In the last week, the ongoing struggle to stop “Cop City,” a huge police training center in Atlanta, has been hit with intense police repression with ominous implications even beyond this important and just struggle. Coming on the heels of the police murder of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán in February, more than three dozen people were arrested at a peaceful protest festival against Cop City on March 5. Many of them are being held in jail on charges of “domestic terrorism”—which carry up to 35-year prison sentences, and minimum sentences of five years!
Protesters Charged as “Domestic Terrorists”—Guilt by Association and Collective Punishment
Last Sunday, March 5, the Defend the Forest movement launched a Week of Action by holding a “family-friendly” music festival—complete with a “bouncy house” for kids—at Intrenchment Creek Park (also known as the Weelaunee People's Park, for the Native people whose land it once was). Over 1,000 people attended as their way of supporting the struggle and having a good time.
About a mile away, a group of masked activists reportedly threw fireworks and rocks to push back police guarding the Cop City construction site, after which a number of pieces of construction equipment were burned or damaged. (No cops were injured and there were no arrests at the site.)
Later that day, cops raided the festival! According to witnesses they pointed guns at the bouncy house, threw people to the ground, and threatened to shoot people. Thirty-five attendees were detained, 23 of them charged with “domestic terrorism”—including an attorney identifiable by his bright green “Legal Observer” hat! Along with previous arrests of Cop City protesters, this brought the number of people facing “domestic terrorism” charges to 42. And all but one of the newly charged 23 were denied bail.
The “official story,” put out by police, and fed to people through mainstream (ruling class) media around the country, insinuated that the arrests were made at the site of the alleged vandalism of construction equipment. Even if that was the case, “domestic terrorism” charges carrying decades in jail would have been draconian and outrageous. But as The Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF) tweeted: “The official police statement carefully implies that the arrests they made were at the Cop City construction site. This did not happen.”
The actual nature of the arrests was even more chilling. Police raided the music festival over a mile away. All the supposed “domestic terrorism” arrests were made indiscriminately at that festival, in some cases based on claims that mud on the shoes of festival goers was proof they participated in the action at the construction site.
This essentially indiscriminate roundup of people at a festival was part of a pattern of using “guilt by association” in combination with the “domestic terrorism” laws. In response to earlier “domestic terrorism” arrests of Cop City protesters, a March 3 letter initiated by Human Rights Watch and co-signed by over 60 legal, civil rights, human rights, anti-war and other groups, exposed that: “Instead of alleging a specific incident [of the arrested person committing a crime], the arrest warrants list crimes allegedly committed by [other] members of the Defend the Atlanta Forest” and then uses “evidence” like “sleeping in a hammock with another defendant” to show that the arrested person is associated with Defend the Atlanta Forest.
The real purpose and nature of these indiscriminate “domestic terrorism” charges against festival attendees was driven home in a tweet from the Atlanta Solidarity Fund: “They want to hold every movement participant liable for anything which anyone does in the name of defending the forest. If one person burns a bulldozer, they want to jail every protester for arson. … The strategy of extreme collective punishment is designed to scare protesters into silence, but also to pit the movement against itself. They want to get activists focused on condemning and policing each other so that the cops don't have to.”
The South River Forest Project vs. Cop City
For two years, struggle to stop the construction of Cop City has been raging in the Atlanta area. The center is being built on the forested site of an old “prison work farm”—i.e., slave labor camp.
The site had previously been designated as a key component of a major new park (South River Forest). In 2017, the Atlanta City Council voted to incorporate that plan into the City Charter. South River Forest was planned to serve the surrounding mainly poor and Black areas that for decades had “literally been a toilet and garbage pail for much of the city and county, with landfills aplenty and raw sewage pouring into the waterways.” By some accounts it was to become “the nation’s largest urban forest.” The project also included cleaning up the badly polluted river and creeks, as well as job creation for people in the area. So, this was a modest reform that would not have changed the basic oppressive nature of the system as a whole, but would have made the lives of some people somewhat better, and improved the environment in that area in a significant way.
