemental right to kill and its dependent right to property marshal the state-protector into a future orientation to guard against the uncertainties that might threaten sovereignty’s continuity or render property worthless, rights more broadly might be conceived as primarily defensible and applicable in the future. We can understand modern “rights” as such as essentially derived from the state’s right to kill, the founding right of sovereign governance, because their defense is dependent on that right as the final enforcer. Appeals to rights are principally appeals to the state to either grant or protect those rights, oriented towards the possibility of receiving rights not yet enjoyed, that once attained are dependent on the futurity of the state’s right to kill as their final guarantor. Social movements that depend on appeals to the fulfillment of rights, whether “human,” “constitutional,” or other, may well end up tied to and reproducing the state form as the necessary guarantor or enforcer of those movements’ victories. For many movements, this might be a comfortable horizon. But what about for a movement that seeks to go beyond capitulation to the state’s monopoly on violence and on the future? Might we look to the temporality of the fight to defend the Weelaunee Forest for a vision of how a movement might break the apparatus of state-legitimation inscribed in a rights-based struggle?
If the struggle to establish, realize, or defend rights implies an orientation to the future that is tied to the reproduction of the legitimacy of the state-form, because of the latter’s monopoly on the future based in its right to kill, a struggle that seeks to sever the state-bond might rather ground itself in the past, in the layers of real living history that make up our present. Rather than taking recourse to a rights-based discourse that is buttressed by a future-orientation and affixes social movements to the state, such a struggle might instead establish the foundation of its action in obligation and responsibility to those with whom we struggle and to those who came before.
The “Scenes from the Atlanta Forest” blog that compiles communiqués, report backs, and other writings from the movement has collected close to 300 contributions over the past two years, with a total word count in the hundreds of thousands. A simple word search of their archive reveals not a single use of the words “right” or “rights” in the sense in which we have been discussing. This is striking, because it would be easy to imagine a movement rhetoric founded on the “right to clean air,” the “right to green space,” the “right to decide what types of infrastructure are developed in our community,” or even the “right to our ancestral homelands.” Yet, none of this discourse is present. Instead, as we saw in the excerpts from the communiqués following Tortuguita’s murder, what leaps from the pages, mouths, and hands of the movement is a resounding motivation based on shared obligations to the land, to each other, and, most importantly, to the past. In this way, the movement to defend the Weelaunee Forest from becoming a cop city and Hollywood Dystopia might offer an example of a modality of struggle that could escape the capitulation to the state implicit in a future-orientation centering the fulfillment of rights as the condition of “victory” by turning instead towards the past, towards a different below, to ground the struggle, not in the desire for rights, but in the obligation to fulfill mutual responsibilities.
Of course, there is some coincidence between “rights” and “obligations”: Whenever someone has a “right,” someone else has an “obligation.” If I have a “right to clean water,” my neighbor has an obligation not to pollute the well from which I drink. We might recognize three registers of obligation, however: obligation to others, obligation to territory, and obligation to the past. It is this final register that, combined with the first two, ultimately defines and distinguishes the “obligations” that animate the struggle for the Weelaunee Forest from “rights.” Our obligations to each other and to the land, each taken alone, might be read alongside a rights-based discourse, as in the case of the well water. But our obligations to the past, to those who came before, our obligations through which we burrow to access deeper layers of the present, of the past within the present, cannot be subsumed or related to a rights-based discourse. Our obligations to the past bear no recourse to a future enforcement, and instead animate our action, and our obligations to each other and the land, by vitally connecting us to that which came before, to the sediment that consolidates to compose the present, and that remains alive within it through us. When we have an obligation to the past, no one is enforcing it but us; we alone are responsible for recognizing the struggles of the past in the present, and carrying them into the future. These are the stakes of the Mvskoke people returning to their homeland for a stomp dance ceremony, to reclaim their territory; of the archival and archaeological work of the Atlanta Community Press Collective; of the acts of vengeance in the wake of Tortuguita’s assassination; and of the sentiment of an anonymous forest defender when they say that “the most rewarding part about being here [in the forest] is feeling like in some way the resistance here is carrying on the spirit of the George Floyd Rebellion.”45
“I’m not here to wait for the Kingdom of God, I want the Kingdom of God right now!”
—Reverend Leo Seyij Allen at a Stop Cop City rally in Atlanta’s Gresham Park, March 4, 2023
Walter Benjamin describes the “angel of history” as a wide-eyed, wings-spread being “turned towards the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.”46 While the angel wants to address this wreckage, a terrible storm blows him away from it, into the future. Benjamin calls this storm “progress.”
