A New Front Line in the Debate Over Policing: A Forest Near Atlanta

Publication: The New York Times
Author: Sean Keenan and Joseph Goldstein
Date: March 4, 2023


– When construction crews rolled into a patch of pine and maple trees southeast of Atlanta last month, the scene had more in common with a military incursion than a municipal building project in the suburbs. Police officers in armored trucks escorted construction workers as they cleared a pathway for heavy equipment and installed anti-erosion fences.
– For 18 months, this parcel of woodland has galvanized both environmental advocates who want to preserve one of the region’s largest remaining green spaces and activists concerned about the increased militarization and aggressive tactics of police forces.
– Mounting protests and scattered violence culminated in January in what the police described as a shootout that left a protester dead, a state trooper seriously wounded and Georgia’s governor authorizing the National Guard to intervene. Now, with organizers staging mass demonstrations starting this weekend — hundreds of activists gathered on Saturday near the training site to protest the development — officials worry that confrontations may resume, and that the conflict could escalate.

– Protests against police violence have been a feature of big-city life in the near decade since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk, which galvanized a movement.
– What is happening in Atlanta, according to some experts, is different: It is a movement squarely confronting the police over their training, and questioning how much support cities should provide to law enforcement.
– “Very rarely do you see the flash point be about training,” said Arthur Rizer, a former police officer in Washington State and a scholar of policing. Like many of the critics and protesters, he thinks Atlanta’s plan for the training facility is a recipe for increased police militarization — a trend that accelerated after the Sept. 11 attacks with the infusion of surplus military equipment and antiterrorism money and thinking.
– “I do share the concern of the citizens of Atlanta,” Mr. Rizer said, “that the apparent focus is going to be a paramilitary-type training, urban assault tactics, which quite frankly have not been effective at reducing crime.”
– Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens, said the center was designed to help officers train for situations that have become increasingly common in modern America, such as convenience store robberies and mass shootings.
– “We need to make sure officers are prepared for real-life scenarios, like if you have a shooting in a nightclub or a gas station,” he said. “And that’s where this facility comes in.”
– The Atlanta plan has drawn a broad “Stop Cop City” coalition, including criminal justice reformers, environmental advocates, antifa activists and others. Their objectives are both to
oppose what they call the further militarization of policing and to preserve the nearly 400 forested acres near a predominantly Black neighborhood in DeKalb County called Gresham Park.
– “Environmental racism and police violence go hand in hand,” said Kate Morales, who has helped organize the upcoming “week of action,” including a comedy show and music festival in the woods, and guided forest tours. Organizers were encouraging demonstrators to camp and “get to know the forest.”
– Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, noted that plenty of laws would allow the government “to prosecute wrongdoing like property destruction without citing terrorism and imposing outsized punishments.” He said such charges “chill group protest if peaceful protesters fear that they could be deemed guilty for associating with an event where a few bad apples are suddenly branded as domestic terrorists.”
– “These are the last large swaths of undeveloped forest” in the region, said Ted Terry, a DeKalb County commissioner who used to lead the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization. “If we lose these acres, it cannot be reversed.”
– “The militarization of the last 20 years or so has done more to worsen the relationship with the community,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “The armored trucks, the different uniforms, the humongous guns — all of those strike fear into the heart of the community, even if you are a law-abiding citizen.”
– The 26-year-old protester who was killed in January was known by fellow “forest defenders” as Tortuguita, or “Little Turtle,” and dreamed of becoming a doctor, but felt compelled to join the effort to save the woodlands for both political and spiritual reasons, the protester’s mother, Belkis Terán, recalled recently in an interview. Tortuguita’s mother said her child “wanted to be in the forest” and was “feeling God there.” She hoped, she said, that her child’s death was not in vain.



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