By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) -Fires broke out at the construction site of an Atlanta police training center on Sunday after a demonstration at the property led to clashes between police and protesters and 35 people were arrested, police said.
The site of the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, derisively called “Cop City” by opponents, has been the scene of escalating confrontation as demonstrators oppose both the increasing militarization of police and the development of the forest that its defenders call the “lungs of Atlanta.”
The police and fire training center is being built on 85 acres (34.4 hectares) of a 400-acre property in unincorporated DeKalb County that is owned by the city, according to the facility’s website.
It is within the larger South River Forest, also known as the Weelaunee Forest.
Sunday’s events began with a music festival that was part of a week of demonstrations against the construction. But police said events turned violent when “agitators” changed into black clothing, breached the site, and launched bricks, rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at officers.
“The illegal actions of the agitators could have resulted in bodily harm. Officers exercised restraint and used non-lethal enforcement to conduct arrests,” police said.
Heavy smoke could be seen for miles, WSB television reported. Images on social media showed flames and smoke coming from multiple spots on the property. One image showed heavy equipment in flames.
Hundreds of people attended Sunday’s events, and a group broke off from the concert to start a protest, WSB reported, citing witnesses.
The area was on lockdown, with a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team reporting to the scene. The fire was later extinguished, WAGA television reported, citing reporters at the scene.
Opponents of the site say they want to save an important green space near the greater Atlanta metropolitan area of 6 million people.
“We call on all people of good conscience to stand in solidarity with the movement to stop Cop City and defend the Weelaunee Forest,” reads a statement on a website called Defend The Atlanta Forest.
The website promoted a series of events from March 4 to March 11 including live music and forest tours, describing it as the fifth such week of activities.
With more events planned in coming days, Atlanta police said they and other law-enforcement agencies had “multi-layered strategy that includes reaction and arrest.”
The site was subject to a protest in January that briefly turned violent as demonstrators set a police car on fire and smashed windows of buildings. Demonstrators at that time gathered to protest against the killing by law enforcement of an activist during a raid to clear the construction site.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bradley Perrett and Edwina Gibbs)