But she hasn’t been able to get used to hearing the daily sprays of gunfire.
“When I first moved here, it increased my anxiety,” Ram, who did not want her full name used due to privacy concerns, said. “It messed up my nerves.”
The sound comes from a nearby Atlanta police firing range. It’s unnerving, residents from several nearby neighborhoods told CNN. Worse, they worry it’s just a glimpse into what could come when local officials begin building a massive police and fire training center in their backyards. “I absolutely want the police to be well-trained,” said Joe Santifer, who lives in another neighborhood, roughly a mile away from where the facility is slated to be built. “But if they’re not being good neighbors now, what will give us the confidence that they’ll be good neighbors in the future?”
Activists determined to stop the project have camped out in the forest’s trees and, despite a permit which could soon signal the start of construction, say they have no plans to leave.
A promise unkept
“We knew that (the training facility) was a direct response to the uprisings that took place in 2020,” said Kwame Olufemi, of Community Movement Builders, a Black member-based grassroots organization opposing the project.
Though the land is in unincorporated DeKalb County, it’s long been owned by the city, and residents in the surrounding area don’t have a say in city elections or vote for the leaders who made this decision. “It was kind of foisted upon us,” Santifer, who lives in Glen Emerald Park, said. “That’s part of the issue: the lack of transparency, the lack of engagement with this community because frankly, they know the community doesn’t want it.”
City spokesperson Bryan Thomas told CNN the prison farm site was “a pragmatic choice, given its adjacency, its ownership by the City and its former and continued use” by Atlanta’s police and fire rescue departments.
Other sites were explored over several years, Thomas said, adding the city engaged with a group of designers, architects and engineers about what a “first-rate training center” would require. The group eventually focused on the prison farm site since it has previously hosted training facilities, like the firing range, Thomas added.
CNN also reached out to the police foundation for comment.
The White House had no comment from Bottoms, who serves as senior adviser to the President for public engagement.
Activists living in trees to stop ‘Cop City’
The Community Movement Builders group, which also opposes the plan, would have liked to see the financial resources instead be put toward mental health, food and housing programs for south Atlanta communities, according to Olufemi.
Cox Enterprises spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs told CNN in a statement, “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has always operated with complete editorial independence, and the newspaper, in its coverage of the police training facility, has repeatedly disclosed that it is owned by Cox Enterprises.”
Residents who are in support of the facility told CNN they wanted police to be able to train properly and hoped the development would make their communities safer and help spur economic development.
Spence Gould, a marine and resident of the Boulder Walk community for roughly a decade, said he sees the need for a training center. “I want my police force very well-trained, I want them to have all the resources that they need,” Gould told CNN. “But I also see the (Defend the Atlanta Forest) concerns because we are really wrecking the planet.”
Construction is expected to begin in the late fall and the first phase of the facility is expected to open before the end of 2023, the city spokesperson said.
Amid climate crisis, advocates urge city not to cut trees
“The forest serves as the city’s lungs,” said Nina Dutton, chair of the Sierra Club Metro Atlanta Group. “Forests capture carbon, they clean the air … they mitigate flooding and prevent erosion and they help keep the city cool. Breaking up this area of forest would reduce the amount of forest that’s available to help us in those ways.”
The forest vision could also spur economic development in long neglected areas and reconcile decades of environmental injustice with investment, said urban planner Ryan Gravel. “If you live in a community in the South River Forest, you’re more likely to live within walking distance of a landfill or a prison than anywhere else in metro Atlanta, by far,” he said. “You’re talking about an area that has historically been treated as a dumping ground.”
Thomas, the city’s spokesperson, said training facilities will make up less than half the site, while the rest will be green space open to the public and include walking trails and picnic areas.
Much of the land to be developed has previously been cleared of trees and the parts including forest cover are “overwhelmingly dominated by invasive species,” devoid of thick forest, Thomas added. The Atlanta Police Foundation has committed to replace any hardwood tree destroyed in construction with 10 new ones and replace any invasive species with hardwood trees, the spokesperson added.
‘Violations of our environment and our neighborhoods’
Clark, who has lived in the Boulder Walk neighborhood for roughly eight years, told CNN she is in favor of the training facility. She agrees the area has long been used as a “dumping ground” for unpopular developments like landfills, and hopes the center can help economically lift the area, bring in new vendors and also boost police presence. “At the end of the day, I think that’s a win-win for the community,” she said.
But ahead of the DeKalb County commissioners’ vote, county leaders heard from residents who said the project remained highly unpopular among the surrounding communities and urged for the approval of Terry’s resolution.
“Residents in the area, who are predominantly Black and brown, often low-income, have been left out of the decision-making process and their voices have been ignored,” DeKalb County resident Brad Beadles said during an August meeting, according to a summary posted on the county’s website. “No one should have to be subjected to such clear harmful violations of our environment and our neighborhoods.”