In episode 2: the Hot Seat, we hear from Jacqueline Echols about what’s happening in Atlanta where the South River Forest - one of the four “city lungs” - is under attack. Advocates and residents are rallying against a massive police training facility set for development on nearly 85 acres of beloved green space. Dr. Echols is an environmental justice advocate for 25 years and board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, an organization working to protect the river and adjacent forest ecosystem. Her more than two decades of work to improve water quality in Atlanta’s waterways and protect the city’s tree canopy earned her the 2017 Environmental Hero Award.
The forest in Southeast Atlanta is home to wetlands that filter rainwater, prevent flooding, and help the city stay resilient in the face of climate change. As Jacqueline impassionately shares, the proposed $90 million dollar training facility dubbed “Cop City” has sparked outrage from community members, where local officials are offering a red carpet layout under the pretext of preventing crime. The closest neighborhood to the forest is 77 percent Black and still reeling from ongoing protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Its residents will feel the immediate impacts of police presence and the loss of park space for generations to come.
This season, we’re honored to join forces with Prism - a nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color to go deep into the stories behind environmental racism. Our host Shilpi Chhotray and Prism’s climate justice reporter, Ray Levy Uyeda, investigate the symbiotic relationship between a rich ecosystem and the well-being of its community, and how “Cop City” threatens these safe spaces.
Key themes explored:
How does Cop City impact health issues, both physical and mental, with which the majority- Black community is already disproportionately affected?
Who is backing Cop City?
What does organizing against Cop City look like- including demonstrations, environmental analysis, and research aimed at city officials?
What is the link between environmental justice and racial justice?
Tune in to the latest episode, The Hot Seat, to find out.
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Speaker 1 [00:00:01] We can't buy more clean air. We can't buy more clean water.
Speaker 2 [00:00:05] I don't care what you have to say, but.
Speaker 1 [00:00:07] We have to adapt or we die.
Speaker 3 [00:00:08] The voice of the people. It is the voice of the advocates. It is the power of organizing. That's what creates the initial change.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:00:19] This is people over plastic. Welcome to the People Over Plastic Podcast. I'm Shilpi Chhotray, your host, plastic pollution activist and media maven. We're back with season three. And this time we've partnered up with PRISM, a newsroom led by journalists of color. Ray Levy Uyeda, Prism's climate justice reporter, helps me break down the facts. We believe you deserve to know the real stories behind climate chaos and society's most pressing injustices. It's time to set the record straight.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:00:58] On today's episode, we're heading to Atlanta, Georgia, to talk with Jacqueline Echols, an avid nature lover who's been protecting the endangered South River for decades. This is a place of community, a place of joy, and a place that has taken years of cultivation and hard work to create a safe space for the predominantly black community. And now there's a massive city wide plan to infiltrate this peaceful space with the gigantic police training facility. Jackie is on the forefront of this fight.
Jacqueline Echols [00:01:30] I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, and we didn't have a river, but we had a creek. Fished a lot during the summers. I would hang out on the streams behind my house with my brother, and so I grew up around streams that were clean, and I really grew to appreciate nature. And then when I got to Atlanta, I saw how important nature is for communities. And I'm talking about people, black people who typically don't swim and typically don't kayak or canoe, and they love it. And we have sold out pretty much every paddle that we've had for the last 12 years. So the experience of growing up and then actually being in Atlanta and witnessing the difference in attitude towards a river on the east side of town that happened to be the South River and the magnificent Chattahoochee on the west side of town.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:02:41] Jacqui makes it clear there's a significant difference between the opposing ends of the river. Have a listen to Ray describing the current state of the South River.
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:02:51] The South River, as Ms. Echols pointed out, is already polluted, like they already have a ton of different programs trying to kill the water and pull debris out of the water.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:03:02] The same river has very different communities on these opposing ends.
Jacqueline Echols [00:03:06] The South River flows through majority-black marginalized communities throughout south Atlanta, throughout southeast Atlanta, and then it flows through South DeKalb County, which is predominantly black. 71% of the population is black. When you look at the river on that side of town, it was always impaired. It's never met water quality standards. No one really cared if the river was in a really bad place with no one to really fight for it. Whereas on the Chattahoochee side of the city, it's beautiful. But still, the idea behind the Clean Water Act is that all of these water bodies are supposed to meet water quality standards, right?
