What began as a peaceful protest and vigil in Atlanta honoring a slain activist ended in property damage and several arrests Saturday. The chaotic night came after nearly two years of organizers and activists imploring city leaders, raising awareness and protesting the city’s plans to build a sprawling police training center in a forest near Atlanta.
“We’ve tried everything. We went through City Council, we’ve taken the legislative route, we’ve done tons of advocacy, we’ve sent in letters, and all we’ve been responded with is force,” said Matthew Johnson, a supporter of Defend the Atlanta Forest, one of the movements opposing plans for the new Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. “This wasn’t just people breaking s--- to be breaking s---. This was people who have run out of all options.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was mayor of Atlanta from 2018 to 2022 and is now in the Biden administration, has defended the project, saying in September 2021 that the forested land was the only viable location for such a facility.
“I’ve not been a part of any discussions on any major redevelopment in the city where there’s not been criticism on the process,” Bottoms said then. “This is not something that happened overnight. This has been several months in the making, and I know that everybody is not going to be pleased.”
After the anti-police violence protests of 2020, Atlanta officials promised that a sprawling police training center would be integral to the reforms residents had been demanding. The City Council voted 10-4 in favor of the project, with Bottoms saying a new facility for police “is something that can’t wait.”
But the site, dubbed “Cop City” by opponents, has faced local opposition for its potential environmental impact and concerns that it will do little to address police violence. It has become the focus of protests in several cities across the country to “Stop Cop City.” In recent weeks police shot and killed an activist, demonstrators destroyed property, and several protesters were arrested and face steep charges.
Here is how the tension over Atlanta’s “Cop City” reached a boiling point.
How a protest to mourn a slain activist turned violent
Officers fatally shot a 26-year-old nonbinary environmental activist who went by the name Tortuguita, or “Tort,” the morning of Jan. 18 as Georgia State Patrol troopers and other law enforcement officers worked to clear protesters from the site of the future police training center.
Tortuguita was one of several organizers who had been camping out in protest in the area of the DeKalb County forest scheduled to become “Cop City.” According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, officers shot Tortuguita, who was in a tent, after they “did not comply” with law enforcement's commands and allegedly shot a state trooper.
Just three days later, on Saturday, demonstrators marched down Peachtree Street around 5 p.m. to mourn Tortuguita’s death and protest the police training center. The evening ended with Atlanta police arresting six people on a variety of felony charges, from unlawful assembly to domestic terrorism, police said. All but one were from out of state, police said.
Hundreds gathered to mourn the death of an activist
Tortuguita was killed during one of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s many operations to clear protesters out of the forested area. The trooper was recovering after surgery, State Patrol Col. Chris Wright said at a news conference. Defend the Atlanta Forest said its sources on the ground heard 12 continuous “rapid fire” shots, not an exchange of gunfire. Bureau investigators declined to comment on the report of rapid-fire shots.
Organizers with Defend the Atlanta Forest said law enforcement authorities routinely move through the woods with their weapons drawn to clear out protesters. In fact, officers arrested eight protesters after someone allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at police as they tried to clear the area, WSB-TV of Atlanta reported in May.
The overall movement to stop “Cop City” underscored the reason for the gathering Saturday: Tortuguita’s death. But what began as a peaceful march eventually turned violent.
Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said at a news conference that protesters damaged the windows of three buildings and set a police car on fire Saturday night. Tunde Osazua, an organizer with the Atlanta chapter of the Black Alliance for Peace who was at the protest, said the violence was provoked after police arrived and began “using intimidation tactics.”
“From what I saw, they were trying to corral folks into areas and restrict people’s movements,” Osazua said, adding that he left the protest when police began making arrests. “It seemed like they were just using intimidation tactics to try to demonstrate their relative power in the space we were in.” Atlanta police did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the claim.
“I think that tragic murder that took place last week is just a harbinger of what is to come if they build this facility,” Osazua said.
