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Terrorism charges against Atlanta protesters draw criticism  

More than a dozen protesters who tried to block construction of a sprawling police training facility are facing the same charges as violent white supremacists. Some call it a scare tactic by prosecutors.

ATLANTA (CN) — For many Americans, the word "terrorism" still brings to mind the national tragedy of 9/11 and the nearly 3,000 deaths that resulted from the attacks by militant Islamic extremists of al-Qaida.

Now 22 years later, the word has been used by prosecutors in Atlanta to describe protesters who call themselves "forest defenders" in their opposition to the construction of what is expected to be the nation's largest police training facility on one of the city's "lungs" and largest remaining green spaces.

The protests gained national attention last month after one of the demonstrators, 26-year old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was fatally shot by an officer while police attempted to remove protesters from the site. While the incident remains under investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Teran fired at the trooper first with a firearm he legally purchased, but that there is no body camera footage of the incident as they are not required to wear them.

Dubbed "Cop City" by protesters for its proposed inclusion of a mock city for first responders to train in, construction of the 85-acre training facility is being led by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that claims to have “united the business and philanthropic community with the Atlanta Police Department."

With an array of corporate donors, including Delta, Home Depot, Coca-Cola, and UPS, the foundation says the $90 million project will be funded through a combination of public and private money, with an estimated $30 million coming from the city government.

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, advanced the proposal amid pressure to repair relations with a police force battered by criticism and resignations in 2020, following months of protests and demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis as well as the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta just a month later. Bottoms and Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, have described the facility as an answer to Atlanta's increasing homicide rate.

Atlanta's City Council solicited public comment on the facility in September 2021, and the proposal was approved despite the council receiving over 17 hours of remarks from concerned community members. They expressed a wide range of concerns, from the facility being a misuse of funds and being loud and disruptive for nearby residents to pollution in the South River Forest Basin and destruction of critical forest area in a city that is already rapidly losing trees.

Others worry that its location in a predominately Black part of Dekalb County perpetuates more gentrification in a city that has the country's worst income inequality. The facility has also drawn opposition from criminal justice reform advocates, who say it will perpetuate the militarization of police and increase police brutality.

Protesters, many of whom are college students and or from out of state, have set up camps throughout the 300-acre Weelaunee Forest, as the land was called by its original inhabitants from the Muscogee Nation before serving as a plantation site during the Civil War and later as a prison farm until 1990. They've even constructed treehouses and set up barricades in an effort to halt the construction process.

Although seven of them were arrested for trespassing by Atlanta police officers attempting to clear the structures last May, protesters have continued to occupy the forest in opposition, spurring the creation of a joint task force comprised of local and state officers and GBI agents to clear the area.

In December, the task force arrested five more protesters, this time on much heavier charges of domestic terrorism, which carries a minimum punishment of five years imprisonment.

“These individuals are part of a broader network of militant activists who have committed similar acts of domestic terrorism and intimidation across the country with no regard for the people or communities impacted by their crimes,” Governor Kemp in a social media post following the raid. “We will bring the full force of state and local law enforcement down on those trying to bring about a radical agenda through violent means.”


When task force officers entered the forest area again on Jan. 18, seven more protesters were arrested under the same charge. Terán, who also went by Tortuguita, meaning “little turtle” in Spanish, paid with his life.

Lawrence Zimmerman, an attorney in Marietta who helped represent Atlanta protesters and journalists arrested during the Floyd protests, said prosecutors are trying to intimidate protesters with the charges.

“If the protests against ‘Cop City’ are attempting to disable or destroy ‘critical infrastructure or a state or government facility with the intent on getting the state to change a policy,' then maybe it is domestic terrorism, but I think this is the government trying to use scare tactics and hammer people with a super serious charge that may not be sustained by the evidence, at least that I have seen so far," Zimmerman said. "Clearly, law enforcement is making these sweeping allegations and arrests labeling them as terrorists to quell any future acts or protests."

