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ATLANTA – On Sunday, March 5th, the second and final day of the South River Music Festival commenced. What began as a family-friendly event that promoted forest conservation and local music, ended with the police kettling and threatening concertgoers. 35 attendees were arrested and 23 were charged with domestic terrorism. Many were denied bond.
The festival took place in the Weelaunee Forest, a greenspace that sprawls 3,500 acres throughout south Atlanta. It is the site of an ongoing battle between the Atlanta Police Department—which plans to gut 85 acres of the forest to build the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, a $90M police and fire department training center known by its opponents as “Cop City”—and the area’s “forest defenders”: dedicated activists who make up a “broad, decentralized, autonomous movement” that refuses to let the forest “be bulldozed in favor of the police.” Additionally, Shadowbox Studios, a blockbuster movie studio, plans to clear cut 170 acres of the forest for their use.
Over the past eight months, the APD has been increasingly aggressive in their measures to win control over the land. Forest Defenders have deployed a range of protection tactics: encampments, tree-sits, peaceful protest marches, carefully targeted property damage, and a number of community events. The police have responded by raiding camps of forest defenders and cutting their water supplies, but tensions reached a harrowing level when on January 18, 2023, police shot and killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, a 26-year-old who had moved into the forest full-time to help protect it.
The week after Teran’s killing, passionate citizens from all over the southeast marched through downtown Atlanta. Protesters were not keen on peace at this demonstration: rocks were thrown through building windows, police cars were lit on fire. State repression followed soon after, with the APD using physical force on protesters, and 19 protestors being slapped with domestic terrorism felony charges.
The South River Music Festival was the kickoff of the activists’ “Week of Action:” seven straight days of rallies, press conferences, and direct actions. The free festival featured Atlanta music mainstays such as Faye Webster and Father, plus underground fixtures Sword II, Playytime and more.
On Saturday, the ATL Press Collective described the event as “festive,” with children playing on the playground, activists giving informational speeches, and the group of around 200 people chanting “I will defend this land.” There were no police in sight.
On Sunday, the mood shifted. Thousands were in attendance: some for the music festival, others to take “direct action.” On the other side of the forest from the music festival, hundreds of protestors took over a police surveillance outpost, causing police to retreat by shooting fireworks into the area. Reports state that the outpost was smashed, and the police vehicle guarding access to the “Cop City” site, as well as some construction equipment, was set on fire.
The music festival, however, started as a calm, community event. Olivia (we have omitted all last names of attendees to maintain their anonymity) was there giving free tarot readings. “At first, it was a family-friendly event,” she said. “Dogs were everywhere and there was even a bouncy castle.”
But around 6:30PM, while the artist Suede Cassidy was performing, police overtook the festival. (It is important to note that the music festival and the outpost attack happened on complete opposite ends of the forest.) A festival attendee named Brooks, 23, said that “cops entered the forest, then pushed people all the way to the stage and didn’t let them leave or return to their cars.” Chad, who was there to perform with his band, said that “cops started running onto the field, several of them armed, and some of them were tripping people who tried to run away.” StopCopCity’s official Instagram account reported that “police tased concertgoers who were moving away from the commotion. They also tackled people to the ground and threatened to use lethal force.” One anonymous eyewitness reported that a police officer said to them: “I swear to God I will fucking kill you.” The festival remained at a standstill for about an hour, with the crowd chanting “Stop Cop City” and “the show must go on.” Then, according to Unicorn Riot, police “surrounded the bounce house, pointed guns inside it then tore it down.” The multitude of officers, all heavily armed, surrounded the crowd and threatened to arrest all of them on domestic terrorism charges. As the cops continued to surround the crowd, which consisted of children, families, and artists alike, chants of “Let us go home!” and “We have children here!” broke out.
It was also reported that tear gas and rubber bullets were used on protestors who tried to flee. One concertgoer was wrestled down then put in a chokehold by an officer. According to a city press release, 35 individuals were arrested and 23 were charged with domestic terrorism. One of those 23 was a legal observer who is a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The police then checked the IDs of everyone they entrapped before finally allowing them to leave the forest.
In a statement, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund said: “Police seem to be lashing out at anyone present at the music festival. Music is not a crime, protest is not a crime. People lawfully exercising first amendment rights cannot be held criminally liable for the actions of others.” The “Week of Action” is continuing. You can find the details here.
This is America in 2023. Repression is to be expected, but never accepted. This is an event that can be seen in black and white. It is as simple as good versus evil. On one hand, there is a conglomerate of concerned citizens who do not want a 300-acre forest to be destroyed. On the other, there is a militaristic police force and multi-billion dollar production company who want to destroy the forest for private gain. It’s all just so simple: would you rather have a forest with trees, or tanks? Governor Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens are both ardent supporters of Cop City and consistently decry protest actions as “radical” and “terroristic.” It is clear that this fight relies on citizens who care about Atlanta, the environment, and fighting fascism. If you would like to help, please visit these websites for information, and below is some more reading on the topic: