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The indictment against Atlanta rapper Young Thug's Young Stoner Life (YSL) record label is full of green. Prosecutors talk about green and red as YSL's flagship colors—"red for Bloods, and green for Slime"—and note the frequent use of "Green Heart, Green Snake, Blowing Nose, and Green Vomit emojis" on associates' social media. The state is also subtly interested in land: there are scattered references to gang clashes on enemy blocks, and Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis argues that YSL's members had started "marking up territory as Blood territory—it's horrible… that community deserves to be safe, and we are hoping that this [indictment] helps to keep them safe."
The police's project of taking back "gang territory" has material effects on the city's planning ambitions. Increasingly, the police's war on working-class Black life and culture in Atlanta works in tandem with the city's encroachment on un- and under-developed neighborhoods. So really, Atlanta's state institutions are focused on another green, too: the green ecosystems standing in the way of gentrification.
If you control greenspace in Atlanta, you have a say in what the region's future will look like: whether it will keep being known as the "city of the forest," or whether it will continue down the path of urban renewal. Young Thug's likely wrestled with these questions himself during a recent foray into real estate development, something that his new charges have disrupted. The "green" of the city's $235.7 million police budget—which represents almost a third of Atlanta's general fund this coming year—leverages a lot of power. So does the forest.
FORESTS AND PARKS
"I sell some more green, I smoke on some more green / I look like a muhfuckin' forest!"—Young Thug, "Crime Stoppers" (2015)
In 2021, Atlanta City Council voted to lease over 300 acres of undeveloped forest to the Atlanta Police Foundation (a nonprofit founded to support APD's interests through programming and investment projects) for a police and fire department training facility. Located near the site of a former prison farm in unincorporated DeKalb County, the proposed 85-acre Public Safety Training Center has plans for classrooms, driving courses, an explosives testing area, and even a "mock village" with a school, bank, nightclub, low- and high-rise apartments, and residential homes. It comes with a $90 million price tag, too, funded through a classic tool of gentrification: as the Police Foundation says themselves, it's "in the best tradition of Atlanta's public/private partnerships."
This story is the second in a two-part series from pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter that wrestles with the way popular culture warps our understanding of justice—and stalls abolition. Read part one here, and subscribe to pop justice for more in-depth perspectives like this.
The Police Foundation has argued that the new facility "will reimagine law enforcement training," and "improve morale, retention, [and] recruitment" of officers. Much of the language on its website feels similar to the faux social justice rhetoric often seen in gentrification. References to "cultural sensitivity" and "community engagement" feel like they're appealing to a liberal sensibility, like they're presenting the facility as a tool for police reform. The plans even include some beautification—with features like "walking paths, picnic areas, a community garden and weekly farmers market," and a commitment to preserve much of the surrounding forest.
Of course, these features are meant to foster the image that the facility is working with the environment rather than destroying it. Nowhere does the Police Foundation's pitch mention the routine environmental damage you'd expect from such a large development: the disruption of plant and animal life, noise pollution from gunshots and explosions, or "leaching construction materials into soil, and polluting waterways with heavy metal toxins found in bullets and grenades." Residents of the neighborhoods around the forest have argued that the community engagement process and environmental review were rushed, leaving a project that received 70 percent opposition in 17 hours of public comments to City Council before passing in a 10-4 vote.
Many of the training facility's opponents have started calling it "Cop City." These opponents include a broad coalition of neighborhood associations, environmentalists, and organizers involved in Black and Indigenous liberation struggles. Protestors with the Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF) movement have occupied the forest on and off for more than a year, asserting that the city's incursions on the forest show how unfettered police expansion directly contributes to the climate crisis. In response, local and state police have repeatedly raided the forest, charging protestors with domestic terrorism. Their tactics are only getting more aggressive. In recent weeks, protestors have called for an independent investigation into police's actions after officers killed 26-year-old Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán during a recent raid. Although this struggle may seem unrelated to YSL, the "Cop City" project (and police's efforts to protect it) directly complement Atlanta's renewed focus on street gangs.
The Police Foundation notes that the facility will "facilitate collaboration and joint training between Atlanta's police… and their local, state and federal partner agencies," in a moment when gang investigations are often crowded affairs. Former Atlanta police chief Rodney Bryant noted in a press conference that the APD, Fulton County Sheriff's Office, and Fulton County D.A.'s Office all participated in the raid on Young Thug's Buckhead mansion. Meanwhile, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr have partnered on several multi-agency projects aimed at eliminating gangs, like the Georgia Gang Task Force and the Georgia Anti-Gang Network. In February 2022, Kemp and Carr announced a new Gang Prosecution Unit in the Attorney General's Office to take on accused gang members "who operate across multiple jurisdictions." (The head of this statewide unit, Cara Convery, actually comes from the Atlanta area: she was formerly the Deputy D.A. in Fulton County.)
