Words by Kayla Herrera-Daya
Guided by movements past, defenders against Cop City in Atlanta’s South River Forest won’t go down without a fight—and a rave.
“Who has ever lived in the present
when there’s so much of the future
to continue without us.”
—Alex Dimitrov, 1969
Once upon a time in Atlanta, Ryan Millsap, a film industry executive and real-estate tycoon, dreamed of turning the region’s largest remaining green space into sound-stages. Last July, on a sweltering morning, Millsap and his crew bulldozed through a gazebo in the South River Forest.
They were soon met with squatting occupants, otherwise known as the Forest Defenders, who were protesting against the region’s deforestation and who ultimately drove Millsap’s crew out of the park. Left behind was a single truck that, in the chaos, was set alight by Defenders and later painted and filled with flowers, immortalizing the Defend the Atlanta Forest (DAF) movement in a single relic.
Millsap’s is one of two plans hatched to seize, deforest, and build out the 300-acre swath of land in Atlanta’s South River Forest. The other is on behalf of the Atlanta Police Department, which has set out to develop a $90 million training compound, complete with mock towns, that has widely been dubbed Cop City. The initiative has been propelled forward by the Atlanta Police Foundation despite opposition from the surrounding communities and growing support for local defenders across the United States. On December 22, 2022, the entrance to the park was demolished, and not a month later, Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Páez Terán, a Forest Defender and environmental activist, was killed by a police officer in a standoff.
The urgency of the Defend the Atlanta Forest extends far beyond stopping the construction of sound-stages and training compounds. As a movement, it stands against not only the climate crisis, but police brutality, eco-terrorism, gentrification, and at its heart, celebrating nature’s abundance and preserving it for future generations.
By day, the Defenders engage in mutual aid style living: treehouses dot the canopy, and banners announcing their disapproval of Cop City are slung among branches. But by night, Defenders throw raves in the forest, a remarkable but not unique kind of celebration in the face of hardship. These parties are for me and you, and for an unforetold future and those living in it.
The piney South River Forest, referred to by some as the lungs of the city, is less than half an hour from Midtown Atlanta, but breathes the air of a different time. Forest Defenders remember their days of action last summer as ones drenched in spirit and brimming with hope. Their raves on the forest floor weren’t limited to one genre of music. Rather, Defenders recall points at which hundreds of partygoers were “moshing through dust storms while organizers desperately held on to speaker stands to keep them upright,” said one. “And in the next [instance], a singer-songwriter would play and everyone quietly listened.” Their parties in the Forest are a practical way for young people and artists to be involved in climate action on their own terms. It might seem obvious, but public spaces like these offer relief for identifiers on the fringes, many of them, including those fighting for the Forest, are young and queer—they always have been.
By night, Defenders throw raves in the forest. These parties are for me and you, and for an unforetold future and those living in it.
Partying offers a sense of collective action; a place to vent for people who face a future designed in the interests of others. Underneath border lines drawn on maps and inside abandoned warehouses, is a rumbling desire for autonomy. This phenomenon isn’t new. The 1980s in Chicago, for instance, brought on raves to the beat of House music that served as a relieving space for Black LGBTQIA+ communities, who were threatened by AIDS and the harmful social stigma that came along with it. What began as a primitive new wave of music in the decade prior, helped to uplift and empower a whole generation.
The music itself, heavy in bass beats, and described by writer Barry Walters for Spin Magazine in 1986 as a sound with frankly “little variation, subtlety, melody, [or] instrumentation,” was borrowed from old disco as well as from disco music of the day. A product of club hits and disco workouts—important eras of music in their own rights in the fight for midcentury gay liberation—as well as the Italian dance records that informed early House tempos, it was, as Walters went on to say, “the sensibility [of] a young, [B]lack, D.I.Y. attitude combined with gay camp.” Music production was transformed as a result. When living through an age of unrest, it’s impossible to wake up and listen to the same sounds of the previous generation.
The soul of these parties remains the same across genres; often born from violence, from struggles and over-surveillance, the heart of raving is an open practice of community. For example: on a bright, hot morning in July of 1967, Detroit erupted into protest against a long pattern of exclusionary practices, racism, and segregation when police raided an unlicensed bar. The protests became the catalyst for the emergence of new music genres, including techno music that reflected an aesthetic move towards Afrofuturism. As part of efforts to reclaim their neighborhoods through both site and sound, parties were thrown in Detroit’s vacated automobile manufacturing warehouses as a celebration of cultural defiance and unity in the face of bigotry.
Today, raves are born from the same reaction to social and political turbulence—and the need to imagine a future beyond it.
Between civil war, economic crisis, and a catastrophic earthquake, a recent wave of underground raves in Syria are not only crucial to providing a platform for the country’s rising DJs and artists, they also serve as a collective response from young people to the flurries of ongoing instability. Attracting largely creatives, the rave scene in Syria is collaborative, bringing exposure to and offering much-needed spaces for artists to thrive. Meanwhile, the challenge of finding venues for these parties lends itself to the fundamental DIY quality of raves, making room, both physically and figuratively, for spaces of respite.
There’s a freedom in taking up space—in occupying places for the sole purpose of leisure—that has for too long been available only to a privileged few.
There’s a freedom in taking up space—in occupying places for the sole purpose of leisure—that has for too long been available only to a privileged few. After all, the bodily autonomy that comes from marking territory is not equally accessible for everyone to enjoy. And to partygoers for which raves grant the opportunity to do so, they can serve as a catharsis, a rare kind of expression for grief, longing, and yearning.
Down in Atlanta, the steamy summer humidity that hangs in the woods has and will mix with the synthy music of DAF’s raves in ways not dissimilar to the coalescence of subversives in the 1960s. Defenders of the movement borrowed and adapted practices of resistance from the social unrest six decades prior when art, justice, and freedom all seemed to spill into each other.
In a recent week of action that lasted from March 4 through March 11, forest-turned-festival grounds were filled with opposers to Cop City. Musicians performed as people gathered, but on March 5, police raided the forest, arresting 35 people and charging at least 23 with domestic eco-terrorism. The fight for the South River Forest is against increased surveillance and conspicuous police-states. What brews is a glaring sign of what’s to come, and everyone—including Atlanta residents—knows it.
Even in the face of hardship, one organizer, who wishes to remain anonymous, remarked that the movement is “beautiful, joyful, and diverse. It’s not ending anytime soon.” After all, the act of throwing parties is, in this instance, nothing less than a chaotic, concentrated little victory. And it’s a reminder that Atlanta is a city in the forest. If a tree falls, there will be people around to hear it.