Outside of the Department of Justice during a late afternoon demonstration, protesters from a broad range of ideologies and coalitions called for solidarity with the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement in Atlanta. The demonstrators are trying to provoke the Department of Justice (DOJ) into acting to fully investigate and prevent further abuses against environmental activists by the Georgia police and legal system. They noted, too, that the DOJ “has a history of itself bringing domestic terrorism charges against environmental protesters.”
The site of “Cop City” is in the environmentally sensitive Weelaunee Forest that was originally inhabited by the Mvskoke (Muscogee) Creek and Cherokee peoples. After it was taken thorough the Indian Removal Act of 1830 the land was used first as a plantation and later in the early 1900s as a prison “honor farm” until its closure in 1990.
In 2021 a plan was developed for the creation of a new 90 million dollar state-of-the-art Atlanta Public Safety Training Center or “Cop City” as it is known by its detractors. When the plan was formally presented, the newspaper, Rough Draft Atlanta, reported that after “17 hours of public comments,” where 70 percent of speakers disapproved of the plan, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 in favor of converting the existing police shooting range into the center.
The project now under construction is being paid for by the Atlanta Police Foundation. The center will eventually cover 200 acres in meeting Atlanta’s need to “Keep Atlanta Safe” in reaction to the rising crime rate and homicides in the city. Both Atlanta’s Democrat Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Republican Governor Brian Kemp support the training facility’s construction. Activists upset by the plan have instead called for the city to divert the money from the facility project into improving the lives of Atlanta’s poorest residents.
Since the passing of the plan, environmental activists have demonstrated, camped on the land and constructed platforms in trees in a bid to halt the facility’s construction in the largest remaining urban green open space in the Atlanta area. The importance of the forests role to the area has best been described as the “Lungs of Atlanta” for its ecological contribution to the environment health of the region. Police, in turn, for the past two years have arrested protesters for various infractions to clear the area only to see them return and continue their presence to save the area from bulldozers.
Some of those arrested who allegedly have ties with Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF) movement have been charged by prosecutors with domestic terrorism and criminal trespass under Georgia law. According to an online article by Vice.com, 42, those arrested face charges filed by “Prosecutors…claiming that mud on their shoes, black clothing, and a phone number for a legal support line written on their arms were indicative of criminal intent.” The prosecutor’s logic in charging people peacefully demonstrating because of their attire reads more like those of a Third World autocratic regime bent on stifling critics than those of a legal system in a free and democratic society.
In an obvious case of prosecutorial abuse, convictions resulting in domestic terrorism charges in Georgia would subject activists to prison sentences ranging from a minimum of five years to a maximum of 35 years. This compared with murder in the second-degree convictions in Georgia where sentences range from no less than 10 years to no more than 30 years.
Wearing black clothing along with muddy shoes and sporting prominently displayed legal help phone numbers in solidarity with those arrested at Cop City, demonstrators cited their concerns on a busy corner while handing out information to passersby. One of those present painted messages thematica in mud on the sidewalk calling for the closing of Cop City.
Several speakers also addressed their concerns using amplified sound as members of a security team from the DOJ stood by along with a uniformed Homeland Security officer.
Demonstrators also called out the DOJ to vigorously investigate the killing of Atlanta Forest defender, 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, aka Tortuquita, who was shot and killed during a police raid on January 18 at the protest encampment. Georgia State Troopers reported that during the raid, Tortuquita had pointed and fired a gun at them injuring an officer and that he was shot when officers returned fire. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), none of the officers involved in the confrontation were wearing a body camera at the time of the shooting.
After the release of the initial autopsy findings, the family, dissatisfied with the results, commissioned an independent autopsy that showed Tortuquita was shot 14 times while sitting cross-legged with his hands raised. This in contrast to the scenario of his having been shot when he fired on police. An official investigation has yet to be released. Activists have vowed to continue in their struggle to halt the construction no matter what it takes.
Along with the Weelaunee Forest that is being sacrificed, Intrenchment Creek, a public park bordering on the forest is also in danger as well. A local film production company has proposed a land swap deal in which the park land would be used to construct the largest sound stage in the US for movie productions by arguing that the facility would create numerous new jobs for the area.
Report and photos by Phil Pasquini
(This article has previously appeared in Nuzeink.)
Phil Pasquini is a freelance journalist and photographer. His reports and photographs appear in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pakistan Link and Nuze.ink. He is the author of Domes, Arches and Minarets: A History of Islamic-Inspired Buildings in America.
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