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Four elders arrested after blocking Cop City construction entrance

ACPC Staff Report
Video by: Lev Omelchenko

On Wednesday, the Atlanta Police Department arrested long-time Atlanta activist Lorraine Fontana for the second time this year after she and three other elder women blockaded one of the entrances to the construction site of the proposed police training center known by most as Cop City. 

In September, five faith leaders engaged in a similar action, chaining themselves to construction equipment and briefly shutting down work at the site. As with the faith leaders in September, the four women who took part in Wednesday’s protest were arrested for criminal trespass and transported to DeKalb County jail. 

Police failed to file warrants against two of the elders, Fontana and Priscilla Smith, and no police officers appeared at their first appearance hearing Thursday morning. DeKalb Magistrate Judge John Altman ordered the two be released but warned the solicitors office can still take out warrants against them in the coming days. 

Police did take out criminal trespass warrants against the two other elders, Laura Kerns and Shelley Nagrani. Judge Altman ordered Kerns and Nagrani be granted signature bonds with the condition they not return to the Cop City site. 

All four are expected to be released from DeKalb County jail Thursday.

This is the latest action in a multi-year protest of the facility. Since the training center was publicly announced in 2021, thousands have participated in marches and rallies under the Stop Cop City banner. Dozens have been arrested, and in January 2023, police shot and killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán during a police raid of an activist encampment nearby the proposed Cop City construction site. In August, a grand jury handed down an indictment against 61 individuals alleged to have violated the Georgia racketeering conspiracy (RICO) statute while protesting Cop City. 

Since its inception, the protest movement has taken many approaches to stopping the facility. 

Four elder women sit behind a banner reading “Stop The Construction, Let the People Decide” at the entrance of the Cop City construction site Wednesday morning. Photo Credit: The People’s Stop Work Order

On Wednesday, the women sat in chairs draped with a banner that read, “Stop the Construction, Let the People Decide,” a reference to the proposed referendum that would overturn the land lease for the proposed training center. In September, referendum organizers turned in a reported 116,000 signatures on the petition to add the referendum question to the ballot. 

“I always emphasized that if you want to live where your voice matters you have to use your voice, you have to participate,” said one of the four elders, Priscilla Smith, in a written statement. “We spoke to city council, we spoke to Mayor Dickens, and DeKalb CEO Micheal Thurmond and they are not listening to the people. Over 116k people signed a petition demanding this project come to a vote.”

The referendum initiative is currently tied up in federal courts after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in September that favored the city of Atlanta, which is trying to invalidate the referendum, and put the process in a state of limbo. Oral arguments in the case are set for Dec. 14. 

While the electoral approach to stop Cop City is tied up in court, organizers have returned to more direct forms of action–like blockading construction entrances–to achieve their goal. 

These direct actions are not without risk. Over the last year, prosecutors brought both domestic terrorism and RICO charges against those who have been arrested for criminal trespass in relation to the Stop Cop City movement. 

The elders arrested Wednesday believe that risk should be borne by white people. 

“In my lifetime I have watched the police become increasingly militarized and dangerous. Militarization of the police disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous people, and people of color,” said Nagrani in a written statement, “I think it is important for white people to stand up and say we will not allow this to continue.”

Another direct action at the construction site of the proposed training center is on the horizon. On Nov. 13, hundreds are expected to take part in a “Block Cop City” action. A website for the action says the plan is for “a large, determined group will make their way into the Weelaunee Forest and the Cop City construction site, and will non-violently halt construction.”

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