ATLANTA — On Sunday night, chaos erupted yet again at the future site of a police and fire training center in Atlanta. Law enforcement agencies descended on the site, where a protest gathering and music festival had been organized for this week, after a large group marched to the construction site for the facility and set fires to equipment.
Now, nearly two dozen people face domestic terrorism charges - in addition to more than dozen who'd previously been arrested at the site in the last few months and were charged similarly.
The incident marks the latest chapter in the ongoing saga between law enforcement and activists who oppose the training center, calling it "Cop City." The city refers to it formally as the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.
For more than a year, protesters and activist collectives have occupied the South River Forest, on a portion of which the facility is set to be built, in semi-permanent tree encampments.
In January, a shooting broke out during a clearing operation by law enforcement that left an activist dead and a state trooper injured. Law enforcement claimed the activist, Manuel Paez Teran - also known as Tortuguita - fired first and was killed in return fire. The activist groups and Paez Teran's family have disputed the official version of events and insisted Paez Teran was a pacifist who wouldn't have instigated the shootings.
Ultimately, Paez Teran's death had a galvanizing effect on the protest movement, leading first to demonstrations through downtown Atlanta in January that left a police vehicle burned and a building that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation damaged. Then it led to Sunday's events, which were to kick off a "week of action" organized by the protesters.
Here's a brief overview of "Cop City" and the ongoing tug-of-war over the site between law enforcement and activists.
What is Cop City?
It is an 85-acre, $90 million facility that was approved by the Atlanta City Council in 2021. It would be built on city-owned land in accordance with a lease agreement between the city and the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private nonprofit that supports the Atlanta Police Department.
Where is Cop City?
It is to be built on a portion of the South River Forest area - protesters refer to it as the Weelaunee Forest, for the Native American name it was once known by - on top of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm complex.
It lies within south DeKalb County, roughly bounded by Intrenchment Creek to the east, Key Road to the north and Constitution Road to the south.
Why is Cop City controversial?
The law enforcement community has argued the training 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.
They have also said it would improve training and community ties, framing it as an answer to police reform demands stemming from the 2020 protests to eliminate contentious policing practices and reduce tensions between the police department and the public.
It is supported by several city and state political leaders, including Mayor Andre Dickens and Gov. Brian Kemp.
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 jail 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.
Community groups in the area have also told 11Alive they are against it because it would place a heavy police presence within a predominantly Black area, worrying about environmental and qualitive (such as noise and light pollution) impacts to the surrounding neighborhoods and questioning why it can't be built in wealthier sections of the city such as Buckhead.
Who is involved in the issue?
On the one side there are city state leaders - as noted above, those include Mayor Dickens and Gov. Kemp - as well as a multi-jurisdictional law enforcement coalition that generally carries out the periodic clearing operations.
Agencies in the coalition include Atlanta Police, DeKalb Police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Attorney General's Office, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), DeKalb County District Attorney's Office and the FBI.
On the other side is the loosely organized protest movement, operating under the banner of "Defend the Atlanta Forest" and self-characterizing as "forest defenders."
Law enforcement agencies have routinely pointed to the outside origins of some of the protesters - coming in from other states and, in a couple instances, even other countries. As noted above, though, there is also a substantial coalition of local community groups and activist collectives who have consistently opposed the project.
At least 23 people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism stemming from Sunday night's operation, and prior to that at least 14 people had been arrested and charged similarly after operations in January and December.
The protesters have claimed the project is "widely unpopular" both among residents immediately surrounding the site and more broadly within Atlanta. The city has offered a poll showing more than 60% support in the city for the project - however an Emory professor previously told 11Alive that the survey's response rate of just 2% was "very low" and "weakens any conclusion one can draw" from it.
Where is Cop City headed?
A construction permit was issued by DeKalb County for the building of the facility in January, with Mayor Dickens and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond announcing an agreement that would cover environmental management of the construction site as well as the building of the training center itself.
DeKalb also released the timeline of an 11-month permitting and authorization process the training center underwent.
That permit has since been appealed by a nearby resident to DeKalb's zoning board, arguing it should not have been issued because the project is not meeting environmental standards the permitting process outlined.
It cites "sediment discharges from the site during clearing, grading and construction" that would "exceed the numeric wasteload allocation for Intrenchment Creek in violation of state and federal law."
That appeal to the DeKalb zoning board has not yet been heard.
A lawsuit for a restraining order against work at the site pending the outcome of the appeal was denied by a Fulton County judge.
Mayor Dickens in February announced a community task force to receive more input on the development of the training center as it moves forward. A local activist opposed to the project, Kamau Franklin, rejected the task force as a "form of propaganda."