Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’ and the debate over US protest rights | Protests News

A judge in Atlanta, Georgia, ordered the detention of 22 people accused of “domestic terrorism” without bail. the protests are going on against a proposed police training facility, dubbed “Police City” by protesters.

A 23rd individual, a lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, who joined the protest as a legal observer of the National Bar Association, was released on bail after the night trial. Tuesday.

The latest allegations come as environmental and racial justice protesters staged a “week of action” against the proposed facility, slated to be built at the South River Forest in County Atlanta’s unincorporated DeKalb. The protesters, who have been protesting against the facility for months, also called for a “national day of action” on Thursday.

Its planned construction and backlash spurred a nationwide debate about free speech, protest, and punishment in the United States.

Law enforcement and protesters have accused each other violence escalated in recent weeks, following the police killing of a protester in January. Meanwhile, human rights groups have accused prosecutors of using fabricated charges against protesters to quell the unrest.

In a statement Monday, the National Bar Association called the recent arrests “part of the state’s ongoing repression and violence against protesters demanding racial justice.” and the environment, who are fighting to protect their communities from the harmful effects of militarization and environmental degradation.”

Meanwhile, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp called the individuals arrested “violent activists” who chose “destruction and violence over legitimate protest”. “Domestic terrorism will not be tolerated in this state,” he added.

So what’s going on in Atlanta? Al Jazeera examines the controversy.

What is “Police City”?

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans to create a large-scale, state-of-the-art police training facility in April 2021, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the facility will help tackle crime. crime increases while boosting police morale and attracting new recruits.

The 34-hectare (85-acre) project is set to include classrooms, driving courses, an open-air theater, police kennels and stables, as well as a “simulated city for world training.” real world,” according to the Atlanta Police Foundation. raised two-thirds of the $90 million in funding, most of from private donors. It will also include fire department training facilities.

Taxpayers will fund the remaining third of the project, which is expected to be built on land already owned by the city, which was formerly the site of an abandoned prison complex. and a police shooting range.

The Atlanta Police Foundation says the first part of the facility will open by the end of 2023.

Why are the protesters against the establishment?

Opposition to the project has grown steadily since it was first announced, with critics saying the plan is at a crossroads for environmental, racial and ethnic concerns. land.

In a letter to the Atlanta City Council in August 2021, 16 environmental groups says that, although the project will only develop “a fraction of the total forest area”, it will “destroy ecological communities”.

Environmental groups warn that subdivision of the forest, designated by the city as one of Atlanta’s four “lungs,” could increase storm flooding, air pollution and regional warming. urban areas, while affecting the “health and vitality” of the adjacent South River.

“The city’s canopy, the widest of any metropolitan area in the United States and the city’s treasure, is our best hope for resilience to the worst of the effects of the city. climate change,” the letter read.

Opponents also point to the site’s historical background as reason to oppose the construction. The South River Forest – which they call the Weelaunee Forest – was one of the areas inhabited by the indigenous Muscogee people before they were forcibly displaced in the early 1800s.

The forest is currently surrounded by mainly ethnic minority communities. Opponents say the facility would support military surveillance and control that already targets Black residents.

“This movement is fighting to make life right – once and for all. To end the centuries-long racist brutality of controlling, incarcerating, displacing, exploiting and ravaging our communities,” the Atlanta Forest Protection protest coalition tweeted on Wednesday. Father.

How did the protests develop?

The project quickly polarized Atlanta residents. The city council received 1,166 comments — 17 hours in total — before voting to approve the facility in September 2021, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The protesters then went to the South River Forest, where they set up barricades and camped out. Several protest groups have formed and planned to act during the months of protests.

Meanwhile, authorities have repeatedly accused protesters of destroying property and equipment to disrupt construction. Before the most recent arrest, they speak Protesters threw “large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers”.

Efforts to clear the forest have resulted in numerous clashes and arrests.

In January, the police kill by protester Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as “Tortuguita”, brought the protests to national and international levels.

Authorities initially said officers shot and killed Teran after the 26-year-old shot at a state trooper.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is continuing to investigate the murder, said on Feb. 9: “There was at least one claim when an officer speculated that the Serviceman was shot by another officer during the fire. fire. Speculation is not proof. Our investigation does not support that claim.”

Meanwhile, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr speak Atlanta News First local news station Tuesday that 41 protesters have so far been charged under the state’s “domestic terrorism” law.

“Protesters use words, rioters use violence. The first is protected by the First Amendment,” Carr said. “Second is the offence, and we will track down and hold those who engage in the offences.”

Why are there concerns about protesters’ rights?

Prosecutors in December began charging protesters under Georgia’s “domestic terrorism” law that includes penalties for disabling or destroying “critical infrastructure, facilities, or infrastructure.” state or government” for the purpose of “changing, altering, or coercing government policy”.

Under the law, the defendant’s actions do not necessarily directly harm or threaten an individual.

The law was passed in 2017 but was opposed by some lawmakers, who warned it could be used to combat protest movements, despite an amendment to protect peaceful assembly. .

A protest sign denouncing 'Cop City' in Atlanta, USA
An abandoned protest sign is seen inside Weelaunee People’s Park near Atlanta, Georgia [Cheney Orr/The Associated Press]

Last week, a number of civil liberties and human rights organizations warned authorities that “charges of any protest-related offenses that may have been committed as domestic terrorism would be or is actually intended to cripple legal protests, limit civil space, and erode First Amendment freedoms”.

The letter reads: “These politicized accusations are clearly an attempt to silence dissidents by smearing an activist movement with terrorist inclinations.

“The inappropriate pursuit of domestic terrorism charges is an affront to the civil liberties that the First Amendment protects and could compromise civil liberties. and civilian space.”

Meanwhile, legal observers say that prosecutors’ use of the law in the current context is largely untested.

No court date has been set for those facing charges.

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