The City of Atlanta has been pursuing the development of an 85-acre police training facility since 2021 and is doubling down on its construction despite an intense public backlash.
The project — which critics dubbed “Cop City” — has been met with local condemnation, international criticism, and a national mobilization of activists citing a bevy of environmental and political concerns about the facility.
In the past several months, state and local police have held activists in solitary confinement for days, killed a protester by shooting the person multiple times, and had the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) investigate that killing — which it was involved in — only to refuse to release related evidence to the public after a district attorney found the killing to be “objectively reasonable.” In the same period, dozens of nonviolent activists have been charged with terrorism and criminal conspiracy, and the City of Atlanta has worked overtime to prevent a public referendum vote on the facility.
Introduction to Cop City
In March, a poll from Emory University found a division in public opinion of the project, with 61 percent of Buckhead residents in support of it and only 46 percent of the rest of Atlanta supporting the project. The division is also along racial lines, with 55 percent of white respondents in favor of building Cop City and only 44 percent of Black respondents in favor of the project. A separate poll from Data for Progress found that 59 percent of Atlanta voters believe the public should be able to vote on the project directly via referendum.
Those in favor of the project believe the training center will improve public safety by allowing police to train for responses to incidents like armed robberies and mass shootings. Activists disagree vehemently, concerned that the facility’s plans to include a mock city suggest police will train in crowd control techniques to repress protests and social movements.
“People not having needs met leads to crime,” said Satyrn, a local activist involved in the Stop Cop City movement. “Cops don’t keep you safe. If working people can’t make ends meet and we aren’t addressing the unaffordability crisis, of course more crime will happen no matter how many cops you have.”
“This will contribute to the genocide and oppression of the Palestinian people through the exchange of tactics including crowd control, raids, combat tactics, and profiling techniques,” Satyrn said.
Activists also note that the allocated $31 million could be better spent on health care and education, and that since the facility is outside the city of Atlanta, the mostly Black and low-income neighborhoods next door have no representation on the Atlanta City Council, the body that approved the project in September 2021.
Also at issue are the optics of the group largely responsible for the project, the Atlanta Police Foundation.
“The Atlanta Police Foundation is a nonprofit that does a lot of public/private partnerships to acquire additional funding or materials for the Atlanta Police Department,” Satyrn said. “This is an unelected body that has representatives from major corporations, including Chick-Fil-A, Home Depot, Delta, and several real estate companies. President and CEO David Wilkinson makes over $500,000 annually [according to ProPublica] and lives 40 miles away from the city. The APF is rarely mentioned in discussions on Cop City, but they are the main proponent, the ones who lease the land and stand to profit off of it.”
Ironically, while many proponents of Cop City often decry protesters as “outside agitators,” several of APF’s members aren’t living in Atlanta. Mapping Atlanta found that the majority of people from organizations involved with Cop City — like the APF, Atlanta Committee for Progress, and Buckhead Coalition — live nowhere near the facility.
Still, others note that the facility is to be built on land that was once sacred to the Muscogee Indigenous people, which later housed the Atlanta prison farm, where incarcerated people — including some civil rights activists — were forced to do slave labor, a phenomenon still happening in U.S. prisons today.
Others oppose the construction for environmental reasons, citing a lawsuit by South River Watershed Alliance that claims construction on the site has led to sediment leaking into the South River, exceeding legal limits as set by the Clean Water Act.
On top of all this, Georgia police killed an activist and then charged mostly peaceful protesters with domestic terrorism and racketeering, solidifying activists’ initial concerns that Cop City will lead to more repressive, militant policing.
A timeline of events
The project was announced in March 2021 and Atlanta City Council voted to approve the lease that September, after listening to 17 hours of public comment, overwhelmingly in opposition to the project.
“City council answers to corporate funders, not to the people of Atlanta,” Satyrn said.
From October 2021 until January 2023, protesters lived in the South River Forest to stop the development of the facility by occupying the space in a generally peaceful form of protest.
By the end of 2022, police had arrested several protesters, some of whom they said threw Molotov cocktails and others whom they charged with domestic terrorism.
In 2023, things have intensified exponentially.
Jan. 18, 2023 — Police killed environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, grimly marking the first time in U.S. history that police killed an environmental activist while they were protesting. Officers said they killed Tortuguita after the activist shot at the police, but bodycam footage was accidentally released by Atlanta Police Department three weeks later in which one officer seems to suggest they were hit with friendly fire, not gunshots from activists, according to ABC. After this footage was made public, the GBI instructed the APD not to release any further footage.
The GBI provided evidence showing that Tortuguita legally purchased a gun in 2020, and a photo from the scene of the same kind of gun, according to Decaturish.com. Critics quickly pointed out that the evidence wasn’t strong enough to definitively prove Tortuguita’s guilt.
