activism criminal justice Police Violence Ryan Fatica

Behind the #StopCopCity Domestic Terrorism Warrants

By Ryan Fatica and Chris Schiano / Unicorn Riot

Atlanta, GA — The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, in collaboration with several other law enforcement agencies, charged 23 more people with ‘domestic terrorism’ for their alleged involvement in the ongoing effort to stop ‘Cop City’ and to defend the Weelaunee Forest in unincorporated DeKalb County southeast of Atlanta. This brings the total number of ‘Cop City’ opponents charged under the statute to 42.

Warrants are available to read below. Unicorn Riot has currently only been able to obtain 10 of the 23 domestic terrorism warrants stemming from the March 5 arrests. The filings are nearly identical and appear to have been copy/pasted: 

Warrant 1 | Warrant 2 | Warrant 3 | Warrant 4 | Warrant 5 | Warrant 6 | Warrant 7 | Warrant 8 | Warrant 9 | Warrant 10

Most of those arrested are currently being held at the DeKalb County Jail after being denied bond by Magistrate Judge Anna Watkins Davis on March 7. Four arrestees, including attorney Thomas Jurgens, have been granted bond. Jurgens was released on the day of the bond hearing, while the other three defendants were granted bond only after spending roughly two weeks in jail. The remaining defendants will likely be held in the jail at least until their bond hearing in DeKalb County Superior Court, which is currently scheduled for 9 a.m. on March 23 before Judge Gregory A. Adams.

Judge A. W. Davis, who denied bond to nearly every defendant, appears to have a family connection to a firm tied into the ‘Cop City’ project leadership, which is possibly a conflict of interest. Publicly available records indicate she is married to a Principal tax attorney at KPMG, an international accounting mega-firm with four representatives on the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the private nonprofit rushing to build ‘Cop City’despite the project’s questionable legal status

Three other individuals previously charged with domestic terrorism for their participation in the movement have been held in custody for nearly two months after being denied bond following their arrest on January 21. One additional defendant, who had also been incarcerated since January 21, was granted bond on March 20. 

Arrests at Forest Festival

The arrests on March 5 occurred in the midst of the South River Music Festival in the Weelaunee Forest, which was scheduled as part of a “week of action” against the construction of ‘Cop City.’ It appears that police attacked the festival in response to a mass act of sabotage on construction equipment and police infrastructure that occurred about an hour earlier in the day and nearly a mile away.

Matthew Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Beloved Commune, a faith-based social justice nonprofit in Atlanta, was at the welcome table in the Weelaunee People’s Park when he noticed police start to enter the area. “Georgia State Patrol started to come in with long rifles,” he said. Johnson started to move toward the festival. 

Georgia State Troopers, Department of Natural Resources Game Wardens, DeKalb County Police and Atlanta Police officers prepare to make arrests at the music festival in the South River Forest on the evening of March 5, 2023.

“Mind you, this is a mile away from where the fire was,” said Johnson, referring to the ‘cop city’ construction site and police surveillance outpost that saboteurs had attacked earlier. “I saw an officer that started to run after about three people … The officer tases and tackles them. I yell ‘what the fuck’ and started to run over. I have my hands extended out, like out straight.”

According to Johnson, the officer was strangling the concertgoer in a choke hold. “I was like, ‘let up! Let up!’ I can’t lose anybody else,” said Johnson. “I’ve already lost one friend, I’m not about to lose two!” shouted Johnson, referring to Indigenous forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, who was killed by police during a January 18 raid on the forest.

The officer continued to choke the man and tased him again while he was on the ground and restrained, Johnson said. More officers arrived and pointed their tasers at Johnson, threatening to arrest him. As people started to crowd around, the officer eventually got off the man and arrested him.

Unicorn Riot was live on the ground in the South River Forest as police charged the festival, brandishing assault rifles and tackling, tasing and beating protesters. Officers from the Georgia State Patrol and the Department of Natural Resources as well as the Atlanta Police Department and DeKalb County Police all participated in the raid.

