Georgia’s U.S. senators raise concerns about arrests of bail fund organizers

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Georgia U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff say they are troubled by the optics of last week’s arrest of three people who assisted the ongoing protests against the city of Atlanta’s planned public safety training facility.

The two Atlanta Democrats released separate statements on Twitter Sunday afternoon outlining similar concerns: that the arrests, either by design or as a byproduct, were to quash the mostly peaceful and lawful protests about the planned facility.

“While we still don’t have all the details, as a pastor who has long been engaged in justice work, I am concerned by what we know about last Wednesday’s show of force against the organizers of an Atlanta bail fund and the questions it raises,” Warnock wrote. “These tactics, coupled with the limited public information provided so far, can have a chilling effect on nonviolent, constitutionally-protected free speech activities those of us in the fight for justice have been engaged in for years.”

Thirty minutes later, Ossoff shared his thoughts.

“While protecting public safety, State and local officials must uphold vital constitutional rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, as well as due process and legal counsel,” he wrote. “While the facts of the case are not yet fully known, the prosecution announced last week of Georgians reputedly engaged in legal aid activities demands scrutiny.”

Warnock in his statement said he planned to follow up with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which in a May 24 bulletin about “domestic violent extremists” said some of the protests surrounding the public safety facility had been used to justify criminal activity. That “domestic violent extremists” designation of the protests provided some of the justification of the three arrests last week of people who ran a charity that provided bail funds and other resources to the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest group.

Prosecutors said the defendants had helped harbor those who committed acts of domestic terrorism, but their lawyer said they had not participated in any violence and instead spent their time raising money to bail out those who have been jailed for protesting.

The three were arrested Wednesday on charges of money laundering and charity fraud. During a hearing Friday, they were granted a $15,000 bond. They were released from the DeKalb County jail on Saturday, their attorney said.

Warnock said he will ask the federal government to provide additional guidance on what a “domestic violent extremists” designation means and how it would be applied. His office told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that request will come in the form of a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s leaders.

Both Warnock and Ossoff stressed in their statements that protests regarding the public safety training facility being built by the city of Atlanta on land owned in unincorporated DeKalb County should be allowed to continue, as long as they remain peaceful.

State and local law enforcement agencies began cracking down ahead of ground-breaking on the site, clearing out protesters. In January, one activist was killed on the grounds after state patrolmen said the protestor fired at them.

“It is imperative that the response of government to the violent few not intimidate or infringe on the Constitutional rights of those engaged in nonviolent protest and civil disobedience,” Ossoff said.

A rally and mass sign up for public comment are planned for Atlanta City Hall on Monday, coinciding with a planned City Council vote on increasing the city’s contribution to the facility from $31 million to $67 million.

Staff writer Jozsef Papp contributed to this report.