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Five people arrested and charged with domestic terrorism over 'Cop City' protest clashes

A joint law enforcement operation was conducted at the future site of a police training center in Atlanta on Tuesday to clear the protest encampment.

ATLANTA — The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Wednesday morning arrests for five people over clashes the previous day at the encampment protesting a future Atlanta police and fire training center that opponents have dubbed "Cop City."

The five are all charged with domestic terrorism in addition to other charges, the GBI said. In their first court appearances Thursday, they were denied bond, according to the DeKalb County District Attorney's Office.

“I strongly believe in the right to peacefully protest for what one believes is right and just,” District Attorney Sherry Boston said. “However, I draw the line at violence, destruction of property, and threatening and causing harm to others. My office will always stand up to protect the citizens of DeKalb County. The alleged acts of violence at the training facility site put the public in grave danger, and will not be tolerated.”

In a release, the bureau said a joint task force went to the site on Tuesday to "remove barricades blocking some of the entrances" to the site, and were met by some of the protesters who allegedly "threw rocks at police cars and attacked EMTs outside the neighboring fire stations with rocks and bottles."

RELATED: Atlanta 'Cop City' sees large law enforcement operation again; GBI says barricades being cleared

Gov. Brian Kemp issued a statement on the arrests saying, "We will not stop or slow down when it comes to bringing domestic terrorists to justice in Georgia," and that the arrests "should serve as a strong reminder of that to anyone threatening our communities."

A group representing the protest movement emailed news organizations Tuesday and said officers were using tear gas and pepper balls on those who have been camping at the site, who call themselves forest defenders. 

A Twitter account that has frequently posted about the protest movement, @defendATLforest, also posted video appearing to be from inside one of the treehouses during the law enforcement action to clear the encampment, saying that the operation was "attacking nonviolent protesters."

Protest groups also were holding a press conference Wednesday morning, claiming one of the five arrested was a local resident they described as "a supporter of the movement but not involved in the encampment" who was detained while walking a trail in the forest "at gunpoint by the police without any justification given."

The GBI identified those arrested as 22-year-old Francis Carroll, 25-year-old Nicholas Olsen, 25-year-old Serena Hertel, 20-year-old Leonard Vioselle and Arieon Robinson, whose age was not given.

All face domestic terrorism charges, and Carroll, Olsen and Hertel face aggravated assault charges as well. Carroll was identified as being from Maine, Hertel from California and Robinson from Wisconsin, with the origins of the other two not provided.

The full charges for Carroll also include criminal trespass, felony obstruction, interference with government property and possession of tools for the commission of the crime; for Olsen they include obstruction and interference with government property; for Hertel, criminal trespass, obstruction and inciting a riot; for Vioselle, possession of tools for the commission of the crime; and for Robinson, obstruction and criminal trespass.

The GBI said after clearing the area they "found explosive devices, gasoline and road flairs."

"I want to commend the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Atlanta Police Department, FBI, and other law enforcement involved in yesterday’s operation for their courage and professionalism," Gov. Kemp said in his statement. "This group will continue to work closely together as we disrupt the entire criminal network and ensure construction for the first responder training facility moves forward.”

Credit: WXIA
Credit: WXIA

A blog associated with the movement reported last month that protesters had cleared some trees to block access to a portion of the South River Forest area that they've said is used by police as a shooting range. Several other forms of barriers have been erected to block access to parts of the site at varying points. 

There have been several clashes between the protesters and police or other city service employees this year, including as recently as a few days ago with DeKalb Fire personnel. 11Alive's Doug Richards also reported last month on a Dallas mechanic who said he was accosted at the site while in the area looking for junk he could refurbish.

"Prior to yesterday’s operation, APD and other agencies had made several arrests over the past few months for the ongoing criminal activity at the site location. Some of the criminal activities include carjacking, various crimes against persons, destruction of property, arson, and attacks against public safety officials. Law enforcement continues to address the criminal acts committed by the individuals that continue to occupy the area of the proposed training site," the GBI said.

The protesters have had semi-permanent encampments for about a year in the forested area where the Atlanta Police Foundation intends to build the training facility.

The foundation says, under a plan approved by the Atlanta City Council, that it will build on 85 acres of the site and preserve the remaining 180 acres as green space. 

The protesters have opposed the facility on environmental and historical grounds, saying it would decimate one of the largest preserved forest areas in the city and desecrate historically Native American land of the Muscogee Creek people, who once lived in the woods and called it the Weelaunee Forest before being displaced by white settlers in the early 19th Century.

They also oppose it on the grounds that the land was once the site of the Old Prison Farm, a carceral complex that was billed during its operation in the mid-20th Century as an "Honor Farm" where prisoners farmed the land as a "dignified" means of imprisonment, a practice which has since been scrutinized for its profit generation and exploitation of unpaid labor.

Atlanta Police have characterized the tree-sitters occupying the forest as outsiders, though there has also been visible local opposition from community groups who oppose the facility both environmentally and for its placement in a predominantly Black section of the city.

Kwame Olufemi of Community Movement told 11Alive's La'Tasha Givens earlier this year it was "clearly not for us, it’s not for our community and it’s going to be adverse to us and our people."

The city's law enforcement community has countered that the proposed $90 million facility would be a crucial component in stabilizing the police force, aiding in recruitment and retention after low morale and departures following the racial and criminal justice protests of 2020.

Mayor Andre Dickens has backed law enforcement and the facility, both voting for it as a City Council member before his election as mayor and warning the protesters this year that "if they keep it up they're gonna be considered repeat offenders and they're gonna be on court watch."

Earlier this year, city officials said they had hoped to start construction by the end of 2022, though it's unclear to what extent the protest movement has delayed that.


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