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Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Cop City
We get a potential glimpse into the future of the War on Terror at Atlanta's $90 million law-enforcement training center—and the police shooting of a protester.
This piece by journalist Spencer Ackerman was originally published by Forever Wars. Forever Wars, like Discourse Blog, is part of the Discontents media collective. Subscribe to Forever Wars by clicking the “subscribe” button in the original post or on the Forever Wars homepage.
Written by Spencer Ackerman for Forever Wars
Edited by Sam Thielman
FIRST IT WAS THE WEELAUNEE FOREST of the Muscogee. After the settlers of Georgia and their federal allies in the young United States took the Muscogees' land and expelled them, the forest hosted a slave plantation. From there it became a prison farm. Once the prison closed in the 1990s, it lay fallow, allowing the forest to regenerate through the abandoned structures. Then, in 2021, Atlanta decided that the regrown forest on its southeast, abutting a low-income and predominantly black neighborhood, would become an 85-acre multijurisdictional training ground for police.
Well, not exactly. Atlanta—the people of Atlanta, I mean—didn't really decide that. A police nonprofit called the Atlanta Police Foundation lobbied to create the $90 million training center formally called the Public Safety Training Center and informally known as Cop City.
The Atlanta Police Foundation's board is a roster of the local-and-beyond power structure: Jones Day, Ernst & Young, Home Depot, Accenture, Delta Airlines, Emory University, UPS, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch, the Atlanta Hawks, and many more. The chief executive of the firm that owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution led a fundraising drive for the training center. Helpfully for Cop City, the forest sits on an unincorporated part of DeKalb County, creating a democratic deficit and an oligarchic opportunity. The Atlanta City Council doesn't even seat representatives from the actual neighborhood under discussion. Even so, when it held some 17 hours of hearings for public comment, most people speaking opposed Cop City. Nevertheless, $30 million of taxpayer money will fund its construction.
I learned all this from a truly excellent piece of journalism, published in The Bitter Southerner, by David Peisner. I read Peisner's piece to learn the context for last Wednesday's police killing of Manuel Tiran, someone occupying the forest to stop Cop City and its associated ecological damage, known to their friends and to Peisner as Tortuguita. I haven't traveled to Atlanta or the forest nor spoken to anyone involved, so that limits what this edition of FOREVER WARS can offer, although if you read on, you'll find some reporting concerning the Department of Homeland Security and Tortuguita's comrades. I'd recommend you read Peisner's piece and this other one Peisner published after the police killed Tortuguita, as well as some others I'm going to shout out in reference. But from what we know of this episode, it's some real REIGN OF TERROR shit.
Following a police raid on Wednesday morning to clear an encampment where Tortuguita and other demonstrators were living, seven were charged with domestic terrorism. Six more received domestic-terrorism charges over the weekend after demonstrations in Atlanta resulted in property destruction. (These are state charges; thus far the Justice Department has remained uninvolved.) Here we see the stakes of Cop City: Resistance that destroys property is terrorism, while state action emerging from an undemocratic merger of corporate power and police interests that kills an actual human being is counterterrorism.
Despite its presence in a woodland, the point of the Public Safety Training Center is preparation for heavily militarized urban policing. Kamau Franklin from Atlanta's Community Movement Builders told Amy Goodman on Friday that plans for Cop City include "explosives testing, over 12 firing ranges, a place where there’s a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad, a training center for them to practice crowd control. We should also mention that they are engaged in international training with the Israeli police."
It put me in mind of the military's construction of training ranges that modeled Iraqi cities for pre-deployment soldiers. This is how a spokesperson for Atlanta described Cop City to Peisner:
The Public Safety Training Center will provide Atlanta’s public safety officials with a venue for coordinated training, modern urban firefighting cityscapes, an emergency vehicle operations course, and modular design for classrooms to enable flexible training consistent with the needs of 21st-century public safety agencies.
