Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, with Fire Chief Rod Smith, addressed the City Council about the violent protest March 5 at the site where the city plans to build a public safety training center. (Screen capture ATL 26)

Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum appeared before the City Council this week to explain the department’s account of what happened March 5 when protesters opposed to the construction of the city’s public training center attacked officers and destroyed construction equipment.

“We [wanted] to make sure we brought accurate facts to this body and that you’re aware of fully what transpired,” he said.

Schierbaum said a peaceful music festival was taking place in the South River Forest in DeKalb County near the site of the training center. The festival is one of many events taking place during a Week of Action by “Stop Cop City” and “Defend the Atlanta Forest,” autonomous movements opposed to the construction of the $90 million facility.

The Week of Action is also a response to the killing of forest defender Manuel Teran. The activist was shot and killed at the Key Road property in DeKalb County on Jan. 18 during a multi-agency operation to clear protesters from the training center site. Police say Teran shot and injured a state trooper.

On the evening of March 5, a group of about 100 people left the festival, put on black clothes and marched toward the Old Atlanta Prison Farm where the training center is being built, Schierbaum told the council. Heat-imaging cameras captured the crowd as it approached the fenced-in area where APD officers were posted to keep out trespassers.

“These officers had been stationary at the site and protecting the location,” Schierbaum said. “They start to reposition [as they see the crowd] because they can tell this is not a peaceful demonstration. This is actually going to be an attack on them.”

Multiple law enforcement agencies descended on the scene and the Atlanta Fire Department responded to put out small fires. Most of the 23 people arrested that night are from others states as well as Canada and France. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged the 23 with domestic terrorism.

Councilmember Mary Norwood said the videos show a clear attack on police by this large group of people. She said the presentation should have come before public comment when people spoke out against the police and the training center for more than two hours.

“I would have loved for every one of those very hysterical people that we’ve been sitting listening to for two or three hours to have seen the actual video of what really did happen,” she said.

Councilmember Antonio Lewis said to see a mob of people throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at police was shocking. He was a friend of Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by Atlanta Police in 2020, just days after police killed George Floyd. There is no room for violence in a protest, he said.

“That ain’t the Atlanta way,” he said.

He then asked Schierbaum if Atlanta Police officers had jurisdiction to patrol the training center property. In recent weeks, officers have been moved from their regular shifts in the city to provide security on Key Road.

The city owns the land, but is leasing it to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the powerful nonprofit in charge of building the $90 million training center. The APF raises millions of dollars for various police programs and equipment. It will fund $30 million for the training center, while taxpayers will pay $60 million.

“Is there any place ever that the city of Atlanta Police Department has ever done this for any other organization?” Lewis asked.

 Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari also asked why APD officers were guarding the site.

“It seems to me that is a problem,” she said. “I don’t know why we’re spending that money when this is an APF project.”

Schierbaum said this is the first time the city has built a public safety training center for the police and fire departments. Facilities used now for police and fire training are inadequate so it is important for the APD to be part of a coalition to ensure the training center is built.

Lewis said there is also a well-known shortage on the APD force and he was concerned that taking officers out of Atlanta to guard Key Road was unsafe. He said he did not want any officers to be removed from District 12, the southeast Atlanta community he represents. His constituents are facing the “brunt” of the shortage, he said.

Schierbaum said the department is “crafting a deployment plan that is smart, that takes into consideration of our ability to fight crime and protect large events” and “doesn’t diminish public safety in the city.”

Bakhtiari asked Schierbaum about describing the protestors as terrorists. She said she does not approve of the destruction of property and said property damage or vandalism could be more appropriate charges.

“The word terrorism is very dangerous as somebody who grew up being called a terrorist, for being Muslim, for living in a very racist community,” Bakhtiari said.

“The use of the word terrorism as it has been freely used consistently and continually to me is an overreach by the state,” she said. “It is problematic terminology for our city to be using. It is also a very slippery slope when it comes to the First Amendment.”

Human Rights Watch and numerous others civil rights groups signed a March 3 letter to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Dekalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston urging them to drop domestic terrorism charges against Stop Cop City/Defend the Atlanta Forest defendants arrested during previous protests where violence broke out.

“These politicized charges are a clear attempt to silence dissent by smearing an activist movement as terrorism-prone,” the letter said. “Inappropriately pursuing domestic terrorism charges is an affront to the civil liberties the First Amendment protects, and could harm civil liberties and civic space.”

Carr has defended the domestic terrorism charges. On an appearance on Fox News this week, he described those arrested on March 5 as part of a “national network, an international group of people that are organized to come to our state to undermine a public safety training center.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also described what happened March 5 as domestic terrorism.

Collin Kelly contributed to this report.

Dyana Bagby

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