Atlanta City Council approves construction of police district amid numerous arrests and violence against protesters

On June 6, 2023, 15 members of the Atlanta City Council approved about $31 million to build a police militarized training center, despite protests and local dissatisfaction. Those who disagree with the construction of the “police campus” and the logging of more than 34 acres of forest are being beaten, unjustly arrested, and accused of terrorism.

Городской совет Атланты одобрил строительство полицейского района на фоне многочисленных арестов и насилия в отношении протестующих, изображение №1

The Public Safety Training Center in Atlanta, Georgia, better known as the “police campus,” is a complex of buildings and facilities for law enforcement training and education that will be built in the woods southeast of the state capital. The South River Forest, named after a nearby river, is currently a candidate for national park status because of its rich diversity of flora and fauna, so the decision to build the police center has sparked a number of protests and demonstrations. Despite efforts and rallies by environmentalists predicting environmental catastrophe by cutting down more than 34 hectares of unique natural plantings, the Atlanta City Council approved $31 million in early June 2023 to build the center.

Trying to defend the forest and prevent the construction of a police training center, community leaders have been repeatedly subjected to violence and unwarranted arrests by law enforcement officials. Since the project was publicly announced in June 2021, it has been met with massive and extensive public outcry. A coalition of environmentalists, activists against police brutality, community organizations and activists organized various campaigns and actions to express their opposition to the project and to stop its development.

During the City Council debate on the 2021 project, Atlanta residents voiced their concerns about the project for hours and demanded that their voices be heard. On Sept. 6, 2021, before the Atlanta City Council vote, city residents made their case and arguments against building the center for 17 hours, with about 70 percent of the more than 1,000 people speaking out strongly in opposition. Despite this, the city council voted in favor of building the facility.

Another battleground against the construction was the forest itself, where a “cop town” is planned. Shortly after the project was announced, activists from Let’s Protect Atlanta’s Forest camped out in one part of the forest. The camp was subjected to serious and regular attacks by state forces: on March 5, 2022, during a music festival in the forest, police raided and detained 35 people, 23 of whom were arrested on domestic terrorism charges. Police said the peaceful protesters “vandalized the construction site and used violence against police.”

In December 2022, five activists were also arrested at the camp and charged with domestic terrorism, aggravated assault and other charges after throwing rocks and empty bottles at the construction site. Similarly, six protesters were arrested and charged with terrorism, criminal damage and interference with public property after a protest in downtown Atlanta on January 21, 2023. Forest defenders were also cited in a May 24, 2023 National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin, which stated that since spring 2022 “militant extremists” in Georgia, citing animal rights and environmental protection, have allegedly practiced “violent extremism and anti-government activities.”

The fight for green space was not without casualties among the protesters. On January 18, 2023, Manuel Esteban Paes Terán was in a tent camp with other concerned people obsessed with the preservation of the forest. Around 9 a.m., officers from the Atlanta Police Department, Dekalb County Police, Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and FBI attacked the activists and four minutes later opened fire on the man, killing him on the spot. Police later said Teran refused to comply with the officers’ demands and would not leave the tent, for which he was shot and killed. Initially, the police department tried to justify their colleagues’ actions by citing the wounding of one of the officers, saying that Teran had opened fire first. This version was immediately refuted by his friends and acquaintances who were with him that day and witnessed the events. A piece of footage from the officers’ body cameras was later released in which a police officer’s conversation was clearly heard, confirming the suggestion that the policeman had been shot by his colleague. At least 57 gunshot wounds were found on the body of the young activist.

As full-scale construction approaches, the repression by U.S. authorities continues to intensify. In late May 2023, days before the city council voted to allocate funds, officers of the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation searched and arrested three members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a nonprofit organization that “provides assistance and support to people arrested during protests or prosecuted for participating in a rally to preserve the forest.” The organization’s three arrested founders, Marlon Kautz, Adele McLean and Savannah Patterson, were charged with money laundering and charity fraud. According to U.S. authorities, the individuals in question “misled people who donated money to charity and also funded violent extremists.” Today, the founders of the Foundation are being held at the DeKalb County Correctional Facility.

Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the use of sanctions and violence against pro-conservationists who seek to prevent further militarization of the U.S. police force. Increasing the number of law enforcement officers will not help reduce crime, but it will create the risk of more victims of police violence. The arrest and charges against the organizers of an NGO that supports activists is seen by human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice as politically motivated persecution and raises concerns about a possible expansion of government measures against the opposition.