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Kemp orders state of emergency due to 'unlawful' protests; 1,000 National Guard troops on standby

The state of emergency runs through Feb. 9, according to the executive order.

ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday declared a state of emergency in response to protests last weekend through downtown Atlanta that left a cop car burned and several buildings damaged.

The governor's order makes 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops readily available to respond to "unlawful assemblage, overt threats of violence, disruption of the peace, and danger existing to persons and property."

It is set to run through Feb. 9 until 11:59 p.m.

RELATED: 'Stop Cop City' activist reflects on weekend protest turned violent in Downtown Atlanta

The order states: "The Georgia Department of Defense troops called to respond to this State of Emergency shall have the same powers of arrest and apprehension as do law enforcement officers to be exercised with caution and only if the circumstances demand the exercise of such powers to protect the safety of persons or property."

The order asserts that last Saturday night, "protests turned violent in downtown Atlanta as masked activists threw rocks, launched fireworks and burned a police vehicle in front of the Atlanta Police Foundation Office building."

Atlanta Police indicated in a statement they were anticipating potential protests after the police beating death of Tyre Nichols, with the local DA in Memphis saying video in the beating will be released Friday night.

The protesters last weekend initially gathered at Underground Atlanta to demonstrate against the shooting death of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, an individual known as Tortuguita who was among those living in long-term tree encampments in the South River Forest as a protest against a future Atlanta Police training center to be built there.

See the full executive order

The site, dubbed "Cop City" by opponents, had been subjected to clearing operations by law enforcement off and on for months before one such operation on Jan. 18 resulted in the shooting of a Georgia State Patrol trooper and the death of Tortuguita. According to the GBI, GSP troopers encountered the activist, who used they/them pronouns, and asked them to leave the forest before they allegedly fired at the trooper and were then killed by return fire.

The "Stop Cop City" and "forest defender" movement has contested official accounts of the shooting, saying it isn't clear who fired the first shot or if Paez ever actually fired.

RELATED: GBI says bodycam video exists of aftermath of deadly 'Cop City' clash

On Saturday night, protests against Tortuguita's death through downtown Atlanta began at Underground Atlanta before splintering, with some demonstrators lighting a police vehicle on fire and breaking windows at buildings, including one targeted for housing the Atlanta Police Foundation. Six people were arrested after those demonstrations.

The foundation is primarily funding the construction of the future training complex, an 85-acre, $90 million facility to be built on the Old Atlanta Prison Farm site under a lease agreement with the city.

There have been several clashes between the protesters and police or other city service employees over the last year because of the complex, which was approved by the City Council in 2021. Protesters have had semi-permanent tree-sitting encampments for more than a year in the South River Forest area where the facility is to be built.

So far at least 14 people have been arrested in the forest and charged with domestic terrorism following a clearing operation in December and the one last week that resulted in the shooting.

The trooper, as of Monday morning, was stable and resting, according to an update from the GBI.

The protest movement has mushroomed in the wake of Tortuguita's death, and activists have said responsibility for their killing lies with increasingly aggressive law enforcement tactics to clear the encampments. 

Credit: Courtesy / Family

The GBI has characterized the operation as "asking people to leave," requesting ID and "if they comply, so be it."

"There's a difference between protests and what's happening there," GBI Director Mike Register said of the encampments on Wednesday, adding "we're dealing not with protesters but with criminals."

Tortuguita's death has become something of a national rallying point for leftist and environmentalist groups. Progressive groups such as Greenpeace USA and CODEPINK in recent days have issued statements sympathetic to the protest movement and decrying the activist's death.

One group aligned with the protesters, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, has said it would be "preparing a legal team to investigate and pursue a wrongful death suit" in the incident. At least one Twitter account aligned with the protest movement was suspended after calling for "reciprocal violence" and a "night of rage" against police in response to the death.

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. It was 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.

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 also say 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.

Atlanta Police have characterized the tree-sitters occupying the forest as outsiders. Chief Darin Schierbaum has said several arrested on the site had out-of-state driver's licenses, and at least three people arrested last month were, according to the GBI, to have had origins in Maine, California and Wisconsin. Of the most recently arrested group, none are from Georgia, according to the GBI, and only one of the six arrested after the demonstrations downtown over the weekend was from Georgia.

In addition to the loosely organized encampment and forest defender movement, 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 last 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."

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 last week saying the city is giving "full support" to state and county partners to secure the site. 

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