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As Movements Like Stop Cop City Gain Power, Police Treat Free Speech as a Crime

This playbook has been used and reused, depending on the political winds of the time.

Protesters march during a rally against the police-perpetrated killing of Tyre Nichols, in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 28, 2023.

Free speech is not free in this country and hasn’t been for quite some time.

During a raid earlier this month, a dozen police officers arrested three members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a bail and legal defense fund, which has helped activists arrested while protesting the construction of a multimillion-dollar police and fire department training center dubbed “Cop City” in a forest southeast of Atlanta.

The arrest warrants claim that the three individuals are connected to an organization classified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as “domestic violent extremists,” but DHS itself has debunked the claim. The timing of the arrests was also particularly suspect — only one week before Atlanta City Council was set to vote on increasing funding to $60 million for the project’s construction.

On March 5, two months after Manuel Esteban Paez Eran, an environmental activist was killed by a Georgia State Patrol SWAT team, while protesting Cop City, law enforcement arrested Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer and legal observer, Thomas Webb Jurgens, and 22 others on domestic terrorism charges. In fact, Truthout Senior Editor/Staff Reporter Candice Bernd, as well as Truthout contributor Frances Madeson have both faced harassment, intimidation and threat of arrest while covering the Cop City struggle on the ground. The most basic constitutional rights to speech, association and a free press are under a flagrant attack.

When armed law enforcement is deployed to criminalize even attenuated political dissidence to control a narrative, it is shockingly clear just how far off course the system has moved from the foundational principles of free expression and association guaranteed by the First Amendment. It must stop.

Although harassment of journalists and arrests of members of a legal defense and bail fund is particularly brazen, using law enforcement in a veiled attempt to control unpopular political speech and association is not a unique or recent development.

According to Trevor Aaronson’s podcast, “Alphabet Boys,” during the 2020 nationwide racial justice protests, sparked by the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was reportedly conspiring with Michael Windecker, a man charged and convicted previously of violent felonies, to infiltrate and spy on racial justice groups in Denver, Colorado.

Over time, Windecker built trust with local activists and ultimately was able to move up into organizing roles in racial justice demonstrations. In this capacity, he was able to undermine the momentum of the social justice movement, which had begun gaining traction, and utilize the same tactics the FBI used during the civil rights movement against Black political groups deemed dissident. He reportedly walked away tens of thousands of dollars richer.

Similarly, a 2017 leak exposed that the FBI had created a new domestic terrorism category — “black identity extremism,” as a springboard to open “assessments” on individual activists that target people for surveillance solely on the basis of their speech and association. There is no real factual predicate to opening an assessment on an individual, no requirement to produce any actual evidence of criminal misconduct or a real national security threat.

Created in the 1950s, COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, was designed to disrupt, discredit and defame political dissidents — including Martin Luther King Jr., who was viewed at that time as a political radical. Even more gruesome was the FBI’s role in the dismantling of the Black Panthers and the murder of the Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, during a raid coordinated with Chicago police.

This playbook has been used and reused, depending on the political winds of the time. In the post-9/11 pandemonium and complete intelligence failure, the FBI adopted a “preventative” policing model — stopping crime before it happened.

Even more concerning, the model was based upon a radicalization thesis which posits that an expression of religious ideas, like growing a beard, attending a mosque or even increased activity in a political cause, places a person on the path toward terrorism or violence. Employing an army of 15,000 informants, research shows the FBI apparently became adept at foiling the very plots that they themselves created.

As a lawyer and writer interested in the intersection of civil rights, politics and criminal prosecutions, I have researched and written extensively about the “Fort Dix Five,” a case involving two informants, one who attempted murder in Albania and fled to the United States to avoid a blood feud, and the other a serial con artist who was paid nearly a quarter-million dollars in exchange for cooperating with the FBI. They worked in tandem to entrap a group of five Muslim men on conspiracy charges.

Wading through hundreds of hours of FBI wiretaps, I discovered that these five Muslim men clearly had no intention to engage in a criminal conspiracy. They never discussed a plot as a group, nor were they aware that the FBI had invented one. Nonetheless, four of the five men are serving death-behind-bars sentences, while the fifth, who actually reported one of the informants to the FBI, is serving out his 33 years.

To be sure, safety and security are critically important on both individual and collective levels. But that does not mean that law enforcement can appoint itself the ministers of what can and cannot enter the public discourse because it is afraid of what might possibly follow.

To prevent the First Amendment from becoming an empty platitude, it is critical to demand better. It falls upon law enforcement and prosecutors to clearly assess what falls within the ambit of criminal conduct and what is merely an expression of an unpopular challenge to the political status quo. If these entities are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, then they should, at minimum, live up to that oath by protecting minority, dissident voices as the First Amendment demands, rather than criminalizing them for their expression.

Citizens, policy makers and all individuals cannot sit quietly while people — even when they may hold beliefs and ideals many find abhorrent — are criminalized for their right to freedom of expression and association.

This threatens the very principle of a free nation and a marketplace of ideas. It is essential to demand that those who enforce the law uphold the constitution rather than subvert it.

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