So when we hear that "Cop City" will be a tool for multi-agency policing, it's not a stretch to think it could be used to make every new RICO case more watertight. If you buy the Police Foundation's pitch, then demolishing trees for "Cop City" becomes a way to make better cops—and by proxy, a way of attacking Atlanta's gang problem. It's a subtle rhetorical move that preys on current sensationalism around violent Black crime, and ignores the reality that policing often reproduces the same violence it's supposed to stop. Nevertheless, rhetoric like this keeps a chokehold on urban policymaking: the idea that lasting solutions to gun violence depend on making police departments the first stop for public funding and resources.
It's telling that "Cop City" was endorsed by former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, current Mayor Andre Dickens (a city council member at the time of the vote), and Governor Kemp, who wrote a letter urging City Council to approve the lease. On January 31, Mayor Dickens announced a "compromise" with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond that clears the way for construction to begin, with promises of new environmental protections. A massive police facility like this has been a long-term goal for local Black officials, too. Back in 2016, when former Mayor Kasim Reed announced plans to close a massive homeless shelter through eminent domain, he tried to replace it with a high-tech police and fire facility designed to combat domestic terrorism. "Cop City" reflects a shared approach to policing and development in Atlanta, where public space can always be reshaped or destroyed to accommodate the police's needs—which seem to grow as much as the trees.
Atlanta's environment is a unique resource for a metro area of its size: it's home to a huge urban forest network with "the highest percentage of overall urban tree canopy" of any major U.S. city, and it "boasts more green space per person than any other." But the tree canopy has been shrinking for decades due to a variety of reasons, like aging trees, a multi-year drought in the late 2000s, and the steady arrival of new development projects.
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Even with all the tree loss over the past 30 years, southeast Atlanta has maintained much of its greenspace throughout that time. Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs) around Cleveland and Jonesboro had an estimated 50 percent tree cover in 2014. Just south of the former Jonesboro projects, where Young Thug grew up, there's a water treatment plant serving the South River. And if you follow the water just three miles east, the air clogs with chatter, gunshots, and tear gas in the planned site of "Cop City," the 3,500-acre South River forest. But for majority-black communities across and around Atlanta, these kinds of ambitious developments are becoming a common sight. Just ask Young Thug.
In 2021, when Thug turned 30, his manager Geoff Ogunlesi and realtor Trey Williams presented him with a swath of undeveloped land in an undisclosed section of the metro area. Thug and Williams quickly told media outlets that they hoped to build a subdivision called "Slime City" on the property. During interviews with TMZ and Complex, the two paint a picture of "new homes, a waterpark, a camping site, and trails for kids to ride dirt bikes and ATVs," space for an annual music festival called Slime Fest, and "a private school for Black kids" as some possible features.
In September 2021, What Now Atlanta speculated that Thug's land was just outside the city limits of Douglasville, Georgia. Property records confirm that later that fall, Thug purchased five parcels of land in Douglas County for $650,000—95 acres in his name, sitting about 20 miles west of downtown Atlanta. Douglas County is also home to a $100 million mansion belonging to Black entertainment mogul Tyler Perry, who's been a vocal supporter of the Atlanta Police Department in recent years. Perry has several developments of his own that are close to Thug's interests, including a 2,100 acre estate in Douglasville and a 330 acre film studio in south Atlanta.
Like every ambitious plan for a new subdivision, the "Slime City" concept had its own gaps that would have to be addressed. Thug's land is zoned as residential, for example, which means he'd likely have to apply for rezoning with Douglasville city government to add businesses or schools there. But it's clear that Thug saw a connection between landownership and local political power, and hoped to use this subdivision to gain more material stakes in Atlanta area policy-making. "I want to be like an American gangster, but that worked with the government—that didn't tell—and this is the only way you can possibly do that," he told Complex. "I want to just be so big to the point where it's like, the fucking cops have got to listen to me."
Media coverage of the YSL indictment has talked extensively about the pointed use of RICO charges against superstars like Thug and Gunna. However, there's one aspect of these charges that I haven't really seen discussed—what happens to their property? Georgia's RICO Act allows for not only fines and jail time, but civil forfeiture: any property "used or intended for use in the course of, derived from, or realized through a pattern of racketeering activity" can be confiscated by the state.
