Atlanta’s plan to build a sprawling police and fire training center amid a 1,000-acre stretch of urban woodland has become the focus of intense protest, drawing opposition from environmentalists who want to preserve the woods and activists who say the center will accelerate the militarization of the police.
The protesters, who refer to the planned training center as “Cop City,” also include people who are opposed to the corporate funding of the $90 million project. Some have set up barricades at the site, taken up residence in trees, damaged property and come into direct confrontation with the authorities.
In January, police officers tried to expel demonstrators from the woods, and what they described as a shootout left one protester dead, a state trooper seriously wounded and Georgia’s governor authorizing the National Guard to intervene.
City officials say that the site is needed to replace inadequate training facilities and would become one of the largest such centers in the country. They have said that some of the protesters have crossed the line from civil disobedience into domestic terrorism.
Here’s what to know about the project and the opposition to it.
What does the city plan to build, and why?
After months of delays and debate, the City Council voted 10 to 4 in 2021 to authorize the project, officially named the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, on property owned by the city in DeKalb County.
The land has been leased to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit which is raising about $60 million for the new campus. The foundation receives financial contributions directly from many of the area’s largest companies, or through its philanthropic arms. Many of those companies’ executives serve on the foundation’s board.
The proposal includes building classrooms, a shooting range and a driving course for practicing high-speed chases. There would also be pastureland for police horses and a “mock city for real-world training,” where the police could practice conducting raids.
City officials have said for years that they need a modern site for training. The police academy is run out of a patchwork of sites, including vacant school buildings. The Police Department also argues that a new complex could lift morale and help recruit officers to the understaffed force.
A spokesman for Mayor Andre Dickens said the complex would help officers train for increasingly common situations like convenience store robberies and mass shootings. “We need to make sure officers are prepared for real-life scenarios, like if you have a shooting in a nightclub or a gas station,” said the spokesman, Bryan Thomas, who added that the city was committed to community-based policing and de-escalation techniques.
The Fire Department says the center would allow firefighters to practice driving fire engines on a spacious training track, instead of on city streets at night.
What are the protesters’ arguments for stopping construction?
The plans were approved in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, at a time when there was growing resistance to traditional policing strategies and there were calls for redirecting police funding to other public safety initiatives.
Opponents worry the center’s completion would set a dangerous precedent for law enforcement in Atlanta and beyond, emboldening police agencies across the country to adopt more militaristic tactics and weaponry.
“Police here have already responded to protests with militarized tactics, chemical weapons and domestic terrorism charges,” Micah Herskind, a community organizer, said. “With plans to include a ‘mock city’ for police to train in urban warfare tactics, Cop City would only further provide police with training and equipment to suppress dissent and terrorize Black and working-class communities.”
But this is more than just a fight over police conduct, said Will Harlan, the southeast director for the Center for Biological Diversity; it’s an effort to preserve metro Atlanta’s dwindling tree canopy, too.
“The South River Forest is one of the last and largest urban forests in Atlanta and in the country,” he said. “It is a really special place. It provides a habitat to some rare fish species and rare plant species, and it’s one of the largest intact forests we have in the region.”
Some critics also say city officials have insulated the training complex from public outcry by outsourcing it to the foundation.
Who are the protesters and what have they done?
There has been longstanding local opposition: More than 1,100 Atlanta residents called in comments about the plan during City Council hearings, and most were against it.
After the proposal passed, some activists began to build barricades and tree-sit in the area designated for clearing, hoping to stall construction. In January, an attempt by officials to clear out the forest ended in what the authorities described as an exchange of gunfire. The police say a protester, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, 26, opened fire and was killed by officers. A state trooper was seriously wounded in the shootout.
Activists have thrown Molotov cocktails and destroyed heavy equipment, the police say, and the authorities claim that an assault on the development site on Sunday — burning police and construction vehicles and a trailer — resulted in $150,000 in damage. Fire officials say the flames could have spread into forest fires threatening the neighboring community.
“That goes completely against what a majority of the group is fighting for,” said Liliana Bakhtiari, a city councilor and one of the few public officials questioning the development plans, referring to the protesters’ desire for environmental preservation.
Why have some protesters been charged with domestic terrorism?
Since December, prosecutors have charged a couple dozen of the hundreds of protesters with domestic terrorism, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 35 years, under state guidelines that were approved in 2017.
“The new law provides prosecutors with considerably more power to crack down on violence that is geared toward intimidating the public and acts meant to coerce government action,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University. “Now the law doesn’t require any harm to persons.”
The disturbance on Sunday led to 23 people facing charges of domestic terrorism, said the Atlanta police, which accused them of throwing large rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails. Most of those arrested were not Georgia residents.
“I strongly believe in the right to peacefully protest for what one believes is right and just,” District Attorney Sherry Boston of DeKalb County said. “However, I draw the line at violence, destruction of property and threatening and causing harm to others.”
What happens next?
While some of the ground at the site has been cleared, no construction has started. The opposition shows no signs of abating, and the standoff continues.
Reporting was contributed by Eliza Fawcett, Joseph Goldstein, Rick Rojas and Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon.