By John Ruch
A total of 12 protesters were arrested in raids at Atlanta’s public safety training center site and adjacent forest that were previously publicized for five terrorism charges, a top Atlanta Police Department (APD) official has revealed while commenting on their tactics.
Speaking at a Dec. 15 meeting of a training center advisory committee, APD Assistant Chief Carven Tyus called the arrests a blow against acts that could qualify as terrorism, such as rock-throwing at police and arson at a local building site, but did not say any of the arrestees were accused of those acts. He also made some comments that will ring alarm bells for civil libertarians, including a claim that a protest by someone non-local is inherently terrorism and that police used the hands-free driving law as a pretext to stop a man from filming officers in public.
Several members of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) praised the crackdown and expressed the anxiety and fear they felt living nearby the site due to fireworks and the recent arson, among other incidents. But going even further, they welcomed Tyus’s request to join them in promoting a “narrative” to neighbors and the media that locals support the controversial training center and non-locals oppose it — highlighting that with their personal stories.
That was a remarkable turnaround from just a few months ago when the CSAC attempted to ban its members from speaking to the media and kicked off a member – with unclear legal authority – for publicly expressing her criticisms of the training center plan. Alluding to that, one CSAC member asked Tyus’s permission to speak publicly, which he enthusiastically gave.
For more than a year, protesters have targeted the training center, located on part of the former Atlanta Prison Farm on Key and Constitution roads in unincorporated DeKalb, and nearby 40 acres of parkland given to developer Ryan Millsap – former owner of a movie studio once called Blackhall, now Shadowbox – in a County land swap that is under challenge by a community lawsuit. The protesters call the area the Weelaunee Forest, which they identify as the original, Native American name.
Environmentalism and policing reform are primary issues for protesters. The training facility – dubbed “Cop City” by protesters – also has been broadly controversial for the use of a forested historic site and the secret process by which it was chosen.
Protests – often held under the umbrella term “Defend the Atlanta Forest” – have often been peaceful and legal, such as rallies and marches. Others have been involved in occupation, vandalism and assault by throwing rocks in the forest and at the offices of the training center’s contractors and its lead planner, the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). Recent incidents reported by police and firefighting agencies included Molotov cocktails thrown in the direction of AT&T line workers and a road into the forest blocked by felled trees and metal spikes.
The FBI has joined a “joint task force” investigating the protests, along with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and other state and local police agencies.
On Dec. 13, the task force raided the training center site. The GBI issued a press release publicizing the arrest of five protesters on charges of domestic terrorism, among other alleged offenses. But the agency has been unable to provide any incident reports or other documents showing exactly what the arrestees are accused of doing. Defend the Atlanta Forest members have called the charges politically motivated to chill and intimidate protests and civil disobedience.
Tyus provided more details about that raid and revealed another he said was conducted on Dec. 14 by the DeKalb County Police Department (DKPD), apparently on the Millsap property. He said six people were arrested in each raid.
As context for the training center site raid, Tyus described several incidents there earlier this month, including tire-puncturing spikes found on the ground and people damaging security cameras and throwing rocks at police officers and Public Works employees. In another incident, someone threw rocks at civilian vehicles leaving the existing APD firing range elsewhere on the property, which officers believe was directed by a “spotter” in a tree house.
Tyus also cited suspected arson fires that burned two houses under construction on nearby Bouldercrest Road as likely related to the protests. “Can we prove they did it? No. Do we know they did it? Yes,” he said.
Some protesters have used the direct-action, civil disobedience tactic of camping at the site in tree houses they built themselves. Tyus has said such protesters were previously removed from four known tree houses, but that a recent discovery that the structures were again occupied was the immediate trigger for the Dec. 13 raid.
