Authorities in the United States have charged 23 people with “domestic terrorism” following the latest round of arrests in a months-long movement against the construction of a sprawling police training facility in a forest in Atlanta, Georgia.
Protest groups have pushed back on the police characterisation of events that led to the arrest of 35 people late Sunday, which came as demonstrators held a festival near the site of the proposed complex — dubbed “Cop City” by opponents, who have sought to end the project since 2021.
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In a statement, the Defend the Atlanta Forest coalition said about 1,000 people had been gathered at the nearby festival when a group of about 350 to 400 protesters marched to the construction site.
“Forest defenders were able to push out the police without causing them physical harm, and dismantled the machinery that they used to kill the forest and its human and non-human inhabitants,” the group said.
Atlanta police, meanwhile, said “a group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to conduct a coordinated attack on construction equipment and police officers”.
The police statement said the group “entered the construction area and began to throw large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers”.
Police later announced charges against 23 of those arrested. It was not immediately clear if all of the others would be charged or had been released.
— Atlanta Police Department (@Atlanta_Police) March 6, 2023
The clashes were the latest in an ongoing standoff over the planned $90m facility, which was approved by the Atlanta City Council in September 2021 and is set to sit on 34.4 hectares (85 acres) of land within the South River Forest in Atlanta’s unincorporated DeKalb county. The area is called the Weelaunee Forest by the area’s native residents.
Opponents of the facility say the complex would irreparably harm the area’s environment. They have also argued the facility would be surrounded by majority-Black neighbourhoods, communities that they say already face over-militarised policing.
Yesterday law enforcement descended upon a music festival in the Weelaunee Forest.~30 people were detained including at least 1 legal observer from @NLGnews. 12 ppl were later released; it was unclear if this included the LO. LOs wore bright green hats to differentiate themselves pic.twitter.com/iZ58E2Akf3
— Atlanta Community Press Collective (@atlanta_press) March 6, 2023
The protest movement gained national attention in January when environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as “Tortuguita”, was fatally shot in a police raid on protesters.
Authorities initially said the officers fatally shot Teran after the 26-year-old shot a state trooper.
“At least one statement exists where an officer speculates that the Trooper was shot by another officer in crossfire,” the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said on February 9. “Speculation is not evidence. Our investigation does not support that statement.”
Lawyers for Teran’s family have called for answers and said that an independent autopsy showed Teran had been shot 12 or 13 times.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is still probing the killing.
‘Escalate their oppression’
Kei, an organiser with the Weelaunee Coalition, which organises with educators, students and neighbours but was not involved in Sunday’s festival, told Al Jazeera she was present when the arrests began.
She said the “beautiful” day of music and art quickly turned chaotic when authorities entered the festival area and started to detain people. She noted that the arrests came at the beginning of a planned week of action against the project.
At least one person was tased and tackled, added Kei, who declined to give her full name for fear of retribution.
“On the one hand, anytime the police are raiding a music festival with children present, it’s shocking and terrifying because … They were extremely violent and indiscriminately arresting people for being at a festival,” she said.
“On the other hand, being an organiser in the movement, we have seen the police continue to escalate their oppression against the movement.”
It's important to note that the the 35 people that police arrested tonight were not "violent agitators," but peaceful concert goers who were nowhere near the demonstration. https://t.co/ULx8uh9fSf
— Defend the Atlanta Forest (@defendATLforest) March 6, 2023
In their statement, the Georgia Police Department maintained “officers exercised restraint and used non-lethal enforcement to conduct arrests”.
The latest incident comes days after several civil liberty and human rights organisations urged Georgia’s attorney general and several lower-level officials to drop the “domestic terrorism” charges that had been lodged against 19 protesters prior to the most recent arrests.
The organisations noted the individuals were charged under a 2017 Georgia domestic terrorism statute, which employs an “unusually broad” view of domestic terrorism that includes any felony aimed at disabling or destroying “critical infrastructure, a state or government facility” with the intent to “alter, change or coerce the policy of the government”.
The groups, which included Human Rights Watch and chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, noted the charge carries a sentence of five to 35 years. They argue the charge violates the defendants’ First Amendment rights under the US Constitution, which protects the right to free speech, press and assembly.
They added that some of the earlier arrest warrants had erroneously said that the federal Department of Homeland Security had categorised the Defend the Atlanta Forest group as “domestic violent extremists”.
“These charges represent a political decision to pursue draconian charges disproportionate to the alleged offenses committed,” the letter said.
“In order to avoid downstream adverse effects on First Amendment freedoms, these charges must be dropped.”