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What's at stake in Atlanta's 'Cop City' protests

A makeshift memorial for environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was shot and killed by law enforcement during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, is seen on Feb. 6.
Cheney Orr
/
AFP via Getty Images
A makeshift memorial for environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was shot and killed by law enforcement during a raid to clear the construction site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City" near Atlanta, is seen on Feb. 6.

Updated March 7, 2023 at 1:52 PM ET

In Atlanta, the clash over plans to build a police training center on a large tract of land has brought at least one death, a state of emergency, and domestic terrorism charges — and protests are only expected to grow more intense.

Police detained 35 people on Sunday, after dozens of activists swarmed a construction site and set heavy equipment and other items on fire. They threw Molotov cocktails, fireworks and rocks, authorities say, hoping to block construction of a $90 million public safety training campus in an area called the South River Forest.

Of those detained, 23 are charged with domestic terrorism, the police department said. It added that most of the people arrested are not from Georgia; two are from other countries. But groups aligned with the protesters say the terrorism charges are vastly overblown; they also say police rounded up people not at the construction site but at a music festival roughly a mile away.

"This was a very violent attack," Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said, adding that his officers got backup from DeKalb County and the Georgia State Patrol. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI are also involved, he said.

The battle over the Public Safety Training Facility, called "Cop City" by opponents, touches on Atlanta's history — it is to be built on land where prisoners once labored on a farm. But the clash is also about the future, and the complicated balance between progress and equity. Here's a guide to the conflict and its main players.

The land

The training facility will be built in the South River Forest, which member station WABE notes is "an area of green space in south DeKalb County described as one of the 'four lungs' of Atlanta."

In all, the city of Atlanta owns more than 380 acres in the South River Forest area. The training campus will be built where Atlanta's Old Prison Farm once operated, after the city bought the land in 1918. People convicted of nonviolent crimes worked there for decades, before the farm shut down in 1995.

The land was identified in 2017 as a key piece of a city design plan to create green space and recreation options for an underserved part of Atlanta. The city council approved the plan. But the city's leaders then made a deal to lease land to the Atlanta Police Foundation to build a large training facility.

The project

The training facility is expected to cost $90 million and take up 85 acres — down from 150 acres in the original plan. It would still dwarf comparable facilities cited in the Atlanta Police Foundation's infrastructure plan.

An explosives training center that was in the original plan has been scrapped, but a firing range, "shoot house," burn building and other aspects remain — and critics say the facility would undermine the goal of creating a peaceful and cohesive green space.

Protests grow over two years

Family members of environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán visit a makeshift memorial for Terán on Feb. 6 at the site of the proposed police training facility.
Cheney Orr / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Family members of environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán visit a makeshift memorial for Terán on Feb. 6 at the site of the proposed police training facility.

Since artist renderings of the project were released in early 2021, the Defend the Atlanta Forest group has used Twitter and Instagram to document protesters' activities, including camping in the forest. The group announced a "week of action" from March 4 to 11.

In December, five people were arrested on domestic terrorism and other charges, in a conflict that included agents removing barricades.

In January, officers shot and killed activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known to friends and fellow protesters as Tortuguita, during a raid in the forested area. Authorities said Terán had fired at and injured a state trooper first, but activists say another officer was the one responsible.

More demonstrations followed — and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order in late January declaring a state of emergency and putting up to 1,000 National Guard members at his disposal.

The big backer

The facility is supported by the Atlanta Police Foundation, an independent nonprofit that aims to modernize the city's police force and help it improve training and technology.

The police foundation is similar to others around the U.S. that sprang up in the big homeland security push after Sept. 11, 2001. But it seems to be unique in its size and reach: CEO Dave Wilkinson makes more money than Atlanta's mayor or police chief, and more than the heads of similar foundations, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last September.

For a sign of the foundation's money and influence, consider its large roster of board members and advisers, which includes executives from corporations like Equifax and KPMG, along with big law firms and real estate developers.

Opponents say

Critics are accusing Atlanta — a city that's proud of its urban forest — of canceling its own plan to bring more open green space to communities that have already put up with undesirable facilities, like landfills, water treatment plants and truck yards.

Opponents of the planned facility are urging the city to take up that original plan — and in recent days, they note, a new vision of that plan has emerged, which includes options for linking existing parks and connecting them to Atlanta's Beltline, a loop used by pedestrians and cyclists.

The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter accused city leaders of not listening to their constituents.

"Moving the pieces around or pledging more greenspace in the project's footprint does not change the fundamental disagreement over this unnecessary facility," the group said, calling for "city officials to cancel the lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation and protect the entire South River Forest."

Backers say

In this aerial view, law enforcement and construction crews are seen at the planned site of a police training facility near Atlanta on Feb. 6.
Cheney Orr / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
In this aerial view, law enforcement and construction crews are seen at the planned site of a police training facility near Atlanta on Feb. 6.

"The facility will not be built on a forest," the city of Atlanta said in January. "The training center will sit on land that has long been cleared of hardwood trees through previous uses of the site."

The Atlanta Police Foundation says the design plan that deemed the South River area part of a new parks network "was not well-known, however we quickly became aware that some environmentalists had come to embrace this aspirational concept."

The APF also notes that the city council's 2017 resolution embracing the green space plan "was not binding." The foundation has committed to raising $60 million from private and philanthropic sources to help pay for the facility, with plans for the city to pay for the remaining $30 million.

Complicating matters

The struggle to maintain forest land and public space is also playing out over a land swap deal between DeKalb County and Ryan Millsap, former owner of Blackhall Film Studios.

Millsap and the county reached a deal in 2020 to trade 53 acres of the studio's nearby property for 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park — a tract that abuts the planned public safety training facility.

That land swap deal sparked legal challenges. Opponents note that when Intrenchment Creek Park was established in 2003, it came with a guarantee that it would remain a public park in perpetuity.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.