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Tensions rise in Atlanta over proposed police training facility

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Atlanta today, activists are holding workshops on how to protest safely as a week of action continues against a planned police training facility. Meanwhile, violent protests broke out over the weekend at the site dubbed Cop City by protesters. Nearly two dozen now face felony domestic terrorism charges after attacking officers and setting fires at the site. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emily Wu Pearson reports. Advocates say terrorism charges are an outsized punishment for protesting.

EMILY WU PEARSON, BYLINE: More than 30 people were arrested Sunday at the site of the training facility. And on Monday, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum told city council members there's been a marked increase in aggression.

DARIN SCHIERBAUM: It generally had been setting property on fire. We'd seen police cars set on fire, windows busted. But this was started as an attack against individuals, men and women who are employes of the city.

WU PEARSON: These protests have been happening for over a year in the forest, where the 85-acre police and fire training facility is slated to be built at a cost of $90 million. In January, during a clearing operation, law enforcement shot and killed a protester after an officer was shot. In raids over the past several months, nearly 50 people have been arrested and charged for domestic terrorism. These are the first and only cases of domestic terrorism in this part of Atlanta. Warrants named their affiliation with the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement as a reason. Activist Jasmine Burnett with Community Movement Builders has been part of the protests. She says the charges are a scare tactic.

JASMINE BURNETT: Slapping them with domestic terrorism is also an attempt to warn other people who are organizing against this - other activists - to be careful and to be scared in a way to try to silence our movement.

MARLON KAUTZ: We've never seen anything like this.

WU PEARSON: That's Marlon Kautz. He works with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which helps people who were arrested while protesting.

KAUTZ: Honestly, I never really thought that I would see anything like this in Atlanta, a city which kind of prides itself on its, you know, legacy of civil rights.

WU PEARSON: Georgia's Republican attorney general, Chris Carr, tweeted he intends to prosecute the protesters to the full extent of the domestic terrorism law. He did not respond to a request for comment. Caren Morrison is a law professor at Georgia State University. She says typically violent protesters receive various misdemeanor convictions that have fines or only a year of jail time. A felony conviction of domestic terrorism can land someone up to 35 years in jail.

CAREN MORRISON: It's going to be very hard to get anybody to want to protest anything in Georgia or, indeed, in any other state where these - where this kind of use of the criminal law is used. It seems way out of proportion.

WU PEARSON: There's been a lot of nonviolent opposition to the training facility, especially from environmentalists who had hoped the largest forest in metro Atlanta would remain undisturbed. One of them is Jackie Echols with the South River Watershed Alliance, who showed me around the forest last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE ECHOLS: They want to build on the biggest continuous piece of greenspace left. Why would they want to do that?

WU PEARSON: Echols and others heavily lobbied Atlanta City council members last year against the training center, but they lost. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens says it's needed to help fill nearly 450 vacancies and attract new officers with state-of-the-art training in things like de-escalation techniques, community-oriented policing and mental health. Meanwhile, some environmental groups are looking for ways to preserve green space around the police training campus, with a series of parks and forest trails. As for the construction of the training facility, the county issued the first permits needed to start the project, and land clearing has started. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wu Pearson in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "GUNSHOWERS FT. ELZHI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Wu Pearson, WABE