When author and environmental movement expert Will Potter saw the Atlanta police chief, Darin Schierbaum, tell a recent press conference “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an attorney to tell you that breaking windows and setting fires is not protest – it’s terrorism”, he could not believe his ears.
The problem, Potter told the Guardian, is that while you may not have to be a rocket scientist, “the reality is, it’s been difficult to come to an understanding of what terrorism is and what political violence is for decades”.
Schierbaum was speaking about a march through midtown Atlanta, Georgia, last Saturday night that began peacefully, only to see several protesters separate and begin breaking windows of businesses and lighting fire to a police car. The marchers were protesting “Cop City”, an 85-acre, $90m training facility planned for South River forest, a wooded area south-east of the city.
They were also protesting the fatal police shooting of Tortuguita, a fellow activist, less than a week earlier, on a raid in the Atlanta forest where dozens have been tree-sitting and camping for more than a year.
The march, arrests of 18 activists charged under a state domestic terrorism law, a series of raids on the forest in recent weeks and Tortuguita’s killing have escalated tensions over Cop City. They culminated Thursday afternoon in the Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, declaring a state of emergency. Under the order, up to 1,000 national guard troops will be available until 9 February or upon further order.
These actions have also been matched by a strident rhetoric from police and politicians in Georgia, seeking to define a largely peaceful protest movement – often focused on environmental and racial justice issues – as terrorism and those who participate in it as terrorists. It has shocked many observers including Potter, who see a crude attempt to use as powerful tools as possible to crush opposition.
“I can’t help but think it’s to shut the protest down and remove them from the public spotlight,” Potter said of Kemp’s order Thursday.
Potter has looked at changing federal government approaches to pursuing terrorism charges against environmental activists in his book, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege. These efforts culminated in attempts to charge activists with domestic terrorism during the 2000s on at least 70 occasions – succeeding in only 18, according to a 2018 report by the Intercept.
On Saturday night, six activists in Atlanta were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, bringing the total since December to 18. All have been charged under a Georgia statute, marking the first time state law has been used this way in the history of environmental movements in the US.
On 18 January, Tortuguita also became the first environmental activist killed by police in US history, experts said. The Georgia bureau of investigation said Tortuguita, or Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, had shot an officer first, and in recent days has produced photos of a gun and a Firearms Transaction Record that appears to be in Terán’s name. The agency charged with investigating Georgia police shootings also said ballistics evidence from the wounded officer matches the gun – and that there is no body-cam or other footage of the shooting.
The arrests come on the heels of at least a year’s worth of rising public chorus from Kemp, law enforcement officials and others using the term “terrorist” to describe the protesters, even as opposition to the Cop City project has grown since Atlanta city council approved it in late 2021.
Eli Bennett and Joshua Schiffer, two Atlanta attorneys representing some of the activists, both told the Guardian the state statute is “overly vague”. Four of the 18 cases brought under federal domestic terrorism charges during the 2000s were dismissed due to allegations being too vague, according to the Intercept. “It’s too easy to abuse, and I strongly have issues with how domestic terrorism is thrown around” in the state law, Schiffer said.
Arrest affidavits obtained by the Guardian for seven activists arrested 18 January during the same police raid on South River forest in which Tortuguita was killed begin by alleging that the defendants were “participating in actions as part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as domestic violent extremists”.
But a homeland security (DHS) spokesperson responded to a query by the Guardian: “The Department of Homeland Security does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists” – adding that the agency also “regularly shares information” regarding perceived threats to the “safety and security of all communities”.
Meanwhile, a White House bulletin issued early in the Biden administration underlined: “The two most lethal elements of today’s domestic terrorism threat are (1) racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race and (2) anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, such as militia violent extremists.”
Potter’s work looks at several decades of efforts by corporate leaders to create a legal and policy framework for prosecuting groups such as the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, which in the 1990s used tactics such as vandalism and even arson to defend animals and the environment – but never harmed a person. In the mid-2000s, corporations such as Pfizer, Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline joined the United Egg Producers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and others in pushing Congress to consider these acts “terrorism”, he writes.
Broadening definitions and sentencing guidelines arising from these efforts resulted in a situation where “even writing pro-animal slogans on the sidewalk in chalk” could get you charged with terrorism, said Ryan Shapiro, co-founder of Property of the People, a national security-oriented nonprofit organization focused on transparency that has released thousands of FBI and CIA documents exposing government overreach.
