ATLANTA (CN) — Just outside Atlanta, on a typically quiet Monday morning, residents of DeKalb County were surprised by the thrum of helicopters hovering over their homes and shouts calling to "stop cop city" as hundreds of protesters marched past their streets.
The protest is the latest development in the yearslong controversy surrounding the construction of what is set to be the nation's largest police training facility.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at a nearby public park to march towards the construction site, where they were met with heavily armed and shielded officers blocking the road, who quickly began throwing cans of tear gas into the crowd to deter them away. Papier-mâché puppets, decorated signs and banners were taken from protesters and destroyed by officers.
A statement from DeKalb County officials said the crowd was dispersed because protestors did not have a permit to block traffic. No injuries or arrests were reported.
Residents of several homes lining the streets just outside of the construction site said they've heard an increasing amount of helicopters in recent months and expressed concern over the increased police presence and activity occurring not far from their front doors.
Gregory Todd, a local minister and gospel rapper, said that his neighborhood is typically calm and quiet, and he is mostly worried about the increased traffic resulting from the nearby construction of the $90 million complex.
Tensions over the planned facility escalated on Jan. 18, when state troopers fatally shot 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán, after he reportedly refused to leave his tent that officers were attempting to remove from the proposed site. Georgia prosecutors announced in October that no charges would be filed against any officers involved.
"Anytime a life is lost, it's tough. So, I get it," Todd said after stepping out of his home to see what the commotion on the street was about. "I understand where they're coming from."
Terán's parents, Belkis Terán and Joel Paez, marched with the protesters, who often cried out, “Viva, viva Tortuguita!”
City officials, along with the Atlanta Police Foundation, who is spearheading the project, say that the new public safety training center is needed to adequately recruit and train first responders, as well as replace outdated training facilities currently leased to them by the city.
Several of those marching on Monday carried small plants, in hopes that they would be able to plant them outside of the construction area in their efforts to preserve the 300-acre Weelaunee Forest, much of which has already been bulldozed and cleared over as construction is about 40% complete, according to city officials.
Demolition throughout the South River forest area — one of the Atlanta's largest remaining green spaces and often referred to as being one of the city's "lungs" — has drawn global criticism from environmental activists. Others oppose the facility's construction out of fear that it will further exacerbate the over-policing of Black communities and perpetuate the militarization of police.
"Everyone is here for a lot of different reasons," said one protester who wished to remain anonymous. "But the beautiful thing is we're all here together in solidarity."
Many attempted to conceal their identity out of fear of being arrested for association with the "Defend the Atlanta Forest" movement, which the state described in the recent mass indictment as a “criminal enterprise.”
The indictment came as one group of opponents sought to put the issue on the local ballot and collected thousands of signatures for a referendum petition permitted by the Atlanta City Council. If successful, the move would let voters in a municipal election decide whether the lease agreement, which is expected to cost the city's taxpayers $36 million, should be repealed.
However, the group's efforts are currently on hold after the city of Atlanta was granted a motion to temporarily delay an injunction that extended the signature collection timeframe by an additional 60 days.
The city is also challenging a federal judge's ruling that allowed DeKalb County residents to join Atlanta residents in collecting signatures as part of the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition referendum petition drive. Oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 14 before the 11th CircuitFollow @Megwiththenews
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