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A protester holds up a sign that says "Defend the Forest" during a candlelight vigil for an eco-activist who was shot and killed in an incident near the site of a proposed Atlanta law enforcement training center on Jan. 18, 2023 in Atlanta. Activists have camped out in the woods near the proposed site to prevent the clearing of forest area for the training center dubbed "Cop City" by the protesters. (Photo by Collin Mayfield/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

VOICES: A veteran stands with protecting Atlanta's forests


By Lornett Vestal

ATLANTA, Ga. — I’ve lived here for almost a decade now. One thing that has always struck me about Atlanta is that it’s truly a city in the forest.

The tree canopy is unlike any city I’ve experienced. I’ve found solace and healing in the woods and parks in the Atlanta Metro area. My mindfulness hikes with my dogs or a romantic stroll with my wife have been part of my healing process. 

Due to rapid development and shortsighted planning, however, the city’s famed tree canopy is under threat. The proposed action to clear-cut the South River Forest, also known as the Weelaunee People’s Park, is one of the most troubling examples. 

The City of Atlanta has the most significant income inequality levels in the United States. Poverty and homelessness are widespread. In addition to a racial and economic wealth gap, Atlanta is noted for having terrible air quality, partly from being the home of the busiest airport in the U.S. and notoriously heavy traffic.

The Mayor’s Office, faced with these challenges, has decided to spend its political capital on the project known as “Cop City”: A massive police training facility in Southeast Atlanta that will require the destruction of the South River Forest. The city is dedicating more resources to policing. The clear-cutting of forests in a city with already terrible air quality makes a bad situation worse for current and future generations of Atlantians, all while ignoring a community that doesn’t want this project built there.

The Weelaunee People Park, or the South River Forest, is a 350-plus acre green space. The residents of the working-class communities in Dekalb County call the forest home. As an Iraq War veteran, I’ve been troubled to see the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia’s reaction to the forest defenders and activists fighting to deplete the forest. 

Over the last few years, we’ve seen brave individuals utilize their First Amendment rights to defend one of the city’s last remaining forests. Forest defenders and activists across the city, state, and nation have united to protect the forest.

Unfortunately, the response from authorities and our elected officials in Atlanta has been callous and outright violent towards citizens standing up for their beliefs and protecting the natural environment.

I took an oath of enlistment to support and defend the Constitution when I joined the U.S. Navy. One of the fundamental rights guaranteed to all citizens is the First Amendment, protecting freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. 

In January 2023, a young activist known as Tortuguita was killed by Georgia state troopers. Autopsy reports show that Tortuguita was surrendering when they were shot 57 times. Multiple activists and forest defenders have been charged as domestic terrorists, all for occupying a public space. This is a clear violation of their First Amendment rights by the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia. 

People should be outraged at the murder of an environmental activist. They should be appalled that the state can charge folks invoking their First Amendment rights as “domestic terrorists.”

These are not mass shooters or plane hijackers. These activists from the community and around the country are fighting to protect public green spaces. A green space that provides a home for countless creatures. A place that cleans the air. A place that offers respite and healing to a community that the city often neglects because they don’t have the same wealth as Buckhead residents. 

The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter and the Military Outdoors are working with local organizations like the South River Watershed Alliance and others to fight the construction of Cop City. The Georgia Chapter also joined with 15 other environmental justice organizations urging city leaders to prevent the building of Cop City and protect the rights of activists. 

For my fellow Americans who believe what happened to Atlanta activists can’t happen to them: think again; if we allow the State of Georgia to charge its citizens as domestic terrorists. My fear is twofold. First, this will set a precedent that might prevent citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights out of fear of being charged as terrorists. Second, other states will follow suit and charge citizens as domestic terrorists for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

I worry that U.S. citizens accused of terrorism for protesting could face the same fate as non-citizens at Guantanamo Bay. They were locked away without any due process or rights. That isn’t democracy. It’s called tyranny. 

I didn’t serve my nation to see it treat its citizens as enemies of the state. I stand with the forest defenders and community activists protecting Atlanta’s forest. They’re not terrorists. They’re heroes. 

Lornett Vestal is the senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program. Previously, he served four years honorably as a crew member aboard the USS Cleveland LPD-7. From 2003-04, he deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He studied at Northern Illinois University and The University of Chicago. After graduate school, he became a social worker. He is originally from Chicago.

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