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.

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.

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.”

A photo of Manuel Teran, also known as Tortuguita.

Manuel Paez Terán, an activist who went by the nickname “Tortuguita,” was killed by police in January during a raid on a protest camp.
Courtesy of Gabe Eisen

On March 5, over 1,000 people gathered in Weelaunee People’s Park—a public space also known as Intrenchment Creek Park, about a mile away from the Cop City construction site—to attend the South River Music Festival, organized as part of a broader week of action to support the Stop Cop City Movement. At about 5:30 p.m., protesters assembled at the construction site of the proposed Cop City facility and set fire to police and construction vehicles.

A short time later, police entered the music festival grounds and began making arrests. Officers did not communicate or give clear orders to festivalgoers, including elderly individuals and children, attendees told The Appeal. They also reported that police pointed lights and guns into a children’s bounce house. Police detained a total of 35 people that evening, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild. Of those, 23 were charged with domestic terrorism and taken to DeKalb County Jail. The next day, a judge denied bond to all but the legal observer. In total, at least 26 people who have been arrested at Stop Cop City events are being held without bond.

The judge’s decision to deny bond to the March 5 arrestees stood as a clear escalation of the court’s posture. In previous rounds of Stop Cop City arrests, defendants were granted bond with conditions for their release.

The nature of the charges also appeared to shift in March. While earlier arrestees had been hit with other charges in addition to domestic terrorism, prosecutors in more recent cases have filed blanket charges of domestic terrorism, with no other offenses alleged. Attorneys have raised questions about the legality of these charges. Regan noted that the state’s domestic terrorism law requires a predicate felony offense. But she added that some of those arrested in earlier cases had faced only misdemeanor charges on top of those for domestic terrorism.

“[Arrestees] were charged with mere trespassing, and we questioned the validity of those charges at that time,” said Regan.

In many ways, Georgia’s use of domestic terrorism charges against protesters is an “untested playing field,” Regan said. Georgia is the only state with such a broad statute, and she said the Cop City cases were the first examples of prosecutors using the expanded law.

The unprecedented nature of these charges means courts have not yet had a chance to officially interpret the state’s updated statute, according to Alex Joseph, a former federal prosecutor who now practices in Atlanta. In an email to The Appeal, Joseph cited a passage in the 2017 law that defines domestic terrorism as “unlawful acts which are interrelated by distinguishing characteristics.” That language “could mean anything,” she said.

Critics say authorities are deliberately taking advantage of the statute’s ambiguity to crack down harshly on low-level crimes like trespassing or property damage, as well as constitutionally protected activities like protest and free speech.

“There’s nothing anyone has done in Atlanta in the protests against Cop City that is even close to terrorism,” said Steven Donziger, a human rights and environmental lawyer who has spoken out against Georgia’s suppression of the Stop Cop City movement, in an interview with The Appeal. “To conflate what, at worst, might be misdemeanor trespass or destruction of property with what we remember as the horrific events of Sept. 11 is an irresponsible bastardization of the word. Georgia police and certain elected officials seem to be using this unconstitutional statute to carry out a political pogrom against largely law-abiding protestors in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”

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Lawyers for a number of individuals charged with domestic terrorism have also raised issues with what they see as a recent pattern of indiscriminate arrests. Authorities have yet to present any clear evidence linking arrestees at the March 5 music festival to the property destruction that took place a mile away from the park, said Eli Bennett, a Georgia defense attorney who is representing a number of those arrested amid Stop Cop City protests.

“At this stage, they’re all presumed innocent,” Bennett told The Appeal. “I’ve seen nothing that would indicate otherwise.”

The March 5 arrest warrants cite three factors that supposedly justify charges of domestic terrorism: muddy clothes, shields, and a number for a jail support line operated by a local mutual aid network written on their person. But, as Bennett explains, writing the jail support line on one’s body has become common practice in many activist circles, to ensure that people can be connected to legal aid in the event they are arrested. Muddy clothes are hardly incriminating, he added, considering all were arrested in the park after rainfall, and some were thrown on the ground by police while they were being detained. All of Bennett’s clients deny being in possession of shields, he said.

In interviews with The Appeal, three attendees of the March 5 music festival said they witnessed a police officer tackle one festivalgoer—later identified as Victor Puertas, one of Bennett’s clients—who appeared to have no idea why he was being arrested. Eyewitnesses described other instances of police brutality during the raid, including officers using tear gas and rubber bullets. One attendee later posted a video on Twitter in which a police officer says, “I don’t know how else to say it. If you don’t leave, you’re going to get hit with a bullet.” Police conducted arrests throughout the evening, eventually entering the festival grounds with multiple armored vehicles and officers outfitted in riot gear, according to witnesses.

The next weekend, on the morning of March 11, police raided the Lakewood Environmental Arts Foundation (LEAF), a nonprofit organization and community space in Atlanta. More than a dozen officers entered the center with guns drawn and began demanding identification from the people inside, which they then photographed, according to Marlon Kautz of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a nonprofit that has provided legal and financial aid to those arrested during Stop Cop City protests.

Police officers refused to provide a search warrant during the raid, claiming it had been provided to the property owner, said Kautz, who was present as a legal observer. The warrant was later found in the mailbox of the property, he said, adding that the owner was not directly notified. During the raid, police smashed vehicle windows, slashed a number of tents, and destroyed medical supplies, according to Kautz. Officers also tackled one person to the ground, resulting in a face injury, which was later photographed.

The search and seizure warrant claims police were investigating crimes of “conspiracy to commit domestic terrorism.” It lists items officers were searching for, including shields, cameras, radios, fireworks, knives, Molotov cocktails, bomb-making materials, lighters, camping equipment, black clothing, and “literature such as ledgers, maps, planning materials related to defend the forest.”

None of these items were seized during the raid, according to Kautz. It did result in one arrest, however—for outstanding parking tickets in neighboring Cherokee County.

To Kautz, the operation marked a new front in the state’s rapidly escalating campaign against the Stop Cop City movement. It was the first time law enforcement had used “conspiracy” charges to justify their actions, he said, though he added that it was “consistent with a ‘guilt by association’ narrative” he and other organizers had seen from authorities so far.

“It’s a political repression strategy,” he said. “It’s designed to target people not on the basis of what crimes they may or may not have committed, but their association with a broad political movement which opposes the agenda of the police and the building of Cop City.”

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