Because the GBI refused to release hard evidence, because the organization investigated its own case, and because Tortuguita was known for their practice of nonviolence, friends and family began to decry the police narrative as false.
Protests against the murder gained huge momentum in the weeks that followed. Police arrested and charged six people with domestic terrorism after APF property was damaged downtown on January 21, according to Capital B News. Deputy Georgia Attorney General John Fowler is alleged to have compared the vandalism at APF’s headquarters on 91 Peachtree Street to the events of 9/11, claiming, “That’s a twin towers,” according to Atlanta Community Press Collective.
“Since the death of Tort, the forest has been on lockdown,” Satyrn said. “They have around 30 cops sitting there, and we know through open records requests that it costs taxpayers $41,500 each day. Police are taking officers from other zones which they claim need cops, only to have them guarding property in an isolated forest.”
A representative from the APD declined Georgia Voice’s request for comment.
March 5, 2023 — Activists held a music festival attended by around 1,000 people, and around 400 marched from the festival location to the construction site. There, some protesters set fire to the construction equipment on-site, before slipping back into the crowd at the music festival, leading to 35 people being detained and 23 charged with domestic terrorism, according to Al Jazeera. Police say some activists threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at them, and protesters insist the cops were pushed out without physical harm.
Activists said that police separated detainees by their state ID, ultimately choosing not to arrest a majority of those with Georgia IDs, presumably to support the claim of the “outside agitator.”
It is worth noting that activists from across the country have mobilized in Atlanta to voice their concerns about the facility, believing that police oppression everywhere is connected, and that the facility sets a dangerous precedent.
Among those charged with domestic terrorism is a legal observer from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The charges have been lambasted as antidemocratic, leading to 66 human rights organizations across the world signing a letter condemning the March 5 arrests and charges of domestic terrorism. Legal observers are legal experts who observe protests to make sure no rights are violated. They do not take part in the protest and designate themselves by wearing bright green hats.
“The domestic terrorism charges are weak, with no indictment and no evidence tying anyone to illegal activity other than trespassing,” Satyrn said. “Some activists spent three months in jail, only released because of a Georgia law requiring judges to grant bail to unindicted people after 90 days. Usually, domestic terrorism is used as an additional charge to other felonies. If they had evidence of someone burning a bulldozer, that person would’ve been charged with arson in addition to domestic terrorism.”
April 19, 2023 — An autopsy by the Dekalb County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Tortuguita had 57 bullet wounds and that medical examiners did not see visual evidence of gunpowder residue on their hands, according to ABC. A prior autopsy commissioned by Tortuguita’s family — because the Dekalb autopsy was taking months — found that their hands were raised in the air while they were shot, but the Dekalb autopsy suggests it may be impossible to verify that.
Days later, the GBI released the results of a test using samples from Tortuguita’s hands, stating that the samples contained “particles characteristic of gunshot primer residue.”
Despite the GBI taking months to release the results of the gunpowder residue test, attorneys for Tortuguita’s family noted that the date on the results was January 23, according to the Guardian.
Beyond this, police said there is no bodycam footage of the shooting, as Georgia State Patrol officers, the main agency involved in Tortuguita’s killing, are not legally required to wear them.
These events pushed Atlanta City Council to pass a resolution calling for State Patrol and GBI officers to wear bodycams, but that resolution now lies in the hands of the GOP-led state legislature.
April 23, 2023 — Students at Emory and Georgia Tech protested the construction of Cop City by camping out on campus green spaces. Georgia Tech students managed to camp out for 24 hours, while Emory students complied with officers’ request to leave, under threat of arrest, Tuesday morning, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Students from Morehouse College, Agnes Scott College, and Georgia State University also protested that day in a show of solidarity across several campuses.
Days before, Georgia Tech removed a student journalist’s reporting on Cop City from its website, according to Truthout. In February, Emory students pressured former university President Claire Sterk to resign from the APF board.
April 28, 2023 — Activists posted flyers identifying the police officer involved in Tortuguita’s murder and are charged with felonies for intimidation of police officers, which can carry up to 20 years in prison.
“Activists in Bartow County were taken to the Bartow County jail, interrogated by the FBI and DHS without lawyers present,” Satyrn said. “Transgender activists were thrown in solitary confinement.”
A defense lawyer told Truthout that her clients were held for four nights in solitary confinement at Bartow County Jail.
June 5, 2023 — Atlanta City Council allocated an additional $31 million to fund the project, days after hearing 14 more hours of public comment, again overwhelmingly in disapproval of the project.
