By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams
Militarized state and local police on Monday attacked a peaceful protest against the construction of the so-called “Cop City” training center outside Atlanta, Georgia with “less-lethal” weapons including tear gas, pepper balls, and flash-bang grenades, journalists and activists there said.
Hundreds of #StopCopCity activists marched from a park toward the Weelaunee Forest in suburban DeKalb County early Monday morning. Some carried large and elaborate puppets, others had saplings to plant in woodlands bulldozed during construction, and a few carried banners reading “Block Cop City” and “Viva Tortuguita”—a reference to forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, aka “Tortuguita,” who was fatally shot 57 times with live ammunition by police during a January raid on a protest camp.
A marching band and members of the Wanbli Ska Society—a South Dakota-based Indigenous advocacy group—hyped up the activists, who then started their two-mile march toward the Cop City construction site.
Journalists and protesters said police blocked the road about half a mile from the march’s planned destination.
“The police have effectively separated the press at the front of the march from the rest of the march,” the group Defend the Atlanta Forest wrote on social media. “Police are preventing them from rejoining the march and threatening to tow their cars.”
NDN Collective, an Indigenous advocacy group, posted video of police pushing reporters away from the march, calling the area a “crime scene” and threatening to arrest journalists.
Backed by menacing SWAT vehicles, including one labeled “The Beast,” police attacked the nonviolent marchers, some of whom attempted to push through the line of armored officers.
Many of the activists chanted: “Don’t panic, stay tight, we gonna be alright!”
Some protesters lobbed tear gas canisters back at the officers.
“Protestors and police both retreated because neither group was wearing gas masks,” Defend the Atlanta Forest reported. Neither were the police dogs, whose only protection appeared to be goggles and noise-reducing ear coverings.
The activists regrouped and continued their march. Eight activists reportedly made it to the construction site and locked themselves to equipment there.
Responding to the police action, Mary Hooks, field secretary for the Movement for Black Lives, said in a statement: “We just witnessed overt violations of our civil rights on a road named after the U.S. Constitution. Atlanta claims itself to be a civil rights hub, but it erases its own legacy when protests arise that confront the power of politicians and police. The police’s violence against protestors today affirms our belief that Cop City must never be built.”
Prior to the march, activists gathered in a local park, where speakers included community organizer Kamau Franklin and Tortuguita’s parents.
“Now is not a time for cowardice. You are either with the oppressed or with the oppressors,” Franklin told the crowd. “You cannot stand in the middle. You cannot be [on] both sides. You cannot close your eyes to the terror of policing that happens in this country and in this world. And you cannot deny and cannot be silent on the capitalist economics and the system that controls all of our people across the world.”
“You’re either with the colonialist or the colonized,” he added. “So today when you march and demonstrate and conduct acts of civil disobedience… you are doing it with the oppressed people.”
Cop City—which is funded by the private Atlanta Police Foundation and backed by major corporations including Amazon, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and UPS—is being built on land stolen from the Muscogee people, many of whom were forced westward during the genocidal Trail of Tears period in the late 1830s.
Since Terán’s killing, more than 40 Stop Cop City campaigners have been criminally charged as domestic terrorists, while over 60 activists have also been indicted under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act—some for simply handing out fliers.
On Monday, Belkis Terán, Tortuguita’s mother, said that “we are here to protect nature.”
“To fight the police, we must be happy. And to be happy we must be strong,” she added. “This is one step. We will continue.”
Echoing Terán, Joel Paez, Tortuguita’s father, told the crowd: “We are going to continue defending the forest. We are going to continue defending the legacy of Tortuguita. We are family. You are my family.”
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Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.