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Will Government Pressure on ‘Cop City’ Protesters Affect Future Movements?

Over 40 people associated with the Stop Cop City demonstrations have been charged with domestic terrorism.

A woman speaks during a January protest in Atlanta following the shooting death of Manuel Paez Terán during a police raid on their encampment inside Weelaunee People’s Park, the site of the proposed “Cop City” training facility. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Keeping with their promise to use all avenues available to them, the Cop City Vote Coalition — part of the larger Stop Cop City Movement — has successfully filed a petition to hold a referendum on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, aka “Cop City.”

Filed June 14, the petition was approved by the municipal clerk on June 21 after organizers filed a lawsuit alleging the petition was being delayed for political reasons. Organizers now can begin collecting the 75,000 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot in November. 

In a press release issued seven days after the petition was filed and after the clerk initially denied the petition, the Cop City Vote Coalition said Mayor Andre Dickens’ administration has “illegally stonewalled” organizers from moving forward with the petition’s approval process.

Though local and state government have taken action against the Stop Cop City movement by pursuing domestic terrorism charges against protesters, arresting three bail fund organizers, and allegedly delaying a petition for the referendum, organizers have continued to adjust their tactics rather than withdraw from the fight. They’re taking the lessons learned from these challenges to continue their efforts to prevent the new training center through multiple channels, including in the courts.

A history of discrediting social movements

Mary Hooks is the field secretary for the Movement for Black Lives, and organizes with Southerners on New Ground. She said organizers understand that supporters of their movement and others might be hesitant to take action because of the risk of arrest or government retaliation.

“That’s why the movement is so broad, with multiple tactics being used,” Hooks said. “You may not be able to go and turn up at a City Council meeting, or go to a march, but can you watch the babies? Can you make the food? Can you help set up the meeting space? All of that is a meaningful contribution.”

Members of the Stop Cop City movement have been labeled domestic terrorists by elected officials. Currently, the Fulton and DeKalb County district attorneys are charging 42 protesters with domestic terrorism.

Georgia’s domestic terrorism law changed in 2017 in response to Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who shot and killed nine churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Prior to 2017, only someone who had killed, intended to kill, or seriously harm at least 10 people could be charged with domestic terrorism.

The new law gives state and local attorney’s general more discretion with whom they decide to prosecute as a domestic terrorist. None of the activists connected to Stop Cop City charged with domestic terrorism are accused of causing or intending to cause bodily harm, meaning they could not have been charged with domestic terrorism prior to 2017.

Joseph L. Jones is an associate professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University who studies social justice movements. He said there’s a fine line when participating in a social movement where the law is being weaponized against activists.

This also isn’t the first time a social justice movement or its members have been labeled domestic terrorists, Jones said: The label was used by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to describe the Black Panther Party.

“A lot of people might be clutching their pearls and saying, ‘Oh, my God. How could this happen?’ You can just read history, and see that this is not as strange as you thought it might be,” Jones said.

Community organizer Kamau Franklin speaks during a June news conference outside Atlanta’s City Hall to announce an effort to force a referendum that would allow voters to decide whether the construction of the proposed police and firefighter training center should proceed. (R.J. Rico/Associated Press)

On May 31, three organizers of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that raises money for lawyers and to bail out protesters, were arrested in a raid by APD and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. All three were charged with money laundering and charity fraud by state Attorney General Chris Carr. 

The organizers are reportedly affiliated with Defend the Atlanta Forest. In the arrest warrant, the group is described as “classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.” Homeland Security has called this description inaccurate, however.

“I think shedding light on these kinds of stories or these kinds of instances is very important — to get to the facts, to get to the truth, and to show how unordinary or how exceptional these charges are that are levied against these individuals,” Jones said of the arrests.

Jones said it’s often up to the communities themselves to put pressure on elected officials when it comes to the government using undemocratic tactics to suppress social movements. He used the example of COINTELPRO, an FBI program whose main goal was to cause chaos within left wing social movements in order to neutralize them.

‘It’s a way to try to scare Black people’

The Rev. Keyanna Jones with the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City said she believes the arrest of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund members was an attempt to criminalize any kind of future opposition demonstrations to the project.

“Not only did they want to arrest leaders, but they wanted to attack what they thought to be the financial infrastructure of the movement,” she said.

Keyanna Jones said that since the government began charging Cop City protesters with domestic terrorism, she no longer brings her children with her to protests.

“It has really changed the dynamic of how we as a family organize and participate,” she said. “Before, we used to be so sure about not being bothered by the authorities if we were not breaking the law.”

She often took part in demonstrations alongside her husband, but now must shift their strategy.

“My husband and I no longer participate in actions together. If one of us is at an action, then the other needs to be somewhere else,” she said, adding that they have a comprehensive emergency plan should one of them be arrested.

Like Keyanna Jones, Hooks said she is always mindful of how her activism could affect family, and she is mindful that she is accountable to not just her wife but to their 10-year-old and newborn baby.

“I think it’s a way to try to scare Black people into not voicing their opinions, and not to be public about engaging in any level of dissent, whether that be shutting down a highway, doing a banner drop, or what have you,” she said.

Over the past two years, the Stop Cop City movement has adjusted its tactics in reaction to the government’s response. At a press conference announcing the referendum, organizers also said they would be filing an injunction to stop the ongoing construction in the run-up to Election Day in November. 

Hooks and Keyanna Jones told Capital B Atlanta that they’ve had a number of people tell them that they’re worried about getting involved with the movement and the consequences it could bring.

“I think that that is important for us, as Black organizers, to create a movement that has hands wide enough to hold all of us, and be able to receive any meaningful offering that our people have in service to a broader liberation struggle,” Hooks said, explaining that people can join their movement without being on the front lines.

“I think, for Black people, that’s been a part of our freedom struggle for a long time,” she said. “We have always had to make that choice to choose courage over fear.”