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Police arrest 8 on site of planned Atlanta police facility

May 17, 2022 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta police say at least eight people have been arrested at the site of a planned $90 million public safety training center that opponents have been occupying for months in an attempt to prevent construction.

Atlanta Police Department Assistant Chief Darin Schierbaum told reporters Tuesday that some opponents threw rocks and what he said was a Molotov cocktail at officers who swarmed the property. In a news release, police said the Molotov cocktail caused a small fire that had to be extinguished and that later, another lit Molotov cocktail was thrown towards officers.

The property is owned by the city of Atlanta but is located in unincorporated DeKalb County just outside the city limits.

Schierbaum said charges included criminal trespass and obstruction of law enforcement officers.

Opponents of the training center have continued to protest the $90 million project, which would be built by the Atlanta Police Foundation, saying that cutting down so many trees would be environmentally damaging. They also oppose investing so much money in what they call “Cop City” in light of the Black Lives Matter movement’s opposition to racial injustice in law enforcement.

Some people who say they are “forest defenders” have been camping on the site since last year. Police say they have been sabotaging construction efforts and the protesters have claimed they have driven spikes into trees to make them hazardous to cut down.

Schierbaum said Tuesday’s heavy police presence at site, which included FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents, was accompanying contractors who were trucking in building materials. Schierbaum said the work was aimed at clearing unpermitted structures and making way for work preparing for site clearing and structures.

“There have been a number of concerted efforts to stop the public safety training center by committing criminal acts,” Schierbaum said.

Opponents claim protesters and onlookers were illegally tackled, shocked with stun guns and arrested during a protest march elsewhere in the city on Saturday.

“What we have seen over the past few days is the use of police force and militarization to suppress constitutionally protected speech,” said Devin Franklin, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights. He warned that people should distrust the police account of events “because they’re trying to change the narrative.”

May Johnson, who said she lived nearby, said Tuesday’s action was also an improper use of force.

“The police raided a growing protest encampment in these woods, training SWAT rifles on environmental activists,” Johnson said. “This is an attempt to demoralize a vibrant and diverse movement that is led by local communities against the replacement of the largest urban tree canopy in the United States with the largest police training compound in the United States.”

The 85-acre (35-hectare) property includes a former state prison farm.

“We do know there are other people on the property now,” Schierbaum said. “We’re asking them to leave. It is illegal to be on the property. There is not public access here. So if those individuals would leave, there would be no arrests.”

The Atlanta City Council voted in September to lease the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation. The training center would include a shooting range, classrooms, a mock village, an emergency vehicle driving course, stables for police horses, and a “burn building” for firefighters to practice putting out fires. The vote came after weeks of protest from people who oppose the complex.