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Closing Argument

What the Fight Over Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’ Reveals About Policing of Protests

Opponents of the proposed police training facility have launched a petition for a vote — and some face charges as domestic terrorists.

Several protesters hold a banner that reads "Stop Cop City," as they stand in front of a church. One protester in the background holds a sign that reads, "Defund the police. Invest in Black communities."
Demonstrators in New York City hold signs opposing the proposed “Cop City” police training facility in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 2023.

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Atlanta voters may soon get a say in what the future of police training looks like in their city.

This week, activists seeking to halt construction on the training facility they’ve dubbed “Cop City” successfully launched a petition campaign to put the project to a vote during the November election. To do so, they’ll need to collect 70,000 valid signatures in 58 days.

The effort is running against the clock to make it onto the ballot, after bureaucratic delays that some proponents of the referendum suspect were an attempt to sabotage the campaign. Speaking to Atlanta radio station WABE, Kurt Kastorf, the legal advisor for Cop City Vote Coalition, said, “It looks like there’s a legal team trying to come up with reasons to slow play this petition.”

There’s no proof of these allegations, but if true, they would be almost quaint compared to some of the other efforts that have been employed against opponents of the construction, which have included police raids that resulted in a deadly confrontation, and the invocation of rarely-cited terrorism laws.

The proposed police and firefighter training complex is slated to be built on 85 acres of forestformerly a prison labor camp — just southeast of the city in DeKalb County, at a cost of $90 million. As designed, the site would include classrooms, a driving course, a shooting range, an amphitheater, and most controversially, a mock city for police to train in. This week, Curbed published a deep dive into the history of these kinds of training grounds, which debuted in the turbulence of the 1960s but saw a dramatic rise in the post-9/11 years.

Boosters of the project, like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, have framed it as necessary to improve police anti-bias and de-escalation training and officer morale. Protesters counter that the project represents a doubling down on police militarization, and an act of environmental racism, because the surrounding community is predominantly Black.

For months, activists occupied parts of the area in tents and treehouses under the banner of “Defend the Atlanta Forest,” delaying the city’s effort to clear the land by employing a “decentralized autonomous movement.” Some people committed acts of vandalism and sabotage, mostly targeting construction equipment, but activists have also been accused of attacking police during raids. After a series of minor skirmishes between protesters and law enforcement, the standoff came to a violent climax in January when police shot and killed one protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known in the community as Tortuguita. Law enforcement said that Terán fired on them first, but activists have cited medical examiner’s reports and body camera footage to reject that narrative.

In dozens of arrests over recent months, protesters connected to the “Defend the Forest” movement have been charged under rarely-used domestic terrorism laws. Georgia officials have argued that those arrested were affiliated with the forest organization, “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.”

That designation does not technically exist, according to DHS officials. The FBI also cautions that membership in a group alone “is not a sufficient basis for a domestic terrorism investigation.” Nevertheless, a Georgia Bureau of Investigations representative defended the claim when pressed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A January arrest warrant obtained by Grist illustrates the tenuous connections between protest and terrorism that law enforcement is making in this case. Allegations about violence and intimidation by “Defend the Forest” members lead to claims that anyone arrested “affirmed their cooperation” by participating in a protest. People arrested have included full-time “forest defenders,” and those who’d come for shorter stints, like attendees at a March music festival. Officials alleged, on shaky evidence, that festival participants destroyed construction equipment. Many of the arrests occurred during “Week of Action” events planned by protesters; a new week of events begins today.

On Friday, the local prosecutor who was pursuing the charges alongside state Attorney General Chris Carr withdrew from all cases against protesters, citing “fundamentally different prosecution philosophies.” Carr vowed to continue on the same path. One of the cases that reportedly fueled the tension was the charging of a legal observer from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While Homeland Security does not designate groups as domestic violent extremists, it does define the term. Writing for Just Security, Nick Robinson argued that the definition is overbroad and opens the door to how it’s been used in Georgia. He notes that there are already state laws against violence and property damage, but “if they are done at a protest, where participants are pressing their ‘political or social goals,’ they can seemingly be transformed into ‘domestic violent extremism.’”

Three organizers from the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which bails out people arrested during activism or protest, were also arrested and charged under domestic terrorism laws, along with various financial crimes. Reviewing the prosecution’s claims, the judge in the case remarked, “There’s not a lot of meat on the bones.”

Three other protesters were charged with “felony intimidation of an officer of the state” for placing flyers on mailboxes in an Atlanta suburb, which included the name of a police officer who lived in that neighborhood. The flyers claimed the officer was involved in Terán’s killing. If convicted, the activists could face up to 20 years in prison, according to reporting by The Intercept’s Natasha Lennard.

Speaking with The Marshall Project, Atlanta-area organizer Hannah Riley described the prosecutorial approach as an unprecedented attempt to “repress and target people exercising their First Amendment right to protest.”

If the Atlanta training complex is ultimately built, it will be just one of many new training facilities to come online in the near future. Jurisdictions across the country have approved massive investments in training facilities, including Newark, New Jersey ($49 million), Port St. Lucie, Florida ($24.7 million) and Corpus Christi, Texas ($21 million). In Texas, the state Department of Public Safety is seeking $1.2 billion to overhaul its training complex into a statewide police academy and active-shooter training facility in the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde last year.

In January, Chicago opened a facility nearly twice the cost of Atlanta’s proposed effort. The Chicago project also faced substantial activist opposition.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.