Police deploy tear gas, flash-bang grenades at 'Cop City' protesters during march

Protesters and police clash at the site of a proposed public safety training center in Atlanta on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

This story was updated on Nov. 14 at 8:17 a.m.

Opponents of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center were met with tear gas and flash-bang grenades during a march held Monday morning seeking to halt its construction.

City officials have said the 85-acre, $90 million facility is needed to improve de-escalation training and help recruit and retain more officers.

However, the march was part of a mass action to block so-called “Cop City,” which has garnered support from environmentalists and anti-police protesters around the country.

Protester Cariol Horne is a former officer from Buffalo, New York. She said she was on the force for 20 years but was allegedly fired after stopping a chokehold in 2006.

“I just want us all to stand together, because today it’s Georgia, [but] tomorrow it’ll be New York, Pennsylvania, Washington,” Horne said. “Wherever there’s a big city, they’re going to try to militarize our police officers.”

About 300 people, including some dressed in goggles and chemical suits, marched approximately two miles from Gresham Park in south DeKalb County to the property where the training center is being built.

They were followed by helicopters in the sky while playing music and chanting, “Stop Cop City” and “Viva, viva Tortuguita” — the nickname of an activist, Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, who was fatally shot by troopers at the site nearly 10 months ago.

In October, a special prosecutor announced he would not be seeking charges against the troopers, saying that the use of lethal force was “objectively reasonable under the circumstances of the case.”

Tortuguita’s father, Joel Paez, spoke just before the march.

“I’m so proud of you,” Paez said. “I hope that we’re going to remember this day and you’re going to remember this day as the day that changed the history of civil liberties.”

But almost immediately after stepping onto the roadway leading to the site, protesters were met with a line of DeKalb County police officers in riot gear. The groups began pushing against each other, and officers responded by throwing canisters of tear gas into the crowd before it eventually dispersed.

DeKalb County police said no one was arrested as of Monday afternoon.

Police launched teargas at protesters at the site of a proposed public safety training center in Atlanta on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

At a press conference, Atlanta police said they allegedly found bolt cutters, gas masks and makeshift construction tools that they believe protesters planned to use to breach the center’s construction site.

“Individuals became very aggressive,” Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said. “The banners that were being carried to portray a message suddenly were being used against law enforcement that was there just there to keep order in the community.”

A spokesperson for the department confirmed Atlanta police were not involved in the clash.

Hundreds of people from around the country were in town for the march as part of a “Weekend of Action,” where organizers held various events focused on protesting safety and legal rights.

It included facilitated conversations among “action groups,” or small groups focused on specific topics like jail support, food support and media access.

Many attendees, who say they’re concerned about environmental justice and police brutality and overreach, were mobilized during a national tour highlighting Atlanta’s planned training center.

Sam Beard, an organizer from Chicago, attended the events over the weekend.

Opponents of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center gathered to rally against construction of the facility on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“The primary function of repression is to introduce trumped-up legal charges and domestic terrorism charges, RICO charges, is to scare us into inaction,” he said. “And the worst thing that we can do in the face of heightened repression is give in to fear and shrink.”

Over the past few months, tensions have been rising after Georgia prosecutors indicted 57 protesters on racketeering charges, and police raided and arrested three people who ran the Atlanta Solidarity Fund — an organization that provided bail funds for people arrested while protesting. One protester was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention.

Meanwhile, the City of Atlanta has refused to accept a 116,000-signature citizen petition calling for a referendum on the project, and Fulton County also plans to build a new training center at a cost of about $15 million.

County officials have not responded to WABE’s request for more details or an interview since June.

In the meantime, activists, including those from out of state, say they will continue to engage in different forms of civil disobedience to “Block Cop City.”

Just last week, Atlanta police arrested four people and charged them with criminal trespassing for blocking the entrance to the site. They ranged from 63 to 76 years old. All but one were from outside the city.