By Zane McNeill / Truthout
An independent filmmaker and producer covering the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protests who was detained and interrogated by police for more than 90 minutes on June 15, 2022, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations that are part of a pattern of retaliation against free speech by the Atlanta Police Department (APD).
The journalist, Michael Watchulonis, alleges in the lawsuit that police interfered with his filming in violation of his first amendment rights and that APD illegally detained, intimidated, harassed, and threatened him. Specifically, Watchulonis claims that an officer pressured him at length to delete footage or face arrest.
“I am going to ask you to delete all the footage that you have today since it has been obtained illegally to begin with — and depending on how the rest of this interview goes will determine whether or not you are going to be arrested,” the officer allegedly said.
Watchulonis refused to delete the footage and was later released without being issued a citation. However, the officers forced Watchulonis to be photographed before leaving and warned him that “I’m sure our paths will cross again down the road!”
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“The most disturbing part of my detention was being brazenly lied to and threatened by senior APD officers in front of more than a dozen junior officers with body cams recording,” said Watchulonis in a press release. “It was a dark classroom lesson in how to violate a journalist’s rights.”
Attorneys, activists, and journalists have drawn attention to a pattern of civil rights violations by APD in the department’s targeting of opponents of Atlanta’s public safety training center site, or “Cop City” as it has come to be called.
Dozens of “Defend the Atlanta Forest” activists have been charged with domestic terrorism, a move criticized as “absurd” by legal scholars. Three activists who placed flyers on mailboxes have also been arrested and charged with felony intimidation of an officer of the state and misdemeanor stalking.
“Protest-related crimes are no crime at all. It’s protected by the First Amendment. Even when it’s not, you’re talking about relatively minor charges,” Lyra Foster, a defense attorney representing the activists, told Truthout’s Candice Bernd. “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.”
Journalists have also raised the alarm about the harassment and threats they’ve faced by APD when covering the mass arrests of Cop City protesters.
“At one point I was personally threatened with arrest by an officer who, noting my out-of-town license plate, said, ‘Don’t you know it’s a felony to travel from another state for a protest?’ The officer ordered me to leave the area, but other people attempting to leave were being detained and cuffed, which the officer admitted was true. He said that if I left in my vehicle, I would not be arrested,” wrote Truthout contributor Frances Madeson in March.
Truthout Senior Editor/Staff Reporter Bernd also faced police intimidation while covering the Cop City “Week of Action.” When leaving a downtown Atlanta protest, Bernd was followed by police to her friend’s car.
“Several APD vehicles followed our vehicle as we attempted to leave downtown. They stopped us. I documented what happened next on a Twitter thread and livestream,” Bernd wrote in March. “My friend was ticketed for allegedly not maintaining her lane and for her physical license being expired (though the license was technically renewed). That we were let go I can only attribute to the thread and livestream going semi-viral during the stop itself.”
A journalist reporting for Unicorn Riot and a filmmaker who has worked with CNNand the Discovery Channel have also documented police harassment and retaliation for their coverage of the Cop City protesters.
APD has a history of unconstitutionally targeting journalists and, earlier this month, paid $105,000 to settle a photojournalist’s lawsuit over his arrest while covering a downtown protest in 2020. More lawsuits are expected to be filed in the next few months over the unconstitutional police treatment of journalists covering Cop City activists.
More than 40 human and environmental rights organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Human Rights Watch, and the Southern Center for Human Rights have condemned the retaliation and prosecution of activists by the APD.
“Prosecutors in Georgia are launching a terrifying attack on our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly,” said NLG President Suzanne Adely. “The legal community must join together in solidarity with the activists in Atlanta. This kind of state repression threatens our collective ability to advocate for justice.”
Zane McNeill is a breaking news writing fellow at Truthout and has written for In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, National Geographic, the Progressive and Sentient Media. He has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Central European University and is currently enrolled in law school at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. They can be found on Twitter: @zane_crittheory.