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Dozens face terrorism charges in Atlanta police protest

Flaming bottles and rocks were thrown at officers during a protest Sunday at ‘Cop City’
This image provided by the Atlanta Police Department shows construction equipment set on fire Saturday, March 4, 2023 by a group protesting the planned public safety training center, according to police. (Atlanta Police Department via AP)

More than 20 people from around the U.S. faced domestic terrorism charges Monday after dozens of young men in black masks attacked the site of a police training center under construction in a wooded area outside Atlanta where one protester was killed in January.

The area has become the flashpoint of ongoing conflict between authorities and left-leaning protesters.

Flaming bottles and rocks were thrown at officers during a protest Sunday at “Cop City,” where 26-year-old environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita,” was shot to death by officers during a raid at a protest camp in January. Police said Tortuguita attacked them, a version other activists have questioned.

Almost all those of arrested are from various locations around the country while one is from France and another is from Canada, police said.

Like many protesters, Tortuguita was dedicated to preserving the environment, friends and family said, ideals that clashed with Atlanta’s hopes of building a $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center that would boost police preparedness morale in the wake of violent protests that roiled the country after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

Now, authorities and young people are embroiled in a clash that appears to have little to do with other high-profile conflicts.

Protesters against what detractors call “Cop City” run the gamut from more traditional environmental environmentalists to young, self-styled anarchists seeking clashes with what they see as an unjust society.

Demonstrations spread to downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, when a police cruiser was set ablaze, rocks were thrown and fireworks were launched at a skyscraper that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation. Windows were shattered.

On Sunday, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said at a midnight news conference, several pieces of construction equipment were set on fire in what he called “a coordinated attack” at the site for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in DeKalb County.

Surveillance video released by police show a piece of heavy equipment in flames. It was among multiple pieces of construction gear that were destroyed, police said. Protesters threw rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police, officials said.

Officers used nonlethal enforcement methods to disperse the crowd and make arrests, Schierbaum said, causing “some minor discomfort.

Demonstrators tried to blind officers by shining green lasers into their eyes, and used tires and debris to block a road, the Georgia Department of Public Safety said Monday.

Along with classrooms and administrative buildings, the training center would include a shooting range, a driving course to practice chases and a “burn building” for firefighters to work on putting out fires. A “mock village” featuring a fake home, convenience store and nightclub would also be built for rehearsing raids.

Opponents have said the site will be used to practice “urban warfare.” Opponents say that building the 85-acre (34-hectare) training center would involve cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has said that the facilities will be built on a site that was cleared decades ago for a former state prison farm. He said the tract is filled with rubble and overgrown with invasive species, not hardwood trees. The mayor also said that while the facility would be built on 85 acres, about 300 others would be preserved as a public greenspace.

Many activists also oppose spending millions on a police facility that would be surrounded by poor neighborhoods in a city with one of the nation’s highest degrees of inequality.

Many of those already accused of violence in connection with the training site protests are being charged with domestic terrorism, a felony that carries up to 35 years in prison. Those charges have prompted criticism from some that the state is being heavy-handed.

Lawmakers are considering classifying domestic terrorism as a serious violent felony. That means anyone convicted must serve their entire sentence, can’t be sentenced to probation as a first offender and can’t be paroled unless they have served at least 30 years in prison.

Meanwhile, more protests are planned in coming days, police said Monday.

—Jeff Martin And Jeff Amy, The Associated Press