In the two years since the protests began against the proposed destruction of the forest land in Atlanta to make way for a large police training center—which opponents call Cop City—protesters have faced mounting assaults and repression. That violent police repression escalated in a massive and fatal police assault on Cop City protesters in the forest on January 18, where Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán was shot dead by Georgia police. (See Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán Shot Dead by Georgia Police in a Raid on “Cop City” Protesters.)
Revolution/revcoms.us interviewed Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF), to learn more about the events that led up to the police killing of Tortuguita. ASF provides resources for protesters experiencing repression. Speaking at a rally in response to the police killing of Tortuguita in Atlanta, Marlon called on the media and others not to accept at face value the police version of Tortuguita’s killing, and declared ASF would “pursue a vigorous legal strategy and an investigation of this killing.” And Marlon urged people “to not allow this repression to give you fear, and to keep doing what you’re doing.”
Revolution: Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule and important work to talk with us. Can you provide some background to the events that led up to the death of Tortuguita at the hands of police?
Marlon Kautz (MK): Sure. Over the course of past two years, protesters have been engaging in tactics that have been very effective in preventing the construction of Cop City, the moving forward on this project. And the authorities, in particular various police agencies working in concert, have been steadily escalating their repressive tactics.
That started in the early days of the movement in the form of police intimidation; there would be a protest rally and the cops would show up in large numbers to have an intimidating presence. Or they would send investigators to the homes of people who they suspected to be movement organizers, just to put them on notice that they are being watched.
When these types of standard police intimidation tactics didn’t work to slow the movement, they moved on to the next stage of repression, which was making baseless arrests. We saw a number of mass arrests of 10 to 20 people at a time at political protest events where people were doing effectively nothing more than just having a protest, and then charging them with some nonsense like jaywalking or creating a disturbance.
When even this level of repression, which normally is enough to discourage people from coming out to the next protest, didn’t seem to discourage participation in the movement, the next level of repression, which was playing out especially this winter, was police brutality and extreme charges. So, we saw police do intense, military-style sweeps through the forest, shoot tear gas and pepper balls at protesters who are occupying tree houses in an effort to force them to come down from their tree house.
And then most shockingly for us, or at least shockingly, charging people occupying these tree houses with domestic terrorism, which is a state felony charge which carries up to 35 years in prison.
And then, finally, it must be said that the most recent level of escalation the police have taken is murder, killing a forest defender while they were occupying the forest in protest of Cop City. And they did this during one of these military-style raids, sending in state police completely equipped effectively as soldiers, ready to shoot and kill any perceived threat.
And when you look at this as kind of a campaign of escalation, with every step of the way police upping the ante, and upping the level of violence they are willing to use, it’s sadly no surprise that this is how it ended, with police being ready to kill anyone they see, and then doing so.
Revolution: Can you talk about the declared state of emergency now in effect in Atlanta? What is that looking like? And does that fit into the escalating repression you were describing?
MK: I guess that’s a good point, the repressive measures we’re seeing now—the governor activating 1,000 National Guard troops and placing them in Atlanta, with the apparent goal of using those troops to suppress protests around Tortuguita’s murder. Also, ostensibly in preparation for protests around Tyre Nichols, which we would not be surprised to see that as well. So, I think there’s a combined purpose. But in the language around the justification for the mobilization, the governor cited previous protests around Cop City as the justification.
We don’t know what to expect exactly yet, but we will not be surprised if we see the actual military, the National Guard, used to do sweeps through the forest. We presume that the reason the National Guard is mobilized is to give further power to suppress the movement.
There’s this interesting kind of dynamic where the [Republican] governor [Brian Kemp] seems to be taking an extremely strong hand in pursuing this kind of no-holds-barred repressive strategy, no negotiation, no engagement with the public, no response to anything that the people want, just increasing levels of violence until everybody submits. That seems to be the reason the governor is now activating forces he can control directly and direct even over the will and consent of Atlanta political leaders.
