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23 charged with terrorism in Atlanta ‘Cop City’ protest

Heavy equipment burns at a construction site.
This image provided by the Atlanta Police Department shows construction equipment set on fire Saturday by a group protesting the planned public safety training center, according to police.
(Atlanta Police Department)
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More than 20 people from around the country faced domestic terrorism charges Monday after dozens in black masks attacked the site of a police training center under construction in a wooded area outside Atlanta where one protester was killed in January.

The site has become the flashpoint of conflict between authorities and left-leaning protesters who have been drawn together, joining forces to protest for a variety of causes. Among them: people against the militarization of police; others who aim to protect the environment; and some who oppose corporations that they see as helping to fund the project through donations to a police foundation.

Flaming bottles and rocks were thrown at officers during a protest Sunday at “Cop City,” where 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita,” was shot to death by officers during a raid at a protest camp in January. Police have said the environmentalist attacked them, a claim that other activists have questioned.

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Almost all of the 23 people arrested are from across the U.S., while one is from Canada and another from France, police said Monday.

Like many protesters, the slain activist was dedicated to preserving the environment, friends and family said, ideals that clashed with Atlanta’s hopes of building a $90-million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center meant to boost preparedness and morale after George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

Now, authorities and young people are in a clash that appears to have little to do with other high-profile conflicts.

Protesters who oppose what detractors call “Cop City” run the gamut from more traditional environmental environmentalists to young, self-styled anarchists seeking clashes with what they see as an unjust society.

Defend the Atlanta Forest, a social media site used by members of the movement, said Monday on Twitter that those arrested were not violent agitators “but peaceful concert-goers who were nowhere near the demonstration.” A representative of a public-relations firm involved in the group’s events said that it could not immediately comment.

After “Tortuguita” was killed, demonstrations spread to downtown Atlanta. A police cruiser was set ablaze, rocks were thrown, and fireworks were launched at a skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation. Windows were shattered. The governor declared a state of emergency.

Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said at a midnight news conference that pieces of construction equipment were set on fire Sunday in what he called “a coordinated attack” at the site for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in DeKalb County.

Surveillance video released by police shows a piece of heavy equipment in flames. It was among several destroyed pieces of construction gear, police said.

Protesters also threw rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police, officials said. In addition, demonstrators tried to blind officers by shining lasers into their eyes, and they used tires and debris to block a road, the Georgia Department of Public Safety said Monday.

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Officers used nonlethal enforcement methods to disperse the crowd and make arrests, Schierbaum said, causing “some minor discomfort.”

Along with classrooms and administrative buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for rehearsing raids.

Opponents have said that the site would be to practice “urban warfare,” and the 85-acre training center would require cutting so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging.

Many activists also oppose spending millions on a police facility that would be surrounded by poor neighborhoods in a city with one of the nation’s highest degrees of inequality.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said that the site was cleared decades ago for a former state prison farm. He has said that it is filled with rubble and overgrown with invasive species, not hardwood trees. The mayor also has said that while the facility would be built on 85 acres, about 300 others would be preserved as public green space.

Many of those accused of violence in connection with the training site protests are being charged with domestic terrorism, a felony that carries a penalty of up to 35 years in prison. Those charges have prompted criticism from some that the state is being heavy-handed.

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However, lawmakers are considering classifying domestic terrorism as a serious violent felony. That means anyone convicted of the crime must serve the entire sentence, can’t be sentenced to probation as a first offender and can’t be paroled unless an offender has served at least 30 years in prison.

Meanwhile, more protests are planned in coming days, police said Monday.

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