‘Threatened and vulnerable’: Cop City activists labeled as terrorists pay high price

Before boarding a flight from San Francisco to New York last month, Luke “Lucky” Harper was pulled aside and subjected to a search of his body and his belongings in front of other passengers waiting to board.

The experience would have been even more upsetting if it wasn’t the third time in several weeks. Harper was also searched in airports in Nashville, Tennessee and Salt Lake City, Utah. His name was called out on a loudspeaker; officials swabbed his hands, seeking traces of explosives.

The 27-year-old aspiring writer had recently been released from jail in Dekalb county, Georgia, after being arrested on state domestic terrorism charges at a music festival on 5 March. He is one of 42 people facing the same charges in Georgia in connection with continuing protests against a planned police and fire department training center known as “Cop City”. Another dozen or so people have been arrested and charged with felony stalking of a police officer – after handing out flyers – and money laundering, among other charges. Some were jailed in solitary confinement for days without explanation.

Although nearly a year has passed since the earliest arrests, no one has been indicted. The terrorism charges have been denounced as part of a “broader attempt to smear protesters as national security threats” in a letter by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups.

As with Harper, the lives of the arrestees have been upended. Some have lost jobs or been barred from attending school. Most are living with the psychological impacts of the criminal justice system being wielded against them with little to no publicly released evidence of having committed any crimes. At least 13 of them have posted fundraisers online to help with everything from housing to mental health.

Harper was arrested after arriving at the public park near the Cop City site the day before a 5 March music festival, part of a week of activities against the training center.

“I was there because I was curious,” Harper said.

He had never been to the forest before. During the festival, at least 100 people walked into the woods, crossed a creek and knocked over a fence where construction of the training center had begun. Some of them threw rocks and burned equipment. Harper was arrested hours later and accused of participating, in part due to his clothes being muddy and to a photo allegedly showing him at the scene.

During his arrest, police separated several dozen people according to where they were from – Georgia or elsewhere. All 23 arrested that day were charged with domestic terrorism and only two were not Georgia residents. This is notable because the state has consistently labelled the movement against Cop City as the work of “outsiders”, in part because of the out-of-state residences of those arrested.

The arrests have also produced a chilling effect on the movement against the training center, which persists in its third year and came to global attention after police shot dead Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, an environmental protester, in a January raid on the forest – the first incident of its kind in US history. The state says Paez Terán shot first, but video footage from police nearby raises the possibility that one officer wounded another in the raid. A special prosecutor is evaluating the case.

The arrests mark the first time in the US that state domestic terrorism charges have been brought in connection with environmental or other protests. The underlying statute has been challenged in court as “unconstitutionally vague”, according to attorney Stanley L Cohen, who filed the petition. One of the two prosecuting agencies – the Dekalb county district attorney’s office – withdrew from the cases altogether in late June, leaving the state attorney general to pursue them.

But none of that has altered the state’s approach. On 31 May, Atlanta police staged a Swat-style raid in an Atlanta neighborhood, entering a house with long guns drawn. They arrested Marlon Kautz and two colleagues at the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, one of nearly 100 similar organizations across the country that helps arrested protesters with bail, legal defense and related needs.

Demonstrators protest Copy City outside the Atlanta city hall on 5 June 2023.

The three were charged with money laundering and other financial crimes. Within days, a judge presiding over their bail hearing said he didn’t find the state’s case “real impressive”.

Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, called the three “criminals [who] aided and abetted domestic terrorism”. Speaking to the Guardian in June, Jocelyn Simonson, who analyzes bail funds in her new book, Radical Acts of Justice, said the arrests were “unprecedented”.

Reached at a co-working space recently, Kautz summed up the state’s approach as “repression that seems motivated by fear … [as] nothing seems to be working to slow down the movement”. Having police arrest him and his colleagues at gunpoint and take their computers, files, phones and other belongings has been “incredibly disruptive”, he said. The group also runs a project collecting and distributing “tons of produce” each week at a handful of Atlanta locations; donors withdrew support for several months because of fear of getting swept up in the arrests – meaning people who counted on free food were also affected.

The arrests, Kautz said, “are within the legal system, but outside the trial system – to make people feel uncertain, threatened and vulnerable all the time”.

“It’s bad for my mental health. It affects my ability to focus,” he said, adding that at the same time, “I’m not changing anything I’m doing.”

Kautz has seen community members show concern about being targeted by authorities after their arrests; several asked him “if it was safe to [volunteer to] collect signatures” from voters for a referendum in an upcoming election on whether Cop City should be built. “That captures the level of fear that they have.”

Speaking on the phone during the last week of a summer camp in Michigan, Charley Tennenbaum was admiring a yellow butterfly that had landed on their hand. It was an appreciated moment of calm in nature, only weeks after being released from nearly three months in jail. Tennenbaum, who uses they/them pronouns, was one of three arrested in late April for posting a flyer on mailboxes in a Bartow county neighborhood where one of the state patrol officers who shot Tortuguita lived.

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The flyer called the officer a “murderer” and was addressed to the neighborhood’s residents. It made no threats. Tennenbaum was arrested and charged with felony intimidating a police officer. The FBI tried to pressure them into being interviewed. For their first four days in jail, police kept them in solitary confinement with lights on for 24 hours.

The case “raises serious first amendment concerns”, the ACLU of Georgia told the Guardian at the time.

“It is also part of a broader pattern of the state of Georgia weaponizing the criminal code to unconditionally protect law enforcement and to silence speech critical of the government,” the organization said.

Tennenbaum was supposed to spend the summer working at the summer camp, but lost the opportunity after being denied bond several times. A prosecutor from the state’s attorney general office convinced a judge in the rural county that records showing Tennenbaum had bought and been reimbursed for art supplies for a children’s event at the forest near the proposed Cop City site was evidence that they were somehow linked to domestic terrorism.

“Getting arrested has absolutely changed my life,” Tennenbaum said. After being released from jail and driving from Georgia to Michigan, their car got a flat tire. On pulling over to the side of the road while calling for help, there was a knock on the window. A police officer asked, “Do you need any help?”

“I had a brief moment of panic,” they recalled. “Every police encounter feels like it could go wrong.”

Tennenbaum has also been doxed on social media by rightwing extremist Andy Ngo. The worst part: “People close to me were included in my doxing …[and] could be harmed.”

They live in Atlanta, but are afraid to go back. Their bond conditions – as with most of the arrestees – include not having contact with a host of people the state connects to the movement against Cop City.

“Atlanta is still my home, but it’s scary … I may want to go somewhere – but if a certain person is there – ,” Tennenbaum said.

Arrestees, attorneys and legal experts who have spoken with the Guardian about Cop City arrests to date have noted that the state may wind up not moving on the charges for years, only to later drop them.

“The way these processes take so much time is a form of punishment that is normalized,” said Tennenbaum, who is 36. “I may be dealing with this until I’m 40.”

After hearing about the Cop City arrestees, journalist Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red, said it “feels like flashbacks”. Potter’s book details the federal government’s legal campaigns against animal rights and environmental groups such as Earth First and the Animal Liberation Front, in the 1990s and 2000s.

“From my reporting on the history of government tactics,” he said, “fear is always used to send a message to the larger movement – and also to tie up energy, momentum, money and time.”

The idea, Potter said, is to marginalize dissent; his research has led him to doubt “if the charges actually matter” to the state. “I’m not convinced … the plan is to solve a crime, or to protect the public,” he said. “It’s all political theater.”

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