Rare Georgia Domestic Terrorism Charge

Those charged on March 5, like the 19 others before them, were charged under Georgia State Code §16-11-220, a rarely used Domestic Terrorism statute that was signed into law in 2017 in response to mass shootings like the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina mass murder of Black churchgoers by white supremacist Dylan Roof.

The statute defines domestic terrorism as “any felony violation of, or attempt to commit a felony violation of the laws of this state” which is intended to harm or kill individuals or disable or destroy critical infrastructure in an attempt to intimidate or coerce government policy. 

There appears to be some confusion as to whether the statute can be applied on its own or if it must be applied in conjunction with a predicate felony.

In several of the previous cases in which police and prosecutors used the statute against ‘Cop City’ protesters, it was applied in addition to another felony, such as arson or criminal damage to property. But in many of the cases, those arrested are not charged with a predicate felony, but with ‘Criminal Trespass,’ a misdemeanor. The 23 people arrested on March 5 are the first to be charged only with domestic terrorism, marking a new application of the statute.

It may also indicate that the police and prosecutors did not think they had probable cause to charge any individual arrested on March 5 with crimes such as arson or property destruction, despite alleging in the warrants and at their bond hearing that they each participated in these acts.

“The Georgia domestic terrorism statute requires an underlying predicate felony,” Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC), said, “but it does appear now in several instances that they have charged a misdemeanor as the predicate or [have charged individuals with domestic terrorism with] no predicate at all.”

There could be several reasons for this, according to Regan. “I think in part this is their first use of the statute and it is untested,” she explained. “But the more cynical side of me knows from experience that often when the state is charging these kinds of overblown, hyperbolic, rhetorical charges like domestic terrorism, it’s not really that they expect to get convictions. It’s more the immediate consequences on the activists and the movement that are charged.” 

Due to the domestic terrorism charge, activists have been held in jail longer and with higher bail than if they were charged with other crimes. 

Arrest warrants typically include testimony from a law enforcement officer to describe specific facts demonstrating probable cause that the person charged committed a crime. The arrest warrants in this case, however, are virtually all identical and contain very few specific allegations. 

“On Sunday, March 5, 2023, the group Defend the Atlanta Forest/Stop Cop City held a publicly announced music event in the area 1324 Key Road, Atlanta, DeKalb County, Georgia. During the event, approximately 50-100 members marched through the crowd chanting ‘stop cop city’, armed themselves with metal shields while mostly wearing camouflaged or dark colored clothing, and marched approximately half a mile through muddy forest to the construction site of the new Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.”-Language seemingly pasted into all March 5, 2023 arrest warrants for #StopCopCity music festival attendees charged with domestic terrorism 

The warrants claim that law enforcement conducted a “field investigation” in order to determine which of the 44 people they’d arrested at the music festival to charge with domestic terrorism and which to let go. One of the factors contributing to their decision to let people go was that they were not muddy. “A total of 44 people were detained and, following a field investigation by GBI, APD, and DKPD, 11 subjects were released without charge,” the reports read. “Those 11 subjects were determined to have not participated in in [sic] violence or acts of destruction, were not muddy, and had legitimate reasons for being in the area.”

The warrants also attempt to use the existence of a jail support line run by the Atlanta Solidarity Fund as evidence of participation in some sort of crime or conspiracy. “Of those who were arrested, none wished to make a statement but many of them had the phone number of the ‘Atlanta Solidarity Fund Jail Support Line’ in their clothing or written on the person,” the warrants read. “It should be noted that this support line has been contacted [sic] many of those who have recently been arrested in other domestic terror incidents in Fulton and DeKalb County.” 

Jail or legal support lines exist in most major cities to support those arrested during protests. These lines are frequently operated by the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild or a similar organization, and it is common practice for lawyers, legal workers and anti-repression activists to encourage those attending protests to write these numbers on their bodies so that they can reach legal or jail support if they are arrested. 

Some, but not all, of the warrants conclude with, “the accused was observed with muddy clothing from breaching and crossing the embankment. Accused was also in possession of a shield.” These are the only specific facts and allegations that the warrants contain, and the same sentence appears to have been copied and pasted on each document.

