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Atlanta’s “Stop Cop City” Movement Is Spreading Despite Rampant State Repression

Police and prosecutors have used every tool in their arsenal to crush the spreading movement against Atlanta’s Cop City.

Activists participate in a protest against the proposed Cop City being built in an Atlanta forest on March 9, 2023 in New York City.

In the woods outside Atlanta on the night of March 5, some demonstrators may have slipped into the fold of an ongoing, protest-themed music festival after returning from a march to the construction site of a planned $90 million militarized police training facility known as “Cop City,” where they allegedly set a bulldozer alight and vandalized construction equipment.

Cops allege the demonstrators flung bricks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at police. Given the emerging details of official misinformation and omission surrounding the police-perpetrated killing of Manuel Esteban Paez “Tortuguita” Terán, there’s reason to be skeptical of police accounts.

Regardless of what happened at the construction site, the police response soon extended far beyond the cohort of demonstrators taking direct action. Cops flooded the fringes of the music festival after the construction site protest. As music festival attendees began to run, police threatened to shoot. They dropped tear gas canisters in a parking lot, and began detaining and IDing people at random. Attendees’ cellphone videos show the police giving chase, then tasing one music festival attendee, who collapses to the ground.

In the chaos, not even “Defend the Atlanta Forest” activists were certain who had marched to the construction site and who had merely soaked up sunlight at the music festival. As reported by The Intercept, arrest warrants pointed to muddy shoes as an indicator of guilt — muddy shoes, at an outdoor music festival. To many activists, this appeared an unreliable method of separating the folks who may have been involved in direct action from the music festival attendees.

“They just grabbed whoever they could,” one Defend the Atlanta Forest activist, who requested anonymity due to political repression, told Truthout. “Seemingly, they just grabbed anyone they could in reaction to the demonstrations that have happened.”

The way the activists describe it, as the scene unfolded, music festival attendees attempting to leave by car found their exit blocked by a long line of cop cars. Police in riot gear swarmed onto the scene. The crowd locked arms, hoping to shield children in attendance from altercations with the police. Eventually, a random group of five festival attendees came forward to negotiate an exit from the scene. Panic began to subside, and the remainder of the music festival lineup was canceled. Everyone not camping in the forest left on foot, and police permitted cars to leave the parking lot.

By the standards of police repression of the “Stop Cop City” movement, activists considered this resolution a “bright spot,” in that police didn’t tear gas the crowd a second time. But law enforcement did arrest scores of people. They hauled arrestees to a secondary location, where, by some accounts, they deliberately separated Georgia residents from out-of-staters. By the end of the day, 23 of the 35 people arrested were charged with domestic terrorism under a statute passed in the aftermath of white supremacist gunman Dylann Roof’s massacre of Black churchgoers at a Charleston church.

Under the statute’s warped conception of critical infrastructure, anyone involved in direct action against Cop City can be smeared as a domestic terrorist. With scant evidence beyond attendance at the music festival, police booked the accused, all without bond, with the exception of Thomas Jurgens, a legal observer released on a $5,000 bond. Clad in the searing neon green National Lawyers Guild legal observer shirt and cap, Jurgens’s affiliation wasn’t hard to miss, even in partial darkness.

The DeKalb County court magistrate judge agreed. “Given the fact that he is an attorney, his claim at this point, he’s a legal observer, I can’t stand here and say there’s evidence he threw something,” she told local ABC affiliate WSB. Following his arrest, the Florida Bar opened a disciplinary investigation into Jurgens’s bar affiliation. As if the threat of 35 years in prison on domestic terrorism charges wasn’t enough, Jurgens now contends with professional backlash as well.

As for the rest of the accused, they remain in jail after being denied bond. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a bail fund for social justice activists, will keep fighting to be allowed to post bail, as they have done for previous Stop Cop City domestic terrorism defendants. Activists worry for the defendants languishing in prison. The activist with Defend the Atlanta Forest pointed to the case of Jamie Marsicano, a second-year law student arrested mid-semester, with no timeline for when or if she might be released from police custody.

In denying activists bond, the judge, like local police, raised concerns about protesters being from out of state, as if broadening a local movement into a national one alone is cause for prosecution. At the bond hearing, Judge A.W. Davis determined that the out-of-state protesters posed a flight risk. But these surface-level comments are only part of the story.

For months now, Georgia officials have sought to tamp down national solidarity with Stop Cop City. In December 2022, when the first round of domestic terrorism charges were levied against Defend the Atlanta Forest protesters, Atlanta Police Department Assistant Chief Carven Tyus commented, “None of those people live here. They do not have a vested interest in this property, and we show that time and time again. Why is an individual from Los Angeles, California, concerned about a training facility being built in the state of Georgia? And that is why we consider that domestic terrorism.”

