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Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’ and the debate over US protest rights

A judge in Atlanta, Georgia, has ordered 22 people charged with “domestic terrorism” to be held without bail amid ongoing protests against a proposed police training center, dubbed “Cop City” by protesters.

A 23rd person, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who attended the protest as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, was released on bail following Tuesday night’s arraignment.

The most recent indictments come as environmental and racial justice protesters are holding a “week of action” against the planned facility, which will be built in Atlanta’s unincorporated DeKalb County South River Forest. The protesters, who have been demonstrating against the facility for months, have also called for a “national day of action” on Thursday.

The planned construction and its backlash have sparked a nationwide debate about freedom of speech, protest and punishment in the United States.

Law enforcement and protesters have accused each other of escalating violence in recent weeks following the police killing of a protester in January. Meanwhile, human rights groups have accused prosecutors of using trumped-up charges against protesters to quell the unrest.

In a statement on Monday, the National Lawyers Guild called the recent arrests “part of continued state repression and violence against racial and environmental justice protesters, who are fighting to defend their communities from the harm of militarized police and encroachments on the environment”.

Meanwhile, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp called those arrested “violent activists” who “chose destruction and violence over legitimate protest.” He added: “Domestic terrorism will not be tolerated in this state.”

So what’s going on in Atlanta? Al Jazeera takes a look at the controversy.

What is “police town”?

Former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans to create a sprawling, state-of-the-art police training facility in April 2021, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the facility would help tackle rising crime, boost police morale and attract new recruits.

The 34-acre (85-hectare) project, according to the Atlanta Police Foundation, will include classrooms, a carriageway, an amphitheater, police kennels and stables, as well as a “mock town for real-world training.” raising two-thirds of the $90 million funding, largely from private donors. It will also include training facilities for the fire service.

Taxpayers will fund the other third of the project, which will be built on land already owned by the city that was previously the site of an abandoned prison complex and a police shooting range.

The Atlanta Police Foundation has said the first portion of the facility will open in late 2023.

Why are protesters against the facility?

Opposition to the project has grown steadily since it was first announced, with critics saying the plan stands at a crossroads for environmental, racial and Indigenous concerns.

In a letter to the Atlanta City Council in August 2021, 16 environmental groups said that while the project would only develop a “fraction of the total forest area”, it would nevertheless be “devastating to the ecological community”.

Shredding the forest, which the city had designated as one of Atlanta’s four “lungs,” could lead to increased storm surges, air pollution and warming in urban areas, while improving the “health and vitality” of the adjacent South River. damage, the environmental groups warned.

“The city canopy, the most expansive of any metropolitan area in the United States and a city treasure, is our best hope for resilience to the worst impacts of climate change,” the letter said.

Opponents have also pointed to the site’s historical context as a reason to oppose construction. The South River Forest – which they call the Weelaunee Forest – was one of the areas inhabited by the native Muscogee people before they were forcibly removed in the early 19th century.

The forest is currently surrounded by predominantly minority communities. Opponents say the facility would support militarized policing and surveillance already targeting black residents.

“This movement fights to make life right – once and for all. To end centuries of police brutality, imprisonment, displacement, exploitation and devastation of our communities,” the Defend the Atlanta Forest protest coalition tweeted Tuesday.

How have the protests developed?

The project quickly polarized Atlanta residents. The City Council received 1,166 responses — a total of 17 hours of audio — ahead of the vote to approve the facility in September 2021, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Protesters then headed to the South River Forest, where they built barricades and camps. Several protest groups formed and planned actions during months of demonstrations.

Authorities, meanwhile, have repeatedly accused protesters of vandalizing property and equipment to disrupt construction. Ahead of the most recent arrest, she said Protesters threw “big rocks, stones, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers”.

Attempts to clear the forest have led to multiple clashes and arrests.

In January, the police killing of protester Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as “Tortuguita”, catapulted the protests onto the national and international stage.

Authorities initially said officers fatally shot Teran after the 26-year-old shot at a state agent.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which continues to investigate the killing, said on Feb. 9: “At least one statement exists in which an officer speculates that the Trooper was shot by another officer in crossfire. Speculation is not evidence. Our research does not support that statement.”

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr told the Atlanta News First local news station on Tuesday said 41 protesters had been charged so far under the state’s “domestic terrorism” law.

“Protesters use words, rioters use violence. The former is protected by the First Amendment,” Carr said. “The second is criminal acts, and we will prosecute and hold accountable those who engage in criminal acts.”

Why are there concerns about protesters’ rights?

Prosecutors in December began charging protesters under a Georgia “domestic terrorism” law that includes penalties for disabling or destroying “critical infrastructure, a state or government facility” with the intent to “violate government policy modify, change or enforce”.

Under the law, a suspect’s actions need not directly harm or threaten a person.

The law was passed in 2017 but was met with opposition from some lawmakers, who warned that the law could be used against protest movements, despite a change aimed at protecting peaceful assembly.

An abandoned protest sign is seen in Weelaunee People’s Park near Atlanta, Georgia (Cheney Orr/The Associated Press)

Last week, several civil liberties and human rights organizations warned authorities that “blaming protest-related crimes that may have been committed as domestic terrorism will curb legal protests, or indeed is intended, to restrict civil space and deprive First Amendment freedoms.” to run”. .

“These politicized allegations are a clear attempt to silence dissent by labeling an activist movement as susceptible to terrorism,” the letter said.

“Improperly prosecuting allegations of domestic terrorism is an affront to the civil liberties protected by the First Amendment and may harm civil liberties and civil space.”

Meanwhile, legal observers have said prosecutors’ use of the law in the current context is largely untested.

No court date has yet been set for those facing charges.