Similarly, Bill McKibben, author of 20 books on climate change and other subjects, wrote this week that, according to Georgia’s domestic terrorism law, “lie down in front of a police car and you’re a terrorist who could spend many many years behind bars”.
Shapiro shared documents with the Guardian obtained through FOIA showing that lack of agreement on legal frameworks around terrorism inhibit DHS’s work.
In one email chain between a DHS agent and a regional director from 2021, the former says: “The lack of a consistent, applicable definition of DVE [domestic violent extremism] that has been coordinated and agreed upon” is the “greatest challenge in preventing … the DVE threat”. The agent goes on to write:, “Anyone can fall into any category based on an independent interpretation of what DVE term is being implied.”
The case in Georgia arises from another thread in the recent history of approaches to domestic terrorism, Shapiro noted. “The post-9/11 downward creep of national security justifications has provided local police with counterterrorism powers previously limited to the FBI and other federal agencies,” he said.
An additional aspect of the ongoing conflict in Atlanta worth noting is that activists opposing both the training center and separate plans to expand a film studio on the South River Forest land approach the issue from “two of the most targeted groups” by the FBI for decades, Shapiro said. Those are the racial justice and environmental movements.
The arrest affidavits appear predicated on the notion of arrestees allegedly belonging to a group that the state has linked to acts such as burning construction vehicles needed for the training facility or film studio, as well as vandalizing other property.
“Language matters,” said Potter. “Terrorism and violence have meanings. It’s misleading to characterize broken windows, even arson, in the same breath as murdering people in a nightclub.” Potter pointed to other political movements throughout US and global history that have used similar tactics – including women suffragettes and gay rights activists, he said. “How we evaluate these things really depends on how we see the movements,” he said. “We’re going to look at the tactics of prior movements differently now, because they’re more mainstream.”
Moving forward, another aspect of this movement may prove challenging to pursuing domestic terrorism charges due to supposed affiliation in a group, Potter noted.
Opposition to development in South River forest has included neighborhood associations, established environmental groups, local schools, Atlanta-area citizens, and many others, he said. As for those who have chosen to stay in the forest, attracting the most attention of law enforcement (and media): “They don’t have an official leader. They don’t have a spokesperson. We don’t know who’s classified as a member … or not,” Potter noted.
“It’s like trying to turn a political movement into a criminal organization,” Bennett said.
What is the protest in Atlanta about? ›
Protesters argue the construction of the police training facility will destroy the South River Forest, also known as the Weelaunee Forest by the Muscogee Creek people, who were forcibly removed from the land by white settlers almost 200 years ago during the Trail of Tears.What is Atlanta cop city? ›
What is 'Cop City'? "Cop City" is the nickname critics have given the planned training center. The center is expected to cost $90 million and take up over 85 acres, with the "remaining portion of the 265-acres property as greenspace," according to the center's website, potentially impacting a forest in Atlanta.What are the biggest issues in Atlanta? ›
Crime is residents' top perceived issue facing metro Atlanta, according to the 2021 Metro Atlanta Speaks survey, released today by the Atlanta Regional Commission. One in three respondents said crime is the biggest challenge facing metro Atlanta, up from 16% in the 2020 survey.Where will Cop City be? ›
The facility's proposed location is the Old Atlanta Prison Farm (OPF), which a 2021 study found to be the site of past atrocities committed by the prison system.Why were there protests in Atlanta? ›
Peaceful protests stepped up in the city last week in response to a police shooting of an activist, 26-year-old Manuel Teran, during an operation to clear a construction site of a new public safety training facility.Can you text the police in Atlanta? ›
Texting the 911 number during an emergency is now an option for several metro Atlanta residents. Last week Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Dunwoody, and Brookhaven announced new texting programs for the 911 emergency service.How many police zones are in Atlanta? ›
Police patrol zones of Atlanta
In the City of Atlanta, there are six "patrol zones" (more commonly known as just "zones") which lie under the jurisdiction of the Field Operations Division of the Atlanta Police Department.
|Rank||Metro||Percentage of population that is Black|
Every two years, cities count their homeless population. In Atlanta, of the 2,017 homeless counted in 2022, the majority were adult, Black men. More than a third (37%) reported a serious mental illness.What is the hippest neighborhood in Atlanta? ›
Little Five Points and Candler Park are some of the hippest neighborhoods in Atlanta. Little Five Points has more bohemian vibes than L5P, as its residents call it, but together they make some of the best areas for young professionals to live.
