Carter, King centers call for ‘dialogue’ in Atlanta training center conflict



A week after the death of a protester marked a new, deadly milestone in the turbulent saga surrounding Atlanta’s new public safety training center, the conflict continues to elicit commentary from far and wide.

The latest organizations to weigh in, though, include two venerable Atlanta institutions: the Carter Center and the King Center.

In separate statements, both organizations condemned the violence of last weekend’s protests, which saw downtown buildings vandalized and an Atlanta police car set ablaze — but also urged those on all sides of the issue to talk to each other.

“We support the right for individuals to protest peacefully, and call for a transparent investigation into the death of the protester and the injury of the Georgia state trooper,” the statement from the Carter Center, which advocates worldwide for human rights and democracy, said in part.

“We also urge the local authorities to initiate constructive dialogue about the training facility to address the complex community and environmental issues at the center of the protests.”

The King Center — formally the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change — said it was “disappointed” in Saturday’s destructive protests and encouraged nonviolence. But the organization’s statement also quoted a 1967 speech in which King described riots as “the language of the unheard.”

“We encourage and are willing to participate in dialogue and negotiation between those on opposing sides of this conflict, that dignifies rather than disregards humanity,” the statement said. “While we encourage negotiation, it is critical to understand that nonviolent negotiation in no way means acquiescence to injustice and inhumanity.”

It called for a “thorough, unbiased investigation of all police-involved killings.”

The Atlanta City Council in September 2021 approved a land lease paving the way for the Atlanta Police Foundation to build a sprawling, $90-million new training center on a wooded property in southwestern DeKalb County. The council vote came despite 17 hours of mostly negative public comment.

Environmentalists, police abolitionists and other left-wing activists also seized upon the issue.

The movement is a very loose coalition, with overlapping priorities and differing tactics. But over the last year-plus, various individuals have occupied the forest, clashed directly with police and claimed responsibility for vandalism and threats against contractors tied to the project.

Community members have marched and held rallies.

It all came to a head on Jan. 18, when authorities claim Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran fired upon Georgia state troopers entering the forest to conduct a “clearing operation.” One still-unnamed trooper was shot in the abdomen; his colleagues, also not identified, shot and killed Teran.

The incident reignited the issue locally and nationally, and triggered the downtown Atlanta protest that turned destructive over the weekend.

“This wasn’t inevitable,” Gresham Park resident Kate Ditler, a self-described participant in the anti-training center movement, said after the shooting. “Had any of our officials listened to our cries when we said the police are violent, they’re killing our people, we don’t want them here, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Teran’s death has also pulled issue back into the mainstream.

The Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, which had largely remained silent on the training center proposal, released a new statement this week saying it was “horrified” by Teran’s death and calling on Mayor Andre Dickens to cancel the lease for the project.

The Southern Center for Human Rights weighed in on Wednesday, saying it “oppose[s] state violence in every single one of its many insidious forms.”

Teran, the statement said, was “taken from a community that for nearly two years has been voicing its fears and concerns with the Atlanta Police Department’s proposed Public Safety Training Facility in the historic Weelaunee Forest, through hours of public comment before elected officials, canvassing and cross-coalitional solidarity building and education, and the passive occupation of those same sacred forest grounds.”

After the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said there was no body camera footage from the shooting incident, Georgia NAACP president Gerald Griggs wrote that “we need body cams on all Law Enforcement Officers in Georgia. FULL STOP.”

Other local officials — from Dickens and Democratic U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — have decried the violence of Saturday’s protests but largely stayed quiet on the larger issue of the training center.

Kemp referred to “militant activists” at the site during his Wednesday “state of the state” address.

“That’s just the latest example of why here in Georgia, we’ll always back the blue.”

On Thursday, Dickens wrote a letter to members and supporters of Central Atlanta Progress, an advocacy group for Downtown Atlanta. He apologized for the weekend incident while calling activists “outsiders who have come here for their own political aims.”

“Let me be crystal clear: the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department will continue to protect the right to peaceful protest,” Dickens wrote. “That is part of our DNA as the Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. But we do not tolerate violence or property destruction.

“We find those who commit such acts, we arrest them, and we charge them appropriately.”