“Cop City” Must Be Shut Down!

A shrine in the streets of Atlanta commemorating the killing of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, January 19, 2023. By Tatsoi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Activists charged with “domestic terrorism”

By Malik Miah

With one protestor dead and others charged with terrorism offences, the Georgia state capital, Atlanta, has become a major flashpoint in the US struggle for civil liberties and against the further militarization of domestic police forces.

In 2021 the Atlanta city authorities announced plans for what it calls the Public Safety Training Center (PSTC). It is a massive compound, requiring the bulldozing of 85 acres of forest and constructing a tactical training facility featuring a mock city.

It has been dubbed “Cop City” by protestors.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed off on the $90 million PTSC in the wake of mass protests organized by the Black Lives Matter Movement and local reformers called for a radical restructuring of the policing system.

The PTSC is backed by the Atlanta Police Foundation. Both the Democratic Atlanta mayor and Republican governor of Georgia have argued that it will help officers “set a national standard for community engagement, neighborhood sensitivity and devotion to the civil rights of all citizens by law enforcement,” as the center’s website reads.

Demonstrations began immediately after the announcement. Movements for police reform and restructuring, along with environmental groups such as Defend the Atlanta Forest initiated the movement, with environmentalists denouncing the destruction of a natural habitat.

Other opponents say the center is further militarising the police and will threaten the lives of marginalized people.

The protests have become broader and larger as activists from other parts of the country have gone to Atlanta. There have effectively been non-stop demonstrations.

Some activists have fought back against the police violence with rocks and fireworks, and a few have thrown Molotov cocktails at or near the center’s site.

Many protestors have been charged with “domestic terrorism” despite there being no such designation in US federal law. That is why those who led the January 6 attempted insurrection, who invaded the Capitol building with the aim of keeping Donald Trump as president, were charged with other criminal charges – mainly misdemeanors.

Terrorism, under the US federal criminal code, only applies to those allegedly tied to foreign groups designated as such (for example, ISIS and Al Qaeda).

Protests have escalated after 26-year old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (known as Tortuguita) was shot and killed by police on January 18 as they raided the campground occupied by demonstrators.

According to WABE, the NPR and PBS affiliate for the Metro Atlanta Area:

An autopsy report released Wednesday, April 19, by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office states there was no gunpowder residue on the hands of the protester who was shot and killed during a multi-agency clearing operation near the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

Officials claimed 26-year-old Manuel Paez Teran first fired at a state trooper, and six officers fired back. The injured officer recovered after he was treated at a local hospital. His name was never publicly released.

Teran’s death has now been ruled a homicide, according to the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The autopsy report states Teran was covered with at least 57 gunshot wounds, including one lethal wound to the head, which was likely delivered toward the end of the shooting.

An independent autopsy commissioned by the family previously suggested Teran was sitting cross-legged on the ground with both hands in the air.

In a statement, Teran’s mother, Belkis Teran, said she’s devastated by the findings.

“We are devastated to learn that our child, our sweet Manny, was mercilessly gunned down by police and suffered 57 bullet wounds all over their body,” she said.

Police claimed there was no body camera footage of the incident.

The Stop Cop City protest group stated to an ABC news affiliate that, “police have raided the forest for over seven months, destroying material by trashing camps and water supplies, threatening the lives of forest defenders and now have murdered one.”

Eight days after Terán’s killing, Governor Kemp declared a state of emergency in response to ongoing Cop City protests in downtown Atlanta. He ordered the state’s defense department to mobilise up to one thousand state National Guard troops to be prepared for active duty “as necessary.”

The state of emergency was in response to January 21 protests that had involved releasing fireworks, breaking windows and setting fire to a police vehicle in downtown Atlanta.

Kemp’s state of emergency declaration, according to local media reports, came as the city braced for more protests against the facility, and potential unrest following the release of body camera footage of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee.

Arrests and repression have continued since then.

On March 5, more than 30 people were arrested after police said a group of “agitators” launched an attack on officers using commercial-grade fireworks. Atlanta Police Department officials say that after attending an event near the site of the soon-to-be policing center, a group of people changed into black clothing and entered the construction area. No officers were injured.

On March 7, there were further arrests after attending a music festival near the Cop City site when a group of people the police called “agitators” approached officers. Twenty-three of the 35 protesters arrested, ranging from ages 18 to 49, were charged with “domestic terrorism”.

The opponents of “Cop City” remain vigilant and determined. They’re gaining multiracial support nationally both from those demanding fundamental police reforms and environmental activists fighting to save the forests.

Tortuguita’s partner holds a photo of the slain environmental activist in Atlanta on 26 January, 2023. R.J. Rico / AP file

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