The police’s guilt-by-association allegations aren’t designed to get convictions, but to break up a movement.
In an aggressive and indiscriminate arrest sweep on Sunday, police stormed a music festival held in the Atlanta forest by activists protesting Cop City, a vast police training facility under construction atop forestland. Twenty-three of the activists arrested in the raid now face domestic terrorism charges for their participation in the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement.
The protesters are alleged to have participated in acts of vandalism and arson at a Cop City construction site over a mile away from the music festival location and over an hour before the arrest raid took place. They have all been charged under Georgia’s domestic terror statute, though none of the arrest warrants tie any of the defendants directly to any illegal acts.
The probable cause stated in the warrants against the activists is extremely weak. Police cited arrestees having mud on their shoes — in a forest. The warrants alleged they had written a legal support phone number on their arms, as is common during mass protests. And, in a few cases, police alleged protesters were holding shields — hardly proof of illegal activity — which a number of defendants even deny.
This is just the latest incident of law enforcement and prosecutorial overreach against the abolitionist, environmentalist movement in Atlanta, an absurd attempt to establish guilt by association, as the flimsy arrest warrants make clear.
At a hearing for arrestees on Tuesday, 22 activists were denied bond outright. One defendant, a Georgia-based attorney who was arrested while acting as a designated legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild during Sunday’s events, was released on $5,000 bond.
“We haven’t seen a charge for arson or interference with government property,” said Eli Bennett, the attorney for several defendants, describing the arrest warrants during Tuesday’s bond hearing. “The state has no evidence,” he said, adding that Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute is “laughably unconstitutional.”
A total of 42 participants in the Stop Cop City struggle now face state domestic terror charges, as 19 individuals were previously hit with the same charges in the last two months on equally weak grounds. At the end of January, during a multi-agency police raid on the forest encampment, cops shot dead 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, marking a grim escalation in repression against a movement that has shown impressive resilience in its two years of mobilizing against Cop City.
Now, on the most tenuous claims of vicarious liability, multiple forest defenders face up to 35 years in prison if found guilty of domestic terrorism.
“It’s collective punishment. The police are trying to establish a de-facto norm that anyone who associates with a political movement will be attacked and charged for the actions of any other supporter of that movement,” said Marlon Kautz, an Atlanta-based organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides bail funds and legal support to protesters targeted for involvement in social movements, including against Cop City.
“As a law enforcement strategy, it’s utterly incompetent and ignorant of how the law works. But as a strategy for repressing a political movement it makes a lot of sense,” Kautz told me. “Convincing activists and prospective activists that they will be held criminally responsible for the actions of other supporters of their movement can have the effect of pitting activists against each other.”
The music festival on Sunday, where the arrests took place, marked the beginning of an ongoing “ week of action ” organized by forest defenders. In line with the movement’s diverse deployment of tactics over the last two years, its semiregular weeks of action involve peaceful rallies, arts and music events, child-friendly educational and cultural activities in the forest, and Indigenous-led knowledge sharing and prayer, alongside targeted protests and direct actions against Cop City’s supporters and funders.
“Roughly 1,500 people attended over the weekend; to dance, to commune, and to take a stand against Cop City,” organizers of the music festival, the Sonic Defense Committee, told me. “There is no excuse for the police violence that festival attendees were subjected to.”
The week of action brought together locals and supporters from around the country and world to raise awareness of the Atlanta forest’s importance and Cop City’s profound threat — which reaches far beyond the state of Georgia.
The $90 million training center aims to train cops in militarized urban warfare. The Atlanta Police Department told the Atlanta City Council that it intends to recruit 43 percent of the planned facility’s trainees from out-of-state police departments. Numerous multinational corporations, including Coca-Cola and Bank of America, are funding the project.
There’s a certain irony, then, that in statements on Sunday’s arrests, Atlanta police officials have made a point of blaming “outside agitators” for taking up militant action. Out of 44 people originally detained in Sunday’s forest raid, the 11 people released without charge all had Atlanta addresses. Twenty-one of the 23 activists charged with domestic terrorism are from out of state.
Bennett, the defense attorney, noted during Tuesday’s bond hearing that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the agency responsible for the domestic terrorism charges, appeared to “split detainees up into local people and out of towners.” He told the court, “The right to freedom of association does not stop at state lines.”
That the fight against Cop City, like the encampments at Standing Rock before it, has drawn supporters from far afield is a testament to its strength and a growing understanding that the anti-racist, environmentalist struggle is a shared, international one. Meanwhile, the tired “outside agitator” trope has long been used to divide social justice movements and was popular among segregationists attempting to discredit historic anti-racist struggles. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
“Think of the freedom riders,” said Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, which is working with numerous Atlanta arrestees. “If people didn’t travel to Southern states from all around the country during the civil rights struggle, this country might have had a very different history,” she told me. “The civil rights struggle impacted the entire country and the world — outside scrutiny, attention, and action forced change. Cop City also impacts everyone. The forced construction sets dangerous precedent on many levels, particularly in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and the national call to focus more on community needs and root causes and less on militarized police who are terrorizing many people in this country.”
Regan called Georgia’s deployment of the “outside agitator” trope “deplorable and ignorant of our history.”
Meanwhile, a diverse, multiracial collective of Atlanta residents have been organizing tirelessly against Cop City since it was first proposed and will continue leading the fight on the ground. Hundreds of people remain in the forest as the “week of action” continues.
“As the movement grows and city and state officials refuse to see the reality of what they are dealing with, their own authority is being brought into question,” noted a statement from the Sonic Defense Committee, released on Wednesday. “If they are not careful, the stakes of the movement will soon exceed the bounds of the forest and Cop City. In fact, that process may already have begun.”
Correction: March 9, 2023
This story has been updated to say that 19, not 18, arrestees were previously indicted on domestic terror charges, bringing the total to 42.