Atlanta Cops Call Forest Protectors “Terrorists”

September 30th, 2023 - by Al Jazeera / Fault Lines

Forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, Shot and killed by Atlanta police.

‘Now You’re a Terrorist’:
Atlanta’s Cop City Crackdown
Al Jazeera / Fault Lines

(September 26, 2023) — A decentralized movement of environmental and social justice activists in Atlanta is trying to stop the construction of “Cop City,” a $90 million police training complex in one of the city’s last remaining forests. But authorities in Georgia are characterizing the movement as an extremist organisation, and have launched an unprecedented crackdown.

Dozens of protesters are now facing decades in prison for racketeering and domestic terrorism charges. Civil rights experts warn that successful convictions would give police and prosecutors a new playbook that criminalizes political association and treats property destruction as terrorism.

Producer: Mark Scialla Correspondent: Sharif Abdel Kouddous Director of Photography: Joel Van Haren Editor: Warwick Meade Executive Producer: Laila Al-Arian Production Manager: Anabelle Rojas Senior Producer and Fact-checker: Kavitha Chekuru Sound Mix: Linus Bergman Digital Producer: Riham Mansour Special thanks: Anna Kook.

‘Watershed Moment’: Activists Speak Out
About ‘Cop City’ Conspiracy Charges

Timothy Pratt / The Guardian

(September 25, 2023) — Sixty-one defendants in the largest criminal conspiracy case ever leveled against a protest movement are bracing for the next step in the legal process, unsure if they will soon see the inside of a jail cell.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights is preparing to “face historic prosecution with a historic defense”, said Devin Franklin, movement policy counsel. The organization hopes to raise $12m and is contacting lawyers across the country, said Tiffany Williams Roberts, public policy director.

On Friday, some lawyers who have already represented defendants received word from the state that warrants would be issued or booking would occur soon, but the process wasn’t spelled out. The importance of the moment was not lost on observers.

“It’s no exaggeration to call this a watershed moment in the history of civil liberties in the US,” said Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red, which details the federal government’s legal campaigns against environmental activists.

Nearly all of the group of 61 have been arrested and previously jailed at various times over the last year-plus in relation to opposition against a police and fire department training center known as “Cop City”.

They are being charged under Georgia’s Rico law, as laid out in a 109-page indictment released earlier this month — a law usually used against organized crime groups, like the mafia. Elsewhere in Georgia, former US president Donald Trump and others are also facing Rico charges for alleged efforts to change the 2020 election result.

The same law used to charge Donald Trump is being used against 61 protesters

Defendants in the Cop City case spoke with the Guardian using their preferred names, from Atlanta and across the country. They had been arrested for acts that included putting flyers on mailboxes and being in a public park in the same forest where the training center is planned.

They said the “uncertainty is the terrifying part” of the state’s approach to date. Several opened up about their experiences in jail after being arrested. They described being in solitary confinement, getting called a “terrorist” by prison guards, watching another prisoner die and being asked to strip by a prison doctor to confirm that their transgender identity did not include a sex change operation.

The indictment was handed down in Fulton county, the location of “probably the most mismanaged and dangerous jail in the country”, said Franklin. Five people died at the jail in August alone.

All those who spoke with the Guardian invoked the solidarity and mutual aid that has characterized the movement as a source of hope in a case that may take years to litigate. Many started online fundraisers to help pay for travel and other expenses tied to the case. Those same ideals are mentioned dozens of times in the indictment — but as evidence, from the state’s point of view, that people opposed to the training center are being offered material and other goods in exchange for remaining “loyal” to a criminal organization.

The indictment’s framing was “silly”, said Potter — “but the reality is, in the eyes of the government, these concepts are a threat to state power”.

Wisteria, 39, lives in Atlanta and suffers from fibromyalgia and a host of other conditions that make her eligible to receive federal disability benefits. She spoke with the Guardian using a name others in the movement call her out of concern for her family being targeted due to her indictment. She was arrested in May of last year after laying out a blanket in the parking lot of the public park in South River Forest where activities such as teach-ins and concerts have been held since opposition to Cop City began growing in 2021, when Atlanta announced plans for the center. “Forest defenders” also camped in the park until March of this year, when DeKalb County shut it down.

The actions for which Wisteria was charged include simply being in the park — “thereby attempting to prevent police presence”, the indictment says — and throwing Molotov cocktails and glass bottles at police, which she said happened elsewhere in the forest and she was not involved in.

While in jail, she saw a woman die of a seizure. The woman’s urine-soaked shirt and blood remained on the floor in her cell until the following day, when another prisoner cleaned it up.

Wisteria is worried about losing her benefits due to the case and that she won’t get the medicine or diet she needs to manage pain if put in jail.

Vienna Forrest is one of 42 defendants originally charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism law after being arrested in the park in December — “basically because I was in the area”, she said. Those defendants include several dozen who were accused of burning construction equipment in March.

Forrest, who is trans, was called into the DeKalb county jail’s medical office on Christmas Eve and asked to reveal herself in order to demonstrate that she had not undergone a sex change operation. She was then put in solitary confinement in a cell nearby, where someone had scratched in the mirror: “The doctor is killing me.”

Over the next four days, Forrest banged on the door of her cell many times to get someone’s attention. She asked why she was in solitary confinement and got no answer. At one point, she looked at a broken showerhead in the cell and “thought of hurting myself”, she said.

On the fifth day, she was bailed out.

“All I think about now is, will I get bond paid before, so I don’t have to go into solitary again,” she said. She wondered if the state would use this as a way of trying to get her to give information about other defendants. “My mind would break before my will,” she said. “I would never do anything to harm a comrade.”

Both Julia Dupuis and Charley Tennenbaum were arrested in late April in a rural county 50 miles (80km) north-west of Atlanta. They had put flyers on mailboxes in the neighborhood of one of the state troopers who shot and killed Manuel Paez Terán, or “Tortuguita”, in January. Paez Terán was camping in the public park and the state said Tortuguita shot first. Video footage from police raises the possibility that one officer wounded another. A special prosecutor is evaluating the case. The flyers called the officer a “murderer”, but made no threats.

Tennenbaum said the indictment and the case ahead were “hard, sad and frustrating … It’s such obvious state repression, and didn’t have to be like this.”

Dupuis recalled hearing from another inmate during her time in jail that a guard told her she had been kept in solitary confinement because she was a “terrorist”.

Like other defendants, the state took her personal belongings in the arrest. They still haven’t returned those items, which included a camera, a cellphone, a laptop and a personal diary. Forrest said police took $1,900 she’d received from selling her car out of a safe, while Wisteria said they took her cellphone.

Dupuis said “the uncertainty” of facing jail time before trial “is the terrifying part”. She also called attention to the subjects mentioned in the indictment.

“We’re living proof that the power of collective action and solidarity can shake the foundation of the police state,” she said. “And that scares the hell out of them.”

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.