Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’ and the debate over US protest rights

The standoff between authorities and opponents of a police training facility has become the latest free speech battleground.

Cop city Atlanta
Demonstrators protest against the construction of a police training facility in the South River Forest of Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States [File: Alyssa Pointer/Reuters]

A judge in Atlanta, Georgia, has ordered 22 people charged with “domestic terrorism” to be held without bail amid ongoing protests against a proposed police training facility, dubbed “Cop City” by protesters.

A 23rd individual, a Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer who was at the protest as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, was released on bond following the Tuesday night arraignment.

The latest charges come as environmental and racial justice protesters hold a “week of action” against the planned facility, which is set to be built in the South River Forest in Atlanta’s unincorporated DeKalb County. The protesters, who have been demonstrating against the facility for months, have also called for a “national day of action” on Thursday.

The planned construction and its backlash have spurred a nationwide debate over free speech, protest and punishment in the United States.

Law enforcement and protesters have accused each other of escalating violence in recent weeks, following the police killing of a protester in January. Meanwhile, rights groups have accused prosecutors of using trumped-up charges against protesters to quell the unrest.

In a statement on Monday, the National Lawyers Guild called the recent arrests “part of ongoing state repression and violence against racial and environmental justice protesters, who are fighting to defend their communities from the harms of militarised policing and environmental degradation”.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp called the arrested individuals “violent activists” who chose “destruction and violence over legitimate protest”. He added, “Domestic terrorism will not be tolerated in this state.”

So what’s going on in Atlanta? Al Jazeera takes a look at the controversy.

What is ‘Cop City’?

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans to create a sprawling, state-of-the-art police training facility in April 2021, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the facility would help address rising crime while boosting police morale and attracting new recruits.

The 34-hectare (85-acre) project is set to contain classrooms, a driving course, an amphitheatre, police kennels and stables, as well as a “mock city for real world training”, according to the Atlanta Police Foundation, which is raising two-thirds of the $90m funding, mostly from private donors. It will also include fire department training facilities.

Taxpayers will fund the other third of the project, which is set to be built on land already owned by the city that had previously been the site of an abandoned prison complex and a police shooting range.

The Atlanta Police Foundation has said the first portion of the facility is set to open by the end of 2023.

Why are protesters opposing the facility?

Opposition to the project has steadily grown since it was first announced, with critics saying the plan sits at a crossroads for environmental, racial and Indigenous concerns.

In a letter to the Atlanta City Council in August 2021, 16 environmental groups said that, while the project would develop only a “fraction of the total acreage of the forest”, it would nevertheless be “devastating for the ecological community”.

Fragmenting the forest, which the city had designated as one of Atlanta’s four “lungs”, could increase storm flooding, air pollution and warming in urban areas, while affecting the “health and vitality” of the bordering South River, the environmental groups warned.

“The city’s tree canopy, which is the most extensive of any metropolitan area in the United States and a city treasure, is our best hope for resilience against the worst impacts of climate change,” the letter said.

Opponents have also pointed to the site’s historical context as reason to oppose construction. The South River Forest — which they call the Weelaunee Forest — was among the areas inhabited by the Indigenous Muscogee people before they were forcibly removed in the early 1800s.

The forest is currently surrounded by predominantly minority communities. Opponents say the facility would support militarised policing and surveillance that already targets Black residents.

“This movement is fighting to make life right — once and for all. To end the centuries-long racist brutality of policing, incarceration, displacement, exploitation and devastation of our communities,” the Defend the Atlanta Forest protest coalition tweeted on Tuesday.

How have protests developed?

The project quickly polarised residents of Atlanta. The city council received 1,166 comments — totalling 17 hours of audio — ahead of its vote to approve the facility in September 2021, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Protesters then took to the South River Forest, where they built barricades and camps. Several protest groups have formed and planned actions over months of demonstrations.

Authorities, meanwhile, have repeatedly accused protesters of destroying property and equipment to disrupt construction. Ahead of the most recent arrest, they said protesters threw “large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers”.

Efforts to clear the forest have resulted in multiple clashes and arrests.

In January, the police killing of protester Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as “Tortuguita”, catapulted the protests to the national and international stage.

Authorities initially said the officers fatally shot Teran after the 26-year-old fired on a state trooper.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is continuing to investigate the killing, said on February 9: “At least one statement exists where an officer speculates that the Trooper was shot by another officer in crossfire. Speculation is not evidence. Our investigation does not support that statement.”

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr told the Atlanta News First local news station on Tuesday that 41 demonstrators had so far been charged under the state’s “domestic terrorism” law.

“Protesters use words, rioters use violence. The first is protected by the First Amendment,” Carr said. “The second is criminal acts, and we will go after and hold accountable those who are engaging in criminal acts.”

Why are there concerns over protesters’ rights?

Prosecutors in December began charging protesters under a Georgia “domestic terrorism” law that includes penalties for disabling or destroying “critical infrastructure, a state or government facility” with the intent to “alter, change or coerce the policy of the government”.

Under the law, a defendant’s actions do not have to directly harm or threaten an individual.

The law was passed in 2017 but was opposed by some legislators, who warned it could be used against protest movements, despite an amendment aimed at protecting peaceful assembly.

A protest sign denouncing 'Cop City' in Atlanta, US
An abandoned protest sign is seen inside Weelaunee People’s Park near Atlanta, Georgia [Cheney Orr/The Associated Press]

Last week, several civil liberty and human rights organisations warned authorities that “charging any protest-related offenses that may have been committed as domestic terrorism will, or are indeed intended, to chill lawful protests, constrain civic space, and erode First Amendment freedoms”.

“These politicized charges are a clear attempt to silence dissent by smearing an activist movement as terrorism-prone,” the letter said.

“Inappropriately pursuing domestic terrorism charges is an affront to the civil liberties the First Amendment protects, and could harm civil liberties and civic space.”

Meanwhile, legal observers have said the prosecutors’ use of the law in the current context is largely untested.

No court date has yet been set for those facing the charges.

Source: Al Jazeera