“Most of the criminal defense lawyers I have spoken with are indicating that there is no individualized suspicion in any of these warrants and they are extremely weak, some of the weakest we’ve ever seen. Particularly regarding the fact that they’re charging this felony domestic terror law.”Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center

Months of Arrests in DeKalb Batched into One Case

In total, 67 people have been arrested in DeKalb County since December 14, 2022 for their alleged participation in the Stop Cop City campaign. The DeKalb County District Attorney has so far assigned all 67 of those people the same case number, even though many of them were arrested months apart, in different parts of the forest and charged with different crimes. It’s likely that many of those people have never met one another. 

Thirty-one of those arrested were charged only with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor that law enforcement appears to be leveling against anyone arrested in the woods. 

By assigning all of the arrestees the same case number, the district attorney appears to be attempting to link the cases together, making those arrested all co-defendants and bringing them before the same judge if they’re ever indicted. 

William Sheppard, Chief Deputy at DeKalb County Clerk of Superior Court, said he isn’t sure why the district attorney is assigning so many cases to the same case number, but he said it could be in preparation for charging them all as part of some sort of conspiracy.

“They could be trying to say that these people are part of the same organization that’s protesting,” said Sheppard. “I didn’t know they were doing that, but it does sound like how they’d prosecute a gang case. When they’re arresting people over a period of time as part of the same gang. That sounds like what they’re doing.” 

Lauren Regan, executive director of the CLDC, which is providing legal support to those arrested, called the case numbers “ominous.” 

The DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

All Warrants Signed by Same Agent

Court documents filed after the latest arrests reveal that GBI Special Agent Ryan Long is named as the “arresting officer” on the arrest warrants. Agent Long also signed the majority of the previous domestic terrorism warrants.

Not only are the allegations in the March 5 festival warrants thin and factually vague, they do not include testimony from specific officers. They are all signed by GBI Special Agent Long, who attests to the generalized allegations in each warrant. However, given the dispersed nature of the arrests — some of which occurred simultaneously within an area the size of a football field — it’s physically impossible that Special Agent Long could specifically attest to all the alleged acts as an eyewitness.

The warrants continue the pattern of guilt by association by which law enforcement officers charge individuals with domestic terrorism because they believe them to be supporters of “Defend the Atlanta Forest.” The state has repeatedly claimed the slogan and social media account “Defend the Atlanta Forest”refers to a domestic terrorism organization, despite the observations of many movement participants and observers that it doesn’t appear to be an organization at all. Local police and prosecutors have also alleged that “Defend the Atlanta Forest” is classified under a federal Department of Homeland Security ‘extremist’ designation that DHS says does not exist. 

At an initial bond hearing in DeKalb County Magistrate Court on March 7, Magistrate Judge Anna Watkins Davis listened with furrowed brow to each defense attorney and character witness as they explained why their client, friend, or adult child should be released from jail before she repeatedly declined to do so. 

Judge Davis all but officially sentenced each defendant to at least two weeks in a jail that is notorious for its horrific conditions and above-average mortality rate. She also consistently put the burden of proof for releasing the defendants before trial on the defense attorneys — essentially treating their continued incarceration as a foregone conclusion.

Criteria for Release in Georgia

The Georgia Supreme Court case guiding the decision to grant a defendant release pending trial in the state is Ayala v. State. In 1993 the court ruled even when a defendant is facing murder charges, the state “has the burden of persuading by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant is not entitled to release on bail.”

In order to release someone from jail pending trial in Georgia, the judge must believe that the defendant meets four criteria: 1. That they pose no risk of fleeing or failing to appear in court; 2. That they pose no significant threat or danger to any person, to the community in general, or to any property; 3. That they pose no significant risk of committing any felony pending trial, and; 4. That they pose no significant risk of intimidating witnesses or otherwise obstructing justice when they are released.

