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Molotov cocktails, fallen trees used by training center and land swap protesters, police say

The public safety training center's master plan as of November 2022. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

By John Ruch

Molotov cocktails thrown toward AT&T workers and a road blocked with felled trees were among criminal tactics used last month in the destructive side of protests against Atlanta’s public safety training center and a DeKalb County parkland swap, according to police and fire department reports.

The true motives for the incidents are unknown, as no one has confessed or been arrested, and it appears neither incident happened directly on the controversial sites. The incidents were revealed by Atlanta Police Assistant Chief Carven Tyus at a Nov. 29 meeting of the training center’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), where he followed a past practice of simultaneously spotlighting and downplaying protest-related crime.

“We’re just confident we won’t have any significant delays because of these anarchists,” said Tyus in reference to the proposed training center, though its planners have previously said on-site trespassers and saboteurs indeed have stalled crucial noise studies.

The protests, under the umbrella movement “Defend the Atlanta Forest,” are rooted in issues of policing reform and environmentalism. One target is the proposed training center site on DeKalb’s Constitution Road, which protesters have dubbed “Cop City.” Another is a 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 training center’s lead planner, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), says the facility is needed for efficient training and morale-boosting of police and firefighters.

Protests have often been peaceful and legal, such as rallies and marches, while others have involved occupation, vandalism and assault by thrown rocks in the forest and at the offices of APF and the training center’s contractors. In previous incidents at the training center site, protesters have burned tires to block access and thrown Molotov cocktails in the general area of police officers. The FBI is reportedly involved in investigating the destructive protests.

Tracking police and fire department reports of criminal protest activity in the area is challenging because of varying street addresses over the large area, the unusual jurisdictional situation of a City of Atlanta site operating within unincorporated DeKalb, and apparent date and location errors by officers. In addition, APF recently changed the training center street address from 561 Key Road to 1350 Constitution Road, reflecting a change in the main entrance.

The Molotov cocktail incident happened on Constitution Road on the edge of Millsap’s property, according to someone familiar with incident. Tyus characterized it as part of a campaign of “minor harassment” against infrastructure workers in the area, though the DeKalb County Police Department (DKPD) classified it under “terroristic threats and acts.”

Three AT&T employees reported that they were working on a pole when five or six men wearing green camouflage emerged from the woods. The men threw approximately 20 rocks at the workers and their vehicles. The men also threw three Molotov cocktails, which the workers believed were “purposely aimed at them” and “were very close to hitting them.” The workers were apparently uninjured and left the area with their equipment. The responding officer said he referred the case to DKPD’s Homeland Security unit, which handles bomb and terrorism investigations.

AT&T was not familiar with the reported incident, according to a corporate spokesperson. A Shadowbox employee passing by the scene witnessed part of the incident, but it did not happen on that studio’s property.

Tyus said the incident had “absolutely nothing to do” with the training center or the Atlanta Police Department (APD) activities, though the DKPD report does not identify the attackers or give any evidence of motive.

Tyus said that incident happened on Nov. 14, while the DKPD report says Nov. 16. The DKPD report also gives an apparently incorrect incident address that actually is the location of a County fire station. On Nov. 14, the DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department (DCRFD) reported extinguishing a “small grass fire” on Key Road that a “service worker” reported was caused by a Molotov cocktail thrown from the woods. It was not immediately clear if that was a separate incident from the AT&T workers’ report or the same incident listed with some address and date confusion.

The tree-felling incident happened on Nov. 20 on a road leading to an existing Atlanta Police Department (APD) bomb disposal range, which is on the same general property – the former Atlanta Prison Farm – as the training center site. Tyus said officers responded to neighbors’ calls about hearing a chainsaw and a “loud explosion.”

“They had cut down, like, six trees over the roadway leading to our bomb range, which caused the power to go out in that area, too,” he said.

“Metal spikes were also found in a small section of the roadway, which could have caused damage to any person or vehicle that came along the roadway,” according to an APD report.

In addition, security cameras had been damaged and their wires cut, according to the report. And a fence around a “bunker of equipment” was cut, the report said, but the bunker was not entered.

County firefighters assisted in cutting up and removing the trees, according to a DCFRD report. Tyus said it took about two hours to clear the road and restore power.

The CSAC meeting where Tyus announced the tree-felling incident happened to include an agenda item about tree-cutting and replanting for the project. That led to some jokes about the irony of environmentalist protesters cutting down trees.

“I would just say at the rate they’re cutting down trees, maybe we can save some money on having to do it if they’re gonna do it for us,” joked Marshall Freeman, APF’s chief operating officer, to laughter from some CSAC members.

“Let’s hope they’re invasive species they’re cutting down,” added Steve Sanchez of planning firm HGOR, who led a tree plan presentation.

On the broader issue of combating trespassers, Tyus said about 20 officers swept the training center on Nov. 25 and ensured that “we have nobody living out there now.” He said police regularly survey the woods with drones equipped with heat-detection sensors to locate trespassers.

But with protesters campaigning about a larger area of forest, Tyus said, “we simply pushed them over to the DeKalb side of the house.” He said APD and DKPD will perform “joint details in the near future.”

Some of APD’s own activity on the Prison Farm site continues to startle or annoy neighbors. Besides the bomb area, the APD shooting range is also on the property. CSAC member Amy Taylor complained of recently waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunfire in that area, which turned out to be APD training. Tyus said APD “specialized units” conduct night training “maybe quarterly” using night-vision goggles. APD has been sending notice of such activities to CSAC members and their neighborhood associations, but there have been glitches in how those circulate.


Update: This story has been updated with information about the location of the Molotov cocktail incident.


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