But all that was trumped by the needs of the system. South River Forest got suddenly and unceremoniously dumped in favor of Cop City in April 2021, not long after the uprising of protest across the country sparked by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Once the uprising ended, the false promises of “police reform” were largely put back in cold storage, and the forging of larger and deadlier police forces again became the open order of the day… including in cities like Atlanta, where Black Democrats and “progressives” hold the leading positions.
City officials claim Cop City represents the will of the people. As a matter of fact, city officials have been able to manufacture little popular support for Cop City, and instead county and state police have been increasingly repressive and violent. They have carried out repeated sweeps by militarized cops through protest encampments, pointing guns, shooting tear gas, making arrests and murdering Tortuguita on February 18. The cops (who have not produced bodycam footage of the shooting itself) claim—without credible evidence—that Tortuguita fired on them first. But an independent autopsy concluded that Tortuguita had their hands up when they were shot, and that they were shot at least 13 times (Tortuguita was nonbinary).
Georgia’s “Domestic Terrorism” Law—A Tool for Fascist Suppression of Dissent
The Georgia “domestic terrorism” law’s definition of “terrorism” is broad, vague, and has dangerous implications for any positive protest and dissent. It says that “terrorism” is an attempt to “disable or destroy critical infrastructure, a state or government facility” with the intent to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government.”
Almost anything could be framed as an attempt to “disable … critical infrastructure” with intent to “alter, change” government policy! Think about it—protesters marching in the streets without a permit could be construed as “disabling” (clogging traffic on) “critical infrastructure” (roads or highways). The famous voting rights march in Selma in 1965 “disabled” (blocked) the Edmund Pettus Bridge—“terrorism”!
And that massively broad brush is how the law is being applied. In late January, Grist (a pro-environment media organization) reviewed 20 “domestic terrorism” arrest warrants and said that “none of those arrested and slapped with terrorism charges is accused of seriously injuring anybody. Nine are alleged to have committed no specific illegal actions beyond misdemeanor trespassing.” Hit pause and think about that: protesters accused of nothing more than trespassing are facing” domestic terrorism” charges and decades in jail!
The fight around Cop City is very important in its own right and should be even more vigorously and broadly supported. Beyond that, if the system is able to make these “domestic terrorism” charges stick, and not face a powerful wave of opposition, that will be a green light to fascist legislatures, courts, cops and other enforcers of injustice. The International Center for Non-Profit Law points out that 39 states have enacted anti-protest bills and another 20 are pending, including bills that broadly redefine riots, grant civil immunity to drivers who hit protesters with cars, and/or use counterterrorism statutes against protesters.
If this kind of law “succeeds” in crushing resistance in Georgia, this level of repression will be increasingly normalized, and we will find ourselves in a much more difficult position in terms of fighting against—and fighting to get rid of—this whole criminal system of capitalism-imperialism.
Atlanta’s (Black) Assistant Police Chief Channels White Supremacist Pigs on “Outside Agitators”
In attempting to justify widespread brutality and “domestic terrorism” charges against “Cop City” protesters, Atlanta Deputy Police Chief Carven Tyrus told a meeting of the Cop City advisory committee, “None of these people [the protesters] live here — they have no personal interest in this property. … And that’s why we consider this domestic terrorism.” [Emphasis added] This is yet another example showing that Black pigs are… pigs.
The truth is that the Defend the Forest/Stop Cop City movement developed in the Atlanta area over years, and has strong roots there. But there is nothing “terroristic”… or “criminal”… or WRONG with people leaving their home town and traveling to another location to support a just cause! To the contrary—it is inspiring that many people do this, and it is a necessary part of standing up to the violence and the propaganda power of the system.
April England-Albright, legal director of Atlanta’s Black Votes Matter, responded to the “outside agitators” charge: “The only way you can respond to the state when they do things like this is to get as many voices involved in the cause. We’re asking for people to come and get involved.”
The phrase “outside agitators” was “popularized” by racist sheriffs in the South in the 1950s and ’60s to criminalize—and to justify beating, jailing or killing—Black and white students and others who played a key role in organizing the Civil Rights movement. In fact, you cannot conceive of the massive movement and social upheaval of the 1960s without many “outside agitators” like those who went south to join with and help bring forward the masses there to rise up.
The ”outside agitator” accusations actually expose the authorities’ fear of people breaking out of local “compartments” and fighting oppression on a national basis.