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Georgia Senate Approves Bill That Would Criminalize Charitable Bail Funds

Activists worry that this legislation, if enacted, could serve as a blueprint for similar measures in other states.

A police officer and a protester argue as protesters of "Cop City" approach the Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse ahead of an expected indictment of former President Donald Trump in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 14, 2023.

Last week, the Georgia Senate approved a bill aimed at expanding the state’s cash bail system while simultaneously criminalizing charitable bail organizations. This legislation seeks to prohibit activists detained for common protest-related charges, such as unlawful assembly and obstruction of a law enforcement officer, from securing release without paying bail. Additionally, it would criminalize the operations of bond funds, stipulating that no more than three cash bonds may be posted annually by any individual, corporation, organization, charity, nonprofit corporation, or group in any jurisdiction.

This move against bail funds comes on the heels of charges filed eight months ago against three organizers from the Atlanta Solidarity Fund — Marlon Scott Kautz, Savannah D Patterson, and Adele Maclean. The organizers were accused of money laundering and charity fraud following a raid on May 31, 2023. Responding to the charges, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund said in a statement, “The outrageous political charges against the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, as well as Cop City protestors, are part of a new playbook that criminalizes the coalition of advocates who are providing financial and physical support to movements.”

After reviewing the evidence against Kautz, Patterson, and Maclean, presiding Judge James Altman said of the case, “ I don’t find it very impressive. There’s not a lot of meat on the bones of the allegations that thousands of dollars are going to fund illegal activities.”

The charges provoked a nationwide outcry from activists and legal advocates. Lauren Regan, Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, stated:

Bailing out protestors who exercise their constitutionally protected rights is simply not a crime. In fact, it is a historically grounded tradition in the very same social and political movements that the city of Atlanta prides itself on. Someone had to bail out civil rights activists in the 60s – I think we can all agree that community support isn’t a crime.

However, community support, in the form of bail fund organizing, is now on the verge of being criminalized in Georgia. SB63, the bill that would broaden cash bail and criminalize bail funds, is expected to pass in Atlanta’s House of Representatives this week. Concerns have been raised by activists who fear that this legislation, if enacted, could serve as a blueprint for similar measures in other states.

I recently spoke with Marlon Scott Kautz about the state of Georgia’s efforts to undermine solidarity, the criminalization of bail funds, and the charges he and other Atlanta Solidarity Fund organizers are currently facing.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kelly Hayes: For people who aren’t familiar with the case, can you tell us about the charges that you’re facing and how the case came about?

Marlon Scott Kautz: Three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund are charged with RICO, along with 58 other people. The Solidarity Fund 3 are also facing charges of money laundering and fraud. These charges are all false and are part of a general strategy to use baseless but extreme felony charges to intimidate people out of protesting against Cop City. To give an idea of this pattern: we have seen activists charged with domestic terrorism for allegedly sitting passively in a tree and refusing to come down. We have seen activists charged with RICO for allegedly passing out flyers criticizing the officers who killed Tortuguita.

What’s at stake for you and your co-defendants in court?

The state is threatening defendants with decades in prison. But beyond the stakes for us personally, if the state succeeds in convicting people for routine political organizing activities like passing out flyers or collecting donations, it will effectively criminalize grassroots movement organizing in Georgia. And if it works in Georgia, other states will quickly follow suit. This is a test case for a new strategy to eliminate grassroots movements as a political phenomenon in the US.

How did you get involved with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund? Can you tell us about what the work looked like for you and your group prior to the raid and the charges that were filed, and what things have been like since?

We started the Atlanta Solidarity Fund in 2016 because we were tired of seeing the same pattern over and over in Atlanta: Activists get falsely arrested, and sit in jail while their communities scramble to scrape together cash to get them out, only for the charges to be dropped when it comes out that the whole thing was unjustified. Over the years, we have provided bail and legal assistance to all kinds of protesters: anti-racist, environmentalist, queer justice, immigrant rights. Our non-profit has also hosted other mutual aid projects that provide food, health, and other assistance to poor people throughout the city.

Since being attacked by police and targeted by the AG [Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr], everything about our work is much harder. But we continue regardless because we refuse to allow intimidation and threats against us to cut off people in need from the support they depend on.

The charges that were filed against the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and the RICO indictments that have ensnared 61 Stop Cop City activists have been characterized by some critics as attacks on principles of solidarity and reciprocal care. What do you think is at stake in these cases ideologically?

The real goal of the repression around Cop City is not just to put some protesters in jail for decades; it’s to develop a playbook for the suppression of any social movement that threatens entrenched powerful interests. The authorities are well aware that the repression they’re bringing around Cop City is unjustified, illegal, and unconstitutional. They know that they will not be able to prevail in court in the long run. The authorities do this to send a message: we are willing to cross any line and commit any crime, even murder, to destroy our political opposition. When people see that, they understandably become scared to exercise their rights to push against injustice and corruption in powerful places. But even beyond that, people become scared to show solidarity with those who do protest. This is ultimately how social movements are destroyed – not by locking up every person who protests, but by convincing you it’s too dangerous to connect with people who feel the same way you do.

The truth is that connecting with each other is the only thing that can make us safe. The whole reason the Atlanta Solidarity Fund is being attacked is because we show that solidarity works – when everyone who cares about justice stands up for each other, people can’t be pushed around so easily by bogus legal threats.

There is a bill that just passed the Georgia Senate that would criminalize bail funds and eliminate the possibility of signature bonds for protesters. This is obviously a chilling development. What do you think this could mean for movements and organizing in Georgia and in states that might replicate this legislation?

Many states right now are trying to make their cash bail systems more oppressive by expanding the crimes that require bail and increasing the amounts that must be paid. Georgia’s bill is unique in that it also specifically criminalizes non-profit bail funds – which is to say us and a few other organizations doing the work in Atlanta. Look at this in combination with Georgia’s 2017 “domestic terrorism” law, which is so broad it could define practically any protest as terrorism. You can see that the Georgia legislature has been slowly moving the pieces into place to allow authorities to jail any protester indefinitely without trial.

If you’re an activist falsely accused of “domestic terrorism” (in fact, that charge has only ever been used against Cop City protesters), the judge will likely set bail of well over $20,000, sometimes as high as $350,000. If it’s illegal to get assistance paying that bail, what can you do but sit in jail for months as you wait to prove your innocence? That’s the outcome SB63 is specifically designed to create. This kind of unaccountable power being handed to police and prosecutors should make everyone nervous about the future of democracy.

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