The Terrorism Charges Against Cop City Protesters Are Ominous

Protesters against a massive police militarization complex in Atlanta have been slapped with domestic terrorism charges for throwing bottles and breaking windows. That should be deeply worrisome for anyone who values the right to dissent.

Police arrest a protester during a "Stop Cop City" protest in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 21, 2023. (Benjamin Hendren / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Can you be charged with terrorism for throwing bottles or breaking a window of a bank? You can in Atlanta, where the state of Georgia has slapped serious domestic terrorism charges on eleven people who’ve been demonstrating since December against the construction of a massive police militarization complex known as Cop City.

Governor Brian Kemp justified the severe punishment on Twitter, saying, “Violence and unlawful destruction of property are not acts of protest. They are crimes that will not be tolerated in Georgia and will be prosecuted fully.” On Thursday, Kemp signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency and authorizing the deployment of a thousand National Guard troops to arrest Cop City protesters. The state of emergency lasts two weeks, until February 9.

Kemp’s definition of “prosecuting fully” has changed since 2020. During the George Floyd protests that filled the streets of downtown Atlanta, most protesters arrested were taken to the city jail for offenses that included disorderly conduct, burglary, and criminal property damage.

Now, two years later, Georgia authorities are trumping up property crimes and relatively minor vandalism by Cop City political demonstrators as acts of terrorism. If convicted, the activists could face up to thirty-five years in prison — which in the state of Georgia is a punishment similar to second-degree murder.

How did we get here?

Trouble in Atlanta

While walking in Atlanta on Saturday evening, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of a military-style, State of Georgia–branded Humvee zooming past. A man clad in a dark uniform was perched on the vehicle’s tailgate, his hands gripping an assault rifle while he stared out into traffic.

They were headed downtown — and fast — to respond to a march protesting the construction of Cop City, which is shorthand for the proposed $90 million, eighty-five-acre police training center in the forest just south of Atlanta, and the recent police killing of twenty-six-year-old activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán.

Within an hour, six protesters were zip-tied and arrested for allegedly setting a police car on fire and breaking the windows of the Atlanta Police Foundation building and a Wells Fargo bank. Each of them now faces four felony charges: domestic terrorism, first-degree arson, criminal damage, and interference with government property. Four of them were denied bond by a judge. Those indictments were no anomaly: in December, Georgia authorities arrested five other activists for throwing rocks and bottles at emergency vehicles near the site of Cop City and charged them similarly.

The US Department of Justice is the agency that has traditionally brought terrorism-related charges, but thirty-four states since 9/11 have enacted laws that make committing acts of terrorism and/or providing support to terrorists state-level felonies.

Georgia’s current domestic terrorism law was adopted in 2017 with bipartisan support following Dylann Roof’s mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina that left nine parishioners dead. It created a new state Homeland Security Department and defined the offense of domestic terrorism as the commission of any felony meant to “intimidate the civilian population” or “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government.”

That loose definition means that throwing rocks at police cars could qualify. So could “occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflaged clothing” at a Cop City protest, noted the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The statute establishes overly broad, far-reaching limitations that restrict public dissent of the government and criminalizes violators with severe and excessive penalties,” said Chris Bruce, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

It also could have a chilling effect on dissent protected by the First Amendment. “The term ‘domestic terrorism’ is an incredibly frightening piece of language that is supposed to incite fear,” said Timothy Murphy, one of the activists arrested and charged with domestic terrorism last month.

A Bipartisan Problem

The problem with domestic terrorism statutes like these is that Republicans and Democrats take turns trying to criminalize civil disobedience depending on who is out on the streets. During the George Floyd protests, many Democrats fought authorities who pushed for a crackdown on dissent, most notably then president Donald Trump who threatened military action against those protesting police abuses. But after the events of January 6 and anti-vaccine demonstrations, it’s been Democrats pushing for expanding the scope of “domestic terrorism” and handing out harsher punishments.

In 2021, when President Joe Biden unveiled his strategy for combating domestic terrorism, he noted that the definition included those who “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” language that is very loose.

The Democrats also pushed for the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2022, which would have expanded domestic terror investigations and created new domestic terror departments in the FBI, Department of Justice, and Homeland Security, but that bill was defeated by the Republican Senate. Given this recent history, it’s little wonder that all Democrats not named Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush have remained quiet about the Cop City protests — including Georgia senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

It’s also ironic that the Cop City arrests were made just one week after Joe Biden came to Atlanta to honor Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) and claimed (falsely) that he’d helped organize a march to desegregate a Delaware city. In 1960, MLK was arrested for participating in a lunch counter sit-in in Atlanta and sentenced to four months at a work camp.

In terms of their overall organization and movement strategy, the Cop City protests are in many ways a far cry from the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. But it’s still worth asking: if MLK got arrested in Atlanta today during a political demonstration, would he be charged as a domestic terrorist? And would those who lionize him today have remained silent?