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:03:52] This south river forest, which I've never been to it, but from the people I've spoken with, it sounds beautiful. And it sounds just like a place where a lot of people have grown up with, but also is a kind of like touchstone in different communities in Atlanta. And so Cop City would be built on 85 acres of this 400-acre forest.
Speaker 5 [00:04:18] It's clearly not for us. It's not for us. And it's going to be adverse to us and our people.
Jacqueline Echols [00:04:25] All of this started decades ago. I call it just historical disinvestment in southeast Atlanta when if you fast forward till today and what's going on with the way it's been done, this is a cop city project. It's just a latter day manifestation of a historical environmental justice, environmental equity and some environmental racism issues. The city of Atlanta has a responsibility in this, too. They have a responsibility to and have had to ensure that the folks who live there get the same access to a healthy environmental quality of life as its folks on the northwest side of town. And it's hard not to make that comparison because it's so obvious.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:05:19] What do people risk losing if this moves forward?
Jacqueline Echols [00:05:23] City Atlanta is never invested in South River watershed ever. 2017, the Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance that was designed to protect the old prison farm. It was then being used as unofficial practice range for the police. Demolition type exercises. Target practice. Gun range. That kind of thing. But folks in the community and there were some folks working on it then were hopeful that it would be turned into a park. It was a huge piece of greenspace. We were talking over 330 acres. And in urban Atlanta, that's a lot of green space. It's the largest last remaining piece of greenspace that size. In 2017, the city council, you know, agreed to protect it as greenspace to make the environment a big piece of Atlanta's future. And then we learned Atlanta Police Foundation had reached out to the city of Atlanta to begin talks about acquiring that land for their police academy.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:06:35] In June of 2022. PRISM published an article written by Ray about community members concerned about the damage from Cop City. When I read the piece, I knew I had to talk to Jacqui.
Jacqueline Echols [00:06:49] And it really came to a head couple of years later 2021, late 2020, when it became news that Mayor Bottoms had entered into an agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation to actually allow the foundation to build their state of the art police academy on that site. There was tremendous public outcry, which continues to this day. The problem is the police foundation is spearheading this whole thing. The council is not even enforcing the ordinance that it passed that was supposed to provide some protections related to the land. It's there in writing. But the question becomes when the city doesn't enforce its own ordinance, who does?
Shilpi Chhotray [00:07:40] I did read that 70% of the total was an over a thousand people that produced these public comments, opposed the new facility. But they're bringing in this narrative under the guise of so-called rising crime. What is the narrative you actually want people to hear and amplify instead?
Jacqueline Echols [00:07:59] So let's just talk about crime. This is the narrative that the police foundation promoted, is promoting. And there was no data to support that narrative. The inability of the city of Atlanta to retain police had something to do with training. It was nothing to support that. The biggest issue of Atlanta not being able to retain police has to do with pay.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:08:26] I would love to know a little bit more about the facility itself, and it is going to be extremely close to a predominantly black community.
Jacqueline Echols [00:08:36] Well, then that goes to the environmental justice racism issue. That's really the heart of it. If you need a better reason not to do it. If you don't care anything about the river or any of that. There are the people who live there and that have been subjected to this kind of treatment to justify it by suggesting that the folks who live there, who live nearby support it. I think it's an insult for anyone who lives on the northwest side of town, anywhere outside of this area, to promote the idea that the folks that live there don't mind. Because my question has been to some of them. Would you mind? They don't answer that question, of course.
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:09:29] Well, it's unfortunate that it needs to be said, but I think it's important just to have it on the record that, you know, cops, police do not keep people safe. Cops are born out of the system of patrolling, enslave people during the period of legal enslavement in the U.S. So that legacy is still very much baked into this system of policing and surveillance and the United States.
Jacqueline Echols [00:09:57] I don't not only blame the Atlanta Police Foundation. I blame the Atlanta City Council. And I blame the Atlanta mayor to have lived through the civil rights era, the voting rights era. And I remember full well. My idea and the idea, you know, when I was in my twenties and thirties of of black people having the right to vote, and that the only way that we were going to improve really our lot in life was to be able to elect folks who look like us because then they. That was a shared experience.
Speaker 7: [00:10:35] Great, great, great, great. What we want now, you know, brain.
Jacqueline Echols [00:10:43] But to look at what's going on in DeKalb County, in the city of Atlanta and the impact on black communities that are being the impacts that are being perpetrated by black folks who are elected by black people is really disheartening.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:10:57] Who is getting paid off behind closed doors?