In early September 2022, Thug took to Instagram and seemingly offered some of his land to Ye, who'd posted about trying to open physical stores for his Yeezy clothing brand in the Atlanta area. This would suggest that the site of "Slime City" remains in Thug's hands—at least for right now. But because his charges are still fairly fresh, it's unclear how much of YSL's assets could be subject to forfeiture: we'll likely have to wait until the trial's in full swing to find out how much money and property hangs in the balance.
And there's precedent for this in Atlanta hip-hop history. DJ Drama and Don Cannon were famously booked on RICO charges after their studio was raided in 2007. They beat those charges, but lost cars, studio equipment, hard drives, thousands of CDs, and their music earnings in the process: "law enforcement claimed they couldn't prove what was earned from legitimate mixtapes and what was from illegal bootlegs, so they kept it all," reads an article from NPR's Louder Than a Riot series on the intersection of hip hop and mass incarceration. If the D.A.'s Office makes a similar claim about YSL—and if Thug's assets are intertwined with the label's—prosecutors could easily exploit that connection. When real estate developers sued Thug in 2017 for missed payments on a previous Buckhead mansion, they named YSL Enterprises as another defendant. And, descriptions of Thug's arrest in May point out how "Atlanta's city-contracted wrecker service diverted all its trucks to haul his many cars" from his home.
Because Atlanta has such a huge foothold in cultural industries like hip-hop and film, culture has become another front in the city's efforts to transform public space. In line with this, there's one more development in the South River Forest that's attracted organizers' attention. In January 2021, a real estate firm associated with the Blackhall film studio (now called Shadowbox) agreed to a land swap with unincorporated DeKalb County. On the table was a plan to expand Blackhall's existing soundstage, using 40 acres of public land that previously belonged to Intrenchment Creek Park. Citizen advocacy groups have unsuccessfully fought the land swap in court, while the Defend the Forest movement argues that the soundstage and "Cop City" represent two sides of the same coin.
It's also fascinating, in all this talk of greenspace, to think about how a small but consistent group of scientific studies has suggested links between larger tree canopies and reduced crime rates in American cities. Amelie Daigle, Editor-in-Chief of the NYU Review of Law & Social Change, argues that "while they are not a panacea, trees are multidisciplinary specialists in preventing slow violence"—they cool the street, remove carbon dioxide from the air, and encourage shared use of public space. Daigle poignantly reminds us that what the state and our communities call "crime" does not exist in a vacuum. There's always the violence that precedes crime, like the violence of environmental destruction, the violence of capitalist dispossession, the violence of realizing that the state doesn't care about us: the kind of violence that policing can't (and won't) address.
A PLACE WHERE YOU DON'T MAKE IT OUT
"I came from the bottom, I came from a place where you don't make it out / I own a trap house on Conley Road, you know it ain't no drought."—Lil Keed, "Brotherly Love" (2019)
Gentrification and policing depend on each other: police give gentrifiers a way to use the state to remove unwanted groups of people, and gentrifiers give police easy targets.
In the popular image we have of gentrification, affluent white people remake low-income Black neighborhoods in their own image, displacing the original residents along the way. But that's not how it always looks in Atlanta. As Scalawag's Editor-at-Large Da'Shaun Harrison writes, "'Development' is contingent on the power that capital grants a specific class, whereby I mean that it is determined by who has a financial stake in the movement and structure of entire cities." So Atlanta's long-standing Black political class is a vital part of the city's ambitions to remake itself, to physically and culturally displace Black communities that don't fit into its vision for the future.
On the other hand, Young Thug's career has felt prescient for a decade now. He foreshadowed the stylistic revolution that's overtaken Atlanta hip-hop. He's moved the Overton window for masculine presentation in rap at large. His label's a key part of how "trap" has evolved from Southern drug-dealing narratives into a broader pop sensibility. The YSL indictment simultaneously acknowledges Thug's huge cultural impact, and takes concrete steps to minimize it: when Thug's brother Unfoonk took a plea deal, for example, his entourage claimed that he's no longer allowed to say "slime," "slatt," or "YSL" in his music. The arrests themselves are meant to have cultural impact. And from the sheer number of plea deals that have been offered so far, it seems clear that the D.A.'s primary target is Thug himself—the "head of the snake," as it were.
When Gunna took his own plea deal—after being denied bond three times, and sitting in pretrial detention for half a year—he released a statement through his lawyer, asserting his own view of the label. "When I became affiliated with YSL in 2016, I did not consider it a 'gang,'" he says, "more like a group of people from metro Atlanta who had common interests and artistic aspirations."
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"It's like she knows they're looking for her to slip up, to linger just a little too long. Like she's telling them, 'I know you're waiting for me, but I already left.'"
