Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens announced Tuesday that a proposed $90 million police training facility known as “Cop City” is moving forward, despite growing opposition and the police killing of a forest defender. Just weeks ago, law enforcement officers — including a SWAT team — were violently evicting protesters who had occupied a wooded area outside the center, when they shot and killed a longtime activist and charged 19 with domestic terrorism. The activists have been camping out in Weelaunee Forest for months to prevent its destruction. Mayor Dickens vowed to address their concerns, but protesters have vowed that Cop City will not be built. We speak with investigative reporter Alleen Brown, who says the “flimsy” domestic terrorism charges appear to be part of a strategy to undermine the protest movement rather than respond to an actual threat to public safety. “These charges may not be meant to stick. Perhaps instead it’s meant to send a message,” she says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to Atlanta, where Mayor Andre Dickens announced Tuesday the highly contested $90 million police training facility known as “Cop City” is moving forward, despite growing opposition and the police killing of a forest defender. Just weeks ago, law enforcement officers — including a SWAT team — were violently evicting protesters who had occupied a wooded area outside the center, when they shot and killed longtime activist Manuel Terán, who went by the name “Tortuguita.” Police claim officers were fired on, though activists there dispute the account. The activists have been camping out in Weelaunee Forest for months to prevent its destruction. This is Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaking Tuesday.
MAYOR ANDRE DICKENS: Today, I am pleased to report that we have reached an agreement with DeKalb County to issue the construction permits and begin to move the project forward. My administration is aggressively committed to environmental protection. We have been uniquely focused on expanding our protected green spaces in the city. In my first year of office alone, the city of Atlanta and our partners acquired an additional 260 acres throughout the city to be used for parks and green space.
AMY GOODMAN: At the news conference, a reporter asked Police Chief Darin Schierbaum if any protesters were still occupying the proposed Cop City site. This was his response.
POLICE CHIEF DARIN SCHIERBAUM: Yeah, as of this time, everyone has availed themselves of our request to vacate the area.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, outside City Hall, protesters chanted, “Cop City will never be built.” This is community organizer Micah Herskind.
MICAH HERSKIND: How dare they stand in front of people and say, “Oh, this plan, where we’re tearing down trees, is actually good for people, and it’s good for the economy, and it’s — you know, it’s actually going to protect people”? It’s obviously false, and I hope that it’s reported as such, because it’s such classic, blatant spin, that they’re taking us for fools if they think anyone would believe that tearing down trees and putting cement over it is protecting the environment. That’s outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, a coalition of more than 1,300 climate and racial justice groups called for the resignation of Atlanta’s Democratic mayor, saying he’s failed to denounce the police for shooting dead the activist known as Tortuguita, and instead criticized the protesters. This is Mayor Dickens speaking over the weekend about the protesters.
MAYOR ANDRE DICKENS: And it should be noted that these individuals were not Atlanta or Georgia residents. Most of them traveled into our city to wreak havoc.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to look more at the city of Atlanta’s crackdown on Cop City and what the protesters have been charged with, domestic terrorism, we’re joined by Alleen Brown, whose new investigation for Grist is headlined “Documents show how 19 'Cop City' activists got charged with terrorism: Georgia police are invoking a 2017 terrorism law against activists accused of little more than trespassing.”
Alleen, welcome back to Democracy Now! You report nine of the forest defenders facing domestic terrorism charges are accused simply of trespassing in the woods by camping and living in a tree house. One person was deemed part of Defend the Atlanta Forest for, quote, “occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflage clothing.” Can you just please explain?
ALLEEN BROWN: Yeah. So, thank you so much for having me.
I reviewed 20 arrest warrants for 19 people charged with domestic terrorism in Atlanta and found that none of those individuals are alleged to have committed any act that seriously injured anyone. Like you mentioned, nine of the warrants describe no specific illegal acts beyond misdemeanor trespassing — essentially, camping in a forest. Instead, for those charged in the forest, their domestic terrorism allegations seem to rest on the idea that the Department of Homeland Security designated people associated with the slogan “Defend the Atlanta Forest” to be domestic violent extremists. You know, I asked DHS about this, and they told me that they don’t classify any groups that way, although they do communicate with local and state officials about threats.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, Alleen, the origins of Georgia’s terror law and how it is that these people were charged?
ALLEEN BROWN: Yeah. So, Georgia’s domestic terrorism law passed in 2017, and it was really drafted as a means to confront these mass shootings that we see month in and month out. Specifically, lawmakers named the 2015 massacre of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, who were shot and killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof. So, you know, essentially, this law was created to address violence by white supremacists.
You know, at the time, civil liberties groups really put out that this was going to be used instead against people expressing their First Amendment rights and marginalized communities. So, it appears a version of that is what has come to pass. And this really serves as a warning signal to people on both sides of the party, lawmakers that have continued to suggest new domestic terrorism legislation is necessary to confront mass shootings.
AMY GOODMAN: Roy Wood Jr. of The Daily Show on Comedy Central recently went to the Atlanta forest to cover the movement to stop Cop City. We want to go to a clip.
ROY WOOD JR.: Wait, bingo. Y’all got bingo night?
FOREST DEFENDER 1: Yeah.
ROY WOOD JR.: Where is the Molotov cocktail station? Where’s the gun training station?
FOREST DEFENDER 2: The majority of us just want to live in peace with each other.
FOREST DEFENDER 1: We work here on ourselves, and we do yoga, and we meditate, get massages here.
ROY WOOD JR.: Y’all get massages? You do yoga, meditate, stretch and deal with your inner — like therapy.
FOREST DEFENDER 1: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Roy Wood Jr. of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. If only what was happening there was so funny. Alleen Brown, if you could take it from there? And also, if they face domestic terrorism charges, how many years in prison do they face? And does this make it easier, if the protesters are considered domestic terrorists, for SWAT teams to move in and, well, in the case of Tortuguita, to kill them?
ALLEEN BROWN: So, these charges carry mandatory minimums of five to 35 years, so they’re very serious charges. And, you know, they really — a lot of people are — attorneys are saying that they’re legally quite flimsy. You know, the law says that you have to commit a felony in order to be charged with domestic terrorism in Georgia. As we’ve talked about, a lot of these people are charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
But, you know, the idea is that this may not be meant — these charges may not be meant to stick. Perhaps instead it’s meant to send a message that this is a criminal group, these are terrorists, and, you know, maybe someone with more moderate views doesn’t want to be affiliated with such a group. So, in that sense, it creates a sort of public relations message that perhaps does make it easier to go in and evict people and escalate to something like what we saw on January 18th with Tortuguita.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, Alleen, but if you can respond to the mayor’s latest announcement they’re moving forward with Cop City, and the feeling in Atlanta around what this is, and if you could explain what it is?
ALLEEN BROWN: Yeah, sure. I mean, you know, what I found is that this is really a wide-ranging movement. There are, of course, forest defenders occupying this forest, defending the trees. There are also parks advocates, people concerned about police brutality, gentrification, neighborhood associations that have stood out against this project. So, I think Atlanta officials, as long as they continue to push this, are going to continue to face a really kind of strong, wide-ranging movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Alleen Brown, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to link to your piece, investigative reporter who covers environmental justice and the ways the climate crisis impacts criminalized populations. The new piece in Grist is headlined “Documents show how 19 'Cop City' activists got charged with terrorism.”
Coming up, he’s nominated for an Oscar for his film, the documentary All That Breathes. We’ll speak with director Shaunak Sen about the film he made about two brothers in New Delhi who run a bird hospital in their basement next to a metal shop. Stay with us.