The anti-police protest movement in Atlanta ironically led to a massive expansion of police powers.
In a city once called “a city too busy to hate,” protesters recently took aim at a new police training facility. In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council approved construction of a police and fire training facility on 85 acres of a 265-acre parcel of city land in Georgia’s South River Forest. The campus would include a driving course and a mock city that both police and firefighters could use for training. Funding for the project would include $30 million from the city’s police budget and twice as much from the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a private nonprofit that collects grant funds to supplement police budgets.
The training center project has sparked outrage from anti-police protesters, who derisively call it “Cop City”. This is at least in part because the facility is planned to be built on the site of a prison farm that operated until the 1990s.
Opponents of the project balk at the idea of turning the site of the prison farm—which subjected inmates to “slavery conditions” for decades—into yet another law enforcement tool. In turn, for more than a year, activists from a group calling itself “Defend the Atlantic Forest” have set up camp in the forest in an attempt to discourage further development.
At times, the protests have turned violent: last year, police arrested eight protesters who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at officers. And on January 19, activist Manuel Paez Terano was shot and killed by a Georgia State Patrol (GSP) officer. The officer claims he returned fire after he was first shot, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) confirmed that Paez Teran bought the gun that shot the officer in 2020, but no body camera footage of the exchange is available.
Violence, whether it comes from police officers or protesters, is clearly indefensible (and the death of Paez Terano needs to be thoroughly investigated).
But those horrific incidents aside, the police response to peacefully clashing protesters was shockingly harsh. According to the warrants he reviewed Grist, 19 protesters arrested in connection with Cop City in December and January were charged with felonies under Georgia’s domestic terrorism law. Nine of the 19 were charged only with misdemeanors.
One of the warrants refers to the group, Defend the Atlanta Forest, as “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as a domestic violence extremist.” Georgia’s National Terrorism Act was passed in 2017 in part to address incidents like the 2015 killing of nine black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina. The law provides penalties for death, kidnapping, grievous bodily harm or destruction of “critical infrastructure”. But it does not specify that the law can be applied to group members who are not directly involved when other members commit violent acts. Many of the warrants go into detail about the actions Defend the Atlanta Forest is accused of, only to single out individual members for “criminal trespass and sleeping in the woods” or “occupying a treehouse on the site, refusing to leave and posting videos and calls to action on social media.”
If convicted, the penalty for destroying critical infrastructure is between five and 35 years in prison.
The arrests in Atlanta are another example of the creep of the counterterrorism mission that has begun over the past two decades. While the term terrorism may evoke certain mental images, as a legal term it has grown to include a wide range of things beyond the realm of suicide bombers or the 9/11 attacks. In 2021, a Michigan prosecutor charged a school shooter with terrorism on the grounds that his actions instilled fear in the community.
Some actions in Atlanta may indeed warrant prosecution, but treating every protester as a terrorist only serves to suppress free speech. Lauren Regan, executive director of the Center for the Defense of Civil Liberties, said Grist“The next time a vigil happens, a mom or a teacher or a nurse—or someone at higher risk of accidental arrest—will probably think twice about going.”