A closer look at the terrorism charges against ‘cop city’ protesters

Civil rights groups question use of state law against activists
Text that reads We Love Forest Defenders is written on a sidewalk near forested area that is the proposed site of Cop City as seen on Friday, October 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Text that reads We Love Forest Defenders is written on a sidewalk near forested area that is the proposed site of Cop City as seen on Friday, October 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Five people protesting the construction of Atlanta’s new public safety training center were charged this week with domestic terrorism, marking one of the first times the state has brought a case under the weighty and controversial 2017 statute.

And while each of the activists arrested this week is accused of having some type of direct run-in with authorities, newly obtained arrest warrants show the most serious charges are based primarily on one thing: their alleged affiliation with the larger “Defend The Atlanta Forest” movement.

The warrants suggest the group, a loose coalition of left-wing ideologues that have protested the $90-million training center for more than a year now, was designated by the Department of Homeland Security as “domestic violent extremists.”

Homeland Security does not formally classify or designate specific groups, but can advise state and local agencies on characteristics and general descriptions of them.

Nevertheless, authorities say anything allegedly done in support of that cause — whether it’s throwing rocks at police cars or “occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflaged clothing” — is confirmation of cooperation with a bigger group that’s claimed responsibility for far more destructive acts.

And grounds for charges carrying potential prison terms of five to 35 years.

“I strongly believe in the right to peacefully protest for what one believes is right and just,” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, whose office will prosecute the cases alongside the state attorney general, said in a recent press release.

“However, I draw the line at violence, destruction of property, and threatening and causing harm to others. ... The alleged acts of violence at the training facility site put the public in grave danger, and will not be tolerated.”

Activists and civil rights groups, meanwhile, have decried the charges, which mark a dramatic escalation from those faced by dozens previously arrested in connection with the “stop cop city” movement.

Chris Bruce, policy director at the ACLU of Georgia, said the state’s use of the domestic terrorism law against the activists is “wholly inapposite at worst and flimsy at best.”

“Facially, the statute establishes overly broad, far-reaching limitations that restrict public dissent of the government and criminalizes violators with severe and excessive penalties,” Bruce said. “We are committed to protecting First Amendment rights for everyone in Georgia.”

Law adopted after mass shooting

Georgia’s current domestic terrorism law — adopted in 2017 following the massacre of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. — essentially defines the offense as the commission of any felony meant to “intimidate the civilian population” or “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government.”

Prosecutions under the law have seemingly been rare, though it’s hard to say definitively. The attorney general’s office is not believed to have ever brought such a charge itself.

Some Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups raised concerns as the statute worked its way through the process, suggesting among other things that it could be used to target protest movements.

Activist Jasmine Burnett, of Community Movement Builders, speaks to the media Wednesday, Dec. 14, shortly after the announcement that the GBI had charged five protesters of Atlanta's new public safety training center with domestic terrorism.

Credit: Tyler Estep

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Credit: Tyler Estep

Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said state terrorism laws are there for political reasons, rather than for criminal enforcement.

Broad statues that criminalize attempts to change the course of government through intimidation give states license to stifle dissent, he said.

“All protests are trying to change government policy, and intimidation is more reflected in how the subject of that protest interprets that act than describing the conduct of the alleged perpetrator,” he said. “Civil disobedience is a time-honored part of our political system in compelling governments to change policy.”

The federal government takes a different approach, he said. There is a federal terrorism statute, but it does not carry a criminal penalty. Instead, it links the behavior to 57 criminal statutes that describe the behavior of a defendant rather than the political goals that may have motivated it.

German said state terrorism statutes allow government to “target groups whose ideologies they don’t like.”

Authorities from Gov. Brian Kemp to Atlanta police Chief Darin Schierbaum disagree, arguing its clear that the “forest defenders” are not protesters, but terrorists.

In the year-plus since the Atlanta City Council approved the land lease paving the way for the Atlanta Police Foundation to build the training center, people directly associated with or otherwise sympathetic to the cause have anonymously claimed responsibility for vandalizing offices and equipment of contractors tied to the project; setting fires; and directly clashing with police, throwing objects including Molotov cocktails.

Authorities also believe they’re responsible for firebombing a youth center run by the police foundation, “shooting metal ball bearings at contractors” and “discharging firearms at critical infrastructure.”

A screenshot of a post on "Scenes from the Atlanta Forest," a blog with contributions by far left activists trying to stop the construction of Atlanta's new public safety training center. The image shows a tow truck purportedly set ablaze by activists.

Credit: SCREENSHOT, SCENES.NOBLOGS.ORG

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Credit: SCREENSHOT, SCENES.NOBLOGS.ORG

If any arrests have been made specifically for the most violent actions of which the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement is accused, they have not been publicized. But this week’s arrests show officials believe the larger resume is fodder for the rap sheets of other activists, even if they weren’t directly involved.

“Said group has publicly claimed responsibility for numerous acts while stating their intent was to intimidate employees of the government and private companies into not accepting or completing tasks in and around the site of the Atlanta Police Training Center,” the warrants say.

All five newly charged defendants — Francis Carroll, Nicholas Olson, Serena Hertel, Leonardo Vioselle, Arieon Robinson — had first appearance hearings in DeKalb County Magistrate Court on Thursday afternoon.

They remain in jail without bond, which may be considered as the case proceeds to Superior Court.

— Staff writer Chris Joyner contributed to this article.

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