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Georgia Is Using a Domestic Terrorism Law Expanded After Dylann Roof Against ‘Cop City’ Protesters

7 minute read

In 2017, mostly Republican lawmakers expanded Georgia’s domestic terrorism law in the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s massacre at a Black church in neighboring South Carolina. Now, the law’s new provisions are being used in prosecutions for the first time—against protesters fighting to halt the state’s proposed new police training center.

“Using the domestic terrorism statute against individuals who are protesting—I mean, that obviously has a chilling effect on free speech,” says Jenn Hyman, an attorney at Arora Law, which is representing three people charged in the so-called ‘Cop City’ protests. “There are other charges that could be used—other types of crimes that could be charged instead of domestic terrorism—but by putting the label of domestic terrorist, it’s painting people with certain political views in this dangerous, evil light.”

Atlanta’s plan to build a $90 million police and fire training center stretching 85-acres across an urban forest has sparked outrage and controversy, leading some protesters to camp out for weeks at the site and set a police car on fire after law enforcement fatally shot a young activist. Law enforcement has charged more than 40 protesters with domestic terrorism over the last few months in the demonstrations against ‘Cop City.’ Legal experts and local attorneys say this is the first time Georgia’s domestic terrorism law has been used in this way; on Wednesday, the first round of preliminary hearings began for a handful of those facing these charges.

The ‘Cop City’ cases in Georgia underscore the complicated legal questions about how to effectively prosecute domestic terror in the United States, and who should be considered a domestic terrorist under the law. After numerous incidents of homegrown violence in recent years—from Roof to the 2018 attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue to the 2019 El Paso massacre—calls for tougher domestic terrorism laws mounted to combat white supremacist violence. But as states like Georgia strengthened their laws in response, some worried that the statutes had become too broad, and could be used to repress protests and other forms of civil disobedience.

“This is not about just arresting people who were engaged in certain types of action. This is about criminalizing the movement,” says Kamau Franklin, founder of an Atlanta-based non-profit organization, Community Movement Builders, which has been part of the ‘Cop City’ protests.

In its 2017 expansion, Georgia no longer limited domestic terrorism to criminalized acts intended to or reasonably likely to kill or injure at least 10 people; the newer version of the law included some property crimes intended to change government policy through intimidation or coercion. Republican state sen. Bill Cowsert helped usher the law through Georgia’s legislature five years ago. He says the law protects critical infrastructure, including law enforcement facilities and property. “That’s out of bounds. You shouldn’t be attacking schools, hospitals, police stations, fire stations,” Cowsert says.

No domestic terrorism law exists at the federal level despite pressure on the Biden Administration to enforce one, so states are leading on the issue. Some states—including Georgia—have taken the definition of terrorism at the federal level and turned it into a crime state prosecutors can charge. Frank Figliuzzi, the FBI’s former counterintelligence director, told TIME last year that without more explicit federal laws, the Justice Department’s efforts to tackle white supremacy could end up being “administrative window dressing.”

But more than 150 civil rights groups, including the ACLU, wrote to Congress last year about the dangers of passing such a law because it could penalize people of color. Branding acts as domestic terrorism can delegitimize protest and ratchet up criminal penalties, says Shirin Sinnar, a law professor at Stanford University. (In Georgia’s case, the law entails a prison sentence of up to 35 years for some property crimes.)

Protesters in Atlanta fear the new training facility will empower police violence, partly because it includes a ‘mock city’ for officers to try out urban warfare tactics and practice raids. Some environmentalists say the project is an affront to Atlanta’s urban woodland. ‘Cop City’ critics have accused police of responding violently and using extreme charges to chill protest: an independent autopsy found that law enforcement fired 57 times when they killed 26-year-old protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán. Defenders of the facility argue it’s necessary to better train police, particularly to respond to situations such as shootings and robberies. “Some of these same people protesting against law enforcement’s excessive use of force… ought to be the people that most want us to properly train law enforcement so that they will be respectful of citizens,” says Cowsert.

Law enforcement officers guard the entrance of the planed site of a controversial “Cop City” project as the clear cutting of trees begins near Atlanta
Law enforcement officers guard the entrance of the planed site of a controversial “Cop City” project as the clear cutting of trees begins near Atlanta on March 31, 2023.Cheney Orr—Reuters

After months of simmering tension around the site, a music festival and bad weather precipitated a crackdown on the protesters. Many of the activists charged with domestic terrorism attended a music festival protesting ‘Cop City’ in the forest on March 5, two days after a rainstorm. Law enforcement raided the event after dozens of people in black masks attacked the site of the proposed training center. Many arrest warrants said demonstrators had the phone number for a bail fund written on their body or on their clothes. Warrants also cited their muddy, black, or camouflage clothing. Law enforcement claims a group of 50-100 people “criminally trespassed on marked land, walked approximately half a mile in the forest, and began to assault Atlanta Police Department Officers and Georgia State Patrol Troopers with rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails.”

Read More: What to Know About the Clashes at ‘Cop City,’ Atlanta’s Planned Police Training Center

Attorneys for protesters pushed back, arguing that police made blanket arrests—without probable cause—at the music festival. “I don’t think these prosecutors or these cops have ever had the benefit and joy of going to a music festival… and gotten muddy,” says attorney Suri Chadha Jiminez. (His client, 18-year-old Ayla King, was charged with domestic terrorism after attending the music festival.)

Attorney Matt Bass, who represents three protesters arrested the day of the music festival, says the domestic terrorism charges are politically motivated, intended to win over conservative voters with a tough-on-crime approach. “Tons of protests happen around the country where a few people do something wrong,” Bass says. “That doesn’t make the people who were there participating in the protest guilty.”

Domestic terrorism charges can also make it more difficult to get bail. (Only one person arrested in relation to ‘Cop City’ protests received bail upon first appearance, although many more protesters did at subsequent court hearings.) “The judges at first appearance are not only saying we can see how there’s probable cause but they’re also saying—you’re so dangerous, we can’t even give you a bail amount,” says Tiffany Roberts, policy director at Southern Center for Human Rights, which is helping connect protesters with legal representation. Some bail amounts have been higher than $300,000, according to Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides arrested protesters with bail. Cowsert, the state senator, insists that nothing prevents reasonable bond from being set: “That is a decision that each judge makes on each case.”

The ‘Cop City’ cases are critical tests as the nation wrestles with how to keep its citizens safe in the face of rising domestic terror—without entangling other types of crimes or legitimate forms of protest in the terrorism net. “People become worried because the prosecution is effectively broadcasting that you’re going to target people not just because of the crimes that they did but because of their political association,” Kautz says. “If you call something terrorism, it makes it fundamentally illegitimate.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com