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What to Know About the Clashes at ‘Cop City,’ Atlanta’s Planned Police Training Center

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Updated: | Originally published:

Hundreds of protesters on Sunday breached the site of a proposed public safety training facility in southeast Atlanta, burning construction vehicles and setting off fireworks at police officers. The Atlanta Police Department said 23 people had been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism after throwing bricks, rocks and Molotov cocktails at officers stationed nearby.

The violent clashes occurred on the second day of what activists are calling a weeklong “mass mobilization” to protest the building of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, a planned 85-acre campus that has been branded “Cop City” by opponents who say the complex would propagate police militarization and harm the environment.

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“We are appalled because no one asked for this facility to be built,” activist Kamau Franklin, the founder of Community Movement Builders, a grassroots organizing group that helped organize the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement, tells TIME. “This is a militarized police facility that’s going to have over a dozen firing ranges and a Blackhawk helicopter. I can’t think of any reason whatsoever why the police in Atlanta need a Blackhawk helicopter, except to over-police Black communities.”

Surveillance footage from Atlanta Police captured construction equipment burning out of control at the site as protesters in black clothing went into the fenced construction area before squad cars and armed officers arrived. The protesters were seen throwing large rocks, bricks, molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police officers. No officers were hurt.

“A group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to conduct a coordinated attack on construction equipment and police officers,” the police department said.

Police said they “exercised restraint and used nonlethal enforcement” to detain 35 people. Of those detained, 23 were arrested and have been charged with domestic terrorism by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, according to a Monday afternoon update. Only two of the individuals arrested are from Georgia; one is from Canada and another is from France.

Law enforcement are seen at the planned site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City", during the first raid since the death of activist Manuel Teran near Atlanta, Ga. on Feb. 6, 2023.
Law enforcement are seen at the planned site of a police training facility that activists have nicknamed "Cop City", during the first raid since the death of activist Manuel Teran near Atlanta, Ga. on Feb. 6, 2023.Cheney Orr—AFP/Getty Images

Why Do Protesters Oppose the Facility?

Tensions over the proposed police training facility have escalated between law enforcement and protesters in recent months. Those opposed to the center began organizing against the complex shortly after the Atlanta City Council authorized it in 2021. Franklin says the announcement came as a surprise to local residents and that the development process has been largely secretive, with limited input from those most directly impacted.

Environmental advocates want to preserve the wooded area, which spans more than 1,000 acres. The planned center, located in DeKalb County, is estimated to cost $90 million, funded mostly by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization, as a way to offer better police training and to boost morale amid hiring and retention struggles. Taxpayers will fund about $30 million of the facility’s cost. The city has said that it would replace trees cleared during construction, and protect more than 200 acres of land around the facility.

Other activists are concerned that the development of the training site will enable increased militarization of police forces in DeKalb County, which is 55% Black. Attention towards policing practices heightened in the wake of monthslong demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice after the 2020 police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks.

Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens, who is Black, said at a press conference in late January that the proposed training facility would help address much of the concerns about harmful policing practices. “Our training includes vital areas like de-escalation training techniques, mental health, community-oriented policing, crisis intervention training, as well as civil rights history education,” he said. “This training needs space, and that’s exactly what this training center is going to offer.”

More than 85% of the people arrested by the Atlanta Police Department are Black, compared to the city’s 48% Black population, according to data from the Police Scorecard, an online database of police violence and racial bias for over 16,000 law enforcement agencies.

Franklin, who helped organize the movement, says the problems with policing in Atlanta aren’t just an issue with inadequate training—but rather an issue of “militarizing the police to look at certain communities as criminals, particularly Black, poor, working-class communities.” He added that police have been bringing tanks and armored vehicles to protect the forest, along with officers carrying long rifles to patrol the site. “I don’t buy whatsoever that this is about training the police,” Franklin says. “The only training that’s going to happen is on how to further criminalize communities of color, and how to continue to stop movements from taking place.”

Police Training Site-Protest
Construction equipment set on fire on March 4, 2023 by a group protesting the planned public safety training center, according to police.Atlanta Police Department/AP

Why Protests Turned Violent

Violent protests related to the proposed police training facility last erupted in Atlanta on Jan. 21, when a police vehicle was set on fire and windows were shattered in downtown buildings after the fatal police shooting of Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, a 26-year-old social justice activist who was protesting the proposed site. Police said he opened fire first, injuring a state trooper; activists have called for an independent investigation into the shooting.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, declared a state of emergency on Jan. 26 and called for the mobilization of 1,000 National Guard troops amid simmering tensions over the training facility. Some arrested at the site were previously charged with domestic terrorism.

The planned demonstrations this weekend began peacefully on Saturday with a rally, a march through the South River Forest, and a music and arts festival.

Franklin says he didn’t expect Sunday’s protest to turn violent, though he added that officers had pepper sprayed people and tossed protesters to the ground during the clash. “Some folks even had their lives threatened by police officers,” he says. “That is what I consider violence. The destruction of property may be something that people don’t like to see, but they are not violent attacks.” Atlanta Police did not immediately return a request for comment.

“I think it was an overreaction by the police to go and bust up the music festival and arrest 35 people and charge 23 of them with acts of domestic terrorism—folks who were at the Music Festival that were randomly picked out and not necessarily part of the action,” he added.

Those who oppose the police facility say the city of Atlanta should instead reallocate the roughly $30 million in taxpayer funding towards other issues, like affordable housing, accessible healthcare or work programs, Franklin says.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com