As young Jews from Atlanta, some of our most meaningful Jewish experiences have been under the city’s iconic tree canopy. Last month, we joined several dozen members of the Jewish community in the Weelaunee Forest to celebrate the first night of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish new year for trees. We planted pawpaw, peach, and fig trees together. We sang prayers.
What happened the next day, on Tu BiShvat itself, shocked us all: heavily armed police drove militarized vehicles into the forest where we had just planted trees. The land hasn’t rested since. On March 5, police once again attacked the forest and arrested 35 people. Many of them were attending a music festival to build opposition to a proposal dubbed Cop City: a massive $90 million police training center that would destroy 85 acres of forest. This proposed project is what the police have been working so hard to protect—it’s why they’ve been attacking the land and the people.
For many Jewish Atlantans like ourselves, our Judaism is deeply tied to the effort to defend the forest from Cop City—and the interlocking issues it raises: climate justice, police militarization and violence, nature conservation, and racial justice.
Cop City would be one of the largest police training facilities in the U.S., complete with a firing range and mock city streets, where police could train to execute raids or suppress protests. Many Atlanta residents have opposed it by giving public comments and passing neighborhood resolutions. Despite police efforts to whitewash the movement, this activism connects to a larger abolitionist campaign spearheaded by HBCUs and local Black-led organizations like Women on the Rise and Community Movement Builders. Organizers want the proposed project funds to instead tackle issues like housing and food insecurity, as well as repurpose the Atlanta City Detention Center into a community center. In recent weeks, sustained opposition has gained national and international support.
The movement especially gained attention after police killed a young, non-binary Indigenous Venezuelan forest protector named Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Páez Terán during another militarized raid on Jan. 18. They were a friend of many Jewish folks involved in the fight to protect Weelaunee Forest, the land’s original Muscogee Creek name. We are grieving their death. The forest invasion that happened on Tu BiShvat occurred while Tortuguita’s mother was holding a press conference nearby to call for police accountability. We knew our friend to be a pacifist, and while the police allege they killed Tortuguita because Tortuguita shot an officer, video footage of the raid suggests the officer may have instead been shot by a fellow officer.
A life has been destroyed, and with it, a whole world.
A life has been destroyed, and with it, a whole world.
When we see so many Atlantans in need of necessities like health care, food, and housing, we are reminded of the Torah’s most-repeated commandment: to love and protect the stranger. Our texts are clear about how we should respond when faced with a decision between military resources and food for the hungry. We are told to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We are commanded that we “shall never again know war,” as our text reads.
Tortuguita’s death has highlighted the intimate connection between the violence of the climate crisis and the violence of militarized police. At the heart of this connection are those who are most impacted by both: working-class people and people of color.
Our tradition also guides us to protect the environment. We are reminded of a basic ethical principle of Jewish law: “Bal tashchit,” do not destroy. We are told that God says of the trees in the Garden of Eden, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world—for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
To defend the Weelaunee Forest is to protect our climate. The forest is one of the city’s four lungs. Atlanta’s forests keep the region’s air clean and temperatures cool, which is needed in face of the climate crisis. They also protect the area from flooding, which is a major threat to Atlanta. The trees also store carbon that would otherwise further exacerbate climate change. The research shows that the climate crisis will hit some communities first and worst. Among them is the Black community.
As Jews, we have stood in solidarity with the Black community in Atlanta before. It is now time for us to do so again.
This is not just a question of Jews standing in solidarity with another community. It’s also about Jewish people standing up for each other: Black Jews are impacted by this, too. Though we share our dual perspectives in writing this, the reality is that our lived experiences as Jewish people are different. One of us is a queer Black woman, the other a white agender person. Being Black adds an entirely new layer to being Jewish. In Atlanta, Black Jews are pushed around by gentrification or lose our loved ones to incarceration. Just for being Black at the wrong place and time.
It is hurtful to hear arguments from some white Jews that facilities like Cop City will protect people when, as Tortuguita’s tragic death so clearly illustrated, it will only “protect” the white and the wealthy. As we saw on Tu BiShvat, that “protection” has limits, as well. For those of us who face the other end of policing, it’s clear that Cop City will be a place where police can practice how they plan to police Black communities and suppress our free speech.
If you are a member of the Jewish community who wants to stand up for all Jews, you must oppose Cop City.
As we grieve our friend Tortuguita, we appeal to our broader Jewish community to say with one loud voice, Protect the Weelaunee Forest! Stop Cop City! For our values, for our Black and Brown neighbors, for our Jewish community members most impacted by policing, for the climate, and for the trees.