Modern urban firefighting cityscapes. According to Peisner, firefighters will also train at Cop City. But that phrase's applicability to policing seems to hold the key to understanding what the training will yield, and the stakes in opposing it, particularly after the police used live fire to slay Tortuguita.
THE STORY THE POLICE TOLD to explain Tortuguita's death is that Tortuguita opened fire on the police from their tent when the police arrived to clear the encampment, hitting a state trooper in the abdomen. The police shot Tortuguita and killed them. Photographs of the police in the clearance operation show police who are heavily kitted. Some of them wear body cameras. Yet the Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims that there is no video footage of Tortuguita's killing, nor of the events preceding it.
"The idea that [they] were sitting in a tent and fired out of the tent at, basically, a SWAT team – DeKalb County police, Atlanta police and Georgia state troopers, who were there in great numbers to do the raid that they conducted in the park, and the idea that this person shot and then maybe fired back, the little intel we have, residents say they heard a blast of gunshots all at once, not one blast and then a return of fire," Franklin told Goodman on Friday. "Also, there has been no information released. We don't know how many times this young person has been hit with bullets, we don't know the areas in which this person was hit, we don't know [if] this is a friendly-fire incident. All we know is what the police has given."
Peisner spent six months interviewing Tortuguita last year, and expressed his skepticism of the police narrative in his follow-up piece. His reporting on the forest resistance to Cop City is thorough, nuanced and inclusive of many viewpoints about both the development and its critics. It's truly worth reading in full, because I'll inevitably flatten it through summarization. Members of the encampment have indeed been confrontational, and local Atlanta residents to whom Peisner spoke described real tensions between their communities and the encampment, whatever their perspectives on Cop City. This is how Peisner describes the encampment’s tactics:
The movement, while essentially nonviolent, has done considerable property damage since it began more than a year ago. Construction vehicles have repeatedly been torched. Utility and security trucks have been assailed with rocks and had their tires slashed. Homes and offices of contractors have been vandalized. At one point, a small Molotov cocktail was thrown in the vicinity of the police. In November, some activists destroyed cameras and felled a few small trees in order to take out the power line that services the APD’s firing range. At the very least, anyone who crosses the creek onto the prison farm property is trespassing. Police raids into the forest are common, several forest defenders have already been arrested, and the movement is under investigation by multiple federal and state law enforcement agencies. As such, most of the forest defenders are very wary of outsiders.
Peisner reported, with grim foresight, that tensions on all sides were escalating. But when I finished his piece, nothing in it portrayed anything that even a paranoid imagination could understand as terrorism. Except for protesting and at times vandalizing (Peisner's word) the homes and offices of developers, the forest defenders seem to have centered what physical confrontations they've been involved in on the area they have been occupying. I caution again that my reporting is second-hand, but they appear to be holding territory from police raids, not staging raids themselves. "[U]ntil the incident that killed Teran and wounded the trooper, none of the so-called violent acts committed by the forest defenders led to any real injuries that I’m aware of," Peisner wrote in his follow-up, after Tortuguita's slaying.
Property destruction, rather than person-destruction, appeared to be reflected in the materiel the police said they took from the encampment last week. "The GBI said about 25 campsites were located and removed Wednesday and that mortar-style fireworks, edged weapons, pellet rifles, gas masks and a blow torch were recovered," according to the AP. (Any firework launched from a tube could be a "mortar-style firework.") Could you kill someone with some of that stuff? You sure could. But more typically, you could use it to slash truck tires, obstruct a raiding party and defend yourself from tear gas with it, consistent with Peisner's reporting. I haven't seen the police release a description of the gun Tortuguita is alleged to have fired. Area journalist George Chidi noted for the Intercept—you should read his dispatch as well—"It took police the better part of a day to recover a gun from the scene." If Tortuguita shot at the cops from their tent and was in turn killed there, I would expect the gun to be pretty quickly recovered from their tent or directly nearby.
