The movement to stop the construction of a controversial police training facility in Atlanta gained international attention this past week, after sweeps of forest protest encampments resulted in dozens of arrests, terrorism charges, and the police killing of an activist.
Members of Atlanta’s burgeoning “Stop Cop City” movement were rattled after Georgia state police shot and killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a 26-year-old queer environmental activist who had joined the protest encampment in Atlanta’s South River Forest. But the activists—some of whom were arrested and are now facing domestic terrorism charges and excessively high bail amounts—are showing no signs of backing down.
Local organizations like Community Movement Builders, a Black-led nonprofit and mutual aid group which has mobilized with Stop Cop City and Defend the Atlanta Forest activists, have described the police’s actions as blatant attempts to derail the movement.
“The high bail amounts and charges are a way to make an example of people so that others see themselves out of the movement,” Jasmine, an organizer with Community Movement Builders, told Motherboard. “Those things are a strategic choice to dissuade people from participating, [and] also to try to bleed resources from the movement. They’re trying to bleed the movement dry.”
Since the summer of 2021, Atlanta’s forest defenders have held camp as part of a widespread local resistance to halt construction of a new state-of-the-art $90 million police training facility, which locals call “Cop City.” The project plans to use 381 acres of dense woodland forest to build a massive mock city designed to train police in urban warfare. The plan has been widely opposed by local residents and environmental experts, who say it would cause extreme flooding in areas populated primarily by Black and brown residents.
The shooting occurred last week after Georgia State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies entered the South River Forest to conduct a SWAT operation to clear forest encampments, part of the police’s escalating tactics to stifle the growing movement. Police say Teran refused to exit a tent and shot at the state troopers first—a claim that has been fiercely contested by protesters who knew Teran and were present during the sweep.
That night, community members gathered in Atlanta to mourn and protest Teran’s killing, which has been described by organizers as a tragic culmination of events in Atlanta police repression. In the following days, activists around the globe, from Los Angeles to Lützerath, Germany, have joined Stop Cop City activists in their demands to save the forest, abolish the police, and vindicate Teran’s death, transforming Stop Cop City from a local movement to an international one almost overnight.
Six people were arrested during the forest raid the morning Teran was killed. Fifteen others were arrested late that night during the evening’s protest of solidarity and mourning. Last weekend, four others were arrested during a protest in downtown Atlanta which resulted in property damage of a few businesses and a police car. This resulted in the second wave of domestic terrorism charges mounted against protesters and forest defenders, with five others arrested and charged in December 2022.
In total, the state of Georgia is now planning to prosecute 18 people for domestic terrorism, all of whom are connected to the movement against the police training facility. The activists will also be among the first to be charged under the state’s weighty 2017 domestic terrorism statute, which carries a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.
Local activists and legal experts have condemned the charges, and called for an independent investigation into the killing of Teran, which includes demands for the release of body cam footage. Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that provides financial and legal resources to those arrested during protest, released a statement calling the domestic terrorism charges a “dangerous precedent, designed to stifle public opposition and scare anyone concerned about police militarization and climate change away from protesting.”
The tactics on display are all-too-familiar, according to Lauren Regan, director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a nonprofit legal movement organization that is offering legal representation to Atlanta protesters.
“In my 25 years of experience defending activists, it is unfortunately a recurrent type of state repression when a campaign like this one gains momentum and broad public support,” Regan told Motherboard. “We’ve seen this time and time again. Domestic terrorism statutes, false arrests, high bonds, escalated charges—all of these along with police brutality are things on the state repression menu. And you’re seeing all of them in Atlanta right now.”
Local authorities have also made numerous claims that Atlanta’s forest defense movement, commonly known as Defend the Atlanta Forest, has been named by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as “domestic violent extremists.” However, Regan told Motherboard those claims are false.
“We have heard authorities in Atlanta regularly make statements along the line that the [DHS] has classified the forest defense as a terrorist organization or a violent extremist organization,” says Regan. “That’s not true. We have called and DHS does not classify individual groups. We keep seeing lies being made by government officials in order to attempt to justify this outrageous use of rhetoric against not-uncommon property crimes.”
During a bail hearing for those arrested on Jan. 18, bail was denied for four arrestees while two others were granted bond at the unprecedented cost of $355,000 each, along with bail conditions including ankle monitors and curfews, according to members of Atlanta Solidarity Fund who were present for the hearing. On Jan. 25, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston recused herself from the investigation that would uncover more details about Teran’s death. Body cam footage has still not been released, with officials saying they did not have badge cams during the raid. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr is now taking the lead in the domestic terrorism cases.
While activity in the forest has waned since Teran’s killing, organizers have been pivoting to other means of resistance along with redoubling efforts taking place outside of encampments. Activists are demanding that prosecutors drop all charges against protesters and authorize an independent investigation of Teran’s murder, and that city officials cancel the lease for Cop City with the Atlanta Police Foundation, and that corporations involved in Cop City divest from the project. They are also calling for continued national and international support, urging people outside of Atlanta to spread awareness and host events in their own communities to prevent what would be the largest police training facility in the U.S.
Mariah Parker, a local organizer and hip-hop artist, says that the Stop Cop City movement brings together multiple spheres of collective struggles being fought around the world.
“There can be no guessing that with this facility, they will be bringing in folks from police departments from across the country, other armed groups, and state agents around the world,” Parker told Motherboard, detailing how Stop Cop City is no longer just an Atlanta issue. “The money and support coming in [for Cop City] is coming from outside of Georgia. The offense is coming from all over the country. The city and police foundation had been mobilizing national forces, and so are we now, because we have to.”