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Protestors confront police in march against Ga. public safety training center

Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum showed items gathered at the protest intended as weapons, other items used by professional protesters and anarchists

Police Training Center Protest

Protesters march during a demonstration in opposition to a new police training center, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

By R.J. Ricco and Jeff Amy
Associated Press

ATLANTA — Police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades Monday to halt a march against building an Atlanta-area police and firefighter training center that opponents call “Cop City.”

More than 400 people marched about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from a park to the site in suburban DeKalb County, chanting “stop Cop City” and “Viva, viva Tortuguita,” invoking the nickname of an activist who was fatally shot by state troopers while camping in the woods in protest earlier this year.

A wedge of marchers, including some in masks, goggles and chemical suits intended to protect against tear gas, pushed into a line of officers in riot gear on a road outside the training center site. Officers pushed back and deployed tear gas. One protester threw a canister back at officers.

Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum later said the protesters disobeyed orders to stop the march, noting they didn’t have a permit for it. He said marchers showing up with gas masks was one indication they sought to provoke police.

“This is not a group that has the best interests of Atlanta at heart. This is a group today that left Gresham Park prepared to reach the site, prepared to do harm, prepared to do destruction,” Schierbaum said.

Some protesters acknowledged they wanted to enter the construction site as an act of civil disobedience, but disputed any intention of violence.

“The police continue to show themselves to be a group that is weaponized against the larger public, particularly the larger public that has the nerve to protest against police violence and police actions,” said Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders.

Protests against the proposed training center have been going on for more than two years. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr obtained a sweeping indictment in August, using the state’s anti-racketeering law to charge 61 protesters, characterizing them as “militant anarchists.”

Protesters called Monday’s march “Block Cop City” and events were held across the country in recent weeks to support the movement. It was the latest effort to stop construction of a project that has galvanized environmentalists and anti-police protesters across the country.

Some marchers retreated from the clash while others tried to wash away the effects of tear gas. Dozens of protesters ran into the woods near the property where the training center is being built and exited with their hands up. The marchers eventually retreated as a group without any arrests being made. Vomiting and irritation from the tear gas were the only apparent injuries.

Police agencies including the DeKalb County Police Department and Georgia state troopers were guarding the site, including with armored vehicles.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and other supporters say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and help the police department recruit and retain officers. Opponents say the facility could lead to greater police militarization and that its construction in the South River Forest will worsen environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.

Ahead of the march, Franklin told the crowd they had a duty to practice civil disobedience against the project. Prior to the march, protester Sam Beard said activists had been urged not to bring weapons, use incendiary devices or destroy construction equipment.

But at the afternoon news conference, Schierbaum displayed what appeared to be handmade tree-planting spades with long sticks and metal blades that he alleged were intended as weapons, not garden tools. He also displayed bolt-cutters and a gas masks and said umbrellas carried Monday could be used by “professional protesters and anarchists” to shield themselves from tear gas and push through police lines.

“We see a number of devices that would appear innocent on the forefront that are actually used in a very aggressive and violent manner,” Schierbaum said.

Franklin, however, said some protesters planted trees while they were retreating after the confrontation.

Some protesters in Monday’s march had hoped to reoccupy the wooded area that includes the construction site and adjoining park. Activists spent months camping in the woods there until police pushed them out in January. That sweep included the fatal shooting of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita.

A prosecutor last month declined to pursue charges against the state troopers who shot Paez Terán, saying the activist shot a trooper and that law enforcement’s use of deadly force was “objectively reasonable.”

Paez Terán’s parents spoke before the march. Previously, they have said they do not believe authorities’ version of events and have called for an independent investigation. The family commissioned an autopsy that concluded Paez Terán’s hands were in the air when the activist was shot.

“I see, in each one of them, my son,” Belkis Terán told The Associated Press of the crowd. “Manuel always said, ‘To fight the police, you have to be happy.’ So happiness is what we have brought.”

Resistance to the project has at times sparked violence and vandalism. Prosecutors now characterize the protest movement as a conspiracy, saying it has led to underlying crimes including possessing fire accelerants and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers.

Most of those indicted in August on the racketeering charges had already been charged with other crimes in connection with the movement.