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Ga. AG defends use of domestic terrorism charges against training center protestors

At least 19 people are facing the serious charge, and a few are linked to the ‘defend the forest’ movement


A burned police car sits on the street following a violent protest, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023.

AP Photo/Alex Slitz

By Tyler Estep
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Georgia’s attorney general reiterated his support Monday for Atlanta’s controversial new public safety training center — and defended the use of domestic terrorism charges against activists protesting its construction.

Since December, at least 19 people have been arrested and charged with the weighty offense, which carries a potential sentence of 35 years in prison. Most of the activists so charged have also been accused of violating other laws — some for allegedly throwing objects at first responders, others by allegedly trespassing on the site.

But few have been directly accused of the most violent acts linked to the nebulous “defend the forest” movement, and civil rights groups and attorneys for the defendants have questioned the usage of the law.

Attorney General Chris Carr said Monday he couldn’t get into specifics. But, he said, “the state of Georgia has passed a law that defines what domestic terrorism is.

“I’m confident we’ll have the ability to go to court and prove those charges,” he said.

Carr’s office is working with prosecutors in DeKalb and Fulton counties to pursue the terrorism charges. Asked if such charges could ultimately be brought against more people, the attorney general said it wasn’t “appropriate for [him] to discuss at this time.”

Carr spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution following a tour of the Westside At-Promise Center, a juvenile diversion center in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood.

Carr’s office launched a gang prosecution unit last summer and has touted the new focus as a way to crack down on violent crime. The Republican official made a pitch Monday for Senate Bill 44, a pending piece of legislation that, if approved and signed into law, would impose mandatory minimum sentences on adults who recruit children into gangs.

He also held the At-Promise Center up as a potential model for anti-recruitment efforts across the state. Providing a wide-range of services and stopping children from joining gangs to begin with is a crucial part of preventing violence, Carr said.

Atlanta’s three At- Promise Centers, of course, are run by the Atlanta Police Foundation — the same nonprofit helping steer the creation of the new training center.

The Westside location Carr visited Monday was “firebombed” last May, with two still-unidentified people throwing some version of Molotov cocktails through a rear window. The damage was largely contained to a single room and has since been repaired.

Officials believe the incident was likely tied to protests over the training center, a $90-million facility for Atlanta’s police and fire departments. It would go up on 85 currently wooded acres in southwestern DeKalb County, on the site of a former prison farm.

Initial land disturbance permits for the facility were issued Jan. 31, and some work has begun. But the permits’ approval has since been challenged.

Activists, local residents and others have demanded the project be called off, saying that, in addition to causing environmental damage, it would only further militarize the local police force.

Police foundation president Dave Wilkinson said Monday the facility would be “a boon” for law enforcement but otherwise deferred comment to the city of Atlanta.

Carr said it was “critically important” for the training center to move forward.

“We’ve been talking for the last two years in particular, and then [the Memphis police killing of Tyre Nichols] brought it back up, about well-trained law enforcement, well-trained first responders, well-trained firefighters as well,” Carr said. “And that’s what this facility is about.”

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