Green Space Versus the Police State: The Future of Weelaunee People’s Park

Atlanta—a twentieth-century hub for the Black middle class, a battleground over segregation, and now… the destination for brunch? Buried beneath the surface of enticing new restaurants in rapidly gentrifying Atlanta neighborhoods is another battle brewing that connects the right to urban green space with a protest against the police state. Over the past decade, the city has become home to a 22-mile circumferential rail-to-park loop, since argued by many as an apparatus of “infrastructural racism” further segregating the city.[1] Now the new protest chant #StopCopCity targets the creation of a new massive tactical training compound to be built on 85 acres of Atlanta’s South River Forest called Intrenchment Creek Park. For the past few months, activists have occupied the forest, informally converting it into an outdoor community center called “Weelaunee People’s Park” by its defenders. Weelaunee People’s Park is far from the first urban environmental occupation in United States history, yet its movement is currently one of the largest, seeking wide appeal from diverse supporters across the world. 

Originally a takeover of Muscogee land, the park has an eerie palimpsestic history as a plantation turned Civil War battle site turned horrifying prison farm.[2] Activists argue that the new “Cop City” would extend a long history of environmental and racial exploitation on that site. In 2017, South River Park became integrated into Atlanta’s new green redesign by being designated as one of the city’s essential “lungs.”[3] However, by September of 2021, the Atlanta City Council voted to lease roughly 24% of the park to the Atlanta Police Foundation to construct its mega training facility, complete with its own mock city.[4] The decision ignited an intersectional resistance effort. Building on the city’s push for social justice and solidarity during the Black Lives Matter Movement as well as growing momentum for climate justice, protesters have used the park as a starting point to argue for community-centered urban environmental design. After a year-long standoff, the city aimed to crush the occupation with a raid during Christmas of 2022. Although six protestors were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, the park defense has continued—expanding the park’s role as a politicized social space for a variety of social justice movements. 

“Stop Cop City: Defend the ATL Forest,” Graphic by anonymous (est. 2022), Defend the Atlanta Forest.
[Image description: The black and white image reads “Stop Cop City: Defend the Atlanta Forest” in bold font. Below a tree grows out of an overturned police car.]

In my own research I have studied the visual and material culture of more than four dozen activist-created parks as forms of protest since the Vietnam War era, from campuses including Michigan Tech to Chicano neighborhoods such as San Diego’s Barrio Logan.[5] In particular, my work has focused on analyzing these insurgent park creations as forms of world-building that transform encampments into social, political, and ecological epicenters. The first iteration of Berkeley’s People’s Park, the most well-documented activist-created green space in the United States in the 1960s, included flexible spaces for work, rest, and play that could happen spontaneously, allowing park goers to explore their own ideas and identities through materiality. Sculptures, stages, and swings became seats and play areas, opportunities for self-reflection and socialization. The BBQ pit, picnic tables, red wooden benches, and other seating arrangements created communal spaces for food consumption and social gatherings in an era when roasting a hog signified a challenge to racist police brutality.[6] A multicolored wooden stage with a pergola offered a platform for rock musicians and activists alike to share their politics publicly, while the park’s varied gardens and hand-built winding brick pathways facilitated sensory connections with the earth. 

Likewise, at San Diego’s Chicano Park danzante performances and murals depicting Aztlán were not mere decoration but the visual and material building blocks of a cultural revolution. Created on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Chicano Park was similarly reclaimed as a protest against the development of a California State Highway Patrol office. The land had already been designated for a community park as consolation for the San Diego-Coronado Bridge bifurcating San Diego’s already displaced Mexican American community.[7] At both Berkeley’s People’s Park and San Diego’s Chicano Park, as well as dozens of other people’s parks created during mounting protests against postwar urban renewal, food, labor, art, and performance provided key components of political world-building that helped ignite discussions about the relationship between urban green space and power. 

Frank Cieciorka, “Let a Thousand Parks Bloom” (1969), All of Us or None Archive, Oakland Museum of California.
[Image description: A clenched fist emerges from a rose that grows from the broken rubble of dilapidated street signs. At the bottom, the poster reads, “Let a thousand parks bloom.”]

Sixties-era mimeograph machines and word-of-mouth assemblies have now been traded for Instagram and TikTok social media in transformative ways. Instagram in particular has allowed for park organizers to recruit workers, solicit donations, and most importantly synthesize their message on a platform that seamlessly encouragers users to blend their personal lives with their political interests. In 1969, artist Frank Cieciorka’s poster “Let a Thousand Parks Bloom” captured the movement, with a giant fist emerging defiantly from a pile of crumpled cans, chain link fences, and dilapidated power line—urban detritus.[8] Now in 2022, @DefendAtlantaForest reposts supporter-created memes in response to the recent raid on the park portraying the Atlanta Forest drowning, near death in an environmental apocalypse.[9] Memes, photos and other graphics provide the account’s more than 28,000 followers with a quick cackle. Similar to how Berkeley’s People’s Park hosted theater troupes, bands, and teach-ins, Weelaunee People’s Park features medicine-making workshops, weekly dinners cooked onsite, and guided meditations. Even in the colder winter days, park organizers have held cleanups and “anti-repression trainings” designed to teach park goers their legal rights as police violence on site increases.[10] While bystander James Rector was shot by police in 1969 in a standoff over Berkeley People’s Park, most recently Weelaunee People’s Park defender “Tortuguita” was killed during a police raid, resulting in digital and in-person vigils in solidarity across the world.[11]

