Property ≠ Life

January 25, 2023

What are you holding onto?

To be resilient is to have some essential identity that we hold onto and that defines us in some way—a characteristic that weathers the upheaval around us unchanged. I’ve asked this question before, and recent events in the Atlanta forest prompt me to ask again. What are we holding onto? Maybe it’s violence.

Just a few days ago, police raided the Atlanta forest and killed a forest defender. I’ve made several visits to the forest over the past year, and my observation is that nonviolence is the essential identity of that movement. Some people find this confusing, because there have been participants in the movement to defend the Atlanta forest who have burned trucks and bulldozers. But it’s clear that that property is not life. Or is it?

land acknowledgement

A land acknowledgement in the ‘living room’ during spring

If property is part of our essential identity, then destroying property looks a lot like destroying life; and we do use the same word: ‘violence’, to describe destruction of either thing. Have you ever noticed that we don’t clearly distinguish between a protest where property is damaged and a protest where people are injured? The word ‘violent’ invariably describes both, which conflates human welfare and property. If someone were to die, news reports would certainly report ‘deadly’ protests, but when property is damaged we never hear about ‘destructive’ or ‘damaging’ protests. They are always described as ‘violent’.

I’ve also noticed that the destruction of non-human life isn’t typically described as ‘violent’: bulldozing the forest won’t be described this way, but breaking windows will. This perception arises from a belief that life is property that the owner can destroy—another conflation of these two things.

forest bridge

A suspension bridge constructed by land defenders across intrenchment creek, later removed by police.

Life vs. property

Our society kills people. Everything that makes our life go is taken from people at the wrong end of a gun. No one willingly drinks water poisoned by mine tailings so that you and I can have cell phones or kids’ shoes that flash when they jump. It’s not possible to have a society where 1% of the people own 90% of the shit without police. Violence and threat of violence are absolutely fundamental to the structure of our society.

Policing is the central issue in the Atlanta Forest, because the forest is being cut in order to build the biggest police training facility in the country. This proposal comes on the heels of unrest following the police murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks when large swaths of the citizenry took to the streets with demands to defund the police and hold them accountable for past violence, so the new facility is understandably hard for some people to swallow. The fact that it also means cutting a big swath out of the largest contiguous forest in the city that has the most tree cover in the nation, during a climate crisis, is just salt on a wound. This intersectionality between environmental and social justice issues means that people participate for lots of reasons, but enacting a nonviolent society without police is unequivocally an essential organizing concept in this movement. I have seen this equally among people in the forest and in meetings of participants outside the forest.

A forest defender’s tree-house. Banner reads: Stop Destroying the Earth

People sitting in trees in the Atlanta forest are being charged with terrorism. People who invaded the capitol on January 6th, 2021 were not. Why is the former more terrifying than the latter? Probably because the capitol invasion modeled the way that power already works and never actually threatened the fabric of US society: power belongs to whoever can take it. Stop Cop City’s abolitionist ideology on the other hand, seriously questions our understanding of power and our belief that it’s essential to our society for police and military forces to destroy life in service of property and power. I understand that this line of thinking would be terrifying for many people. Police abolition would imply extraordinary changes to society, but these terrifying implications don’t make tree-sitting a terrorist act.

The police are openly rationalizing terrorism charges with arguments that have no legal justification (such as out-of-state residency). They are also openly making illegal excuses to arrest bystanders who record their actions, and the Atlanta police department is already facing lawsuits associated with similar incidents. Because of this continual lack of transparency, we may never know what exactly happened when Tortuguita was shot in the forest. The Guardian reports that the GA Department of Investigation does not have body-cam footage. Police claim that Tortuguita fired the first shot, but they have produced no evidence to support this claim. It seems unwise for police to knowingly enter a conflict zone without body cameras, but this appears to be what happened.

Since it’s hard to believe that a person known for their commitment to nonviolence would court death by shooting at police, and since the police can provide no evidence that this is what happened, the city is reeling with another round of protests against the violence. Perhaps we could honor this terrible situation by taking in some of the complexity of this conflict. Stop Cop City is explicitly contesting the nature of violence, and this is profound for a society that is based on the violent exploitation of others: a society that doesn’t seem to know who it is without that violence, and whose customary language doesn’t differentiate destruction of life from destruction of property (or when it does seems to value the latter).

What if we changed all that? What if we let go of the idea that it’s normal for some people’s water to be poisoned so that others can fly to the Bahamas or have diamond rings? And further, that people who become outraged about that injustice are violent if they do not limit their outrage to cleverly written placards and tame marches that stay on the sidewalk?

Trees with banners

Banners decorating the living room in the Intrenchment Creek park.

Everything we touch, everything we eat, and most of the things we do are supported by police or military violence against people who decide that clever slogans are not enough. I’d like to say that we cannot continue to live this way, but I’m afraid that the billionaires can. It’s possible they’ll find this violence to be quite resilient. Is that what you want? Is this violence essential to your identity? Shall we double down on it and build more infrastructure to militarize police?

What are you holding onto?

Photo credits: All photos are released into the public domain.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather is an animist farmer, writer, and educator residing in the state of Georgia. His work has been published in Dark Mountain, Ecological Citizen Journal, Counterpunch, and he also publishes essays and other work on his website.

Tags: environmental activism, land defenders, private property, state violence