By JEFF MARTIN and JEFF AMY Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — More than 20 people from more than a dozen states faced domestic terrorism charges Monday after dozens of young men in black masks attacked the site of a police training center under construction in a wooded area outside Atlanta that has become the flashpoint of conflict between authorities and left-leaning protesters.
Police said one suspect is from France, and another is from Canada. Two are from Georgia, while others hail from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Wisconsin. Police haven’t released their ages or other information.
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 at a protest in January. The demonstrators tried to blind officers by shining green lasers into their eyes, and used tires and debris to block a road, the Georgia Department of Public Safety said Monday.
From a Venezuelan family, Tortuguita was dedicated to preserving the natural environment, friends and family said. Those ideals clashed with Atlanta’s hopes of building a $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center that would boost police preparedness morale in the wake of violent protests that roiled the country after George Floyd’s death in 2020.
Now, authorities and young people are embroiled in a clash that appears to have little to do with many other high-profile conflicts. Protesters against 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.
Demonstrations spread to downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, when 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 in that building and others. Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said at a midnight news conference that several 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 show a piece of heavy equipment in flames at the facility under construction. It was among multiple pieces of construction gear destroyed, police said. Protesters dressed in black threw rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police officers Sunday at the construction site, police said. Police from nearby communities stepped in to assist city officers, and no officers were injured, Schierbaum said, adding that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined police in the case. Officers used nonlethal enforcement methods to disperse the crowd and detain those involved, he said. Asked about injuries to any of the demonstrators, the chief said that “some minor discomfort” was reported.
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 the site will be used to practice “urban warfare.” Opponents say that building the 85-acre (34-hectare) training center would involve cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said that the facilities will be built on a site that was cleared decades ago for a former state prison farm. He said the tract is filled with rubble and overgrown with invasive species, not hardwood trees. The mayor also said that while the facility would be built on 85 acres, about 300 others would be preserved as a public greenspace.
Many activists also oppose spending so much money on a police facility that would be surrounded by poor neighborhoods in a city with one of the nation’s highest degrees of inequality. Many of those already 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. Lawmakers are considering strengthening the penalty by classifying domestic terrorism as a serious violent felony. That means anyone convicted of the crime must serve the entire sentence ordered by a judge, 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.
Martin reported from Woodstock, Georgia.