These comments signaled an escalation in the fight against Cop City, and reflected growing anxiety about the burgeoning national nature of the movement. By the time the first round of domestic terrorism charges were handed down in December, the occupation of the South River Forest, called the “Weelaunee Forest” by activists using the Mvskoke tribal word for the watershed, had continued for over a year, and the movement had begun to find traction among activist circles on social media.

Movement researchers mapped the nest of subcontractors, corporate sponsors, and police partnerships supporting Cop City and increased the frequency of demonstrations against stakeholders. The movement went national; anonymous activists smashed windows at Atlas Technical Consultants in Minneapolis and vandalized Bank of America and Wells Fargo buildings in Philadelphia. (Atlas Technical Consultants is a contractor involved in the construction of the facility; Bank of America is a corporate partner of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the nonprofit driving construction of the training compound; and a Wells Fargo regional president sits on the Foundation’s board.) The number of activists on the ground in Georgia swelled, with many out-of-state supporters joining the fold.

Despite the threat of domestic terrorism charges, protesters, including those from out of state, continued to hold their ground in the Weelaunee Forest, camping near the site of the proposed police training facility, with occasional incursions into the construction site for monkey wrench-style direct action: burning of bulldozers, vandalism of police cars, and targeted property destruction. The activists, too, hosted teach-ins, held occasional music festivals, and started a food pantry in the woods.

In January, tensions over the occupation of the Weelaunee Forest reached a fever pitch. On January 18, 2023, police descended on the forest camp with guns blazing. Law enforcement shot 26-year-old activist “Tortuguita” Terán over a dozen times. Police claim that Terán shot a state trooper; an autopsy commissioned by Terán’s family indicates that multiple police officers shot Terán through both hands, determining that Terán sat cross-legged with their hands up. In the aftermath of the gruesome police-perpetrated murder, activists took to the streets in anger, setting cop cars alight in downtown Atlanta. By the end of the day, another 14 activists were charged under the domestic terrorism statute, some for forest occupation-related activities, and some related to conduct during protests in downtown Atlanta.

All arrestees following the downtown Atlanta protests were charged with arson, with little regard for who actually committed which crime. The domestic terrorism arrest warrants relied heavily on guilt by association, listing out all of the alleged crimes committed by any members of Defend the Atlanta Forest over an unspecified period, rather than individualizing the arrest warrants to the actual actions committed.

As Defending Rights & Dissent wrote in a letter addressed to prosecuting district attorneys, the Georgia attorney general, and the chair of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council, these charges were a draconian intimidation tactic targeted at chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights. Faced with potential domestic terrorism charges carrying a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, many activists might well make the decision to stay home.

In addition to the spurious charges, Atlanta-area prosecutors attempted to attack the movement through other means. Ahead of the March week of action involving protests in Atlanta, letter deliveries and other small-scale protests, music festivals, and higher numbers of people occupying the Weelaunee Forest, prosecutors floated charging the Atlanta Solidarity Fund under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes. In the 1970s, Congress passed RICO, an intentionally broad statute designed to capture a wide range of activities under the header of “racketeering,” so as to more effectively prosecute slippery members of the Mafia. Since its passage, RICO has been corrupted to criminalize advocacy by direct action animal welfare organizations and anti-abortion groups, among others.

In recent years, RICO statutes have also been weaponized by corporate giants to silence opposing attorneys in environmental suits. The novel application of the Georgia RICO statute against the Atlanta Solidarity Fund would tie up the bail fund in expensive litigation and suppress its organizing in solidarity with the Stop Cop City defendants. RICO experts denounced the possible charges. Instead, it seems, Georgia simply decided to deny bail to the March week of action defendants.

Suppressing Information

Aside from lawfare intimidation tactics, police have moved to attempt to stymie supply side information about the Stop Cop City protests. Local law enforcement threatened Truthout contributor Frances Madeson, reportedly saying, “Don’t you know it’s a felony to travel from another state for a protest?” After covering a 15-person protest, Truthout Senior Editor and Staff Reporter Candice Bernd was followed by police, detained, and the friend who was driving her was issued two tickets for exceedingly minor traffic violations.

After Defending Rights & Dissent filed open records requests to extract documents from, among other entities, the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the fusion center responded with a bad-faith interpretation of open records exemptions. Under their interpretation, fusion centers, which are terrorism-focused intelligence gathering agencies integrating state and local law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security and state-level bodies, would have no need for a Freedom of Information Act office, as all records would be exempt. Open records requests filed as far back as January 27 have yet to receive a response from authorities. (The statutory time for Georgia agencies to respond to open records requests is three business days.)

