Approximately 20 individuals have been incarcerated following tumultuous demonstrations at a woodland near Atlanta that has gained nationwide attention due to the upcoming commencement of construction on a sizable police and fire training center.

Dubbed “Cop City” by its critics, the facility has encountered significant opposition from local inhabitants who believe there was inadequate public participation, environmentalists who are concerned about the loss of vital forested areas, and activists who assert that it will lead to the further militarization of police personnel and contribute to more incidents of police brutality.

For several months, demonstrators have been occupying the forest, pledging to obstruct the construction, despite the fact that Atlanta’s mayor is proceeding with the development of the $90 million facility. In January, law enforcement officers fatally shot 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán while attempting to clear the area.

The recent arrests represent the latest confrontation between authorities and opponents of the project, as discussions about policing and environmental protection continue on a national and global scale.

Here’s what you should know:

Where will the facility be located?

The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will be constructed on a disputed section of forested land that previously served as a prison farm. Although it is situated outside the city limits, the city owns the parcel of land, which implies that residents living in the vicinity of the site lack voting power over the leaders who approved it.

In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council, including Andre Dickens, now Atlanta’s mayor, authorized a ground lease agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation for 85 acres of the land to be transformed into the training center, while the remaining 265 acres will be.

What will it include?

The center will include, among other things, a shooting range, a burn building and a mock city “for real world training,” according to the foundation’s website.

Why do supporters want it?

Advocates of the facility argue that it is necessary to improve police morale and recruitment in Atlanta. According to the police foundation, the previous facilities utilized by law enforcement were inadequate, while fire officials had to train in borrowed spaces.

The foundation has stated that the center will concentrate on community-oriented policing and establish a national standard for law enforcement’s dedication to citizens’ civil rights and neighborhood sensitivity. Furthermore, the public will be able to use the center’s green areas and other amenities.

The mayor claims that the center is required to meet Atlanta’s law enforcement training needs, which he claims are the most extensive in the Southeast. In January, he stated that the training will cover critical areas such as de-escalation techniques, mental health, community-oriented policing, crisis intervention, and civil rights history education, all of which require ample space. The training center will provide this space.

Who is opposed?

The opposition to the project is centered around two primary concerns: police brutality and environmental harm. Those who oppose the development, including residents, activists, and organizations, believe that the training center will promote violent policing tactics and militarize the police force, particularly against communities of color, in response to the 2020 uprisings over police killings of Black Americans.

The Community Movement Builders group, among others in the “Stop Cop City” movement, views the proposed center as a war base where police will learn military-style maneuvers to control and harm Black people. Additionally, activists are concerned about the environmental impact of the project, as it would destroy a section of forested land that city leaders previously promised to preserve. Over a dozen environmental organizations have already urged city officials to reject the development, citing its devastating effects on the ecological community and historically marginalized neighborhoods.

Residents are also apprehensive about the potential mental health effects of daily gunfire and other training sounds in the area.

Why were protesters charged?

On Sunday, 23 individuals were apprehended and accused of domestic terrorism, with all but one denied bail. According to Atlanta police, they were “violent agitators” who had infiltrated a peaceful demonstration at the construction site and launched a “coordinated attack” on both officers and construction equipment.

However, activists contest this narrative and assert that law enforcement officers targeted people at a music festival located in a separate park from the construction site and made indiscriminate arrests. Atlanta police deny this claim.

Local authorities have frequently accused protesters of utilizing violent tactics at the training facility and have charged at least a dozen others with domestic terrorism in recent months.

According to Ronald Carlson, an emeritus law professor at the University of Georgia, domestic terrorism is a felony offense in Georgia that can lead to a prison sentence of up to 35 years.

Carlson suggests that the authorities’ intention in pressing such a severe charge is likely to deter additional property damage and potential harm to people.

However, over two dozen organizations, including the Human Rights Watch, have called for the dismissal of the domestic terrorism charges against activists involved in “Defend the Atlanta Forest.” They claim that the charges are an overt attempt to suppress dissent.

Why was a protester killed?

During a clearance operation of the site on January 18, a protester, also known as Tortuguita due to their passion for turtle conservation, was shot and killed by officers. The protester was identified as Terán.

Terán’s mother told CNN that her child was a “pacifist” and dismissed the authorities’ assertion that Terán had opened fire first.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into the incident and maintains that Terán fired at officers, injuring a Georgia State Patrol Trooper, and that the officers returned fire, killing the protester. However, activists dispute this claim.

What now?

According to local and state officials, the construction of the training center will proceed as planned, as neighboring DeKalb County has given the green light and construction permits are expected to be issued. Governor Brian Kemp supports the project and has urged authorities to keep those arrested in custody, claiming that most of those arrested are out-of-state agitators who do not represent local sentiments.

However, Sean Wolters of the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement disputes this assertion, stating that Atlanta residents have been protesting the project for over two years in various ways, including physically at the construction site, appealing permits, and expressing their opposition at city council meetings. The movement has attracted supporters from across the country and the world, and Wolters believes it is becoming a defining conflict in the United States.