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Pre-dawn operations in residential areas resulted in a woman forced out of her home with no shirt and a man dragged by his hair

Police in Georgia, together with federal agencies, are conducting a crackdown on activists involved in a continuing campaign against a controversial police and fire department training center known as “Cop City” that has included acts of arson and sabotage against equipment being used on the project.

This week alone saw Atlanta-area raids by law enforcement that took a woman out of her house with no shirt, left a naked photo of another woman on display after ransacking a room and dragged a man by his hair – while arresting none of them.

The pre-dawn raids on three houses on Thursday were the third Swat-style operation in residential areas of Atlanta and nearby unincorporated DeKalb county tied to a movement that began in 2021 – and the first in which the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) played a prominent role.

The fight against Cop City has attracted national and global headlines, especially after police shot and killed one environmental protester at a campsite in a public park – the first such incident of its kind in US history.

At least one of the search warrants for Thursday’s raid seen by the Guardian authorized the FBI to confiscate dozens of items from the raided homes – including laptops, cellphones, “Defend the Atlanta Forest” stickers and posters and personal journals.

The operation came after weeks of Atlanta officials promoting a campaign to catch activists linked to arson against construction and police equipment, all the while activists have been committing more acts of sabotage, alternating with nonviolent, civil disobedience.

The training center is being built on a 171-acre footprint in a forest south-east of Atlanta. Opposition to the project has come from a wide range of local and national supporters and is centered on concerns such as unchecked police militarization and clearing forests in an era of climate crisis. Atlanta police say the center is needed for “world-class” training.

One activist, John Mazurek, was arrested in Thursday’s raid and charged with first-degree arson, in connection to an incident in July in which eight police motorcycles were burned. “More arrests will come soon,” the Atlanta police chief, Darin Schierbaum, told a press conference.

Andre Dickens, the Atlanta mayor, told reporters that the right way “to make your voice heard” on the project was by doing things like “going to city council” meetings – even though the same city council has refused to verify and count more than 100,000 petition signatures from Atlanta voters seeking to put the question of whether the training center should be built on the ballot in an upcoming election.

Meanwhile, Atlanta officials have been ramping up a publicity campaign offering a $200,000 reward in December for information leading to arrests for arson. Last month 450 billboards promoting the reward were put up in cities such as New York and Seattle. Atlanta police recently announced that the project’s price tag had risen by $20m to nearly $110m, due to increased insurance and other costs tied to opposition against the project.

At the same time, activists burned construction equipment at least twice in January, and another pair of activists tied themselves to an Atlanta construction site linked to Brasfield & Gorrie, a company working on Cop City.

A social media account explained the dual approach: “There is not two movements, one that dismantles earth-destroying machinery by night, another that coordinates nonviolent direct action by day. There is one movement, dedicated to victory, using methods most suited for the building of serious and capable networks of resistance”.

Thursday morning’s raid included agents and officers from the ATF, FBI, Atlanta police and Georgia state patrol.

One of three residents at a house raided in the Lakewood neighborhood spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity. She woke to blue lights outside her window at approximately 6am on Thursday and heard voices in the hallway outside her room shouting, “Atlanta police! Get out and show both hands in the air!” She had pajama bottoms on, but no top. She grabbed a bathrobe without a belt or tie and asked if she could put on some clothes.

“They grabbed me, led me outside and handcuffed me – leaving me completely uncovered,” she said. Officers led her to a squad car, where she remained for “what seemed like hours” – while officers came in and out of the car, her top uncovered the whole time. One took photos of her, insisting, “it’s only of your face”.

After some time, she was released.

A person living at the house where Mazurek was arrested woke up on Thursday to a flashbang grenade. He jumped out of bed, put on socks, and shouted, “I’m leaving my room!” He got on his knees and looked up to see a Georgia state trooper pointing a gun with a red laser at his face. A trooper “grabbed me by my hair and dragged me on my knees to the back door”, he said.

He was also put in a squad car for some time, only to be released. He went to a shed in the back of his house with another one of his roommates. He saw a nude Polaroid photo of his roommate on a table. She said the police had placed it there and started crying.

A person who identified herself as “a long-time partner” of Mazurek said the arrest Thursday “feels like desperation on the part of the city, to put a face on their fear-mongering”. She said she was sure there was “no evidence” tying the arrestee to the July incident.

Georgia has already made history in its response to Cop City protests, indicting 61 people on Rico or conspiracy charges tied to opposition against the project.

The Atlanta Police Foundation – a private, non-profit organization – is behind the training center, using taxpayer and corporate funds. At a press conference in front of the foundation’s midtown Atlanta headquarters, the activist Rev Keyanna Jones highlighted the escalating tactics seen in the raid.

“The more they press, the more we gonna push,” Jones said.

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