Finally, despite widespread calls for an investigation into Terán’s death, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation refuses to release any information, supposedly to “preserve the integrity of the investigation.” The DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to release their autopsy report of Terán.

Chilling Dissent

If police methods in Georgia are an intimidation tactic, they seem, in some ways, to be working. After the release of the organizational letter, a member of a New York-based environmental nonprofit contacted Defending Rights & Dissent, asking about protests in solidarity. They ultimately decided not to come to Georgia, as tempting as the prospect of indefinite detention under domestic terrorism statutes might be, as the risk of arrest was simply too high.

You might disagree with the tactics of burning police cars or vandalizing bulldozers. But what’s indisputable is that police repression has extended into all corners of this movement, amounting to a profoundly undemocratic exertion of state power. From the outset, the voices of the people have been marginalized and subsumed under deference to Atlanta’s police state.

For all the critics (and cops) bellyaching about doing protest “the right way,” the people of Atlanta have tried. In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council heard over 17 hours of public comments about the proposed police training facility. By the count of a crowdsourced tally, about 70 percent of the comments were in opposition to the construction of the facility. Backed by powerful police and corporate interests — and a local newspaper owned by the CEO of a major donor to the Atlanta Police Foundation — the Atlanta City Council plowed ahead anyway, approving the project by a vote of 10-4. Protests began immediately — and so did the repression.

“You look at this movement, and from day one, it’s clear that police have cracked down,” the Defend the Atlanta Forest activist told Truthout, describing a 2021 action in which police arrested 12 people after they held a banner in front of a local city council member’s house. “It was the pandemic, so there were no public comments allowed and no physical meetings. So the people couldn’t be a presence when the vote [to approve Cop City] was happening,” the activist said. The group was hauled off to the local jail for the crime of being pedestrians in the roadway.

The activist ran through a litany of subsequent repression. Heavy police presence at small demonstrations. Georgia State Patrol members tackling people at a peaceful protest. SWAT teams showing up to address people handing out flyers downtown. Over the March week of action, police employed every tool at their disposal to intimidate and repress activism, all the way down to detaining people hanging a banner on an overpass and making an arrest during a raid of a local nonprofit on the pretext of addressing an outstanding parking ticket.

“It’s really been a pattern of brutal policing,” said the Defend the Atlanta Forest activist. “Police are being brought in to bring an authoritarian response to peoples’ expression of interest.”

Indeed, the state response has represented a concerted effort to dissuade people from engaging in activism, a strategy particularly targeted at people arriving from elsewhere in the country to stand in solidarity with the forest defenders in DeKalb County. Police and prosecutors have simply tried to make the risk of protesting intolerably high. What are normally relatively low-risk protest actions — dropping banners, marching peacefully in broad daylight in downtown Atlanta — have become militarized police encounters, where an outstanding parking ticket or mere affiliation with the movement can be invoked as justification for arrest. From traffic tickets to domestic terrorism charges, police and prosecutors have drawn on the arsenal of state power intimidation tactics designed to quash First Amendment-protected activity, civil disobedience and disruptive activism.

“It’s really scary to think about what prospects this has for future protests in this country and for people standing up for what’s right,” the Defend the Atlanta Forest activist said.

And here, outside Atlanta, just eight miles from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthplace, activists find a particular resonance to this repression. “It hits a lot of us really hard to see this, just a few blocks right now from the King Center.”

As in the days of brutal repression of the civil rights movement, so too are the levers of state power aligned against the Stop Cop City movement. But there are also reasons for hope. Despite the best efforts of Atlanta authorities to contain the movement, to smear those standing in solidarity as outside agitators, this movement is both intersectional and multilocational.

The Black Alliance for Peace organized a National Day of Action Against Police Terror focused on Cop City; the Georgia branch of the Sierra Club wrote a statement of solidarity. In Pennsylvania in early March, local activists connected advocacy against a proposed Pittsburgh police training facility to the movement against Cop City, an early expression of solidarity. A few weeks later, Crowd Counting reported solidarity actions taking place across 94 cities in 35 states, ranging from vigils, to direct action against Cop City corporate partners, to movements against similar facilities elsewhere.

Beyond the week of action, the battle to stop Cop City continues, in forms ranging from sabotage to legal battles over environmental permitting minutiae. Only time will tell how this movement resolves — whether it succumbs to police repression or whether Cop City will indeed never be built. But it’s been a hell of a fight so far, with the full force of state power brought against the protesters that dare to defy it.

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