The mission of Weelaunee People’s Park to unite activist communities in protest against police brutality with urban ecology opens a window onto the future of activist-created parks. Studying more than four-dozen activist-occupied urban green spaces has revealed how few can maintain momentum due to constant police harassment and arrests, the frustration of group infighting, and bulldozers, let alone extreme weather patterns and sickness. Rarely do park creations become institutionalized, like San Diego’s Chicano Park or Bloomington’s People’s Park. Parks not forcibly evicted within a few weeks, such as Chicago’s Poor People’s Park, fizzle out due to waning stamina, leaving behind brush-covered lots like the University of Georgia’s People’s Park. Regardless of their trajectories, these actions indicate a growing movement of political placemaking that uses the public visibility of insurgent political theater to challenge displacement. Confronting institutionalized spatial power structures, takeovers, occupations, and activist-created parks reveal green space as not only a crucial site of urban political resistance, but also its symbolic reclamation as a form of power. Putting Weelaunee’s People’s Park in conversation with its Vietnam War-era predecessors reveals how many of the same conditions instigating protests in the 1960s—violent policing, the privatization of urban green spaces, ecological devastation, gentrification—continue to shape U.S. cities today. 

A global map of activist-created parks as protests around the world since the 1960s. “The People’s Park” by author, Google My Maps, Map Data ©, Google, INEGI.
[Image description: Part of a world map with North America on the left and Europe and Africa on the right, featuring pinned locations of known “people’s parks” around the world, including waypoints in North America, Germany, Denmark, and South Africa.]

Looking to the future, the successes of actions like Weelaunee People’s Park cannot be defined by their permanence. Encampments, like the growing occupation of Germany’s Garzweiler open pit mine in protest against the demolition of the Lützerath village, will continue as the climate crisis and police brutality worsen.[12] The inherent ephemerality and continuous transformation of protest tactics like these speak to a radical geography bridging past and present in urban life. The key to their future, if we can borrow the words of Nigerian American writer Teju Cole, is storytelling: “Cities are built on people’s bones. How, then, do we tell stories about cities so that those who have died, do not die a double death through forgetting? Below us, on street corners, are people’s dreams.”[13] Perhaps the key to their success is the use of social media apps like Instagram that expand parks from literal spaces to digital frontiers. Blending the personal with the political through the creation of a somewhat interactive public archive, @DefendAtlantaForest is an example of the power of using its platform to visualize longer histories of resistance that will continue to shape the urban realm long after Weelaunee People’s Park is gone. 

[1] John Ruch, “Leaders say Atlanta BeltLine must not become part of ‘infrastructural racism,” Rough Draft Atlanta (June 5, 2020). 

[2] Jillian Wootten, “An Historical Analysis of the Atlanta Prison Farm,” City Planning 6012 (November 5, 1999).

[3] City of Atlanta Department of City Planning, Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community (City of Atlanta, 2017).

[4] Christina Maxouris, “Atlanta wants to build a massive police training facility in a forest. Neighbors are fighting to stop it,” CNN (September 24, 2022).

[5] Kera Lovell, “Radical Manifest Destiny: Mapping Power over Urban Green Space in the Age of Protest, 1968–1988” (PhD diss., Purdue University, 2017); Gretchen L. Bailey, “Building a Compliant Commons: The Story of People’s Park at the University of Georgia” (MA thesis, University of Georgia, 2021). 

[6] Kera Lovell, “Free Food, Free Space: People’s Stews as a Lens into the Spatial Identity Politics of People’s Parks in the Postwar Era,” American Studies 57, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 103-119.

[7] Eric Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[8] Frank Cieciorka, “Let a Thousand Parks Bloom” (1969), All of Us or None Archive, Oakland Museum of California.

[9] @DefendAtlantaForest, “Submitted! Upcoming and Ongoing Events in Weelaunee,” Instagram (December 30, 2022).  

[10] @DefendAtlantaForest, “Submitted: Upcoming Week of Resilience Plus some Ryan Millsap Content,” Instagram (January 4, 2023). 

[11] Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon and Rick Rojas, “Protester Killed in Firefight at Site of New Atlanta Police Center,” New York Times (January 18, 2023). 

[12] Staff Report, “German Police Begin Clearing Coal Mine Protest Camp in Luetzerath,” Al Jazeera (January 12, 2023). 

[13] Teju Cole quoted in Sara Emily Duff, “”How We Tell Stories about Cities,” Africa Is A Country (October 8, 2013). 

*Cover image: “More Plants, Less Police,” Instagram graphic by Deivid Rojas (@plantitapapi).

[*Cover image description: A mid-century cop car is covered in creeping vines of green kudzu. The image reads, “More Plants, Less Police.” The cop car is surrounded by the names of those murdered by police, including: Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Bettie Jones, Rekia Boyd, Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Dominque White, Atatiana Jefferson, and Laguan McDonald. At the bottom right reads, “For Breonna Taylor, signed @plantitapapi.]

Edited by Natascha Otoya, reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.

Tagged with: