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Two who protested white nationalists suing for rights’ violations

Counterprotesters are held by police as the National Socialist Movement held a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Daniel Hanley, kneeling, and another counterprotester are now suing Coweta County and police for violating their civil rights. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Counterprotesters are held by police as the National Socialist Movement held a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Daniel Hanley, kneeling, and another counterprotester are now suing Coweta County and police for violating their civil rights. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Two years ago, downtown Newnan looked like a village under siege as hundreds of heavily armed and armored police from jurisdictions from across the state locked down every corner of the sleepy metro suburb.

More than 700 uniformed police swarmed in a massive, coordinated effort from state, county and city agencies that included assault weapons, armored vehicles and drones designed to keep the peace at a rally by the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. The black-clad NSM members numbered about two dozen, but their presence drew hundreds of counter-demonstrators from across the metro area, a handful of whom were arrested on a variety of minor charges.

Now two activists arrested April 21, 2018 in the counter-protest have filed federal lawsuits against Coweta County and the officers who arrested them, claiming the arrests violated their constitutional protections of freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizure.

“No matter what one thinks of the First Amendment and its reach, few would disagree that political speech lies at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect – an idea often emphasized by the US Supreme Court itself,” said Atlanta attorney Drago Cepar, who represents the two men bringing the lawsuits, activists Alan Hutzel and Daniel Hanley.

Daniel Hanley is suing Coweta County and local police for violating his civil rights during a counterprotest of a white nationalist march in Newnan in 2018. BRANDEN CAMP/ SPECIAL
Daniel Hanley is suing Coweta County and local police for violating his civil rights during a counterprotest of a white nationalist march in Newnan in 2018. BRANDEN CAMP/ SPECIAL

Hutzel was among a handful of activists arrested for violating the state's anti-mask law even before the neo-Nazi rally began. The encounter was captured, in part, by a reporter for the Huffington Post who recorded an unidentified officer warning a crowd of counter-demonstrators.

“State law requires you to remove your mask right now,” the officer said, pointing the crowd. “You will do it right now or you will be arrested.”

The group started chanting, “Cops and Nazis sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”

“You will be arrested,” the officer said, reaching to his belt and removing plastic handcuffs.

The National Socialist Movement held a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
The National Socialist Movement held a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In the lawsuit, Hutzel acknowledges wearing a bandana, but said he did so to protect himself from harassment from the neo-Nazi group and not to intimidate others. Cepar said violations of the anti-mask law, passed decades ago to control the Ku Klux Klan, requires an act of intimidation and scoffed at the idea that the childish chant intimidated the police.

Hanley was arrested later on his way to the rally when he says he was targeted because he had a bullhorn. He was charged with obstruction of an officer for failing to stay on the sidewalk, but that charge ultimately was dropped.

A counterprotester is held by police as the National Socialist Movement holds a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Two of the counterprotesters are now suing Coweta County and police for violating their civil rights. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
A counterprotester is held by police as the National Socialist Movement holds a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. Two of the counterprotesters are now suing Coweta County and police for violating their civil rights. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Coweta County Sheriff Lenn Wood said his officers followed state law and the directions of the lead agencies overseeing the police response.

“Our team members acted in good faith to faithfully protect everyone involved that day during moments of tense, uncertain and rapidly unfolding events between counter-protesters and law enforcement,” he said.

The county has not formally responded to the either lawsuit, both of which seek unspecified damages.