By Candice Bernd / Truthout
An attorney for three activists opposed to a planned $72.8 million police training center that opponents have dubbed “Cop City” tells Truthout her clients are facing felony charges of intimidation of an officer and misdemeanor stalking after two of them placed flyers on mailboxes in Bartow County, Georgia, a neighborhood about 40 miles from Atlanta. The charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
If built, Cop City would be one of the largest police training facilities in the country, featuring a helicopter landing base, an area for explosives training, and an entire mock city for officers to game out tactics to suppress protests and uprisings. The compound is already being built in Atlanta’s South River Forest, where opponents, known as “Forest Defenders,” previously camped for more than a year to blockade construction.
Defense attorney Lyra Foster said her clients were held for four nights in solitary confinement at Bartow County Jail after their arrest at a gas station outside the town of Cartersville on April 28. All three arrestees were denied bond by a magistrate judge on May 1 even though none of the defendants has a criminal history or face any allegation of violence.
Foster told Truthout the activists drove once through the neighborhood and that two of them carefully placed flyers on numerous mailboxes without exiting their vehicle or approaching any residents. They purposefully placed flyers on the mailboxes, as opposed to inside them, because they thought opening mailboxes was potentially illegal, she said.
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“The state is now cracking down on the same behavior that used to get you a $300 fine and a night in jail, at tops, and it’s a huge overreach.”
The flyer that two of the activists were distributing alleged that a police officer who lives in the neighborhood helped perpetrate the January killing of Forest Defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who went by “Tortuguita,” during a multi-agency raid on the South River Forest protest encampment. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) forensics reportobtained by the Atlanta Community Press Collective named six state patrol officers as perpetrators: Bryland Myers, Jerry Parrish, Jonathan Salcedo, Mark Jonathan Lamb, Ronaldo Kegel and Royce Zah.
“Protest-related crimes are no are no crime at all. It’s protected by the by the First Amendment. Even when it’s not, you’re talking about relatively minor charges,” Foster told Truthout. “The state is now cracking down on the same behavior that used to get you a $300 fine and a night in jail, at tops, and it’s a huge overreach.”
In order for the intimidation charge to be upheld, Foster told Truthoutthere has to be a clear threat of violence and an intent to threaten violence. Her clients never threatened violence and only intended to spread awareness of Tortuguita’s police-perpetrated killing, she said.
Public records indicate the Georgia Deputy Attorney General John Fowler will represent the state in the activists’ cases, indicating that state is looking into the cases concurrently with 42 others from DeKalb and Fulton counties in which arrestees have faced domestic terrorism charges carrying up to 35 years in prison for protest-related activity in opposition to Cop City.
“We were hopeful for a minute that by being in a county that was separate, and by the charges [in these cases] being different, that we wouldn’t necessarily face the same politicization or targeting,” Foster told Truthout, comparing her clients’ cases against those from DeKalb and Fulton counties.
“We were hopeful for a minute that by being in a county that was separate, and by the charges [in these cases] being different, that we wouldn’t necessarily face the same politicization or targeting.”
On January 18, Tortuguita became first environmental activist to be killed on U.S. soil while protesting after they were shot by the six Georgia state patrol officers, who are not required to wear body cameras and initially claimed that Tortuguita had fired first, injuring a Georgia state trooper.
But DeKalb County’s official autopsy report found there was no gunpowder residue on Tortuguita’s hands, as would be consistent with their firing a weapon. An independent autopsy commissioned by the Paez Terán family determined the activist had been sitting “crossed-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg,” with their palms up and facing inward when they were killed.
The revelations add to other evidence that contradicts the official police narrative of Tortuguita’s shooting, including police incident reports that revealed officers fired rounds from a pepperball gun into Tortuguita’s closed tent before the alleged exchange of gunfire that resulted in the 26-year-old’s death. Body camera video released by the Atlanta Police Department (APD) also shows officers who were not at the immediate scene suggesting that the Georgia state trooper Tortuguita allegedly shot was instead shot by friendly fire.
At least six Democratic Georgia state legislators have asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland for the Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation. The GBI has said it has concluded its investigation and forwarded evidence and materials to a special prosecutor who will decide whether to bring charges against the perpetrating officers.
Domestic Terror Charges Upheld
Preliminary hearings were held last week to establish probable cause for domestic terrorism charges for three people swept up in a mass arrest at a music festival in DeKalb County on March 5 in which a subset of activists allegedly broke off from the festival and set fire to equipment at a Cop City construction site. Law enforcement, failing to apprehend specific individuals at the site itself, indiscriminately targeted festivalgoers with arrest following the fiery protest.
Judge James Altman upheld domestic terrorism charges for all three defendants and upheld a previous decision denying bond for two defendants. He granted a conditional bond of $25,000, however, to a third.
Among the evidence the state presented to establish probable cause was sworn testimony from GBI Special Agent Ryan Long, who is leading the agency’s investigation of the 23 defendants. Long and prosecutors focused on defendants’ wet, muddy and/or dark clothes, and their allegedly fleeing from police to attempt to link them to property destruction that happened a mile away from music festival.