Jacqueline Echols [00:11:00] I have no doubt that the Atlanta Police Foundation would love to have this facility. It would cure all of their money problems. This state of the art facility, I don't believe that it was ever intended to train just Atlanta police. Atlanta has five or 600 police. You don't need an 85 acres facility to train five or 600 recruits every six months. So I honestly see this as their opportunity to market this facility to the world, which creates money, a financial resource for them that would eliminate all of their money issues.
Speaker 6 [00:11:46] Today, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said it's abundantly clear there is a need to review the rules in the training for how police use deadly force.
Speaker 7 [00:11:56] Our police officers are to be guardians and not warriors within our communities. All right.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:12:04] So as many of you know, Atlanta has been at the heart of racial justice and community power. And I felt like there was this massive disconnect between the media and the news coming out of Atlanta with placing cops on a pedestal.
Jacqueline Echols [00:12:17] You're absolutely right. I know the way it's being presented to the public is not focusing on those fortunate issues that occurred. That's why there was a focus, I think, of trying to tack it to this notion of police needing more training.
Speaker 6 [00:12:38] That's correct.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:12:41] I did want to talk about Coca Cola because of our team's experience and work in plastic pollution. Coca Cola was sort of interesting to me being the number one polluter of single use plastic in the world, which is headquartered in Atlanta. They were eventually on the board of this cop city and then they pulled out.
Jacqueline Echols [00:13:00] I know there was a lot of pressure corporations or at least to get even information on the corporations that were contributing to this police facility. I know one of the largest ones was the Cox Enterprise. I heard AT&T, the Telephone Company. Haven't seen a list of exactly who that is because you don't have that kind of ready access to the list of corporations that are that are supporting this effort.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:13:28] As Ray writes in their article, Responding to narratives of rising crime with more police would be like responding to climate change by donating to oil companies.
Jacqueline Echols [00:13:39] That unfortunately, corporations in the city of Atlanta and the mayor are just totally bypassing. Exactly what is that? They do not say what is driving this because no one believes it's crime.
Jacqueline Echols [00:13:53] Nobody.
Ray Levy Uyeda [00:13:54] Cops do not keep people safe. Cops are intended to protect property and protect the wealth or property of white people. So I think that's important to be named just because of how much money is funneled into one. You know, this cop city will cost $90 million in private philanthropy money, which is partly how it's getting built, is that they're not using public money per se. The Atlanta Police Foundation, which consists of a board, CEOs, people in the C-suite, a ton of different corporations.
Jacqueline Echols [00:14:26] The city of Atlanta is funding, I think the last number I saw was like, $30 million of it. And they are really using a complicated method of tax credits of different kinds and so forth.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:14:40] I mean, if they're willing to put in 30 million. They're only doing this, Jacqui, because they think they're going to make a return.
Jacqueline Echols [00:14:46] I put this very point in a letter to Alex Taylor, who is the chair of Cox Enterprises. I had a conversation with him, and I recap our conversation in a letter of six points. And one of them was about this is not about training police. This is bigger than any other facility in this country. So no one is buying this notion.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:15:16] Is there any chance that this won't go through or is that a done deal?
Jacqueline Echols [00:15:21] It's a tough fight. There are some regulatory issues, water quality issues, and maintaining that this police facility, if you build it, become a new point source of pollution on the South River. And it's already endangered from a water quality standpoint. But we're not giving up. I mean, I learned a long time ago that you don't win fights about giving up.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:15:48] You've spoken really eloquently about this, but if you had kind of closing thoughts on the importance of green space as a lot of us do take for granted, what would your message be?
Jacqueline Echols [00:15:58] The only way that a municipality can support a community is through green space. That's the biggest thing you can do. That's the investment, because as a community, as the environment goes, so goes the community. If you rescue the environment, you can rescue the community.
Shilpi Chhotray [00:16:18] Cop cities. They're real. Jacqueline's bravery, not only at an ecological level, but a racial justice level is happening now. To learn more about what's going on in Atlanta and how to get involved, check out our Shownotes. The hot seat was produced by Francisco Nunez Capriles. If you haven't done so yet, be sure to subscribe and follow us on Instagram and Twitter. And if you're loving the show, please give us a review. Signing off for now.
Season and episode cover artwork by sofahood @sofahood