“We went to those four tree houses one by one,” he said. “We attempted to engage those individuals in dialogue for 35 to 40 minutes,” but all refused to leave. He said officers checked with the “law department” about tactics and then used a “chemical irritant” on the protesters – reportedly tear gas and pepper balls – “to make them uncomfortable.” All then left and were arrested, he said. Those appear to be the five charged with domestic terrorism.
Tyus also revealed the arrest of a sixth person on a charge of violating Georgia’s “hands-free driving” law, which bans the use or touching of a cell phone while driving – but for a different underlying reason. “We had an individual who was out attempting to film officers,” he said. “We were able to get him with the hands-free law as he drove by filming our officers, so we were able to lock him up.”
Filming police officers in public is generally considered to be a constitutionally protected activity under federal court rulings, and APD is under a court order to train police officers about that “right to record” due to previous unlawful arrests. Tyus did not explain what was criminal about filming police officers in this case.
The DKPD raid on neighboring property the following day, Tyus said, was triggered by someone, around the time of the training center raid, setting off fireworks at a County fire station. He said six people were “locked up” in that DKPD raid. He did not state the charges against those arrestees and could not identify any of them. He said that police are having trouble identifying some of them because they did not give their names and did not carry government ID. The GBI released the names of all five who were charged with domestic terrorism but provided a state of residency for only three of them, all of whom are said to live in other states. Despite the identifications still being an apparent work in progress, Tyus repeatedly said that “none” of the arrestees are Georgia residents.
‘Terrorism’ charges and definitions
The use of domestic terrorism charges is just the start, Tyus said. “Going forward that is one of the charges we will be using. Because that’s exactly what they are,” he said.
However, he then presented a definition of that crime relating to the alleged out-of-state residency and subjective political interests of those charged, which are not elements of the crime as described in Georgia law.
“None of those people live here,” he said. “They do not have a vested interest in this property, and we show that time and time again. Why is an individual from Los Angeles, California, concerned about a training facility being built in the state of Georgia? And that is why we consider that domestic terrorism.”
In a previous raid in May, six of the seven people arrested were identified as out-of-staters. The national level of interest in the training center protests has been presented by police and political leaders as minimizing opposition as the work of “outside agitators,” while protesters say it shows the context of the systemic policing and climate issues involved. Earlier this year, 64 organizations and businesses – both local and non-local – signed onto a “Decree of Nonsupport” intended to be filed by Atlanta City Council members as a peaceful protest, though that has not emerged. Many other local groups also opposed the training center’s site and process before the City Council vote as part of public comments that appeared to have a majority against it.
At the CSAC meeting, Tyus continued the APD’s own political messaging, urging members to “all go back with that narrative” that protesters are outsiders and locals are supporters. “I just think that bolsters what we’ve been saying from Day One. That these are professional protesters, nothing more,” he said of the out-of-state arrestees, though with no evidence they are paid for protesting. He suggested that “if we can just drive that narrative home,” it would affect protest and crime in the area.
Tyus also emphasized that locals’ stories may persuade the “average citizen.” Nearby communities have previously reported loud fireworks at night, graffiti and damaged security cameras, among other issues. He again used a broad definition of “terrorism” that includes such activity, even though it may or may not meet Georgia’s legal definition.
“You all can articulate why it’s domestic terrorism because they all are terrorizing your neighborhood over there,” he said.
Several CSAC members praised the crackdown and use of terrorism charges.
“I am so pleased to see the level of charge being domestic terrorism just because, for those of us living here, this has been a nightmare to just have this going on and have no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Clark, the group’s chair. “At the end of the day, no matter your perspective on the project… it’s not fair to terrorize the surrounding communities as part of your objection.”
The CSAC was appointed by the Atlanta City Council to advise APF on its own training center plan. Its legislative authority does not include providing public relations assistance to APD, though it does review site security and has functioned as a local clearinghouse for APD crime and police activity notices. Clark had previously said the December meeting’s agenda would be “robust,” but it was rescheduled amid news of protester arrests and Tyus’s “security update” was the only agenda item.