Police in the United States have charged 23 people with “domestic terrorism” following the latest round of arrests in a months-long move against the construction of a sprawling police training facility in a forest in Atlanta, Georgia.
Protest groups have opposed police characterization of events leading to the arrest of 35 people late on Sunday, which came as protesters held a festival near the site of the proposed complex – dubbed “Cop City” by opponents – seeking to put an end to it. on the project since 2021.
In a statement, the Defend the Atlanta Forest coalition said about 1,000 people had gathered at the nearby festival as a group of about 350 to 400 protesters marched to the construction site.
“Forest defenders were able to drive off the police without physically harming them, and dismantled the machines they used to kill the forest and its human and non-human inhabitants,” the group said.
The Atlanta Police Department, meanwhile, said that “a group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest from the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to launch a coordinated attack on construction equipment and police officers.”
According to police, the group “entered the construction site and began throwing large rocks, stones, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers.”
Police later announced charges against 23 of those arrested. It was not immediately clear whether all the others would be charged or released.
Demonstrations from the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. pic.twitter.com/r6u6Ki3mLt
— The Atlanta Police Department (@Atlanta_Police) March 6, 2023
The skirmishes were the latest in an ongoing standoff over the planned $90 million facility, which was approved by the Atlanta City Council in September 2021 and will be placed on 85 acres of land in the South River Forest in Atlanta’s unincorporated DeKalb county . The area is called the Weelaunee Forest by the native inhabitants.
Opponents of the facility say the complex would irreparably harm the area’s environment. They have also argued that the facility would be surrounded by predominantly black neighborhoods, communities they say already face overmilitarized police.
Yesterday law enforcement officers crashed into a music festival in the Weelaunee Forest. ~30 people were detained, including at least 1 legal observer of @NLGnews. 12 individuals were later released; it was unclear if this included the LO. LOs wore bright green hats to distinguish themselves pic.twitter.com/iZ58E2Akf3
— Atlanta Community Press collective (@atlanta_press) March 6, 2023
The protest movement gained national attention in January when environmentalist Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as “Tortuguita”, was fatally shot during a police raid on protesters.
Authorities initially said the officers fatally shot Teran after the 26-year-old shot a state agent. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation later contradicted that description of events.
“At least one statement exists in which an officer speculates that the Trooper was shot down by another officer in crossfire,” the agency said on Feb. 9. “Speculation is not evidence. Our research does not support that statement.”
Have lawyers for Teran’s family cried for answers and said an independent autopsy showed Teran had been shot 12 or 13 times.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is still investigating the murder.
‘Escalate their oppression’
Kei, an organizer of the Weelaunee Coalition, which works with educators, students and neighbors but was not involved in Sunday’s festival, told Al Jazeera she was present when the arrests began.
She said the “beautiful” day of music and arts soon turned chaotic as authorities entered the festival grounds and began detaining people. She noted that the arrests came at the beginning of a planned week of action against the project.
At least one person was tased and tackled, added Kei, who declined to give her full name for fear of retaliation.
“On the one hand, it is always shocking and terrifying when the police raid a music festival with children present, because… They were extremely violent and indiscriminately arresting people for being at a festival,” she said.
“On the other hand, as an organizer of the movement, we have seen the police continue to escalate their crackdown on the movement.”
It’s important to note that the 35 people police arrested tonight were not “violent agitators” but peaceful concertgoers away from the demonstration.
— Defend the Atlanta Forest (@defendATLforest) March 6, 2023
In their statement, the Georgia Police Department alleged that “agents were restrained and used non-lethal enforcement to make arrests.”
The latest incident comes days after several civil liberties and human rights organizations urged Georgia’s attorney general and several lower-level officials to drop “domestic terrorism” charges brought against 19 protesters before the most recent arrests.
The organizations noted that the individuals were charged under a 2017 Georgia domestic terrorism statute, which takes an “unusually broad” view of domestic terrorism, which includes any crime aimed at disabling or destroying “critical infrastructure, a state – or government facility” with the intent to “alter, modify or enforce government policy”.
The groups, including Human Rights Watch and branches of the National Lawyers Guild, noted that the charges carry a prison sentence of five to 35 years. They claim the charges violate the defendants’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to freedom of speech, press and assembly.
They added that some of the earlier arrest warrants had incorrectly said that the federal Department of Homeland Security had categorized the Defend the Atlanta Forest group as “domestic violent extremists.”
“These charges represent a political decision to pursue draconian charges disproportionate to the crimes allegedly committed,” the letter said.
“To avoid downstream adverse effects on First Amendment freedoms, these charges must be dropped.”