Gunna goes on to say that his ordeal in court will be "an opportunity to give back to my community and educate young men and women that 'gangs' and violence only lead to destruction." And gentrification is also violent, by necessity—just like policing and the prison are violent. All three reach their natural ends through destruction: they remove people from the life of the city, deny us community, narrow our histories. Where gentrification and policing meet, we're faced with the idea that proximity to capital and whiteness is what allows us to be citizens at all, to stake a claim on the city that might actually be respected.
In April 2021, Thug and Gunna made the news when they posted bail for a number of people at Fulton County Jail who were arrested for low-level offenses. That year, Fulton County Jail was 400 people over capacity, so overcrowded that "many [incarcerated people] were sleeping in public areas." When Thug's attorney Brian Steel initially filed for bond the following year, he argued that Thug's conditions in the Georgia prison system were no less deplorable: a "windowless cement compartment with only a bed and toilet and an overhead light which remains on 24 hours per day, preventing any sleep, rest or meditation." Around the same time, a statement released by Gunna from jail was captioned with a similar feeling of isolation. "22 & 2, just a bed & a shower," he says, "no windows just walls. Can't see or talk to anyone… I was raised to fight fire with water, even tho my country's amendments have failed me!"
Incarceration is an act of place-making, too. As the jails fill and the streets empty, the law expands around them to accommodate what the state needs. New developments in the "Cop City" project highlight how the law's elasticity is an important tool in Atlanta's redevelopment. In the aftermath of Manuel Terán's death, protests in downtown Atlanta moved Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to declare a state of emergency—granting himself broad powers to maintain peace, like deploying the Georgia National Guard.
Meanwhile, state and local law enforcement have continued to arrest members of the Defend the Forest movement on domestic terror charges. The Intercept's Natasha Lennard points out that the anti-terrorism law being used to prosecute these protestors was originally designed "to combat cases like the Boston Marathon bombing, Dylann Roof's massacre of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting." Affidavits on the movement also use social media posts and graffiti as evidence, which immediately reminds me of the YSL indictment. There are significant connections between government repression of hip-hop artists and protestors, even if the two sometimes experience that repression at different timescales. Academics and legal advocates have argued that the use of terror charges (and lethal force) on Atlanta's environmental activists is an unprecedented escalation in police tactics. Long before the YSL indictment, RICO charges—and the broader idea that successful rap careers are a magnet for state repression—had a home in rap's shared vocabulary. Atlanta is a central reason why. Cases like the 2007 indictment of the Black Mafia Family, an infamous drug trafficking and money laundering syndicate with ties to local artists, have fundamentally changed how rappers and their crews talk about themselves.
How 'the shadow of state abandonment' fostered then foiled Young Thug's YSL
There's a deep connection between policing and "urban renewal" in Atlanta. Through the state's various strongholds, including the police, transforming urban space always ends up taking some communities off the map entirely. YSL (and Young Thug) might be the next big casualties.
Last August, the Fulton County D.A.'s Office booked some other local rappers on RICO charges: 26 alleged members of the "Drug Rich" gang were accused of robbing and burglarizing Atlanta celebrities, while using music and social media posts to promote their crimes. When D.A. Willis announced the indictment, a reporter asked her about her use of rap lyrics as evidence. "I have some legal advice: don't confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used," replied Willis, "Or at least get out of my county." That last part is full of irony: because it's state violence that, in many cases, keeps people trapped in their neighborhoods, stuck in the underground economy. And for many of those people, famously, they see rap as one way out. They look at YSL and see a community who looks like them, music that feels like them, entering the city on its own terms. They see a future.
You know, there's another name for YSL's old block that the indictment never mentions: "lil' Haiti." I don't know where the name comes from, but I'm fascinated by what it evokes. There's this common image that Americans have of Haiti, of course: tenement buildings just a breath away from collapsing, crumbling streets, political unrest, gang violence, hunger, and loss. Perhaps it's an image that feels familiar to people who grew up in the "real, old" Atlanta. But the island also carries the complicated legacy of Black resistance in the West—its radical possibility and its unfulfilled promises. After centuries of imperial domination, Haiti's both cut off from much of the world and utterly unavoidable.
So think of Haiti, and then think of Atlanta, the Atlanta that's holding on in the face of erasure, that doesn't sugarcoat how it's survived this long. Think of the people who are stuck on the city's underside: posted on the corner, hiding in the trees, sleeping in their jail cells, waiting for the cops to come looking.
This is the second in a two-part series from pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter that wrestles with the way popular culture warps our understanding of justice—and stalls abolition. Read part one here, and subscribe to pop justice for more in-depth perspectives like this.