Arrests point to broad pull of protests against Atlanta training center

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Activists, though, also point to long-standing local opposition

Henri Feola moved to Atlanta in recent weeks, drawn by the still-growing movement to stop the construction of a $90-million public safety training center.

The 22-year-old grew up in Spokane, Washington, the child of a schoolteacher. With scholarship help, he attended Oberlin College in Ohio, studying biology and archaeology. He published an article in “American Scientist” titled “Unequal Burden of Urban Heat,” examining how American cities are hotter due to a lack of tree canopies.

“He really cares about those woods that are there near Atlanta,” Laura Feola, his mother, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week.

Feola was one of six people arrested Jan. 21 and charged with domestic terrorism and a litany of other offenses, accused of participating in or encouraging activities that including throwing bricks through windows, spray-painting buildings and using fireworks to set an Atlanta police car ablaze.

(Feola now identifies as a man and goes by Henri; authorities identified him by his birth name this week.)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The arrests mean some 18 people have now been detained since December on domestic terrorism charges in connection with the movement opposing Atlanta’s new training center, which would be built on 85 currently forested acres in southern DeKalb County.

The opposition, both local and national, has been brewing for well over a year now — but the situation reached a new, bloody flashpoint this month after Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran was shot and killed by state troopers conducting a “clearing operation” at the site.

Teran, a 26-year-old who was born in Venezuela, studied at Florida State University and had a Georgia driver’s license, is accused of firing first and wounding a trooper in the Jan. 18 confrontation.

As the arrests mount, officials from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to Democratic Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens have seized upon the “outside agitator” angle.

“Law enforcement demonstrated how quickly we shut down those trying to import violence from other states, and we’ll continue to do so,” Kemp tweeted on Monday.

Those charged over the last month are, in fact, largely from out of state. Generally speaking, they’re college educated and lack prior criminal records. They’re predominantly white.

Francis Carroll, 22, was arrested in the forest during a December raid and again over the weekend. The Daily Mail reported he grew up in a mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine, and is the son of a millionaire surgeon. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has not independently confirmed those details.

Nadja Geier, 24, of Nashville, studied biology at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga as recently as last year, the university’s online dean’s list records show.

Matt Bass is an attorney representing Geier and Feola and two other defendants, Emily Murphy and Ivan Ferguson.

“The state of Georgia has shamefully chosen to pursue ‘domestic terrorism’ charges against environmental activists engaging in First Amendment-protected speech and civil disobedience,” Bass said. “My clients will vigorously defend their constitutional rights, and look forward to their day in court where they will have their names cleared.”

Murphy, charged in the Jan. 21 police car arson and the vandalism of downtown buildings, is a 37-year-old suburban Detroiter with a CPA’s license. Social media suggests 35-year-old Sarah Wasilewski — a “brand ambassador” and former government case worker — came to Atlanta from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with her boyfriend, Spencer Liberto.

Wasilewski and Liberto were both arrested Jan. 18. They were reportedly in the woods with Teran when police opened fire.

Wasilewski told police she had participated in “previous protests in other states for environmental causes,” according to her arrest warrant.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The left-wing movement to “stop cop city” has indeed gone national, and in more ways than one.

Vigils, rallies and “banner drops” have been held in cities across the country in the week since Teran’s death. In Boston, the daughter of U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark was among those charged after allegedly spray-painting “no cop city” and other anti-police sentiments on a local bandstand.

The most extreme actions alleged by police have predominantly been perpetrated by non-Atlantans. The activists in the forest have also, at times, made residents of surrounding neighborhoods wary.

Supporters and others, though, say describing protesters as purely outside agitators ignores many locals’ long-standing opposition to the training center project. The Atlanta City Council approved leasing the property in question to the Atlanta Police Foundation in September of 2021 — after hearing 17 hours of mostly negative public comment on the issue.

A few hundred people showed up to a vigil in Little Five Points following Teran’s death.

Graham Evatt, a 20-year-old from Decatur, was among those arrested during the Jan. 21 protests. A spokeswoman confirmed he attended local schools. Police found that Ferguson — seen grinning in his mugshot — had a Nevada driver’s license, though jail logs list an address in Sandy Springs.

In statement issued Monday, Gina Webber, the interim director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, called on Dickens to cancel the lease allowing the Atlanta Police Foundation to build the controversial facility.

“Thousands of Atlantans and many local organizations, including the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter, came together over the last two years to voice their opposition to this project to Atlanta’s Mayor and City Council. They submitted public comments, sent emails to their representatives, organized marches and rallies, canvassed neighborhoods, and more,” Webber wrote.

“Despite these efforts, the Mayor and City Council have continued to push this project forward, ignoring the will of community members and choosing to engage in violence by sending police to harass and arrest those protecting the forest.”

In an appearance this week on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said it was important to “create some dichotomy between those who seek violence and those who legitimately have raised concerns about protecting and mitigating the impact on this unique natural resource, which is the South River Forest.”

The DeKalb government has no direct say in the training center project but, because the land in question is in the county, must issue the necessary permits for construction. Initial land disturbance permits were requested nearly 11 months ago but not have yet been approved.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Construction hasn’t even started and the situation has been newly enflamed. It’s unclear where, exactly, officials, law enforcement and activists go from here.

Henri Feola’s mother said she knew her son was planning to attend the downtown protest after Teran was killed. But she said Henri, who remains in the Fulton County jail without bond, wasn’t a threat to anyone — and certainly not a terrorist.

“I understand why people did that. Damaging property is a way to get attention to an ill in society,” Laura Feola said. “But I have no reason to believe that was my son.”

“He’s not an impulsive actor,” she said. “He is very thoughtful.”