Behind Georgia’s Authoritarian Crackdown on ‘Stop Cop City’ Protests
At least 42 people have been charged with "domestic terrorism" under the state's wide-ranging statute. Legal experts are calling it a "sloppy" and unprecedented attack on constitutional rights to free speech and protest.
Aja Arnold Apr 03, 2023
This story was produced in partnership with The Mainline, an independent magazine based in Atlanta.
Law enforcement in the Atlanta area has, in recent months, turned to increasingly authoritarian tactics in their efforts to suppress protests and activism against the construction of “Cop City,” a proposed 85-acre police training facility. As police and prosecutors continue to escalate legal action with further rounds of arrests and domestic terrorism charges that carry the threat of decades in prison, critics fear officials are setting a dangerous—and legally dubious—precedent that could be a sign of things to come.
Although tensions between Atlanta’s “Stop Cop City” movement and the city’s pro-police power structure have been building for over a year, some believed the conflict had reached a climax in January when police killed Manuel Paez Terán, an activist who went by the nickname “Tortuguita,” during a raid on a protest camp in the Weelaunee Forest, also known as South River Forest. The fatal shooting marked the first known police killing of a climate activist on U.S. soil. Paez Terán’s family released an independent autopsy in March, which they say showed that Tortuguita was sitting cross-legged with their hands in the air when police shot them.
In the wake of Paez Terán’s death, however, law enforcement appears to have only ramped up their efforts against protesters. Police have conducted a series of arrests since January, including during raids on a music festival at a public park and a local arts foundation and food distribution center in early March. These confrontations have involved instances of police brutality and indiscriminate arrests, according to eyewitnesses who spoke with The Appeal. Days after officials issued an executive order on March 24 closing that park to the public, police conducted another raid, leading to at least one arrest.
Forty-two people have now been hit with domestic terrorism charges amid the crackdown. Prosecutors with the DeKalb County and Fulton County District Attorney’s Offices are handling their cases. The aggressive prosecution in DeKalb County appears to conflict with DA Sherry Boston’s efforts to portray herself as a progressive. Both Boston and Fulton County DA Fani Willis, who has won accolades from Democrats for her prosecution of former President Donald Trump, have recused themselves in police shooting cases, with Boston most recently removing her office from the investigation into Paez Terán’s killing.
The filing of domestic terrorism charges in these cases is unprecedented and unlikely to stick, according to defense attorneys.
“Even compared to Standing Rock, where we saw blatant and extreme abuses, this takes that to an all-time higher level,” Lauren Regan, director of Civil Liberties Defense Center, told The Appeal, referring to the contentious, nearly yearlong environmental protests against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which began in 2016.
Regan accused the district attorney’s offices of “blatant, sloppy prosecutorial work,” in their use of Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute, which was expanded under state law in 2017 and provides for sentences of up to 35 years in prison. “They’re not even trying to satisfy the statute,” she said. “This does not lead to a successful prosecution.”
But for now, many of those arrested are being forced to endure horrific conditions in county jails, with some being denied bond entirely and others receiving high bonds that they cannot afford. Prosecutors have yet to officially indict any of the arrestees. Under Georgia law, they have 90 days after an arrest to present a case to a grand jury before they must grant bail.
“As long as there’s no indictment, there currently is no mechanism in the criminal system for us to go after that domestic terrorism charge,” said Regan. “While we are in limbo land, people are sitting in jail cells unable to challenge the weakness of this felony charge that is the basis of their detention.”