Social justice groups rally at King Center against Atlanta police training facility

Siihasin Hope raises her arm in protest as Cop City protesters gather in Downtown Atlanta on Thursday, March 9, 2023.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Siihasin Hope raises her arm in protest as Cop City protesters gather in Downtown Atlanta on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A large contingent of protesters against a planned police training facility in DeKalb County gathered at the King Center on Thursday evening to demand public officials stop construction at the site.

The protest was organized by multiple local social justice organizations, including Community Movement Builders, Movement for Black Lives and New Georgia Project, as part of a National Day of Action.

On Sunday, 23 people were charged by the GBI with domestic terrorism after allegedly throwing large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at officers at the site of the planned training facility, according to Atlanta police.

Only two of those arrested and booked into the DeKalb County jail are from Georgia, according to a list released by police. City and state leaders and police condemned the violence over the weekend, while an activist group called “Stop Cop City” said it was officers who raided a nearby music festival.

Protesters against a public safety training center gather outside Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta on Thursday, March 9, 2023.  (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

A separate group of protesters Sunday marched onto the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center site to protest the death of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, who was shot and killed January by a Georgia State Patrol trooper at the training site, the GBI previously said. Teran is accused of shooting “without warning,” wounding a trooper, before several of the injured officer’s colleagues returned fire.

Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said Sunday several pieces of construction equipment were set on fire. Investigators believe those involved initially attended the music festival before carrying out what police described as a “coordinated attack.”

“This was a very violent attack, very violent attack,” Schierbaum said. “This wasn’t about a public safety training center. This was about anarchy and this was about the attempt to destabilize, and we are addressing that quickly.”

The protest Thursday began shortly after 6:30 p.m. with speeches at the King Center. People then began to march towards 191 Peachtree Tower, where the Atlanta Police Foundation has an office. Hundreds of protesters chanted through the route as they walked up Auburn Avenue toward the office building.

Along the way, Atlanta police officers could be seen in almost every corner along Auburn Avenue. Marchers chanted, “Stop Cop City,” “Viva, viva Tortugita,” “No justice, no peace” and “I believe that we will win.”

“‘Tortugiota’ is alive in our hearts,” said Teran’s mother, Belkis Teran. “My prayer is that the blood of my son will speak in all our hearts. We are going to win.”

Belkis Teran, mother of slain activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, speaks at a protest rally in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Belkis Teran, during a speech to protesters, argued that instead of funding the training facility, money should be used toward helping those living on the streets of Atlanta.

The organizers of the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement, which spearheaded a peaceful protest on Saturday at Gresham Park, view the training center as an effort by Atlanta to “militarize” the police while also compromising the environment by building a center on land that they say should be preserved and cleaned up. The city says the center is a much-needed and long-overdue training facility for Atlanta’s police officers and firefighters.

Jasmine Burnett with Community Movement Builders said Thursday’s protest was focused on stopping the plans to build the training facility, arguing that it would incentivize further police brutality.

“They’ll literally be building a mock city of Atlanta to practice how to repress, brutalize and kill people,” Burnett said. “We took to the streets (in 2020) to demand that we defund and abolish the Atlanta Police Department, and yet here they are investing 30 million of our public dollars, 60 million private dollars to build this urban warfare training facility.”

Those 23 arrested Monday join the already more than a dozen people who have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism charges since December. No arrest were made during Thursday’s peaceful protest.

Human rights and civil rights groups have argued against the ongoing use of domestic terrorism charges against those protesting the construction of the facility on 85 currently forested acres in southern DeKalb County.

“This is a fight that we will win, that we are committed to winning,” Burnett said to a crowd of protesters. “We will free all our political prisoners. Free them all, especially in this moment, the people being held on trumped-up domestic terrorism charges, many of which were just literally holding signs like y’all today, that say ‘Stop Cop City.’ ”

Atlanta police guard the front of the office building where the Atlanta Police Foundation has an office as protesters against a public safety training center rally on Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Last week, Human Rights Watch, an international organization that researches and advocates for human rights, along with multiple civil and human rights organizations, sent a letter to Attorney General Chris Carr, DeKalb County DA Sherry Boston and Fulton County DA Fani Willis asking prosecutors to drop the domestic terrorism charges against the activists.

“We urge you to drop the domestic terrorism charges against the Stop Cop City/Defend the Atlanta Forest defendants. These politicized charges are a clear attempt to silence dissent by smearing an activist movement as terrorism-prone,” the letter states. “Inappropriately pursuing domestic terrorism charges is an affront to the civil liberties the First Amendment protects, and could harm civil liberties and civic space.”

Protesters were critical of elected officials, especially focused on Mayor Andre Dickens, during a series of speeches at the King Center. Dickens voted in favor of the planned facility when he was a councilmember and has supported the effort since becoming mayor.

“We find it ridiculous, we find it disgusting, we find it embarrassing that our Mayor Andre Dickens will fix his mouth to say that Black people want to be killed by the police, that Black people want Cop City. We don’t.” Burnett said.

Before Thursday’s protest, Black Voters Matter issued a statement calling the planned training facility “a militarized urban warfare training facility” and asked the city of Atlanta to stop the construction of the facility and return the land to the community for a use to be determined by the surrounding Black community.

“The resources dedicated to this development should be used to address issues such as healthcare access, housing, food insecurity and infrastructure in Black and Marginalized communities,” the statement reads.

The voters group is also asking the courts to grant bond for the dozens of people arrested for protesting the construction of the facility.

— Staff writer Caroline Silva contributed to this article.

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