Atlanta Police Target Bail Fund Organizers in Latest Crackdown on ‘Stop Cop City’ Movement

Three organizers were charged with “money laundering” and “charity fraud” in a direct attack on mutual aid and civil rights protests.

Atlanta Police Target Bail Fund Organizers in Latest Crackdown on ‘Stop Cop City’ Movement

Three organizers were charged with “money laundering” and “charity fraud” in a direct attack on mutual aid and civil rights protests.

This story was produced in partnership with The Mainline, an independent magazine based in Atlanta.

Around 9 a.m. on May 31, more than a dozen heavily armed Atlanta police officers in SWAT gear arrived at a brightly painted residence in the city’s Edgewood neighborhood. They were there to arrest three local organizers who run the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF), a mutual aid group that provides bail money and legal aid resources to people arrested or prosecuted for their involvement in social movements. That afternoon, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations announced that it had detained three ASF organizers—Marlon Scott Kautz, Adele Maclean, and Savannah Patterson—on charges of money laundering and charity fraud.

These arrests are the latest in the ongoing escalation by multiple police departments against the growing movement to stop Cop City, the proposed $90 million police training facility to be constructed by the Atlanta Police Foundation. For nearly two years, residents have protested against the plans for the facility, and built a diverse, decentralized coalition of organizers. But as opposition to the facility has grown, law enforcement has increasingly used violence and arrests against the movement. Perhaps most notably, police in January killed Manuel Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita,” a 26-year-old queer Venezuelan climate activist, during a multi-agency raid of the forest. As of June 2, 42 people were facing domestic terrorism charges for their participation in protests to stop Cop City—even though some were not directly connected with protests or organizing. One of the people arrested for domestic terrorism last year has just filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute.

Now, police have targeted three organizers of the movement’s well-funded, nationally recognized bail fund in a frightening attack on civil rights and the right to protest in America. On Friday, a judge granted each defendant a $15,000 bond.

“This is a strategy we frequently see prosecutors and police use to suppress political speech,” former federal prosecutor Alex Joseph told The Appeal. “They arrest the people they perceive as the main organizers, but expand the circle throughout the investigation. It is a tactic that makes that organization, by necessity, disband because people are getting arrested or fear getting arrested.”

ASF began its mutual aid work in 2016. The group then became part of an umbrella nonprofit organization called Network for Strong Communities (NFSC), which was registered with the State of Georgia in 2020 and approved as a nonprofit the following year.

Lloyd Meyer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and an expert on the regulation of nonprofits, told The Appeal that the charges against the ASF organizers are highly unusual.

“Usually a claim of charitable fraud is based on specific promises made to donors that the charity leaders then break,” Meyer said. He pointed to the scandal around former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s ‘We Build the Wall’ project as an example. “They promised none of the money would be used to pay themselves compensation or otherwise for their personal benefit. It turns out they lied.”

That doesn’t appear to be the case with ASF. The arrest warrants claim ASF made illegal reimbursements to the organizers’ personal accounts for expenses such as gas, COVID-19 rapid tests, tote bags, and yard signs. The reimbursements amount to just a few thousand dollars—and Joseph, the former prosecutor, says the expenses appear to be very standard overhead for a nonprofit organization. On May 16, NFSC made a $48,000 transfer to Siskiyou Mutual Aid, an Oregon nonprofit, which was then returned to NFSC. Prosecutors allege the transaction was an act of money-laundering.

“We don’t have any information to know why that’s being considered laundering as opposed to an amount that was paid and then refunded or returned for some reason,” Meyer said. “Setting aside that transfer, the small amount at issue here really raised the question for me why this is even a criminal case. To start out as a criminal matter where you can send in a SWAT team is highly unusual, and usually only reserved for cases where there’s a lot of money involved and it’s clear that funds have been stolen effectively from the charity.”

The warrants, which were signed by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Shondeana Morris, attempt to connect the organizers directly to an anti-Cop City group called Defend the Atlanta Forest, which has camped out on the proposed Cop City site in order to halt construction. The warrants allege that NFSC misled donors by “using funds collected through a State of Georgia registered 501c(3) Network for Strong Communities (NFSC) to fund the actions in part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.”

However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has said that it does not make such classifications about individual groups like DTAF. Despite this, local authorities have repeated this false claim in public statements—and now in sworn affidavits for arrest warrants.

“They certainly should be aware that that is not true, and yet, they continue to repeat the lie as if somehow that will make it true,” said Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a nonprofit legal aid group working with Stop Cop City protesters. “That is akin to perjury. That designation is hyperbolic rhetoric the state continues to repeat in order to justify their media narrative.”

The National Bail Fund Network (NBFN), a network of more than 90 bail funds around the country, has since announced it will receive funds on Atlanta Solidarity Fund’s behalf.

“Community bail funds have existed in many forms as long as the state has arrested, prosecuted, and forced people to pay money for their freedom,” the national network said in a media release condemning the arrests, “There are countless examples of church groups, family members, and community organizers collectively pooling resources to pay bail because it is the most basic way for a community to respond to the State’s attempts to capture and disappear those that bring light to injustice.”

Prior to the formation of ASF, the state’s most well-known bail fund was arguably the Georgia Civil Disobedience Fund, which formed around 2014. Tim Franzen, a longtime Atlanta organizer who helped form the original group and has known two of the arrested ASF organizers for more than decade, told The Appeal that the Civil Disobedience Fund eventually “passed the baton” for bail fund services to ASF because its members “simply had more capacity, devotion, and time to do that work.”

“What’s happening right now is that ASF is seen as an anarchist piece of movement infrastructure that Gov. Brian Kemp and others are very excited to take a swat at,” Franzen said. “And sadly, the way they’re choosing to do that is by being extremely fascist.”

The timing of the arrests falls in the middle of a few key dates within the movement. On May 15, hundreds of Atlantans packed City Hall to give public comments to city council members, all in opposition to the building of Cop City. Organizers are planning a similar demonstration during another council meeting on June 5. A week of action is also planned to begin in Atlanta on June 24.

Mariah Parker, a labor organizer and rapper based in Atlanta, told The Appeal she feels the arrests are not just an unprecedented blow to the Stop Cop City movement, but to the continued movement for Black liberation that has grown since the uprisings of 2020 as well.

“I do think the timing is calculated, in that [the state is] able to erode people’s faith in our collective ability to keep people safe, to get folks out of jail, and make sure they have access to legal counsel,” she said. “The spirit of the movement has been, and still is, one of just resilience and collective care. At the end of the day, we just take care of each other. We believe in a world where everybody is taken care of. That’s the reality of this movement underneath whatever types of dark narratives the corporate media and allies of police want to put out there.”

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