Firefighters work to extinguish a fire after an Atlanta police vehicle was set on fire during a Stop Cop City protest in Atlanta, Ga., on Jan. 21, 2023.
Photo: Benjamin Hendren/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The movement to stop the construction of a $90 million police training center atop vast acres of Atlanta forest has been extraordinarily successful over the last year. With little national fanfare, Defend the Atlanta Forest/Stop Cop City activists nimbly deployed a range of tactics: encampments, tree-sits, peaceful protest marches, carefully targeted property damage, local community events, investigative research, and, at times, direct confrontation with police forces attempting to evict protesters from the forest. The proposed militarized training compound known as Cop City has thus far been held at bay.
The Atlanta-based movement should be seen as an example of rare staying power, thoughtful strategizing, and the crucial articulation of environmentalist politics situated in anti-racist, Indigenous, and abolitionist struggle. Unsurprisingly, however, significant national attention has only been drawn to the forest defenders in the last week thanks to the extreme law enforcement repression they are now facing.
A forest defender was killed by police last Wednesday, and a total of 19 protesters now face capricious and ungrounded domestic terror charges for their involvement in the movement — a rare deployment of a state domestic terror statute, threatening to exhaust and crush a resilient and developing movement.
On Thursday, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced a “state of emergency” in response to the protests in downtown Atlanta in the week following the killing of the protester. The executive order grants the governor’s office extensive and preemptive repressive powers, including the ability to call on as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to quell protests at any moment.
“At this point the police seem to be charging every protester they arrest with ‘domestic terrorism’ regardless of the circumstances.”
“This is an unprecedented level of repression,” said Marlon Kautz, 38, an Atlanta-based organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides bail funds and legal support to protesters who are targeted for involvement in social movements, including against Cop City.
“At this point the police seem to be charging every protester they arrest with ‘domestic terrorism’ regardless of the circumstances,” he said. “The other pattern we’ve noticed is they are charging everyone arrested on a given day with all crimes which happened that day.”
Kautz told me, by way of example, that during a protest in which a police car was burned, all arrestees from the day now face arson charges. “Needless to say, the law doesn’t work this way, so we interpret this as a strategy of blatant malicious prosecution.”
The Defend the Atlanta Forest movement endeavors to combine the tactics of, and to learn from, previous struggles — including the 2016 encampments at Standing Rock and the 2020 George Floyd uprisings — while experimenting with novel resistance compositions. The escalatory response from police and prosecutors, on the other hand, reveals a new and troubling combination of counterinsurgent strategies.
The forest defenders have already faced months of aggressive policing and intimidation, which escalated into deadly violence during a multiagency raid last Wednesday. Police shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán. The authorities claim that Tortuiguita shot at them first, wounding an officer — a narrative fiercely challenged by fellow activists and family members.
Protests and vigils sprung up nationwide demanding “justice for Tort,” while mainstream environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, alongside left-wing Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., condemned the police’s violence and called for an independent investigation into the activist’s killing. Up until this point, they had said little about the year-plus long struggle against Cop City.
As forest defenders mourn and seek justice for their fallen friend, the movement must also fight a barrage of excessive criminal charges, most notably state domestic terrorism charges carrying a possible 35 years in prison.
“Since December, the police have repeatedly stormed the forest with military-grade weapons, pointed assault rifles at protesters, fired chemical weapons at tree sitters, and used chainsaws in an attempt to dismantle treehouses with tree sitters still in them,” said Elias, a 24-year-old Atlanta-based student in the movement, who asked to withhold his full name for fear of police harassment. “Their decision to create a dangerous, volatile, chaotic situation now has led to the murder of our friend Tortuguita.”
Elias told me “the police are trying to justify their negligence by charging people with domestic terrorism. However, nothing these protesters have done even remotely resembles domestic terrorism. The police are trying to redefine terrorism to mean ‘sitting in a treehouse’ or ‘breaking windows.’”
The terror charges, all handed down within the last two months, were not from nowhere. Political and business interests behind Cop City have been pushing related rhetoric for well over a year. Communications records uncovered by activists between Cop City supporters — local self-identifying “stakeholders,” business owners, council members, and Atlanta law enforcement officials — show that these parties have been calling the protesters “eco-terrorists” since at least last April.