The training facility was considered 'sensible reform' by city officials
Tortuguita’s death was a violent turn after nearly two years of mostly peaceful opposition to the training center. The city and the Atlanta Police Foundation are working together to build the training center, which is set to be a sprawling $90 million campus stretching 85 acres into the DeKalb County woods just outside Atlanta city limits.
The land is known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, where prisoners labored in poor working conditions for much of the 20th century. The new project would be a training site for members of the Atlanta Police Department, Atlanta Fire Rescue, the city’s 911 call center and K-9 units. It would also include an administrative building, several acres for farming, a shooting range and a “mock city” where law enforcement could conduct burn building and “urban police” training.
As plans for the center progressed in 2021, Mayor Bottoms lauded the project as a “sensible reform” necessary to boost morale, retention and recruitment in the city’s law enforcement agencies. “If we want the best, most well-trained officers protecting our communities, then we have to make sure we have a facility that offers that,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in spring 2021.
City officials, including the current mayor, Andre Dickens, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
City officials have said the training center would be funded in part by the Atlanta Police Foundation through “philanthropic and corporate donations,” with the city contributing $1 million a year to the project for about 30 years beginning in fiscal year 2024 or a single contribution.
According to an investigation by NBC affiliate WXIA, 80% of the foundation’s money comes from private donations, and the foundation’s board of trustees includes executives from Waffle House, AT&T, Delta Air Lines and other companies.
Public outcry leads to protests in Atlanta and beyond
The project quickly drew criticism from a variety of wary residents. Some are concerned that a training center would do little to grapple with police-spurred violence. Environmental groups say destroying a large part of the forest could negatively affect surrounding communities, as well as the nearby South River, which is endangered.
Opponents also say residents have not adequately been part of the site’s development process. Residents have urged city leaders not to lease the forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation, delivered public comment against the project, canvassed to raise awareness and even called on investors to pull their money from the project.
Opposing the training center is an extension of the work members of the South River Watershed Alliance have done for years to preserve the South River. In a city planning proposal from 2017, authorities had promoted plans to invest in a more than 1,200-acre park around the river’s tributaries, not a police facility.
“I remain steadfast in my belief that the desired training can be accomplished without destroying the acreage at the prison farm,” Jacqueline Echols, the board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, said in a statement. Echols added that the organization supports a “thorough investigation” of last week’s shooting of Tortuguita by police.
“Balanced and equitable consideration must be given to the protection of the local ecosystem, the cultural and historical significance of the property, and health and wellbeing of the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods,” she said.
The Atlanta Police Foundation said in a September Q&A that it went through “an exhaustive review of its properties” and that the area is the only city-owned land large enough for such a project. As for environmental concerns, the officials said there is not much tree cover in the area, as much of the land was cleared for crops decades ago, but they vowed to replace any hardwood tree destroyed in construction. They also said the center will “be built with 21st century EPA standards and controls” to mitigate pollution.
Foundation officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2021, Atlanta residents called in at least 17 hours of public comment as the City Council weighed whether to lease 85 acres of the forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the training center. The response was overwhelmingly against the project, including opposition from several community groups representing southeast Atlanta neighborhoods. The council still ended up approving the lease.
“These were comments from Atlanta residents that overwhelmingly opposed the project. We wanted to see the City Council vote down the project,” said Osazua, the Black Alliance for Peace organizer. “So when they did vote in favor, it was quite shocking. People were hoping the public disapproval of the project would be enough to win the vote.”
Advocates said that instead of a massive police training center, they would like the city to both make good on its promise to transform the deteriorating area into a park and reserve and invest in a facility for affordable housing, mental health services and basic social services for Atlanta residents.
Still, the movement to “Stop Cop City” has drawn support from outside Atlanta, with vigils for Tortuguita popping up from Florida to California. Johnson says that is proof that people are desperate for change as news of police violence consistently makes headlines.
“There have been people throughout the country and even the world at this point that have demonstrated showing solidarity,” Johnson said. “People haven’t seen anything change.”