By John Ruch
Several days of intensified protests against Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center culminated May 17 in several trespassing arrests at the site and the no-notice cancellation of a community review committee’s meeting.
Various groups gathered under the name Defend the Atlanta Forest for months have protested what they call “Cop City” by means peaceful and sometimes not. The effort already had led the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the nonprofit in charge of the facility’s planning, to declare that construction details will be kept secret for security and that the FBI is investigating the opposition.
The $90 million facility, which would train police officers and firefighters from Atlanta and outside departments, is planned for 85 acres of the former Atlanta Prison Farm site, a piece of property that is owned by the City of Atlanta but sits outside city limits in unincorporated DeKalb County. APD has used the site for decades for a shooting range and explosives disposal. But its selection for the massive training center in a secret City and APF process revealed last year surprised neighbors and DeKalb officials, generating huge controversy.
The facility drew both support and protest due to its timing as well, following 2020’s nationwide debate over systemic police brutality after George Floyd’s murder and about the need to respond to a crime spike. APF, which has discussed such a facility for years, seized the political moment to get the facility approved, calling it crucial for crime response and police morale. Opponents have decried the loss of forest and potential parkland and the facility’s size, cost and training programs as a move backward from policing reform.
The May 17 flashpoint came as authorities attempted to escort workers into the site on Key Road in DeKalb County for construction prep work under a permit sought in April. That drew opposition from new protesters as well as many who have camped in tree houses and tents in the forested site. The FBI was involved in the large law enforcement response for reasons an agency spokesperson would not explain.
APD said it arrested seven protesters, most of them out-of-state residents. (The department initially said there were eight arrests and did not explain the lower number it issued the following day.) APD described being met with “resistance” and “violence,” including rock-throwing and the tossing of a couple of Molotov cocktails in officers’ directions. However, APD also said no one was injured, and no one was charged with any violent crime or resisting arrest. The seven arrests were for trespassing, with one person also charged with giving police a false name.
According to APD, one of the arrestees is from Gainesville and the others are out-of-state. They hail from Minneapolis, Minnesota; Philadelphia; Sea Cliff, New York; Sykesville, Maryland; Wooster, Ohio; and Worcester, Massachusetts. APD did not respond to a SaportaReport question as to whether any of those out-of-state residents have any Georgia residency as well.
In a press conference convened near the site the same day by the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which supports people arrested for protesting, various protesters decried the APD attempt to portray the movement as nonlocal while also saying the sprawling facility indeed has become a national controversy. They also minimized reports of violent activities, though APD later released video of two Molotov cocktails being tossed from woods over a fence. One of the firebombs hit the fence relatively close to some officers, who did not appear particularly alarmed and remained in place, without pursuing the thrower, as the fuel burned on the ground. The other came close to a parked car at a time when no people appeared to be in the immediate area.
The protesters also complained about the large police presence, which they said included helicopters, SWAT teams and police dogs, as exemplifying the militarized policing they are opposing and fear will be taught at the facility. They said officers tore down most of the tree houses, but were vague as to whether any protesters remained camped at the site.
The FBI has been involved with security planning for the facility since April at APD’s request, APF previously told the CSAC, and has been among the agencies raising the suggestion of erecting a perimeter fence that planners and the community alike don’t want. The FBI also was at the scene May 17 at APD’s request, agency spokesperson Jenna Sellitto confirmed. But she would not explain why the federal agency was involved in a local trespassing matter, beyond the FBI’s legal authority to respond to such requests and general interest in law enforcement and criminal intelligence. She specifically would not comment about any FBI concern about terrorism or attacks on law enforcement officers, which are federal crimes, and said the agency would not comment further.
“Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity,” said Sellitto, speaking broadly about the FBI’s legal role. “We are not focused on peaceful protests.”
“The FBI is constantly gathering and sharing intelligence with our law enforcement partners and are always alert for any potential threats,” Sellito said in response to terrorism questions. “We do not comment on specific intelligence products or confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”
Some of the protests have included trespassing and vandalism at the headquarters of APF and its previous contractor, Reeves Young. On-site activities include roadblocks and tree houses intended to stop construction. Anonymous notes and social media posts have referred to “tree-spiking” on the site, an ecoterrorism tactic of driving spikes or nails into trees to damage any tree-cutting equipment.
Many of the protests and related events have been peaceful, including activities last weekend around town and on or near the site. They included protests of corporate funders at such venues as an Atlanta United game. Some of those events focused on the site under the name “Weelaunee Forest,” which is said to be the Native American Muscogee Nation name for the nearby South River. A few other arrests were made at a weekend protest march, as covered by Unicorn Riot, an independent, left-wing media collective that is among the national outlets on the story.
The protest movement also partly targets the nearby Blackhall Studios movie lot expansion into what was once part of Intrenchment Creek Park. Protesters claimed May 9 that illegal bulldozing was occuring in the park for that project, also with a police escort from DeKalb County. The county has not responded to SaportaReport requests for information about those claims, though a permit inspector indicated he was looking for the site.
Complaints by protesters are also how DeKalb planning officials learned of early test work on the site, as SaportaReport previously revealed. The work appears to be following state and county guidelines for permitting.
The May 17 clash came the same day as a scheduled meeting of the Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee (CSAC), a planning review body created by the Atlanta City Council in response to the heated controversy over the facility’s secretive site selection. The May 17 meeting was canceled without any form of public notice, including on its website or via an email update subscription that has not sent anything since its announcement three weeks ago. One CSAC member that day told SaportaReport the meeting was still happening and an agenda had circulated internally before confirming it was indeed canceled. The meeting is now rescheduled for May 31, the APF confirmed the next day.
The CSAC has had other transparency issues, including a debut meeting without public notice and short-lived talk of banning members from speaking to the media. It frequently has overlooked or not received key information about the plan, including an application last month for a county land disturbance permit to begin the large-scale construction prep work. And APF told members at an April meeting that construction timelines would be withheld from the group for security reasons. APF and APD officials also said that such unilateral changes as a fence might be added due to the protesters. Some CSAC members are themselves opponents of the facility, though the group itself is legally required to work toward its completion.
The roughly 300 acres of former Prison Farm land that the facility will not use is vaguely intended as a public park linked with the South River Forest, a vision for creating and connecting 3,500 acres of parks and other green spaces in Southeast Atlanta and DeKalb County. Public engagement for that process recently began with an online survey.