Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency Thursday as tension between police and ‘Cop City’ protesters has brought international attention to Atlanta.
Kemp has ordered 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to be ready to intervene after Saturday’s vigil turned into a protest where some activists “threw rocks, launched fireworks, and burned a police vehicle in front of the Atlanta Police Foundation office building.” The protests and subsequent response have reignited concerns about law enforcement overreach and driven a new round of criticism about the lack of public input on the $90 million project.
The conflict last weekend, which followed the fatal police shooting of a protester and led to the arrest of six activists, has intensified the divide among Atlanta residents in the years-long fight over the plans to raze part of the forest to make way for the law enforcement training facility.
“It’s unfortunate that a life was lost and that it took violence for the fight to stop ‘Cop City’ to reach more people,” said Atlanta resident Joe “Scapegoat” Jones, 38, who grew up in Southwest DeKalb near South River Forest. “But this is an important fight. We deserve a trail; we deserve nice green spaces. It’s important that [the forest] is preserved amidst all the hustle and bustle of this city and gentrification.”
Other residents have said they want the conflict to be over. Marcus Hunter, an IT consultant who has lived in the area for a decade, said he and neighbors he’s talked to are ready for the protesters to go, so the training facility can begin construction.
The land has been uninhabited since 1995, when the Old Atlanta Prison Farm was closed down, and has attracted trash and decay.
“Leaving [the land] sitting there for another 10 years neglected, with people dumping animals and furniture back there, doesn’t seem like the right way forward,” Hunter said.
Dispute over the facility reached a violent peak last week with the police killing of activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who was among a group occupying the forest in protest. He was killed during a joint operation of local and state law enforcement agencies to remove the protesters who created a community in South River Forest after the City Council voted to lease the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation in 2021.
A vigil for Terán at Underground Atlanta on Saturday turned into a march down Peachtree Street, where protesters demanded the end of plans for the training facility. The largely peaceful demonstration was broken up by Atlanta Police after some of the protesters smashed windows at the Deloitte office building downtown and a Wells Fargo branch, and set a police car on fire. The Deloitte building houses Atlanta Police Foundation headquarters, and Wells Fargo is one of APFs corporate backers.
All six protesters who were arrested are white and each was charged with eight offenses ranging from jaywalking to domestic terrorism. One is a Decatur resident; the others are from Tennessee, Washington, Nevada, Maine, and Michigan.
City officials who condemned the actions of the out-of-state protesters, including Mayor Andre Dickens, received backlash from people who pointed out how unpopular Cop City was among Atlanta residents while the legislation was making its way through City Council.
Albrica Batts, an Atlanta resident who opposes Cop City, was one of over a thousand people who spoke at the September 2021 meeting when the council voted to lease the land.
“I feel like, at this point, the city government does not actually care about the voices of the people in this city,” Batts said. “It’s devastating to know that someone was murdered by police. It feels easier to give up hope, but the people won’t stop fighting for what we know is right.”
Dispute Over Terán’s Death
The death of Terán, 26, has ignited many around the Stop Cop City cause. Activist Curtis Duncan, who has been active in the movement since 2021, called Terán a victim of political assassination.
“This is a travesty; it’s an outrage,” he said.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has maintained that Terán fired the first shot without warning, injuring a Georgia State Patrol trooper, and was killed in the returning gunfire from other troopers.
“Forensic ballistic analysis has confirmed that the projectile recovered from the trooper’s wound matches Terán’s handgun,” the GBI said in an emailed statement. The bureau said records show Terán legally purchased the gun in September 2020.
Activists have questioned law enforcement’s narrative that Terán shot first without warning.
“There needs to be a full, independent investigation. Not done by the GBI,” Duncan said. “They never investigate anything properly, and they’re directly connected to the Georgia State Patrol.”
Georgia State Patrol said there is no body camera footage of the incident because its officers are generally not issued body cameras and were the only law enforcement present.
The Atlanta Police Department has said it will not be releasing the body camera footage of its officers who were in the forest at the time of the shooting while the investigation is ongoing.
Duncan, who is also a member of Community Movement Builders — an activist collective focused on serving the Black working-class — said he is also skeptical of law enforcement’s version of events because of what he has read about Terán’s commitment to nonviolence.
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston announced Wednesday that she is recusing her office from the investigation.
‘Language of the Unheard’
More than 1,700 activists protecting forests and rivers have been killed by organized crime groups and state governments in the last decade, according to Global Witness, a non-government organization focused on climate and environmental issues. Killings of environmental activists are more common in places with large numbers of indigenous people protecting forests against commercial development, such as in Brazil, Honduras, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Experts believe that Terán’s death is the first modern U.S. case in which law enforcement has fatally shot an environmental activist while engaged in protecting a forest from being razed and developed.
Jacqueline Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance, which advocates for protection of the forest, has said that the new training facility would disrupt Atlanta’s ability to address climate change because razing forestry would make the area more susceptible to floods. Following Terán’s killing, Echols said her organization remains steadfast in the “belief that the desired training [of law enforcement] can be accomplished without destroying acreage,” and that officials should give consideration to protecting the environment and the well-being of nearby residents.
Environmental and racial justice activists — along with residents who oppose the facility — have criticized officials for condemning the property damage that followed the peaceful demonstration on Saturday but not condemning the killing of a protester by police.
Dickens quickly made a public statement against the protesters who were arrested, noting in a Saturday press conference that “many of them don’t even live in Atlanta or the state of Georgia.”
Dickens’ statement is in line with the law enforcement narrative that opposition to the police training facility is largely coming from outside Georgia.
In a tweet Sunday, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock also criticized the “inexcusable violence” and invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence. Respondents noted, however, that King often criticized officials who prioritized “law and order” over addressing unjust conditions that prompted social uprisings. The civil rights activist called riots “the language of the unheard.”
Social media users accused Dickens and Warnock of embracing the same language used by southern segregationists like Birmingham, Alabama, Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who referred to Atlanta native King as an “outside agitator.”
This story has been updated.