On Monday, Jordan Chariton of Status Coup did some really valuable journalism by obtaining warrants issued in December for the arrest of several of the forest defenders for what appears to be a pre-Tortuguita police raid of the encampment, including those charged with domestic terrorism. Violent acts are few and accusations are general, attributing responsibility for things like throwing the molotov (similar to Peisner's reporting) and "arson" to the group rather than the specific person sought for arrest. One person charged with domestic terrorism "affirmed their cooperation with [Defend The Atlanta Forest] by throwing rocks at fire department and EMS workers, possessing road flares of the same style and type as have been used to set fires on the property, and possessing incendiary devices." The only listed actual harm to a human being that the warrants cite occurred when one domestic-terrorism arrestee fled "from Atlanta Police Department investigator Ronald Sluss, causing injuries to INV Sluss’ right knee and right elbow, said injuries being scrapes and cuts.”
Wrote Peisner (not about Chariton's piece), "Some may consider property destruction in and of itself to be violent, but there’s been a real blurring of the lines between that looser definition of violence and the one that is aimed at actual people." Either way, that's a debate about what constitutes violence. The forest defenders arrested at the encampment were charged with domestic terrorism, an inevitably politically-loaded charge. Yet these are clearly not people who flew planes into buildings, planted bombs or, if you prefer, stormed through a legislative chamber with weapons to force legislators to nullify a public-health measure or an election. If the police are vindicated, and Tortuguita pulled the wool over Peisner's eyes and concealed from him both a firearm and an intent to use it on police, that would represent a substantial deviation from both the documented and the accused pattern of behavior observed among the forest defenders.
BOTH CHARITON'S REPORT and another one from Ryan Fatica at Toward Freedom print warrants for the domestic-terrorism arrests, dated December 13 and signed December 14. Police affiants, under oath, claim in the warrants that Defend The Atlanta Forest is "a group classified by the Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists."
But that's at least formally wrong. And seemingly material to the charge.
When FOREVER WARS emailed DHS about the alleged classification and its basis, a spokesperson responded: "The Department of Homeland Security does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists. We use the term domestic violent extremism to refer to the conduct of groups or individuals in the United States who seek to advance their ideological goals through the unlawful use of violence and the term domestic violent extremist to refer generally to individuals based and operating primarily in the United States or its territories without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power who seeks to further social or political goals, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence. The mere advocacy of a particular political or social view/position, political activity, or the use of strong rhetoric does not constitute domestic violent extremism."
I asked for clarification about whether DHS applies the term at all to Defend The Atlanta Forest, as the police claim in the domestic-terrorism warrants. I have yet to receive a reply. I'll update online if I get an actual answer and send out a small edition for newsletter subscribers too. But at the least, it's a factual inaccuracy in an official police presentation to a judge in pursuit of a warrant.
And it seems to be a material one. In every warrant printed by Chariton and Fatica for a domestic terrorism charge but one, the very first explanatory line refers to DHS "classifying" Defend The Atlanta Forest as a domestic violent extremist group. The person who made Investigator Sluss scrape his knee and elbow also got a different domestic terrorism charge (classified on the warrant application as 16-10-24), one that specifically referred to harm committed, but also faced the one referencing DHS "classifying" Defend the Atlanta Forest as a domestic violent extremist group (classified on the warrant application as 16-4-10). And DHS says it makes no such classification.
I don't mean to suggest for a moment we know anything like all there is to this story. But as it stands, it's a disturbing marker of what the War on Terror is in 2023, and a harbinger of where it's going. The legitimizing aura of counterterrorism surrounds an undemocratically installed training facility where, in addition to causing substantial ecological spoilage, militarized police will practice operations directed at Atlanta's historically Black urban core. The delegitimizing stigma of terrorism surrounds people who resist all that, including through a willingness to damage property. Only one side of this has a demonstrated—not accused—record of actually killing someone. Welcome to the modern urban firefighting cityscape.