ATLANTA (AP) — More than 20 people from around the country faced domestic terrorism charges Monday after dozens in black masks attacked the site of a police training center under construction in a wooded area outside Atlanta where one protester was killed in January.
The site has become the flashpoint of ongoing conflict between authorities and left-leaning protesters who have been drawn together, joining forces to protest a variety of causes. Among them: People against the militarization of police; others who aim to protect the environment; and some who oppose corporations who they see as helping to fund the project through donations to a police foundation.
Flaming bottles and rocks were thrown at officers during a protest Sunday at “Cop City,” where 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita,” was shot to death by officers during a raid at a protest camp in January. Police have said that Tortuguita attacked them, a version that other activists have questioned.
Almost all of the 23 people arrested are from states across the U.S., while one is from Canada and another from France, police said Monday.
Like many protesters, Tortuguita was dedicated to preserving the environment, friends and family said, ideals that clashed with Atlanta’s hopes of building a $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center meant to boost preparedness and morale after George Floyd’s death in 2020.
Now, authorities and young people are embroiled in a clash that appears to have little to do with other high-profile conflicts.
Protesters who oppose what detractors call “Cop City” run the gamut from more traditional environmentalists to young, self-styled anarchists seeking clashes with what they see as an unjust society.
Defend the Atlanta Forest, a social media site used by members of the movement, said Monday on Twitter that those arrested were not violent agitators “but peaceful concert-goers who were nowhere near the demonstration.” A representative of a public-relations firm involved in the group’s events said that it could not immediately comment.
After “Tortuguita” was killed in January, demonstrations spread to downtown Atlanta. A police cruiser was set ablaze, rocks were thrown and fireworks were launched at a skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation. Windows were shattered. The governor declared a state of emergency.
On Sunday, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said at a midnight news conference, pieces of construction equipment were set on fire in what he called “a coordinated attack” at the site for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in DeKalb County.
Surveillance video released by police shows a piece of heavy equipment in flames. It was among several destroyed pieces of construction gear, police said.
Protesters also threw rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police, officials said. In addition, demonstrators tried to blind officers by shining green lasers into their eyes, and used tires and debris to block a road, the Georgia Department of Public Safety said Monday.
Officers used nonlethal enforcement methods to disperse the crowd and make arrests, Schierbaum said, causing “some minor discomfort.”
Along with classrooms and administrative buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for rehearsing raids.
Opponents have said that the site would be to practice “urban warfare,” and the 85-acre (34-hectare) training center would require cutting so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging.
Many activists also oppose spending millions on a police facility that would be surrounded by poor neighborhoods in a city with one of the nation’s highest degrees of inequality.
Color Of Change, a civil rights organization, has been working alongside activists in Atlanta, and leaders have said the facility will only harm Black communities as a result of what they describe as the increased militarization of law enforcement.
“This just takes up a lot of space in a Black community … and it provides more access, more tools, and more resources to an institution that actually needs more accountability,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson told the AP by phone Monday.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said that the site was cleared decades ago for a former state prison farm. He has said that it is filled with rubble and overgrown with invasive species, not hardwood trees. The mayor also has said that while the facility would be built on 85 acres, about 300 others would be preserved as public green space.
Many of those already accused of violence in connection with the training site protests are being charged with domestic terrorism, a felony that carries up to 35 years in prison. Those charges have prompted criticism from some that the state is being heavy-handed.
Lawmakers are considering classifying domestic terrorism as a serious violent felony. That means anyone convicted must serve their entire sentence, can’t be sentenced to probation as a first offender and can’t be paroled unless they have served at least 30 years in prison.
Meanwhile, more protests are planned in coming days, police said Monday.