ATLANTA (AP) – When police raided an Atlanta music festival two days after the rain, they were looking for suspects in muddy clothes.
Authorities moved in on the South River Music Festival on the evening of March 5, more than an hour after more than 150 masked activists attacked the construction site about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) away, smashing equipment, setting fire to a bulldozer and a police ATV, while was throwing rocks and fireworks at the retreating officers, according to police surveillance video.
Officials say many of the rioters returned to the festival grounds, changing out of their all-black or camouflage clothing in the muddy woods to blend in with hundreds of peaceful attendees who had gathered to show their solidarity with the “Stop Cop City” movement — a decentralized campaign to stop the planned demolition of the urban forest for the construction of a huge police and firefighter training center.
By the end of the night, 23 had been arrested, each serving between five and 35 years behind bars on domestic terrorism charges, though none of them are accused of hurting or vandalizing anyone.
Civil liberties groups and defense lawyers say officials imposed disproportionate charges to scare others from joining a movement that has only grown since January, when a 26-year-old man known as Tortuguita was killed by a state trooper as authorities pushed activists out of south River Forest. Authorities said they fired in self-defense after a protester shot a soldier, but activists questioned that story and called for an independent investigation.
Officials say protesters attacked police officers, destroyed property and unleashed anarchy, causing terror in the community.
“You can’t turn a political movement into a criminal organization,” said defense attorney Eli Bennett, representing three people who were arrested at the festival. “I hope we’re just not doing that in this country.”
After the arrests, a number of activists told The Associated Press they feared they would be taken into custody on flimsy charges that could have far-reaching consequences. But they are committed to ensuring that what they disparagingly call “Cop City” will never be built.
“If I get arrested for domestic terrorism for camping in the woods, that’s something I’m willing to go to court for,” said Sam Law, a doctoral student in anthropology from Texas. “If I have to spend a few weeks in prison, that sounds like a deeply unpleasant experience, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to stand with other people of conscience who are doing what I believe the historical moment calls us to do.” ”
Vanderbilt University law and political science professor Samar Ali said domestic terrorism charges should be reserved for heinous crimes such as the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing, and that the Georgia authorities’ use of such draconian laws only fuels the fire of mistrust. between activists and authorities.
If the prosecutions succeed, Ali predicts, conservative states could replicate Georgia’s broad domestic terrorism law and target leftist movements, while liberal states could take a similar approach against white nationalists, further dividing the country.
“This will be a test case in terms of filing against environmental activists,” Ali said. “If environmental activists are severely punished, we will likely see a replication of this in all states.”
In their arrest warrants, police said 17 of the 23 suspects were wearing muddy clothing and shields – evidence they were among the violent protesters and not just festival-goers. But the warrants for the five other suspects did not provide specific details to explain why they were arrested.
Six defendants, including a legal observer from the Poverty Law Center accused of muddy clothing, were released. The other 17 remain in jail without bail.
Bennett said none of his clients had shields despite the warrant’s claims. He said it was ridiculous to call the muddy clothes evidence of Sunday, given that it had been raining that week and there were many muddy areas around the festival site, including the stage where festival goers were cheering to punk music.
“I understand that law enforcement has a big problem identifying the actual ‘vandals’ here,” Bennett said. “But that doesn’t justify arresting people who weren’t involved and were just there for a music festival that supported an environmental cause and anti-police militarization .”
Atlanta police declined to comment on how many shields were found and where and when the arrests occurred, though jail records say all 23 were arrested at 7:45 p.m., more than two hours after Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said the violence occurred. .
Since the City Council approved the $90 million training center in 2021, the movement has brought together a range of leftists, including environmentalists and police abolitionists. They say police officers at the 85-acre (34-hectare) center will be trained to become more militarized and crack down on dissent, all while cutting down hundreds of trees, harming the climate and mitigating flooding in a poor, mostly black neighborhood.
Officials contend the state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale battered by recruiting and retention struggles following violent protests against racial injustice following the 2020 death of George Floyd.
Georgia’s domestic terrorism law originally only applied to crimes that were “intended or reasonably likely to injure or kill at least ten persons.” However, state lawmakers expanded the law in 2017, removing the 10-victim threshold and adding attempts to “disable or destroy critical infrastructure” with the intent to “alter, change or coerce government policy.”
For more than five years, the statute was rarely enforced. That changed in December, when six self-styled “defenders of the forest” were removed from the site of the training center. Since then, 35 other alleged members of the movement have been jailed on charges, including seven who were arrested during a sweep when authorities killed Tortuguito, whose name was Manuel Paez Terán.
Four days after the festival, dozens of activists remained in the nearby forest. Some were cleaning the rubbish from the camps, while others were preparing lunch. Activists insisted they had a moral high ground and would not back down from “tough” police tactics.
Some acknowledged that facing a domestic terrorism charge could have major personal implications.
Kira, an Atlanta-based tech writer who worked as a medic during the “Stop Cop City” demonstrations, said she does not participate in violence and that the domestic terrorism charge could destroy her career, even if she later drops it. She left the festival after hearing the police were on their way.
“My instincts told me, ‘OK, it’s time to get out,'” Kira said. “I’m middle-aged. I have a good job. I would accept an arrest if I felt it was warranted, but I will not be arrested for collateral damage.”
Ashley Dixon, a local organizer for Showing Up for Racial Justice, said she and her friends didn’t realize the vandalism was happening and was shocked to see a gun-wielding police officer running towards her.
“A police officer smacked somebody in front of me,” Dixon said. “I heard him yelling something, but I don’t know what he was yelling because I was in fight or flight mode. I was in fear for my life and I just kept running.”
But the fear of accusation will not stop her activism.
“If anything, it makes me fight harder because it feels so much more important,” Dixon said. “If they are already using this level of violence against protesters, imagine what they will do if they have this militarized police training center.”