Rev. Leo Seyij Allen speaks at a March 6 rally of faith leaders who are urging Atlanta leaders to stop construction of the Atlanta public safety training center. The faith leaders are also demanding charges against protesters be dropped. The rally was held outside Atlanta City Hall. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)

A group of local faith leaders gathered March 6 at Atlanta City Hall to urge city leaders to halt construction of the public safety training center and drop charges against protesters of the facility dubbed “Cop City” by opponents.

The press conference and rally by the coalition of Atlanta faith leaders came a day after 23 people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for participating in what Atlanta Police called a “coordinated attack” on the training center’s site in the South River Forest.

Those arrested apparently broke off from a music fest being held in Intrenchment Creek Park, also known as Weelaunee People’s Park, as part of a Week of Action by environmentalists and those who say Cop City will further militarize the police.

“We call on religious leaders who are a moral authority in our society to use your power in support of the forest protectors,” said Rev. Leo Seyij Allen. “We are deeply concerned for the greater Atlanta community and the implications for the future of public safety in the United States if Cop City moves forward.”

The clergy who spoke said the land where the public safety training center is being built belonged to the Muscogee Nation before it was taken by the U.S. government. The site is also where the Atlanta Prison Farm is located, which was a site of forced prison labor.

The painful history of the land should be remembered and honored, they said. Instead of building a massive police training center on the site, clergy members are asking city officials to preserve the land to become a “place of healing for all people.”

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“My hope is that people would understand that there are genuine human beings here talking about their concerns for creating a society of wellness for all people, not just those who are privileged or who have the resources to have a safe life,” said Rev. Mekko Chebon Kernell in an interview. Kernell, who is Muscogee, is an executive of Indigenous People’s work for the United Methodist Church.

“One thing that I’ve witnessed in the work that I’ve done is that no matter where you go in this world, the increasing of militarized weapons or access to those weapons, never produces more peace,” Kernell said. “It’s always going to produce more chaos, more harm and more violence, just like what you saw [Sunday] night.”

Of the 23 people arrested on March 5, only one was from Atlanta. Another person was from Athens, Ga. The other 21 people were from out-of-state, Canada, and France. The arrests follow a pattern of people coming from outside Atlanta to protest the police training center, according to APD.

Atlanta faith leaders at the press conference asked the community to challenge the police narrative that opposition to Cop City is only coming from “outside agitators.”

“This is our land … and we don’t want Cop City,” said Rev. Keyanna Jones, an interfaith leader who lives in East Atlanta.

“We’re here today to make sure that we ring the alarm and dispel the false narrative that is outside agitators who don’t want this,” Jones said. “We know that this is the rhetoric that’s been going on ever since abolition began.”

As of March 2, more than 200 faith leaders from Atlanta and across the country had signed on to a letter to Mayor Andre Dickens and members of the City Council to call for an end to “police militarization, as well as ecological destruction and systemic violence rooted in legacies of genocide and enslavement.”

Clergy who signed the letter also want the mayor and council to completely stop the Cop City project and cancel the Atlanta Police Foundation’s lease for the land. They also ask officials to:

• Drop all charges against forest defenders and protestors and conduct an independent investigation into the use of domestic terrorism charges. “These charges are unjustified and serve only to stoke fear among activists and community leaders who organize in good faith for the wellbeing of their communities and the planet,” according to the letter.

• Conduct an independent investigation into the killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, who was killed in a Jan. 18 raid of the public safety training center site to remove protesters. A state patrol officer was wounded.

• To open up a community process to continue envisioning how the South River Forest “can be the heart and lungs of community wellness and healing.” The process should center the voices and needs of: Muscogee leaders and community members; incarcerated people in the surrounding prisons and their families; neighbors and those who live in close proximity to APD firing range.

Mayor Dickens on Feb. 28 announced the formation of a new task force for the Atlanta public safety training center with initial recommendations to be considered by July.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.