While the imagination of historical progress would impress upon us a linear “chain of events,” such as the progression from the displacement of the Mvskoke people from southeast Atlanta to the present attempt to construct cop city, the angel of history sees the piling of wreckage upon wreckage, as the winds of progress sweep him away from that which calls him to action. The spatiality of the temporal metaphor is instructive: rather than progress propelling the angel horizontally from Paradise, since the piling of wreckage is hurled “at his feet” and “grows towards the sky,” we might better conceive of Paradise as below, with progress carrying the angel ever upwards as the wreckage accumulates in layers beneath him.
As the movement to defend the Weelaunee Forest grounds itself in the past to animate its struggle against the catastrophe that seeks to add another layer of wreckage to the history of southeast Atlanta, rebuffing the progressive vision that assigns the Mvskoke peoples to an era now eclipsed and motivated by an obligation to continue the struggle of those who came before, and those who have been taken through the struggle itself, we might ask how the angel of history can escape the winds of progress to realize his obligations, “to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” In seizing the history of the land “as it flashes up in a moment of danger,” in a moment in which the land could be completely eviscerated to make way for a militarized police training facility and a Hollywood sound studio gentrification machine, in a moment in which dozens of people face decades in prison for their participation in a battle that has already proven mortal, the movement to defend the forest raises the question: can the angel become the mole?
The revolutionary question of our time, then, emerges: through concrete struggles like the one to defend the Weelaunee Forest, can the angel of history become the mole that burrows through the layers of the past, through the sediment, through the wreckage, to reveal the strata that underlie and compose the present, to “awaken the dead,” to rupture the continuity of the temporality of progress, inaugurate a “messianic arrest,” and “make the continuum of history explode”? Can this burrowing, this revelation, this explosion, spurred by the appropriation of “a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger,” “bring about a real state of emergency,” eroding, hollowing out, undermining, and rendering inoperative the false integrity of the one in which we live, which the tradition of the oppressed, of the Mvskoke people, of the captured Africans, of the convicts, of Tortuguita, of those to whom our lives are obligated, has taught us is not the exception but the rule?
- There are 22 corporate entities with “Blackhall” in the name, 14 of which are registered to Ryan Millsap’s Buckhead home.
- In the beginning the project was dubbed the “Social Justice Center,” a name that has been dropped from official discourse without explanation.
- There have been five weeks of action over the past two years, and another is planned for June 24-July 1, 2023.
- Anonymous: “The City in the Forest: Reinventing Resistance for an Age of Climate Crisis and Police Militarization,” in Crimethinc, April 11, 2022 retrieved at https://crimethinc.com/2022/04/11/the-city-in-the-forest-reinventing-resistance-for-an-age-of-ecological-collapse-and-police-militarization
- Chebon, Mekko et al: “Eviction Notice from Mvskoke People to Mayor Andre Dickens and Cop City,” March 10, 2023, retrieved from https://defendtheatlantaforest.org/2023/03/10/eviction-notice-from-the-mvskoke-people/
- Atlanta Community Press Collective: “A brief history of the Atlanta City Prison Farm,” undated, zine. An abbreviated version available at https://atlpresscollective.com/2021/08/14/history-of-the-atlanta-city-prison-farm/
- “a call to decolonize weelaunee,” March 2, 2023, retrieved from https://scenes.noblogs.org/page/1/
- Sperry, Kris MD: “Manuel Esteban Paez Teran Report of Second Autopsy.” Sperry Forensic Pathology Consultants, Inc. March 9, 2023.
- “3 machines burned in honor of Tortuguita to defend Weelaunee,” February 19, 2023, retrieved from https://scenes.noblogs.org/page/2/
- 38. “Five years after the evacuation of Bois Lejuc: ANDRA’s Flux branch burnt down in Osne le Val near Bure,” February 18, 2023, retrieved from https://scenes.noblogs.org/page/2/
- “Bank Of America ATM sabotaged,” March 14, 2023, retrieved from https://scenes.noblogs.org/
- “THE APOCALYPSE,” January 20, 2023, retrieved from https://scenes.noblogs.org/page/4/
- “Atlas office in Connecticut Attacked,” February 28, 2023, retrieved from https://scenes.noblogs.org/page/2/
- “We Have To Stick Together” Episode 346, March 10, 2023, Kiteline Radio, listened on https://www.kitelineradio.org/listen/
- Let alone the intention to construct a militarized police training compound with a 10-block mock neighborhood in the first place, in the wake of the largest anti-police uprising the country has experienced this millennium that included massive property destruction and looting, no less.
- Benjamin, Walter: “On the Concept of History” in Selected Writings 1938-1940, Vol. 4, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 392