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Protestors have gathered at Welaunee Forest in Atlanta for over a year, protesting the construction of an 85-acre, USD 90 million project to create a police and firefighter training centre many have dubbed ‘Cop City’. 

The movement comprises a coalition of diverse protest groups voicing concerns about the multi-million dollar project. The site requires field clearing, which would worsen air quality, increase flooding risk, and harm ecosystems. Furthermore, the project has been criticized by protestors and community members for expanding police presence in the surrounding predominantly Black neighbourhoods which are already overpoliced, with Atlanta being the most surveilled city in the U.S. Despite the city having a 48% Black population, more than 85% of people arrested by the Atlanta Police Department are Black. Regardless of community backlash against the creation of Cop City, $30 million of the project is being funded by taxpayers. Other criticisms address how the project ignores the site’s history as stolen from the Muscogee Creek Nation and used as a plantation and, later, a prison farm. 

Disproportionate Charges

Media coverage of the protests significantly expanded on March 6th, 2023, when protestors damaged infrastructure with bricks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails, with the APD and city condemning their escalation to violence. The APD arrested 35 protestors and charged 23 of those arrested with felony domestic terrorism. With the 19 protestors charged for the same felony months ago, this arrest became the “largest domestic terrorism sweep” since the 2000s. Once confined to high-profile cases with high civilian fatality rates, these charges propose key questions on how language impacts protest movements and the deeply hypocritical ways we often speak about ‘violence.’ 

A letter collectively written by several human rights organizations urging for these charges to be dropped notes how disproportionate they are. A domestic terrorism charge holds a mandatory minimum of 5 years up to 35 years in prison. These differ significantly from other relevant sentences. For example, 9 defendants would otherwise be charged with misdemeanour trespassing. Other relevant sentences include arson (with 1-20 year prison sentences) and criminal damage to property (1-10 years). Some cases problematically rely on circumstantial evidence, like sleeping in the same hammock as another defendant. 

The 2017 Georgia Domestic Terrorism Act used against protestors was written after a White supremacist attack killed 9 Black church parishioners. The law employs an “unusually broad” definition of domestic terrorism, practically characterizing it as any felony intended to harm critical infrastructure (those providing services to the public) with the intent to impact government policy. As the letter notes, this broadness may be used for selective persecution; this is especially concerning considering biases which result in more restrained police responses to far-right protests, both in force and in arrests.

What is Violence?

The results of March 6th were damage to critical equipment. While no officers were injured, the APD emphasizes that there was potential for harm considering officer proximity to this equipment. However, property damage is not equivalent to other widely recognized forms of violence. Despite widespread criticism of the March 6th protestors turning to violence, police violence is often overlooked and does not face a level of backlash demonstrated by a charge like domestic terrorism. 

One form of violence is destroying necessary forest space that protects residents against climate change. Heavy rain and flooding have increased 75% in Atlanta in the last 70 years, and the forest tree cover and soil help to shield and absorb water damage in a city that will likely be one of the most impacted by climate disasters. It is similarly a form of violence to construct projects for policing on stolen land used to extend segregation and slavery through prison labour. 

Considering the disproportionate rates of arrest and experiences of police violence that BIPOC face, creating a police training centre is also a form of violence. As community organizer Kamau Franklin states, the compound will only “further criminalize” Black Americans and redirect millions of taxpayer dollars away from projects like “affordable housing [and] accessible healthcare.”

Police have an overwhelming tendency to respond with unnecessary force in protests, intensifying and executing violence. According to a 2020 University of Chicago study of police forces in the 20 largest American cities, not one police department acted by international human rights standards for policing. These over-extensions of police force include several American states allowing lethal force in certain circumstances regarding “prevention of crime” or “escaping suspects,” whereas international standards set immediate threat as the only allowed use of lethal force. Police have also escalated tensions at protests by frequently using tear gas, pepper spray, or batons against protesters and bystanders, journalists, or legal observers not directly participating. 

The University of Chicago researchers conclude that this level of discretion and resultant deaths are an example of “state-sanctioned violence,” with police killing about 1000 people nationwide annually. Prosecutions remain rare, with only 140 officers arrested with murder or manslaughter from 2005-2021, of which only 7 were convicted under murder charges. In the context of police violence towards people remaining consistently overlooked, the harsh legal action against the 23 protestors who damaged property is certainly as disproportionate as prominent criticisms argue.

There has been one use of lethal force in the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests, and that was by police. 26-year-old activist Tortuguita was murdered in a police raid on January 18th. Officers claimed they had shot Tortuguita in self-defence after they shot an officer, citing the bullet used to shoot the trooper matched a firearm they had purchased in 2020. However, speculation about events differs, including statements that the injured officer may have been shot in the crossfire by other officers. A later independent autopsy arranged by Tortuguita’s family found that they were shot 12-13 times by police from multiple firearms and that they were most likely sitting cross-legged and with raised hands when killed. 

The Delegitimization of Protest

After the arrests, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum stated that the protestors’ destruction of infrastructure indicated that “this is not a protest, this is criminal activity” and that their “only intent [was] to harm”. This anti-violent protest sentiment matches several other city and police statements, like those by the APD stating “violent agitators” had used the “cover of peaceful protest” or those by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp saying that protestors “chose destruction and vandalism over legitimate protest.” The actions of the protestors, as well as the Defend the Atlanta Forest Protests as a whole, is taken to be illegitimate because of an instance of property violence. 

Rather than addressing the deep history of police violence that ignited protests, protestors alone are blamed for the sum of all violent acts. People are justified in feeling let down by years of peaceful protest that often results in slow reform, or growing frustrated over calls to enact change purely through voting considering both Democratic and Republican parties ultimately increase funding for policing. After years of anti-police protests raising consciousness about police biases that have been met with reassurances of change, the construction of the huge police-training compound itself demonstrates how little protest has been heeded. Narratives that delegitimize protest because of violence overlook the extensive histories of disruptive protest in the U.S., like those in the civil rights movement.

Furthermore, all instances of disruptive protest seem to be lumped together despite the great variety in motivation and outcomes. In discussions of politically motivated violence, commentators are quick to point out the growing rates of far-left extremism but often omit the higher lethality rates (in tactics and resulting fatalities) from far-right extremism. While left-wing groups were responsible for a death in 2021, 28 deaths were caused by right-wing groups the same year, mainly from white supremacist and violent misogynist attacks. 

Through the 23 domestic terrorism charges, we see what Branko Marcetic at Jacobin terms the “concept creep of terrorism,” in which the association between terrorism and the Defend The Atlanta Forest Movement ultimately stigmatizes, delegitimizes, and intimidates protestors. It is historically evident that people in power will repeatedly condemn violent action from those who pose a threat to their power, often conveniently overlooking the violence they commit. What is very concerning is that many U.S. state laws now actively criminalize non-peaceful protest as domestic terrorism and define it in broad terms to give police even more discretion for arrest. In conversations about the legitimacy of violence in protest, regardless of whether or not one supports it, it is necessary to contextualize action as existing in a context of state violence and to question whether we are asking people to continue accepting that violence.

Edited by Sun Woo Baik

Helen Guan

Helen (she/her) is a third-year student studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Originally from China but immigrating to Vancouver, Canada at a young age, she is particularly...