Where will cop be in 2023? ›
2023: COP 28/CMP 18/CMA 5, Dubai, UAE
COP 28 will take place in the United Arab Emirates. The summit will be held at Expo City Dubai from November 4-6th, 2023. The UAE started working to promote itself as the future host and hired PR and lobbying agencies to launder its international reputation.
In November 2022, the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt will host the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP 27), with a view to building on previous successes and paving the way for future ambition to effectively tackle the global challenge of climate change.How do I get to COP26? ›
With online registration, you can access the COP26 Platform immediately. You can choose to register in person upon arrival at the conference. After in-person registration, you can enter the COP26 physically, in addition, you will also have access to the COP26 Platform.Why were they protesting in Atlanta? ›
Protest in Atlanta over state police killing of environmental activist turns violent. ATLANTA (AP) — A protest turned violent in downtown Atlanta on Saturday night in the wake of the death of an environmental activist who was killed by authorities this week after officials said the 26-year-old shot a state trooper.What was the purpose of the Atlanta Campaign? ›
Sherman's goal was to destroy the Army of the Tennessee, capture Atlanta and cut off vital Confederate supply lines. While Sherman failed to destroy his enemy, he was able to force the surrender of Atlanta in September 1864,boosting Northern morale and greatly improving President Abraham Lincoln's re-election bid.What were the main causes of the Atlanta race riots? ›
In September 1906 a riot broke out in Atlanta, in response to unfounded allegations published in the city's newspapers that a group of black men had been assaulting white women. Thousands of whites roamed the streets damaging black businesses, assaulting and severely beating African-Americans.Why was Atlanta GA a target of the North during the Civil War? ›
Because of its location and commercial importance, Atlanta was used as a center for military operations and as a supply route by the Confederate army during the Civil War. Therefore, it also became a target for the Union army. General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops captured the city in 1864.What was the effect of the Atlanta Campaign? ›
The impact of the fall of Atlanta was instrumental in the eventual victory for the Federal forces. It boosted morale in the North and insured the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln which meant that the war would continue to the South's capitulation.What really happened to the city of Atlanta in the Civil War? ›
On November 15, 1864, United States forces led by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman burned nearly all of the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia, United States. This event occurred near the end of the U.S. Civil War during which 11 states in the American South seceded from the rest of the nation.Why did Georgia declare a state of emergency? ›
Gov. Brian Kemp has declared a state of emergency in response to the weekend's violent protests over a public safety training facility.
Why was Atlanta so important to the war effort of the South? ›
Atlanta was a major strategic city for the Confederacy that served as a railroad terminus, supply depot, and manufacturing hub. Given Atlanta's position south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, capturing the city would severely threaten the stability of the Confederacy.How was Atlanta involved in the Civil Rights Movement? ›
Atlanta is often called the cradle of the modern Civil Rights Movement. A strong infrastructure created by the organizations and businesses of “Sweet Auburn” Avenue combined with the city's historically black colleges and universities helped establish positive change during the 1950s and 1960s.What was the most important outcome of the Atlanta campaign? ›
The Union victory in the largest battle of the Atlanta Campaign led to the capture of that critical Confederate city and opened the door for Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's most famous operation—the March to the Sea and the capture of Savannah.Why was Georgia important during the Civil War? ›
In addition, several hundred white and 3,500 Black Georgians enlisted for the Union cause. Georgia's agricultural output was critical to the Confederate war effort, and because Georgia was a transportation and industrial center for the Confederacy, both sides struggled for control of the state.When did the Atlanta campaign start and end? › When did the Atlanta race riot start? › What happened after the Atlanta race riot? ›
After days of violence, the state militia quashed the riot, arresting roughly 250 African Americans. No arrests were reported among the thousands of white Atlantans who had beaten, and even killed Black residents.What were some of the outcomes of the race riots? ›
The riots not only destroyed many homes and businesses, resulting in about $50 million in property damage in Detroit alone, but far more significantly, they also depressed inner-city incomes and property values for decades.