OPINION: The privileged, transient warriors protesting police training center

‘The privilege of the young white people doing this is crazy,’ Black city council member says
An array of the mugshots of those arrested March 5 at the site of the proposed Atlanta police training center.

Credit: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office

Credit: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office

An array of the mugshots of those arrested March 5 at the site of the proposed Atlanta police training center.

The latest roundup at the site of the proposed Atlanta police training center continues a trend: Young, out-of-state white folks are getting arrested for allegedly committing mayhem in defense of people of color.

Sunday night, police arrested 23 “Forest Defenders” after the construction site got vandalized, construction equipment was set ablaze and rocks and fireworks were tossed at cops. The mugshots show we now have an international crew of professional protesters, including a French person and someone from Canada. Just two of those arrested are from Georgia.

In fact, considering the roster of those arrested, it seems residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are more interested in stopping the training center than people who actually live here. Three protestors from that state were arrested.

Since May, a total of 48 people have been arrested there and charged with crimes — five were Georgians and three were Black.

In 2021, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 to authorize construction of a $90-million, 85-acre police and fire training facility where the city’s Old Prison Farm once stood near Southeast Atlanta. The Atlanta Police Foundation, a public-private organization, has promised $60 million for the effort.

(Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has a charitable foundation that has donated to the police training center. However, none of my Cox or AJC bosses have told me what to write, or not write, about the project.)

Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation (second from left) joined Atlanta police and construction personnel to examine the site of the police training center on Monday, after violent protests on Sunday. John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com


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The planned training center would be located on 300-plus acres that Atlanta owns in DeKalb County. It’s a swath of thousands of wooded acres near the South River and plans have called for it to be an ecological haven. Critics say the training center will chew up forest and sanction the “militarization” of police.

Atlanta has for decades used some of that property as a firing range and for other training, so it’s not like a virgin forest.

The “Stop Cop City” movement has grown nationwide, forging a collection of environmental activists, anti-police protestors and a sprinkling of anarchists and wingnuts. The New York Times recently ran a story, “A New Front Line in the Debate Over Policing: A Forest Near Atlanta.” It was on the front page of Sunday’s print version, which shows the Gray Lady’s view on the subject’s importance.

All 23 arrested Sunday have been charged with domestic terrorism, a hefty accusation. Supporters argue that police were aggressive and were arresting people willy-nilly as a throng of folks congregated in the woods to listen to music and protest. The unfocused nature of arrests might be true in some cases, although having fireworks shot at them has a way of getting law enforcement adrenaline pumping.

The courts will sort that out.

One of those arrested was Thomas Webb Jurgens, 28, an Atlanta attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center who the organization said was there as a legal observer. The SPLC criticized his arrest and the “heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protesters.” It added that the organization will “continue to urge de-escalation of violence and police use of force against Black, brown and indigenous communities.”

Protesters attack Atlanta police training facility. Credit: Atlanta Police Department

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A lot has been said about the protestors’ efforts to protect Black communities, both in Atlanta and elsewhere.

On Monday, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum showed City Council members videos of dozens of “concert-goers” taking a break from the tunes to change into black riot gear and then having a whack at the training site. Soon, cops were in retreat and construction vehicles were ablaze.

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Lewis, who represents District 12 on the far south side of Atlanta, told the chief the video of police retreating reminded him of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Lewis is Black and grew up in a tough part of town near Cleveland Avenue. He’s no police toady. He was friends with Rayshard Brooks, the man killed in 2020 after fighting with cops outside a Wendy’s. That killing set off fierce, prolonged protests.

Lewis was elected after the 2021 training center vote and told me he would have voted against it. But now, as an elected official, he’s trying to “make sure our public services are working.”

The councilman said he’d like the protestors “to come to District 12, to come to an (neighborhood meeting) here and talk to the people. The community is for (the training center.) We have an opportunity to do it right. The police need more training.”

“I’m a Black man, we haven’t asked for this kind of help,” he said. “If Black and brown people were out there (protesting in the woods), I’d be out there leading them. This is not that. This is anarchy.

“The privilege of the young white people doing this is crazy. . . The police were chased by these privileged people. Not one of those arrested had a black eye. Ain’t no Black person would do that and live.”

Lewis, who has a concealed weapon permit, grew up playing a game: “Is that firecrackers or gunfire?”

“I’m not afraid of gang members, you know how they think,” he said. “But these folks make me nervous.”