Though no one has yet been convicted on these bogus terror charges, Kemp, the governor, has readily used the term “domestic terrorists” to describe the arrestees. Kemp has also invoked the tired trope of “outside agitators” to delegitimize an Atlanta-based movement, which has made a point to invite activists to join from out of state. Notably, in recognition that the land on which Atlanta stands was stolen in the 1800s from the Muscogee (Creek) people, the forest protest encampment has been host to dozens of visitors from around the country who descended from the displaced Indigenous community.
The recent wave of arrests are part and parcel of a “green scare,” which began in the 1990s and has seen numerous environmental and animal rights activists labeled and charged as terrorists on a federal level consistently for no more than minor property destruction. Yet the Atlanta cases mark the first use of a state domestic terrorism statute against either an environmental or anti-racist movement.
The 19 protesters are being charged under a Georgia law passed in 2017, which, according to the Republican state senator who introduced the bill, was intended to combat cases like the Boston Marathon bombing, Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting.
“During legislative debate over this law, the concern was raised that as written, the law was so broad that it could be used to prosecute Black Lives Matter activists blocking the highway as terrorists. The response was simply that prosecutors wouldn’t do that,” Kautz told me. “There are similar laws passed in many other states, and we believe that the existence of these laws on the books is a threat to democracy and the right to protest.”
The Georgia law is exceedingly broad. Domestic terrorism under the statute includes the destruction or disabling of ill-defined “critical infrastructure,” which can be publicly or privately owned, or “a state or government facility” with the intention to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government” or “affect the conduct of the government” by use of “destructive devices.” What counts as critical infrastructure here? A bank branch window? A police vehicle? Bulldozers deployed to raze the forest? What is a destructive device? A rock? A firework? And is not a huge swathe of activism the attempt to coerce a government to change policies?
Police affidavits on the arrest warrants of forest defenders facing domestic terror charges include the following as alleged examples of terrorist activity: “criminally trespassing on posted land,” “sleeping in the forest,” “sleeping in a hammock with another defendant,” being “known members” of “a prison abolitionist movement,” and aligning themselves with Defend the Atlanta Forest by “occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflage clothing.”
It is for good reason that leftists, myself included, have challenged the expansion of anti-terror laws in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riots or other white supremacist attacks. Terrorism laws operate to name the state and capital’s ideological enemies; they will be reliably used against anti-capitalists, leftists, and Black liberationists more readily than white supremacist extremists with deep ties to law enforcement and the Republican right.
Since its passage in 2017, the Georgia domestic terrorism law has not resulted in a single conviction. As such, there has been no occasion to challenge the law’s questionable constitutionality. Chris Bruce, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “the statute establishes overly broad, far-reaching limitations that restrict public dissent of the government and criminalizes violators with severe and excessive penalties.” He said of the forest defender terror charges that they are “wholly inapposite at worst and flimsy at best.”
“The state is attempting to innovate new repressive prosecution, and I think ultimately that will fail for them,” Sara, a 32-year-old service worker who lives by the imperiled forest and has been part of Stop Cop City since the movement began, told me.
“What we are seeing bears some resemblance to the J20 case, where prosecutors attempted to put blanket charges on people in the vicinity of a protest,” said Sara, who also asked to withhold her surname for fear of police harassment. She described the strategy as “an expensive and dangerous prosecutorial endeavor.”
“It’s evident the Atlanta area law enforcement, including prosecutors, believe heavy charges will crush dissent.”
The J20 prosecutions didn’t involve terror charges but rested on infirm claims of collective culpability, which flew in the face of the legal standard requiring individual probable cause for arrest. Those prosecutions fell apart, but not before traumatizing and exhausting the resources of the 200-plus people charged and their communities.
“The authorities’ legal strategy seems to be to load protesters up with extreme charges with no intention of actually making them stick, simply to discourage continued protest,” Kautz, of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, told me.
At present, seven of the 19 forest defenders facing terror charges are being held either with bond denied or set unaffordably high. Supporters are working to raise funds to ensure their freedom and cover legal fees, while refusing to abandon the forest defense.
“It’s evident the Atlanta-area law enforcement, including prosecutors, believe heavy charges will crush dissent. Instead, the movement seems to have only grown with every attack from the police,” said Sara.
She noted that the violent raid and Tortuguita’s killing has been “especially devastating and heart-wrenching” but that “many people are newly moved to action.” In the last week, as many as 50 acts of solidarity — from vigils to banner drops to protests — have taken place across the country to honor Tortuguita and to express support for those in Atlanta defending the forest against Cop City and the violence it represents.
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