What could make a person die for trees?
About five years ago, I published a novel called “The Overstory,” the tale of several characters who come together to protect an old-growth forest. The book follows these characters as they put their lives on the line in increasingly aggressive confrontations against powerful interests in the hope of saving trees. In the story, decent and principled people cross over the edge into retaliatory violence while trying to defend the living world.
Now a similar story is playing out just a four-hour drive from where I live. Atlanta has been shaken by an apparent shootout that occurred two weeks ago when law enforcement officers tried to clear protesters from South River Forest, a wooded area just outside of the city that has been designated as the site for a controversial new police and firefighter training center. A Georgia state trooper has been hospitalized with a bullet in the belly. A 26-year-old protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, is dead, gunned down by law enforcement in what they are calling an act of self-defense.
Officers standing on the edge of the forest.
South River Forest is one of Atlanta’s largest, richest and most enjoyable urban woodlands. It borders a predominantly Black, underprivileged neighborhood. The battle for its future erupted over a year ago when the City Council, in a decision met by much public resistance, approved plans for a $90 million, 85-acre training center in the middle of the woods. It would be one of the biggest centers of its kind anywhere in the country, containing not only a shooting range and driving course for practicing high-speed chases, but also an entire simulated village where police would train to conduct raids.
City Hall calls it the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. On the street it’s known as Cop City.
The choice of site could not be more politically charged. The Indigenous Muscogee people, from whom the land was taken 200 years ago, revere that forest, which they know as the Weelaunee. The training center is slated to be built over the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, in operation for much of the 20th century, where decades of human rights abuses took place. And the forest has long been part of an ambitious plan to piece together an ecologically rich greenbelt of protected parkland stretching across southeastern Atlanta and neighboring southwestern DeKalb County, a project that would provide numerous environmental benefits to an increasingly heat-stressed city.
After the City Council approved the project, local environmental and social justice groups joined forces to oppose the decision. Destroying part of South River Forest, they rightly argued, would harm Atlanta’s residents, especially those in the mostly Black neighborhoods nearby. The lush tree cover of South River Forest helps clean and filter Atlanta’s air and water. It provides defense against storm water surges. The trees cool the concrete and buildings that make Atlanta hotter than its surroundings, and they raise the value of surrounding real estate. The diversity of wildlife and the ancient quiet of the groves improve the health of city dwellers in profound ways.
These local activists, joined by protesters from around the country, then took action. Over the past year, they have mounted a largely successful defense of South River Forest, resisting the proposed training center through tree-sitting, blockades, demonstrations and direct confrontation that at times has caused property damage. Two weeks ago, increasingly frustrated law enforcement agencies swept into the woods and tried to shut down the forest defenders. Predictably, the violence spiraled into tragedy.
The kind of fictional disaster I wrote about in “The Overstory” is playing out in fact.
Following the shooting of the state trooper and the death of the protester, the atmosphere in Atlanta is tense. Property in the downtown area stands damaged and dozens of people have been arrested, some held without bond. Idealistic young people building barricades and living in tree houses face charges of domestic terrorism, with the possibility of spending decades in prison. Last Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia declared a state of emergency, empowering him to bring in a thousand National Guard troops who could further escalate the crisis.
The battle over South River Forest is our national crisis in microcosm: environmental anxiety, racial tension and ethnic animosity, the growing gap between rich and poor, concern for public safety, suspicion of the police, the reckoning with our symbols of historical injustice. The issues are complex and do not lend themselves to easy answers.
But there is a solution to the city’s immediate crisis: put the issue of the training center to a public vote. In the short term, a referendum would allow both sides to cool the conflict. In the long term, it offers the best hope for restoring trust in the city. Those who breathe Atlanta’s air and walk its public spaces must decide whether the southeast of their city should remain a living greenbelt or become a state-of-the-art training center.
A citywide vote might seem like an obvious answer to the citywide turmoil. But it could be a hard pill to swallow for both sides. Would a passionate, loosely organized protest movement really stand down if a majority of voters were to decide that they don’t care about the fate of the forest? Could City Hall, keenly aware of the vast amount of outside money committed to the training center, be big enough to walk back its prior decision and accept the wishes of Atlanta at large?
A referendum is a risky approach for all parties. And the practical challenges would be considerable: Not only would the City Council have to suspend its approval of the plan, but the referendum also would have to bridge two counties — DeKalb, where the forest and the neighborhood bordering it are, and Fulton, home to most of Atlanta. But in a city divided by fatal confrontation, only the will of the majority has the moral force to resolve the showdown.
A character in my novel “The Overstory” comes to realize that nothing in this living world has an independent existence. As she puts it, “Everything in the forest is the forest.” Atlanta will always be a wild mix of people whose interests could not be more different. And yet everyone in Atlanta is Atlanta. All those whose city is at stake should be allowed to choose what happens to South River Forest. As with America at large, the only way forward is into that tangled woods we call democracy. It’s still alive. Use it.
Richard Powers is the author, most recently, of the novel “Bewilderment.”
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