July 9, 2023 — Delegates from Atlanta’s mayoral office emailed officials from the Biden administration, according to recent social media posts by organizers that say they obtained email correspondence through an open records request.
In the email, city officials describe a prior meeting with the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, in which they say the White House believes that Cop City is “exemplary of what President Biden would like to see other municipalities emulate.”
August 29, 2023 — Sixty-one activists were indicted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges, which is a much higher number than previous RICO cases, like the case involving rapper Young Thug or Donald Trump. In the indictment, Republican Attorney General Chris Carr describes activists as “militant anarchists” and traces the foundation date of the Stop Cop City movement to May 25, 2020, the date George Floyd was murdered by police.
Activists believe this suggests these charges are really about suppressing protesters and setting a precedent for repressing protesters arrested during the protests of the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“This date is about a year before the [Cop City] project was even publicly announced,” Satyrn said. “They’re trying to criminalize organized political resistance itself.”
Of the 61 charged, only one remains incarcerated, an undocumented activist named Victor who has been in custody since March. He is currently facing indefinite detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Stewart Detention Center. Activists sent Victor cards for his birthday on November 13.
Generally, activists believe the domestic terrorism and RICO charges won’t hold up in court, citing political motivations and a lack of concrete evidence tying activists to incidents of property damage. The domestic terrorism charges carry a sentence of up to 35 years, and the RICO charges a sentence of up to 20 years.
“The RICO charges are meant to scare people and create legitimacy for other charges,” Satyrn said. “Some people were charged under Rico for just putting up flyers. DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston recused herself from this case over ideological differences with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. Carr is doing it by himself; this is no longer a multi-agency effort, which goes to show that it doesn’t hold up. If it did, you would have people like Fani Willis joining it, as it would be an easy prosecution. This is guilt by association, and a jury won’t fall for that.”
The RICO charges against Trump come with a wealth of evidence supporting the fact that there was a right-wing conspiracy to overturn the U.S. presidential election. By stark contrast, The RICO indictment for the 61 activists features very little evidence and seems to persecute people based on political affiliation and ideology, using phrases like “anarchists” and “mutual aid.”
Some critics suggest that Carr has used the RICO law in this case to set a precedent for criminalizing political resistance movements and also to delegitimize the separate RICO charges against Trump.
September 11, 2023 — Activists presented the city with over 100,000 signatures supporting a public vote on Cop City via referendum. The city informed them it would not begin verifying the signatures until the result of their appeal of a court case about the referendum.
Originally, a judge granted organizers an additional 60 days to collect signatures, arguing that the city’s requirement for witnesses to be Atlanta residents inhibited First Amendment rights, but the city got an injunction on that ruling, placing a pause on the additional 60-day period.
“The City is waiting for the 11th Circuit Court to rule on their appeal of the decision that gave the 60-day extension,” Satyrn said. “In the court case that activists filed, the City is not only saying the plaintiffs’ arguments are invalid, but also that the referendum process can’t repeal a city ordinance. Their offered legal remedy would be to remove said referendum law entirely.”
Critics see this as an assault on democracy itself, potentially setting a dangerous precedent that the public’s direct vote can’t outweigh the choices of city officials.
October 6, 2023 — Special prosecutor George R. Christian concluded an investigation into Tortuguita’s killing, finding that it was “objectively reasonable.” According to Christian, Tortuguita refused to comply with officers’ demands to leave their tent, and when officers fired a pepper ball launcher at Tortuguita, the activist responded by firing four shots. Activists and family members fully reject that finding and demand to see the evidence that led to the verdict, which the GBI has kept from the public for months.
“The GBI investigated their own shooting, released very little details and sent the findings to a conservative district attorney,” Satyrn said. “Now, they are refusing to release evidence or comment, saying it’s because AG Chris Carr has the open RICO case. There is no reason for Tort’s murder to be tied to the RICO charges. I believe they are using this as an excuse to not release documents or evidence, with the goal being to never release the information within a period that people are still paying attention to it.”
Existing evidence not being released to the public includes audio witness interviews, photographs, forensic lab reports, crime scene drawings and reports, and body camera video and audio, according to the Guardian.
The article also notes that the RICO case could last for years, thus extending past the two-year statute of limitations that would allow Tortuguita’s family to pursue a lawsuit.
Experts argue that this sets a dangerous precedent for police being able to kill activists without providing sufficient evidence or being held accountable.
Earlier this year, Tortuguita’s family retained civil rights attorney Jeff Filipovits, who sued to obtain access to the Atlanta police body cam videos, which were never released. In October, the family traveled to Georgia to meet with the prosecutor.
“I don’t understand why they were so brutal, so horrible,” Tortuguita’s mother Belkis told WABE.