Arrestees have been forced to endure horrific conditions in county jails, with at least 25 being denied bond, and others receiving exorbitantly high bonds they can’t afford. Georgia law stipulates prosecutors have 90 days to bring a case to a grand jury before they must grant bail. Prosecutors have yet to indict any of the arrestees.
“I figured if I’m out and they’re not, [prosecutors] must have some kind of case against them. Right? Like a real one. And they have no case against them.”
Priscilla Grim, one of the 23 activists facing domestic terrorism charges who was released on bond from the DeKalb County jail reacted to this week’s preliminary hearings, telling Truthout, “I figured if I’m out and they’re not, [prosecutors] must have some kind of case against them. Right? Like a real one. And they have no case against them,” she said, referring to the three defendants who had probable cause hearings last week. “Twenty years ago, [prosecutors’ arguments] might have worked, but we have the internet and everything in real time now…. This is not going to end the way they think it is.”
Grim recently documented the horrific experiences she endured at DeKalb County Jail in an article for Scalawag in which she detailed going without access to running water and working toilets during lockdowns and enduring frigid temperatures and little sunlight in her pod-cage. She witnessed jailers put incarcerated people on lockdown over mental health episodes, deny them medical care, and delay intervening in a suicide attempt. She told Truthout that she is now struggling with employment after she lost her job at the president’s office at Fordham University after her arrest.
Meanwhile, after a March 27 raid cleared the South River Forest following an executive order closing a public park where activists had been camping, student activists in Atlanta have taken to occupying a different kind of green space. At college campuses, activists have been calling on their universities to cut all ties with Cop City funders and contractors, including the project’s main backer, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF).
Camille Harris, a third-year Ph.D. student studying computer science at Georgia Tech, told Truthout Georgia Tech Police Department (GTPD) officers have repeatedly ordered a small student occupation on the campus’s central green to take its tents and canopies down even though the university’s rules allow the students to be there.
In addition to cutting ties with Cop City contractors and investors, students are also calling for Georgia Tech to stop censoring students after the university removed a student journalist’s critical Cop City reporting from its website. Students also want the university to release a public statement denouncing the 2017 GTPD-perpetrated killing of nonbinary student Scout Schultz, which as Truthout reported at the time, sparked a police crackdown against student dissent on campus and a witch-hunt for student activists of color.
Harris told Truthout the student coalition wants the university to divest from the GTPD, and fund programs that enrich student life on campus, such as the university’s counseling center and the LGBTQ resource center. They’re also demanding the university stop conducting research with the U.S. military and inviting military contractors and oil and gas companies to recruit Georgia Tech students.
“They decided to build this [training] facility to boost police morale, even though people in the city did not ask for it or want it. So the main reason [I’m opposed] is my concern about police violence, but I’m also very concerned about the environmental impact,” Harris told Truthout. “One of the largest green spaces is being torn down, and low-income Black communities are some of the ones who are most impacted by the impacts of climate change by flooding events that will inevitably … happen without the tree cover.”
“They decided to build this [training] facility to boost police morale, even though people in the city did not ask for it or want it. So the main reason [I’m opposed] is my concern about police violence, but I’m also very concerned about the environmental impact.”
The occupation at Georgia Tech is part of a larger Stop Cop City student collaboration across several universities and colleges in the Atlanta metro area, including Emory University, Georgia State University, Agnes Scott, Morehouse and Spelman, where students have organized town halls, teach-ins and distributed letters of support for faculty to sign.
Students at Emory University organized a joint occupation of their campus quad last month, as well as a walkout and several rallies and events. Emory student organizer Jaanaki Radhakrishnan, a first-year double-majoring in psychology and anthropology, told Truthout Emory Police Department officers threatened about 20 students with arrest after the university’s Office of Open Expression told the students they weren’t allowed to set up tents. Shortly after, she says, both APD and Emory police vehicles surrounded them on the quad.
Emory students successfully pressured former university President Claire Sterk to resign from the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation in February. They remain focused on pressuring Emory Department of Surgery’s Douglas Murphy to likewise step down from the APF board, as well as for current University President Greg Fenves to resign from the board of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, another major proponent of Cop City.
As local solidarity groups in cities across the country continue to coordinate similar political campaigns targeting Cop City’s investors and contractors, Truthout obtained records revealing another potential target for divestment: Cop City’s insurer, Nationwide, based in Columbus, Ohio. Its subsidiary, Scottsdale Insurance, is providing insurance for the Atlanta Police Foundation, according to its certificate of insurance.
Candice Bernd is senior editor/staff reporter at Truthout. Her work has also appeared in several other publications, including The Nation, In These Times, the Texas Observer, The Real News Network, Salon, Rewire News Group, Sludge, Scalawag, YES! Magazineand Earth Island Journal. Her work has received awards from the San Francisco Press Club, the Fort Worth chapter of Society of Professional Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and the Dallas Peace and Justice Center. Follow her on Twitter: @CandiceBernd.