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Food autonomy festival caps off week of action against ‘Cop City’

Crime and public safety DeKalb County

Food autonomy festival caps off week of action against ‘Cop City’

People gathered around the campfire at the end of the 'First Annual Welaunee Food Autonomy Festival. Photo by Jaedon Mason

This story has been updated.

By Jaedon Mason, contributor 

Atlanta, GA — Monday was the last day of the Food Autonomy Festival.

Over the three days from March 11–13, attendees shared skills and perspectives on other uses for the land slated for a proposed public safety training center in the South River Forest.

The Food Autonomy Festival took place on public land activists call Welaunee Peoples Park, which east of the proposed public safety center site. Participants planted more than 200 fruit trees, went on mushroom walks, and learned about the history of the land and the importance of the South River Forest to the larger ecosystem regarding things like flooding and fires.   

By Monday evening, it was a more still, intimate event. People huddled around a campfire, keeping warm and sharing recipes, songs, memories, and things they learned from the festival. All the activities encapsulated the pervasive mood, trying to put words to the messy feelings of grief and hope and work them through together.

“The character the Welaunee Food Autonomy Festival has taken is definitely related to what’s happened since we first planned it,” said Hadly, a participant who helped plan the festival who did not provide a last name.

The Food Autonomy Festival took place at the end of the “Stop Cop City Week of Action,” a week of other festivals, protests, and demonstrations across Atlanta, and in and around the contested land of the forest. 

All the events from the week were a part of the series of demonstrations and confrontations that have been occurring the past few months between police and protesters over what is to be done with the South River Forest, whether it is to become the top of the line police and fire training facility that the activists call “Cop City” or become the communal green space, with collective housing and food forests the protesters envision. 

These confrontations reached a climax earlier this year when Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Teran, 26, was killed by law enforcement on Jan. 18. The incident is being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, an agency that is part of a larger task force of law enforcement agencies working to remove activists from the site.

Hadly reflected on how the movement and events surrounding it personally affected festival attendees

“When we were first planning it, I was talking with Tortuguita about it, and they were stoked to plant some trees. That would have been a different festival than one where our friend has been murdered, and we’re remembering that…planting trees in memorial for them,” Hadly said.

Teran’s mother, Belkis Teran, also attended. She urged “the people of the world” to come and join in the struggle, while sharing common feelings of loss, community and optimism at the end of the formal week of action. 

Though it had been planned before, the timing of the Welaunee Food Autonomy Festival corresponded with the “Stop Cop City” Week of Action, and served a symbolic role to close out the week. 

“I use the word integration,” said one of the discussion facilitators at the festival, who identified as Lil’ Pocket. “I think of it as taking all the experiences that we had over the last four days or the last 10 days and trying to kind of bring it into some sort of cohesive understanding.”

“I saw this week as an energetic shift for our movement, towards a real committed long-term fight, rather than the blocking of a specific project…a shift toward a longer vision, a longer project and a longer fight,” Lil’ Pocket added.

A week before the Weelaunee Food Autonomy Festival, the “Stop Cop City” Week of Action was kicked off by a different event, the South River Forest Festival. The two-day music festival showcased a variety of artists and musicians from March 4-5. Police raided it on the second day, in response to people police called “agitators destroy[ing] multiple pieces of construction equipment by fire and vandalism.” Police made 35 arrests. Seventeen were charged with domestic terrorism and 14 were charged with criminal trespass. 

Kevin Abaddon, a 35-year-old resident of the Bouldercrest community – the neighborhood in which the proposed training center will be built – attended the festival and witnessed the police response.  

“It all happened really, really fast. Sirens were blaring and no one really knew what was going on,” Abaddon said. “As we were walking out, this police officer ran out of the forest and started screaming at this person…he was just some dude that was at the festival. ‘You in the red shirt, stop, or I am gonna shoot you.’ This was maybe like [40] feet from me.”

Abaddon described how the officer then tased the man and stepped on his back, after which he and the people he was with ran out through the forest. 

He also spoke about the increased police presence in his neighborhood recently. 

“Our neighborhood is constantly under police surveillance, there are at least three cop cruisers in our neighborhood at any given time, I just feel like I live in an occupied territory,” Abaddon said. “Everyone wants to feel safe, but having constant armed guards doesn’t make me feel safe, it’s doing the opposite.” 

But the week of action continued despite the March 5 confrontation at the music festival. There were protests across different neighborhoods in Atlanta, a press conference with religious leaders speaking out against the destruction of the forest, a march through downtown, and a noise demonstration at the DeKalb County Jail and a confrontation of the Atlanta mayor by indigenous leaders. 

Perhaps the biggest event of the week was the release of an independent autopsy report showing that Teran was shot while likely sitting down with his hands raised, and the family is suing the city of Atlanta for the release of more information under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said that “Cop City” can be a place of community engagement, but Abaddon doesn’t think that’s the case.

“It’s bullshit. They killed a child… they killed a kid, I don’t know how else to put it… You can’t kill a kid and then tell me this is a place for community engagement,” Abaddon said.

The Week of Action events highlighted the opposition to the construction of the training center as intersectional. The coalition spoke out against problems with policing and racial justice, the environment and its history and also spoke about community – in how citizens engage with government officials and how the government is expected to engage with them.   

“This is meant to be the first annual Welaunee Food Autonomy Festival,” Hadly said. “We hope that year after year and through continued inhabitation of the forest that we can not only sort of restore some of the damage that’s been done to this place, through colonization and land theft, and enslavement, and all of those things. But also, try to restore and heal some of the relationships among people who have been impacted by all of those things.”

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