November 5, 2023 — As the referendum effort to stop Cop City remained tied up in court and activists await the status of their felony charges, construction at the site continued. Some suggest city officials could be intentionally stalling in an attempt to build the facility before the public can vote on it. In response to the continued construction, activists organized a week of nonviolent action from November 5–13, including protests, concerts, workshops, and other actions in opposition to the project.
November 6, 2023 — Fifty-seven of the 61 activists indicted on RICO charges were formally arraigned and a judge granted attorneys’ request for the final plea hearing to happen in summer 2024. Attorneys said they need this much time to go through the massive amounts of data related to the case, according to Fox 5.
“They went to visit the site of Tortuguita’s murder and police arrested them for existing in a forest that is their ancestral lands,” Satyrn said.
November 10, 2023 — Organizers held a teach-in discussing the link between Cop City and the ongoing massacre of Palestinian civilians. Besides the direct link to Israel’s military via the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange program, activists have also pointed to the similarity in how police have responded forcefully to protests for Palestine and protests against Cop City.
November 13, 2023 — Hundreds of activists gathered at Gresham Park Recreation Center, where attendees voted on a series of community agreements.
“We agreed to have no alcohol or drugs, no weapons, and committed to not escalating violence with police, not reacting to police violence, and not snitching or cooperating with police at all,” Satyrn said.
Protesters marched from the park to the east side of the forest, where they were confronted by police in riot gear, with armored cars, dogs, and water cannons. After activists tried to push through a police line, cops started throwing tear gas at them. Organizers stated their original plan was to enter the forest, where activists would plant trees, and potentially chain themselves to bulldozers. As tensions escalated, protesters abandoned that plan to avoid further police violence and collectively marched back to the park, where they planted trees instead.
“Some people went into the forest and police chased them, throwing tear gas into the forest,” Satyrn said. “They could have started a forest fire while people were inside the woods. … Georgia State Patrol threw flashbangs at people running away in an attempt to scare or hurt them.”
Nobody was arrested at the protest and only minor injuries from tear gas were reported, according to the Associated Press.
However, one person was arrested at a nearby store for providing an officer with a false name, after they and a friend were temporarily detained and harassed by police officers, according to the Guardian. The two were sitting in a car in a store parking lot near the protest, watching a live feed of it on their phones, when officers approached them, separated them, and accused them of “terrorism” and “conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.”
At the actual protest, officers also tear-gassed and intimidated journalists.
WABE Journalist Chamian Cruz was teargassed and posted about it on X, formerly known as Twitter: “They mentioned that protesters brought gas masks as if that proves they were planning to cause harm. As a journalist who was tear-gassed today, I wish I had a gas mask with me too.”
At one point during the protest, police separated journalists from the march, and when one attempted to return, he was blocked by an officer who said, “This is an active crime scene,” according to the Guardian. Later, a different officer let him through.
Activists responded to that press conference with a series of social media posts noting that while police labeled them as aggressive, they had publicly committed to and followed a practice of nonviolence, including moving slowly toward the officers, and not in a threatening way.
At 8pm that evening, activists held their own press conference and vigil outside of the Dekalb County Jail. There, activists spoke of inhumane conditions in the jail and inmates broke out around five windows, waving and shouting in solidarity with the movement, according to It’s Going Down.
An activist just released from the jail spoke of hearing stories of a female inmate beaten to death by guards, according to the same It’s Going Down article.
“Dekalb County Jail has not made any announcements regarding the death of a female prisoner this month,” Satyrn said.
While this series of events has been horrific, the continued pressure of the general public, activists, journalists, and legal forces remain a strong threat to the facility’s plans.
On December 14, the oral hearing regarding the legal case involving the referendum will be held.
Another force the project must reckon with is the South River Watershed Alliance, which just filed a complaint with the EPA, on top of its separate, preexisting lawsuit. An APF board member said in a hearing Wednesday morning that if the court ordered a stop-work injunction, it could mean the end of Cop City, according to the Atlanta Community Press Collective.
In the same meeting, the member said 12 cement trucks had been destroyed in the past 48 hours. An anonymous faction of activists claimed responsibility for the property destruction in an online post titled “make contractors afraid again.”
Satyrn said that construction has halted all week in preparation for the protests. They also noted that several contractors have already dropped out of the project and that the remaining ones might also drop out if they continue to lose property and time.
In the meantime, activists show no signs of relenting, as more and more people condemn the repressive actions taken by city and state officials. It has been made abundantly clear that the project’s goal is to stampede ahead, regardless of who gets trampled along the way.
“People have to physically stop the project,” Satyrn said. “Collective resistance is the only thing that will stop this. The most dangerous thing we can do is do nothing.”