23 accused of domestic terrorism for protesting proposed police training center in Atlanta, Georgia

In an attempt to intimidate those who have been holding demonstrations against the construction of a massive military-style police training center in Atlanta, law enforcement arrested 23 people on March 6 and charged them with “domestic terrorism” under state law. In recent months, 18 others have been charged with the same crime, bringing the total of those serious charges to 41. This draconian charge is a felony, punishable by up to 35 years in prison.

“Stop Cop City” protesters demonstrate Saturday in Atlanta, Georgia, following the police killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán on Jan. 18, 2023 [AP Photo/R.J. Rico]

Demonstrations against what opponents of the training facility have dubbed “Cop City” have been ongoing since 2021 and have gained significant momentum and international attention after police killed a protester in January.

The growing protest has rocked city and state authorities, who are now resorting to increasingly repressive measures to quell this opposition. Atlanta police on Wednesday threatened about a dozen activists with arrest if they continued to distribute anti-facility leaflets on the city’s sidewalks.

Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens and the City Council are determined to crush opposition to proceed with construction of the military training facility. Dickens took over the reins of the city in January 2022 with “law and order” as a central feature of his mayoral campaign, just as he did in recent Chicago and New York City mayoral elections in 2021.

Police claim those arrested last Sunday were “violent agitators” who carried out a “coordinated attack” on police officers and construction machinery at the sprawling construction site just outside the southern city limits. According to police, several protesters entered a construction site and burned construction equipment while throwing bricks, Molotov cocktails and firecrackers at police.

The claim that they arrested “violent agitators” is belied by the fact that those arrested were arrested after police raided a music festival being held in a park outside the construction site. The peaceful event, attended by around 1,500 people, including families with children, was intended to kick off an “action week” of demonstrations, cultural activities and various family-friendly events that organizers had planned at the facility. Organizers include a group of clergy, environmental activists, members of the Stop Cop City coalition and residents of the area where the facility is planned to be built.

Masked anarchists have taken part in the protests and it is more than likely that some of them are either police agents or working with the police as agents provocateurs. The police, in turn, use the violent tactics of some members of this group as a reason to use extremely violent methods and repression against the mostly peaceful demonstrators.

This latest repression follows the January 18 shooting of 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Teran by Georgian state forces.

Teran was camped out in the forest where the police facility is to be built when he was shot by a group of state police with about a dozen bullets. The brutal killing of Teran was justified by the police with the highly questionable claim that Teran, a self-confessed pacifist, shot them. Subsequent body camera footage released by the Atlanta Police Department showed that a soldier who sustained a gunshot wound was most likely shot by another officer.

After Teran’s assassination sparked weeks of angry protests, Georgia’s reactionary Republican Gov. Brian Kemp issued an “emergency order” that activated 1,000 heavily armed Georgia National Guard troops to “quell riots and unlawful gatherings.”

The number of those initially arrested at the music festival on Monday was 35, later 23 were charged with “domestic terrorism”. Most of those arrested are young people in their mid to late twenties, and most of the accused are from outside Georgia. The protesters have accused police of deliberately selecting individuals from outside Georgia to fit with the authorities’ right-wing narrative that opposition to Cop City is being fueled by “outsiders”.

In Wednesday’s subsequent hearing for the 23 domestic terrorism accused, bail was denied for 22 who are now in jail. Eli Bennett, an attorney representing some of the accused, commented to The Intercept, “We have seen no charges of arson or interference with state property.” He also noted that Georgia’s domestic terrorism law is “ridiculously unconstitutional.”

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When built, the sprawling Cop City Police Training Center will cover 85 acres amidst 381 acres of wooded land. The facility will feature a mockup of a city with bars, high-rise buildings and the like so that the police can train in urban warfare.

Democratic Party politicians have taken the lead in enforcing this military-style police training facility. It was first announced in April 2021 by then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council, with Mayor Dickens, then a council member, approved the lease of the land. The forest to be demolished was classified as ecologically important by the Atlanta government as one of the city’s “lungs”.

The city leases forested land it owns to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a private organization that promotes police propaganda and solicits corporate police funding.

The facility is expected to cost $90 million to build, of which $60 million will be raised from corporate and private philanthropists. The remaining $30 million will be funded by the city.

Numerous companies with corporate headquarters in Georgia, including Coca Cola, Norfolk Southern, Home Depot, Delta Airlines and UPS, have eagerly chimed in. The increasing militarization of the police serves them well, as these forces are used to quell any sign of social opposition, including workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

The corporate leaders and politicians of both parties who fund them are acutely aware that the growing level of social inequality in the US requires them to prepare for a mass eruption of social struggles. It’s not yet clear how much money the APF received from these companies, but it’s estimated to be in the tens of millions.

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