Officers reportedly used tear gas, pepper balls and rubber bullets to dislodge the arrested protesters from tents and tree-sits. According to the GBI, some had thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails toward officers, while "mortar style fireworks, multiple edged weapons, pellet rifles, gas masks, and a blow torch" were recovered from some of the campsites.

None of the arrestees are accused of seriously injuring anyone, according to the arrest warrants. For nine of them, their alleged acts of domestic terrorism consist solely of misdemeanor trespassing in the woods.

Police reports show the terrorism charges are based on an alleged association with a group called Defend the Atlanta Forest that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has classified as “domestic violent extremists."

Some critics of the police training facility project say there is no organized group, and "Defend the Atlanta Forest" is just a slogan for the movement used by people across many different organizations.

Six additional arrests were made on domestic terrorism charges during a night of protest in response to Terán's killing on Jan. 21. They face a slightly different set of allegations regarding property damage, including allegedly damaging a nearby Atlanta Police Foundation building and setting a police car on fire. But only one defendant was accused of carrying spray paint, a hammer, torch fuel and a lighter as well as kicking and spitting on an officer as they were arrested.

A police officer blocks a downtown street following a protest in Atlanta on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in the wake of the death of an environmental activist killed after authorities said the 26-year-old shot a state trooper. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

"The fact that these these City Council people, the mayor, the newspapers, save their harshest rhetoric for when property is damaged, but call for quiet investigation and calm and quietness when people are murdered and killed and harassed, to me, shows us what the problem is on its face," said Kamau Franklin of the Black-led activist group Community Movement Builders.

"The same people who told you to celebrate Dr. King two weeks ago are now calling activists 'outside agitators,'" Franklin added.

The charges against the "Cop City" protesters are the first time state prosecutors have used an expanded domestic terrorism statue since it was enacted in 2017, when Georgia created a state-level Department of Homeland Security.

“Any time you expand criminal law you have this danger of how it will be applied in the future, like if you have an overzealous prosecutor or a prosecutor dealing with a lot of political pressure, and whether it’s going to be applied in the wrong way," said Karen J. Pita Loor, associate clinical professor of law and dean of experiential education at Boston University.

She said the allegations don't seem to fit within the statutory language.

"What this communicates is, 'Hey, this is what’s gonna happen if you protest," she said.

Georgia's use of domestic terrorism charges against the forest defenders reflects the federal government's long history of using such laws to combat environmental protests.

During the period referred to as the "Green Scare" from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, more than a dozen people associated with the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front were arrested and deemed "terrorists." At the time, “eco-terrorism” became the Justice Department’s top domestic terrorism priority following various arson attacks on facilities considered to be environmentally destructive by animal rights and environmental activists. The government's domestic terrorist operations at the time were at least partially driven by corporate industry leaders who feared damage to their property.

While 9/11 reshaped the public's image of terrorists, the branding on environmental advocates resurged in the wake of Donald Trump's election to the White House. Multiple environmental activists have been prosecuted under federal terrorism law in recent years, such as Jessica Reznicek, who along with Ruby Montoya set fire to a bulldozer and construction equipment at a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site in Iowa in 2016. Police brutality protesters have also been called domestic terrorists as the former president denounced those movements.

In response to far-right violence and the August 2019 El Paso shooting by a young white supremacist, Democratic members of Congress sought to expand the federal domestic terrorism law to include an "interagency task force to analyze and combat white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration." That effort has so far failed.

Andrew Cuomo, New York's former governor, introduced a state domestic terrorism hate crime law that was used to convict the 19-year-old white supremacist who shot and killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store in May 2022.

But critics continue to express concern that expanding already broad domestic terrorism laws can have consequences on rights to protest and free speech, as has arguably been done in Georgia.

"While it’s reassuring, and long overdue, for members of Congress to take the threat of white nationalist violence seriously, such legislation is both unnecessary and creates serious risks of abuse," said Faiza Patel, the senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, when the proposed legislation was announced in Congress.

Patel said the FBI already has the authority to prosecute such crimes and that creating a new definition of domestic terrorism "would give the Justice Department access to broad additional charges that could be used to target minorities and activists."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Government, Law, Regional

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