The past several months have seen a showdown between forest defenders and police in DeKalb County, Georgia. A contingent of climate activists calling themselves Defend the Atlanta Forest occupied forest land to block construction of what they have termed “Cop City” – a planned complex with training facilities for law enforcement personnel and firefighters. The police crackdown on the forest defenders has been devastating. On January 23, police shot and killed activist Tortuguita Terán. Over the course of several months of protests, a litany of charges has been brought against protesters, ranging from interference of government property (for throwing rocks at a police car) all the way up to arson and domestic terrorism.
Thus far, 19 protesters have been charged with domestic terrorism under a Georgia statute passed in 2017. Under Georgia state law, unlawful felonies intended to “disable or destroy…a state or government facility” with the intent to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government” can qualify as domestic terrorism. While many state-level laws focus on terrorism in the sense we tend to think of – using weapons of mass destruction, kidnapping, releasing biological weapons, harming human beings – the Georgia statute employs a more liberal definition. Under the expansive definition of domestic terrorism in Georgia, the 19 Cop City protesters face a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, with sentences up to 35 years in length.
Natasha Lennard of The Intercept describes the problems with such an expansive definition:
The Georgia law is exceedingly broad. Domestic terrorism under the statute includes the destruction or disabling of ill-defined “critical infrastructure,” which can be publicly or privately owned, or “a state or government facility” with the intention to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government” or “affect the conduct of the government” by use of “destructive devices.” What counts as critical infrastructure here? A bank branch window? A police vehicle? Bulldozers deployed to raze the forest? What is a destructive device? A rock? A firework? And is not a huge swathe of activism the attempt to coerce a government to change policies?
It’s worth noting that trespassing, burning police cars, and throwing Molotov cocktails are already crimes. Overcharging these offenses as domestic terrorism is an intimidation tactic. The prospect of facing 35 years in prison for being on the property where other offenses occurred might be enough to deter some protesters from showing up. And domestic terrorism charges are a shortcut for authorities to delegitimize and stigmatize protest movements.
Further, many of the domestic terrorism charges don’t stand up to scrutiny even as the law is written. For one thing, according to a Grist analysis, nine of the Cop City protesters were not charged with felony violations as the domestic terrorism statute requires. And problematically, many of the charges rely on guilt by association. In one of the arrest warrants, a protester “affirmed their cooperation with DTAF [Defend the Atlanta Forest] by occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflage clothing.” Other arrest warrants cited camping in a hammock with another defendant and merely being on the property when a state trooper was shot. Several arrest warrants explicitly cite First Amendment-protected activity as evidence: police cite one protester who admitted to participating in environmental protests in other states and another who is “a known members [sic] of a prison abolitionist movement.”
The charges are reminiscent of the “green scare” of the early 2000s, in which some animal rights and environmental activist tactics became reclassified as terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In a report, Defending Rights & Dissent and the Center for Constitutional Rights described the Green Scare as:
a successful campaign by legislators, law enforcement, and corporate interests…to conﬂate animal rights and environmental activism with terrorism and use fears of so-called “eco-terrorism” to chill, repress, and criminalize activism.
In this era, environmental and animal rights activism suddenly rose to prominence as a terrorism concern. In 2005, the FBI determined that the animal rights movement was the nation’s primary domestic terrorism threat. Congress held hearings on the terrorist threat posed by several animals rights and environmental activist groups, the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, noting that “although they have not killed anyone to date, it is only a matter of time.” In this political environment, ridiculous charges were brought, such as charging activists with creating a “terrorism hoax” after glitter fell off of their banner. Sometimes the tactics used by some activists from these groups were indeed criminal, ranging from illegal occupation to arson, but were these groups really terrorists? Senator James Jeffords disagreed, noting that “Timothy McVeigh’s membership in the National Rifle Association did not make the NRA responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing.”
The Cop City charges reflect, again, an obsession with charging everyday offenses as terrorism, and with painting protesters with a broad brush. Tellingly, the arrest warrants erroneously state that DHS has classified Defend the Atlanta Forest as a domestic violent extremist group. As a DHS spokesperson clarified, this is a fictitious designation. But it reveals the psychology at play in categorizing the members of an activist group as terrorists, and then blanket charging them with all of the offenses committed over the course of a day. All of the arrest warrants list the varied offenses committed by members of Defend the Atlanta Forest. Outside of the domestic terrorism charges, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund notes that all of the people arrested at a protest where a police car was burned now face arson charges – an indication that police are uniformly charging protesters with little consideration of who committed which crime.
Politicized application of domestic terrorism charges quashes dissent by branding activism as terrorism. Guilt by association, overcharging, and branding an activist movement as a terrorist group all endanger First Amendment freedoms. A crime does not a terrorist incident make.
Officials are underestimating the power of solidarity, already people from across the country are expressing their support for the Forest Defenders. Time and again, when cops and prosecutors have overreached, we have fought back. One recent example is the prosecution of protesters at the Trump inauguration on January 20, 2017. After prosecutors levied a slew of felony rioting charges against protesters, with similar guilt by association issues, protesters received an outpouring of support and legal aid. Eventually, many of the J20 prosecutions fell apart. But even if the Cop City protest domestic terrorism charges are eventually dropped, the fact remains that crying terrorism serves to sideline activists and criminalize dissent.