Domestic terrorism charges in Georgia are prompting concern over political repression
Updated June 29, 2023 at 2:52 PM ET
Editor's note: The story has been updated to include details about a constitutional challenge to Georgia's domestic terrorism law.
ATLANTA — When Luke Harper went to Atlanta in early March, he thought he would just be staying the weekend. Harper, a 27-year old copywriter from Florida, was going there to join demonstrators in opposition to the planned construction of a new police and fire training facility. But on his second night, after attending a music festival with other protesters, Harper was arrested and accused of being a "domestic terrorist." Despite having no prior criminal history, Harper was denied bond several times and finally left the DeKalb County jail in early June.
"I was released on day 90, which is the basically the last day that they could legally keep me incarcerated without an indictment," Harper said. "And I'm still unindicted as of now."
The controversy over the planned Atlanta Public Safety Training Center — which opponents have dubbed "Cop City" — has been growing for two years. Spearheaded by a private organization, the Atlanta Police Foundation, it would site a state-of-the-art facility on 85 acres of land that the city acquired a century ago to use as a prison farm. Proponents say the project is badly needed to replace the Atlanta Police Department's dilapidated training facilities. But what started as a local debate has ballooned into a flashpoint around several issues with national resonance.
"You have the fight against environmental defense. You have the fight for racial equality. You have the fight against capitalism. And of course, you have the fight against police militarization or the fight for [police] abolition," said Matt Scott, a journalist with the Atlanta Community Press Collective.
Scott said that the temperature rose even further when law enforcement agencies in Georgia began invoking a rarely-used statute against opponents of the project.
"Back in December, with the original batch of domestic terrorism charges, there was a sort of a higher level of interest nationally," he said. That accelerated in January, when a Georgia State Patrol officer shot and killed Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán, an activist who had been living with other opponents of the training facility in a forest near the proposed site. During that encounter, where an officer was also shot and injured, additional activists were arrested with the allegation of domestic terrorism. To date, 42 people have been accused of domestic terrorism in their arrest warrants.
"Our state affiliate in Georgia and we at the national office have been watching what's been happening very, very closely," said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "What's been happening with Cop City is a stark demonstration of how overbroad state domestic terrorism laws, like Georgia's, can be used to disproportionately punish people, including protesters who express political beliefs."
Georgia's law could become a national test case for state domestic terrorism statutes
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, Georgia, New York and Vermont are the only states with laws about "domestic terrorism" or a "domestic act of terrorism." But many more states have terrorism statutes that further criminalize acts that are intended to "influence the policy of government" by "intimidation or coercion." To some, these statutes leave too much room for abuse.
"They really are a political instrument," said Lauren Regan, an attorney and executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. "There are already numerous criminal statutes that would adequately prosecute the alleged criminal act, [such as] murder, assault, battery, menacing. There's already a ton of crimes that could cover this."
But Regan and others who have handled terrorism cases in various jurisdictions say state anti-terrorism statutes have, to date, been largely untested. This may change with the allegations against defendants in Georgia. One defendant, Ariel Ebaugh, has filed a writ of habeas corpus directly challenging the constitutionality of Georgia's domestic terrorism statute. The attorney behind the writ, Stanley Cohen, said he believes the language of the law runs afoul of federal First Amendment rights, as well as Georgia's constitution.
"Speech is protected, assembly is protected, association is protected. Yes, there can be a line that is crossed. It wasn't crossed here," Cohen said. "And even if it was crossed, prosecution under this statute would be impermissible because it's vague, overly broad and ambiguous."
The domestic terrorism charge in Georgia must be tied to an underlying felony.
Law enforcement officials in Georgia say that demonstrators have been violent.
At a January press conference following Terán's killing, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Michael Register said that Terán had fired the shot that injured an officer. Five months later, however, the GBI still has not released results of its investigation. Register and the head of Atlanta's Police Department have also claimed that activists have committed crimes including arson, assault, intimidation, using explosives, throwing rocks at officers and setting booby traps. The GBI declined requests for an interview, and APD referred questions about the domestic terrorism charges to the GBI.
But so far, none of the 42 defendants have seen evidence or specific charges alleging that they engaged in those acts. While they were accused of domestic terrorism in their arrest warrants, indictments are still forthcoming. This is true even for individuals who were detained in December.
"I don't think they really had a lot of focus in getting a conviction under that [domestic terrorism] statute," said Regan. "I think they were using it to scare people into submission."
Some GOP leaders in Georgia have boosted the narrative that the opposition movement comes from other states
To Alex Papali, another defendant in this case, the way that law enforcement agencies have targeted mostly non-Georgia residents with the domestic terrorism label has felt clearly political. Papali was at the music festival in the forest in March. He said when word got around that police had arrived, panic set in. He said officers detained anyone they were able to catch.
"It was just totally arbitrary and random," Papali said." But at one point they asked people where they're from and they separated all the Georgia residents from all the out of town folks... and then they let them leave."
Papali, a Massachusetts resident, was among those taken to DeKalb County Jail and labeled as a domestic terrorist.
"It couldn't have been more transparent that they were trying to create this narrative of 'outside agitators' coming in to disrupt the peaceful community," he said, "when the reality was there was a lot of local residents who also were supporting this this event."
Some Republican elected leaders in Georgia are amplifying the narrative that the opposition movement is highly organized and from other states. In an interview on WANF-TV, Attorney General Christopher Carr stated without a trace of doubt: "If you come to this state, engage in acts of violence to destroy infrastructure and property with the intended effect of changing public policy, it is a domestic terrorism charge." Carr's office did not respond to requests for interview.
But in Atlanta, a city that considers itself the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, this framing feels familiar.
"Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was labeled an outside agitator at some point and he was born right here in the city of Atlanta, just like I am," said Rev. Keyanna Jones, an organizer with Community Movement Builders and the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City.
Until recently, Jones lived right next to the proposed training facility site, but moved away because the Atlanta Police Department currently uses part of it for target practice. Jones said the sound of gunfire throughout the day was taking a toll on her young son. But even though she has left the city of Atlanta, she continues her activism on behalf of her neighbors and allies in the movement.
"I have never seen repression like this before. This is something that I did not think I would see in modern times," Jones said. "What the state of Georgia is trying to do is say that protest is not legal, that protesting is wrong. That if you go against me, then you're going to be punished."
Jones and others have increasingly felt this to be true in light of the recent arrests of three bail fund workers, under charges of charity fraud and money laundering. The arrest warrants in those cases allege that the fund was channeling money to Defend the Atlanta Forest, characterized in the document as "a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists."
However, DHS does not classify or label domestic extremism groups, and there is no federal law criminalizing domestic terrorism, because of first amendment concerns. These defendants, too, are awaiting formal charges in an indictment and so have not had an opportunity to respond to the allegations.
To many who believe the domestic terrorism charges are baseless, there are signs that prosecutors may, in fact, be struggling. First, there is the failure to indict the defendants. And on Friday, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston abruptly announced that her office was withdrawing from prosecuting the case, leaving the state AG as the sole prosecuting jurisdiction.
"It is clear to both myself and the attorney general that we have fundamentally different prosecution philosophies," Boston said in an interview on WABE-FM. Her office declined to be interviewed by NPR.
But even if the charges are dropped, or a grand jury fails to indict, some defendants worry that the toxic label of "domestic terrorist" may stick.
"The first weight of that came to me when... my mug shot was posted up on some fascist Twitter [account], and I had to have the conversation with my parents that they might start receiving death threats," said Vienna Forrest, who was arrested in December. "That's going to be something that'll follow me for a long time."
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