Battle over Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’ signals potential for more violent clashes between protesters, police
The fight over a proposed police training facility in Atlanta has escalated in recent months, with a series of confrontations — including one that resulted in the police killing of an anti-deforestation activist — signaling a potential violent new front in clashes between radical environmentalists and law enforcement.
Last year, the city began preliminary construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, or Cop City, on 85 acres of the South River Forest.
The project has drawn a broad, overlapping coalition of opponents on the left, from anarchists to anti-police brutality activists to environmentalists opposed to the deforestation.
Confrontations between those opponents and law enforcement have intensified and grown violent in recent months, leading to a number of protestors being charged with domestic terrorism and to the first known police killing of an environmental activist in the U.S.
On Jan. 18, Georgia State Patrol officers raided an encampment in the forest, shooting and killing Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a nonbinary anarchist and environmental activist who went by Tortuguita, during the confrontation.
Police officials have said the activist shot first, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), which is investigating the shooting, has said a loaded handgun belonging to Tortuguita was recovered at the scene that matches an officer’s wound.
However, Atlanta police body camera footage of the aftermath of the shooting depicts an officer saying “you f—ed your own officer up?” while another officer later in the recording asks, “Did they shoot their own man?” An autopsy commissioned by Tortuguita’s family indicated they were shot 14 times and that, at the time of death, their hands were raised, with the palms turned inward toward their upper body. The state patrol does not wear body cameras, and the GBI has said no footage exists of the shooting itself.
A redacted incident report, obtained by The Hill through a public records request, indicates that police fired pepper-ball rounds through Tortuguita’s tent flap, and opened fire with live ammunition when they heard gunshots they believed to be coming from inside the tent.
The killing puts the fight over Cop City in unknown territory, because there are “very few, if any, examples in U.S. history” of police killings of environmentalist activists, said Keith Mako Woodhouse, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of the book “The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism.”
While no further fatalities have occurred, police detained 35 people in early March after a free concert in the forest protesting the construction became a confrontation, in which police claimed they were attacked with rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails and that attendees damaged construction equipment. Twenty-three of the detainees have been charged with domestic terrorism, including a legal observer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the only one offered bond.
The charges have been levied based on state law, “because there is no federal domestic terrorism statute,” said Daryl Johnson, a former intelligence analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. Georgia broadened the scope of its domestic terrorism law in 2017, expanding it to cover purposeful damage to “critical infrastructure” with the intention to “alter, change or coerce” government policy.
In addition to the arrests, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond issued an executive order last week closing Intrenchment Creek Park near the site to the public, claiming police have discovered “booby traps” including boards with nails protruding from them covered by underbrush.
Johnson said direct action of this kind by environmentalists has been largely dormant since the early 2000s, largely because of new laws enabling law enforcement to crack down on it more aggressively.
In 2006, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which expanded the Justice Department’s powers to prosecute crimes committed in the name of animal rights, Johnson noted.
This was followed a few years later by Operation Backfire, an FBI-led investigation that ensnared a number of leaders of groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. The combination of the two “kind of wiped out [environmental extremists’] capabilities,” Johnson said.
Since then, he said, “outside of the Dakota pipeline protests, we’ve had a few rail sabotages out in the Pacific Northwest, but there hasn’t been a widespread arson campaign or campaign of violence that’s been sustained.”
But, he said, “we’re kind of overdue” for the sort of action taking place in Atlanta.
The protests in the city come amid a broader resurgence in environmental demonstrations in recent years, according to Woodhouse.
“We’ve seen an uptick in direct action over the last decade or so to varying degrees of success,” he said. “It seems like we are seeing the slow and steady proliferation of various forms of direct action.”
In the case of the Cop City project, environmental activists have been spurred to protest over concerns that deforestation could expose the area to harsher weather and pollution.
Atlanta has the most forest cover of any major U.S. city, with one 2010 study estimating the tree coverage as more than half of the city.
The forest itself is a “hugely important resource for the city and the surrounding counties [and] one of the more sort of critical pieces of climate infrastructure in the area,” Hannah Riley, communications director at the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, told The Hill.
The forests also act as a bulwark against runoff and flooding after storms, she said, and prevent the urban heat island effect, in which lack of green space makes urban centers hotter than surrounding areas. Moreover, the facility is set to include a weapons testing area uphill from a creek that drains into a tributary of the South River, raising concerns around potential contamination.
The Hill has reached out to DeKalb County for comment.
Particularly in the wake of Tortuguita’s death, “there’s going be a period of real mourning and anger for a long time, [but] the focus is still very much there” for environmental acitivists, Riley said.
She added that while much of the national attention has been on civil disobedience and property damage, frustration is building among more moderate environmentalists as well over what they see as a dismissive attitude from the city.
“I don’t think that even the folks approaching with this very mainstream environmental-concern aspect have felt like [Mayor Andre Dickens’] administration has really listened to them and sat down with their concern and meaningfully addressed that,” she said. “I would say this is the Dickens administration’s first real fight with environmental activists in this way, and it’s not going well.”
Woodhouse predicts that the coming years will bring more conflict between law enforcement and environmentalists like the kind that have been seen in Atlanta.
While it’s impossible to say for sure whether confrontation between police and radical environmentalists will lead to further deaths, he said, such clashes are likely to increase in number and to intensify along with the climate crisis.
Updated at 8:01 p.m.
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