Atlanta training center protesters charged with domestic terrorism

Activist Jasmine Burnett, of Community Movement Builders, speaks to the media Wednesday, Dec. 14, shortly after the announcement that the GBI had charged five protesters of Atlanta's new public safety training center with domestic terrorism.

Credit: Tyler Estep

Credit: Tyler Estep

Activist Jasmine Burnett, of Community Movement Builders, speaks to the media Wednesday, Dec. 14, shortly after the announcement that the GBI had charged five protesters of Atlanta's new public safety training center with domestic terrorism.

As news broke Wednesday that the GBI had charged five people protesting against Atlanta’s new public safety training center with domestic terrorism — hefty charges carrying the potential for lengthy prison sentences — activists reacted with a mix of disgust, defiance and a vow to carry on.

“I don’t think people are defeated,” Kamau Franklin, founder of the Black liberation group Community Movement Builders, said at an impromptu press conference not far from the proposed development site in southwestern DeKalb County.

“I think there are forest defenders who will continue to defend the forest. That means civil disobedience, that means rallies, demonstrations. That means all the tactics that we can use.”

Authorities were equally unwavering.

In a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gov. Brian Kemp vowed that agencies including the GBI, the Atlanta Police Department and the FBI would “continue to work closely together as we disrupt the entire criminal network and ensure construction for the first responder training facility moves forward.”

“We will not stop or slow down when it comes to bringing domestic terrorists to justice in Georgia, and yesterday’s arrests should serve as a strong reminder of that to anyone threatening our communities,” Kemp said.

Dozens of arrests have been made in the year-plus since a loose coalition of left-wing activists began taking up residence in the woods in an attempt to stop the Atlanta Police Foundation from building a new $90-million training center.

But the charges announced against those arrested on Tuesday are believed to be the most serious to date.

The potential penalties vary depending on the specific allegations. But, if convicted, sentences for domestic terrorism could range from five to 35 years.

More specific allegations against those charged were not immediately provided. But all five — Francis Carroll, 22, of Maine; Nicholas Olson, 25, of Nebraska; Serena Hertel, 25, of California; Leonard Vioselle, 20, of Macon; and Arieon Robinson, 21, of Wisconsin — were also facing a litany of other charges including criminal trespass, aggravated assault and felony obstruction.

“Yesterday, several people threw rocks at police cars and attacked EMTs outside the neighboring fire stations with rocks and bottles,” GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles wrote in a press release. “Task force members used various tactics to arrest individuals who were occupying makeshift treehouses.”

Activist groups said those tactics included tear gas and pepper balls.

Members of the “stop cop city” coalition were scheduled to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday. But DeKalb County police had access to the press conference site — a piece of former DeKalb County parkland adjacent to the training center property — blocked off.

Representatives and supporters from Community Movement Builders and the Atlanta Solidarity Fund later spoke to the media outside the police line.

Marlon Kautz of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which supports people arrested at protests, suggested Tuesday’s arrests were the result of police improperly tying “legitimate political protesters” to acts of violence.

“There’s clear evidence to the contrary that the people they have been arresting and targeting and attacking have been engaged in nothing but peaceful civil disobedience,” Kautz said.

The South River trailhead at Intrenchment Creek Park was once barricaded to the public because of the "Stop Cops City protesters in the area.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Atlanta City Council last fall approved a land lease, paving the way for the city’s police foundation to build the sprawling new training facility on more than 300 acres of city-owned forest in DeKalb.

The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.

Since the land lease was approved, the coalition of activists — anarchists, police abolitionists, environmentalists and everyone in between — has pushed back against the concept, seeing it as the city doubling down on police militarization and other controversial tactics in the wake of 2020′s social justice protests.

Conventional protests and opposition efforts have also taken place. But more extreme tactics have included vandalizing police property and the homes and offices of contractors tied to the training center’s construction, setting fires and throwing Molotov cocktails at police and taking up residence in the forest.

Authorities said they found “explosive devices” during Tuesday’s efforts to clear the forest.

“The discourse of opposition is in city halls, it is in the public square, it is on the sidewalks. That is where you note your displeasure or your disagreement,” Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum told The AJC. “It is not in Molotov cocktails. It is not in shooting fireworks at firefighters ... It is not throwing rocks at our squad cars. That is criminal activity.”

“The reason that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI are investigating this is because this isn’t protest. This is terrorism.”

It’s yet to be seen what the most recent arrests will come to signify in an already lengthy clash of ideologies — but either way, there’s still a long way to go.

Construction on the training center hasn’t even begun.

The development is still awaiting initial land disturbance permits from DeKalb County. Those could be approved any day but, from there, construction on the first phase of the training center would likely take at least a year.

—Staff reporter Shaddi Abusaid contributed to this article.


“‘Domestic terrorism’ means any felony violation of, or attempt to commit a felony violation of the laws of this state which, as part of a single unlawful act or a series of unlawful acts which are interrelated by distinguishing characteristics, is intended to cause serious bodily harm, kill any individual or group of individuals, or disable or destroy critical infrastructure, a state or government facility, or a public transportation system when such disability or destruction results in major economic loss, and is intended to:

Intimidate the civilian population of this state or any of its political subdivisions;

Alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government of this state or any of its political subdivisions by intimidation or coercion; or

Affect the conduct of the government of this state or any of its political subdivisions by use of destructive devices, assassination, or kidnapping.”