Revolution: Let me probe a little on that because I understand that the Atlanta political establishment, the Democratic Party political establishment, has been behind the repression.
MK: Definitely, it’s clear that the Atlanta police have been an active and enthusiastic component of the repression of this movement. And of course, it’s the Atlanta city government that’s pushing this project [Cop City]. They’re the ones that conceived of the project and are driving it. So, it’s no surprise that they would be on board for repressing the movement.
But we’ve definitely seen a striking pattern in terms of the shape of the repression. The governor began deploying these talking points that the protesters are terrorists and should be run out of Georgia: that these are not protesters, they’re terrorists. And subsequently we’ve seen different county DA’s pursuing these same domestic terrorism charges against any protester regardless of content. And there’s no way to interpret this other than the governor is leaning on these local law enforcement and prosecutors to pursue a unified policy of repression, which is completely unprecedented from any of them. So, it’s unlikely it was thought of by any of them. And this suggests some internal power tension between local and state authorities in how that is being handled.
Revolution: These “domestic terrorism” charges have shocked people. I’ve seen arrest documents where charges do not allege any illegal action, simply support for a movement. How do you see this?
MK: You’re absolutely right, it’s utterly clear, beyond a doubt, that the terrorism charges and many of the other charges actually that are being brought against activists are not coming from any intention of enforcing the law or of maintaining public safety or any of the supposed goals that police have in our society. They are explicitly political charges that are intended to discourage activists from participating in this movement, to demonize them in the media, and to literally keep them locked up in cages as long as possible so they can’t participate in this movement.
We can see this in the statements that the authorities themselves have made, the affidavits, and police reports that have been submitted to the court, where effectively the cases, the argument that the DA makes for why these people are guilty of domestic terrorism is simply that they have indicated their association with “Defend the Atlanta Forest, an organization designated as a domestic violent extremist group by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”
There are multiple problems with this. The first one is obviously a constitutional problem. There is no actual organization Defend the Atlanta Forest. That is more of a slogan and demand people make in connection with this broad social movement. So, they seem to be saying that if somebody makes the political demand that we should defend this forest, that we should not build Cop City, that this makes them part of an organization.
And the second concern and problem is obviously, if being a member of a political organization that criticizes law enforcement is sufficient to be considered a terrorist, we have a serious First Amendment problem here. It would be alarming if it was possible to accuse people of terrorism just because of their association with a political organization.
And the third problem with this is that the statement itself is a factual lie. The DA is claiming that Defend the Atlanta Forrest Organization has been classified as a domestic violent extremist organization by the Department of Homeland Security. This is simply not true. The Department of Homeland Security never designated Defend the Atlanta Forrest or any group as a domestic violent extremist group. They don’t do that. They don’t have that classification. [Editor’s note: The Washington Post reported that “A DHS spokesman denied that the agency had labeled any group called ‘Defend the Atlanta Forest’ as an extremist group, saying the agency ‘does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists.’”] We don’t know where that information even came from. It just underscores that the prosecutors in these cases are not engaging in good faith here. They are not taking actions to keep the public safe. They are trying to crush a political movement which opposes their goals of building a massive police training facility.
Revolution: Thanks, it’s important that our readers learn from your work and perspective. Anything you want to share with our readers about what your organization is doing about this?
MK: To your question of what are we doing about it, the encouraging part of this, or the spiriting part of this, is that in Atlanta we have very strong anti-repressive capacities. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund has been organizing since 2016. We have a broad network of lawyers and legal workers as well as funds to make sure that everybody who is targeted with this kind of thing is able to get out of jail as soon as possible, get access to legal counsel, and to fight in civil court later to hold the police accountable, as well as people doing media work to counter the lies and the narrative that the police and media are putting out. So, I would underscore that even though the movement is facing this overwhelming level of repression, they’re not helpless victims here, we have the power to push back against these things and we’re going to.