At the hearing, Chief Assistant District Attorney Pete Johnson relied only upon the vague accusations contained in the warrants for his arguments and made no specific allegations regarding any of the defendants. He talked about the sabotage of construction equipment earlier in the day, with no specific information linking the individual defendant to that action. At most, the prosecutor alleged that the defendant was “observed with mud on their clothing” at a music festival in the forest where many were camping.

D.A. Johnson also relied upon the fact that many of the defendants live out of state as the sole proof that they posed a flight risk.

“This prosecutor and this deputy attorney general are not going to lose their jobs” for raising unfounded charges, said Regan. “In fact they’re doing it to get slapped on the back. I think this was their attempt at circumventing and really clamping down on the week of action.”

Alex Meissner, who was arrested March 5 while attending the music festival, was released March 18 after Judge Gregory A. Adams granted them a $5,000 bond. One of the bond conditions Judge Adams set was that Meissner “will not return to the State of Georgia except for required in person court appearances.”

DeKalb Judge Linked to KPMG, Which Funds Police Foundation

Anna Watkins Davis, who on March 7 denied bond to every ‘Stop Cop City’ festival detainee except attorney Tom Jurgens, became a magistrate judge in DeKalb County in October, 2021. She was previously employed by the DeKalb County Solicitor General’s Office for nearly five years as Legal Director of Training and Policy for the Assistant Solicitor General, according to her public LinkedIn profile. According to publicly accessibledocuments, Judge Davis earned $108,211.76 in that position in 2021 before transitioning to her current position as Magistrate Judge.

According to public records and a University of Georgia law school publication, Judge Watkins is married to Harold ‘Hal’ Richard Davis, Jr., an attorney who for almost a decade has been International Tax Principal at KPMG, a ‘big four’ accounting firm involved in the leadership of the Atlanta Police Foundation.

Four Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) board members are listed on the APF’s website as representing KPMG within the last two years: 

  • Dan Eldridge, KPMG’s Partner-in-Charge of Audit, is listed on APF’s Board of Trustees
  • Ken D. Welch, KPMG’s Global Advisory Chief Revenue Officer until late 2021, is listed on APF’s Board of Trustees
  • Emmett Mercer, a Senior Associate and Strategy Consultant at KPMG, is listed on APF’s Young Executives Board
  • Christine ‘Chris’ St. Clare, a retired former Advisory and Audit Partner at KPMG, is listed on APF’s Emeritus Board

KPMG has made several large donations to the Atlanta Police Foundation. KPMG’s Atlanta Office Managing Partner Milford McGuirt served in the ‘cabinet’ for an APF fundraising campaign in 2017. McGuirt retired from his KPMG position in 2021.

It is unclear whether Judge Davis’ marriage to KPMG Principal Hal Davis, Jr., constitutes a legal conflict of interest under Georgia law. The DeKalb County Magistrate Court told Unicorn Riot it could not comment on the matter.

Reverend Keyanna Jones leads a protest outside the downtown offices of Georgia Pacific, one of the corporate sponsors of the Atlanta Police Foundation and ‘Cop City’, on March 7, 2023.

While KPMG clearly plays a role in the Atlanta Police Foundation, Unicorn Riot found no evidence of Mr. Davis having any direct personal involvement with the Atlanta Police Foundation or ‘Cop City.’

However, his wife’s role in denying bail to people presumably opposed to the KPMG-backed police foundation strikes a note consistent with the recurring chord of dual motives animating many authority figures in the Atlanta area.

The Atlanta establishment’s conflict of interest toward the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement goes beyond police targeting their critics, and extends into the uncharted implications of dozens of mega-corporations consolidating influence in legal and political power structures for over a decade under the umbrella of a private, corporate-bankrolled nonprofit claiming to act on behalf of a public law enforcement agency. 

Other than KPMG, whose paychecks help support Judge Davis’ family, corporations funding the Atlanta Police Foundation include Amazon, Target, Wells Fargo, AT&T, Home Depot, UPS, Delta, Waffle House, Chick-fil-A, Cox Enterprises, and taser manufacturer Axon, among others.

A formation of Atlanta Police officers marches parallel to a small downtown protest on March 7, 2023. 

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