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Protests against proposed Atlanta police training facility escalate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a story unfolding in Atlanta, the roots of which could take you back at least a century. At the heart of this is a planned 85-acre training complex for police, a complex scheduled to be built in a wooded area of metro Atlanta. After the city council voted in favor of the construction, protesters moved into the forest. Well, fast-forward to last week when law enforcement raided and removed protesters from campsites at what they call Cop City. A Georgia state trooper was shot and injured. A 26-year-old environmental activist was shot and killed. To provide more context, Madeline Thigpen joins me now. She is a criminal justice reporter for the nonprofit news organization Capital B Atlanta. And she's on the line from Atlanta. Madeline, hi there.

MADELINE THIGPEN: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So I understand there are conflicting accounts as to what exactly happened in these shootings. While we wait for those investigations to play out, I want to talk about the vigils that have happened for the activist who was shot, including one in downtown Atlanta that turned into a violent protest. Describe what you saw.

THIGPEN: So Saturday evening, the vigil started out at Underground Atlanta. It was, you know, quiet, peaceful. People were there, obviously, to express their distrust in the law enforcement narrative of what happened and also to mourn Teran. The protesters then began marching down Peachtree Street, which is like a main road in downtown Atlanta. And they began smashing the windows of a Deloitte office building, which is where the Atlanta Police Foundation Headquarters are. They also smashed Wells Fargo bank buildings. Wells Fargo is a major funder of the Atlanta Police Foundation. And they also smashed windows on a cop car and set the cop car on fire. When the police responded, they began, like, arresting protesters. And everybody dispersed.

KELLY: So let's get into the roots of this. Why do protesters oppose this planned police training center?

THIGPEN: So this land, South River Forest - it's also called Weelaunee Forest, which is the name that was given to it by the Muskogee Creek people - has been undeveloped since 1995. There used to be a prison farm that had been there since the 1920s, which is where nonviolent offenders were sent to work on the farm. Since the farm was closed in 1995, the land has been sitting there undeveloped. Residents have said that, like, you know, homeless people have gone back there and lived in some of the abandoned buildings, and they have wanted to see the land turned into a park or a public green space. But in 2021, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the plans for this training facility that protesters call Cop City. The facility would be 85 acres in this 380-acre tract of land, so not the entire thing. But protesters are saying that this would bring a massive police presence into this majority-Black, low-income community. And it would also clear out a lot of the trees on this land.

KELLY: I mean, understanding Atlanta is a big city, there's going to be a whole range of opinion, where is public opinion in Atlanta on all this?

THIGPEN: So public opinion has always really been against the construction, which is not to say that everybody is against it. But when city council voted to lease the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation, over a thousand people called in to speak during public comment. And around 70% of them were against the leasing of the land for the construction of this facility. And that was, like, 17 hours of public comment.

KELLY: Meanwhile, construction is still greenlit. What is the timeline?

THIGPEN: Construction is greenlit, but the Police Foundation and the mayor's office have had a difficult time pinning down a contractor. Brasfield and Gorrie, which is one of the contractors that I know people were talking about potentially building this, had their offices in Alabama vandalized. The mayor has said that they have had issues with other contractors saying they don't want to take on the project because they're afraid of retaliation from activists.

KELLY: Madeline Thigpen, criminal justice reporter with Capital B Atlanta, thank you.

THIGPEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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