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Atlanta's City Council to vote on funding for a controversial police training center

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in Atlanta, Georgia, are closing some city hall offices and taking other precautions today ahead of a crucial funding vote for a controversial police training center. This comes days after three activists involved in the fight against a proposed project dubbed Cop City were arrested. Peter Biello with Georgia Public Broadcasting is with us now to tell us more. Good morning, Peter.

PETER BIELLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So let me start with this training center. I said that it's controversial. Why is that?

BIELLO: Well, this public safety training center - it's a $90 million facility for first responders, including police and fire, in a forested area in southeast Atlanta. And it is big. It's 85 acres. And it's not just for Atlanta. The city plans to rent it out to first responders from across the country. It was approved by the city council two years ago. And since then, it's faced protests. At one of those, a protester was killed by state troopers. And that's still under investigation. So you have environmentalists who are worried about the forest. And then there are those who don't want this anywhere. They say the police are violent, and this will make them even more militarized. Part of this facility includes a mock city to train in urban environments. And that inspires the name protesters have given the project, Cop City.

MARTIN: I understand that police used SWAT officers last week to arrest some protest organizers. Would you just tell us more about that whole incident and tell us more about the folks who were arrested?

BIELLO: Sure. Atlanta police and the GBI arrested three people who were running a bail fund called the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. They say these organizers engaged in charity fraud and money laundering. Their defenders say they did these things, the things most nonprofit organizers do, just reimburse people for overhead, in this case COVID tests, yard signs and gas, things like that. And now they got bail on Friday. And the judge said about the charges that there wasn't a lot of meat on the bone. After the arrest, though, Republican Governor Brian Kemp said these fundraisers are part of a criminal operation.

MARTIN: But why such a heavy police presence for an alleged charity fraud case?

BIELLO: That's a good question. I asked the GBI and the Atlanta police, and they wouldn't tell me. But, you know, this fund has been used to pay for the defense of people arrested after a protest in March that turned violent. A group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails and set fire to construction equipment. They were charged with domestic terrorism, a rare charge under Georgia state law. And this bail fund has been helping to fight those charges. So the optics of arresting the bail fund organizers matter here. Some say it's an attempt to scare protesters. Kamau Franklin is an activist with the group Community Movement Builders who often rallies with the protesters.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: The fact that they're trying to take away a bail fund which has supported protesters and organizers is directly linked to their attempt to stifle dissent, to chill dissent and to take away people's First Amendment rights to protest and to feel safe enough to protest.

MARTIN: So in the minute we have left, Peter, tell us what the city council is voting on today.

BIELLO: So councilors are voting on whether to approve $31 million from the city of Atlanta for this facility. Another 60 million is supposed to come from the Atlanta Police Foundation, an independent nonprofit that supports policing in Atlanta, though some of that will be repaid. The arrests in the court hearing Friday may have had an effect on some of the council members. Mayor Andre Dickens is fully behind the training center. He says Atlanta police need it. But city council member Liliana Bakhtiari says she's going to vote against it. She says the city's approval process has lacked transparency.

LILIANA BAKHTIARI: We could have done this much differently. And in the way that it's been conducted - without sensitivity, without openness - has led there to be a very deep divide in our city.

BIELLO: And that divide is likely to be on display at this meeting today. Protesters and police are expected to show up in large numbers.

MARTIN: That's Peter Biello with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Peter, thank you.

BIELLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.