ATLANTA (CN) — For many Americans, the word "terrorism" still brings to mind the national tragedy of 9/11 and the nearly 3,000 deaths that resulted from the attacks by militant Islamic extremists of al-Qaida.
Now 22 years later, the word has been used by prosecutors in Atlanta to describe protesters who call themselves "forest defenders" in their opposition to the construction of what is expected to be the nation's largest police training facility on one of the city's "lungs" and largest remaining green spaces.
The protests gained national attention last month after one of the demonstrators, 26-year old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was fatally shot by an officer while police attempted to remove protesters from the site. While the incident remains under investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Teran fired at the trooper first with a firearm he legally purchased, but that there is no body camera footage of the incident as they are not required to wear them.
Dubbed "Cop City" by protesters for its proposed inclusion of a mock city for first responders to train in, construction of the 85-acre training facility is being led by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that claims to have “united the business and philanthropic community with the Atlanta Police Department."
With an array of corporate donors, including Delta, Home Depot, Coca-Cola, and UPS, the foundation says the $90 million project will be funded through a combination of public and private money, with an estimated $30 million coming from the city government.
Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, advanced the proposal amid pressure to repair relations with a police force battered by criticism and resignations in 2020, following months of protests and demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis as well as the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta just a month later. Bottoms and Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, have described the facility as an answer to Atlanta's increasing homicide rate.
Atlanta's City Council solicited public comment on the facility in September 2021, and the proposal was approved despite the council receiving over 17 hours of remarks from concerned community members. They expressed a wide range of concerns, from the facility being a misuse of funds and being loud and disruptive for nearby residents to pollution in the South River Forest Basin and destruction of critical forest area in a city that is already rapidly losing trees.
Others worry that its location in a predominately Black part of Dekalb County perpetuates more gentrification in a city that has the country's worst income inequality. The facility has also drawn opposition from criminal justice reform advocates, who say it will perpetuate the militarization of police and increase police brutality.
Protesters, many of whom are college students and or from out of state, have set up camps throughout the 300-acre Weelaunee Forest, as the land was called by its original inhabitants from the Muscogee Nation before serving as a plantation site during the Civil War and later as a prison farm until 1990. They've even constructed treehouses and set up barricades in an effort to halt the construction process.
Although seven of them were arrested for trespassing by Atlanta police officers attempting to clear the structures last May, protesters have continued to occupy the forest in opposition, spurring the creation of a joint task force comprised of local and state officers and GBI agents to clear the area.
In December, the task force arrested five more protesters, this time on much heavier charges of domestic terrorism, which carries a minimum punishment of five years imprisonment.
“These individuals are part of a broader network of militant activists who have committed similar acts of domestic terrorism and intimidation across the country with no regard for the people or communities impacted by their crimes,” Governor Kemp in a social media post following the raid. “We will bring the full force of state and local law enforcement down on those trying to bring about a radical agenda through violent means.”