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Cop City Protest Tear-Gassed as Activists Face “Unprecedented” RICO & Domestic Terrorism Charges

StoryNovember 17, 2023
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Image Credit: Defend the Atlanta Forest

Protesters in Atlanta held a week of action to stop the construction of the massive $90 million police training complex known as “Cop City” in the Weelaunee Forest. This comes as activists have been organizing for a citywide referendum on the project which officials have tied up in court. Meanwhile, 61 people facing RICO, or racketeering, and domestic terrorism charges appeared in court this month as the state tries to characterize them as “militant anarchists.” We get an update from Kamau Franklin, founder of the Atlanta-based grassroots organizing collective Community Movement Builders, who describes Atlanta’s repression of peaceful civil disobedience as part of an effort “to protect cops and capitalism.” We also feature excerpts from Al Jazeera’s new Fault Lines documentary on the “Stop Cop City” movement and speak with correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who calls the mass charges against protesters “unprecedented.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show in Atlanta, Georgia, where people from around the country joined in a week of action to stop the massive $90 million police training complex known as Cop City.

PROTESTER: Now they’re throwing tear gas into the crowd. They’re throwing munitions — yeah, that’s tear gas.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, police attacked peaceful protesters with tear gas, pepper balls, flashbang grenades as over 400 marched toward the sacred Weelaunee Forest, the proposed site for Cop City. Participants included the parents of the environmental defender Manuel Esteban Terán, known as Tortuguita, who was fatally shot by Georgia state troopers during a raid on the Stop Cop City protest encampment in January.

PROTESTERS: Viva, viva Tortuguita! Viva, viva Tortuguita!

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as activists have been organizing for a citywide referendum on the project which officials have tied up in court. Meanwhile, 61 people facing RICO, or racketeering, and domestic terrorism charges appeared in court this month as the state tries to characterize them as militant anarchists.

Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines recently covered all of this in their report, “'Now you're a terrorist’: Atlanta’s Cop City crackdown.” Sharif Abdel Kouddous spoke to environmental activist Sarah Wasilewski, one of the dozens charged with domestic terrorism for protesting Cop City. She described the January morning when Georgia law enforcement officers violently raided their protests encampment, when state troopers shot and killed Tortuguita.

SARAH WASILEWSKI: So, I was sitting in a hammock with my partner at the time. We woke up around like 8:00, maybe quarter ’til 8:00 in the morning.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Sarah Wasilewski had traveled from Pittsburgh to Atlanta and joined the protest for the weekend.

SARAH WASILEWSKI: So, we were just laying in bed talking. And then, all of a sudden, we heard and saw just like 15 or so police in full military, like, combat gear, like, with AR-15s, just like coming through the woods directly at us. We were waiting to be put into a transport vehicle, and that’s when I heard gunshots.

STATE TROOPER: Is this target practice?

SARAH WASILEWSKI: I screamed when I heard it. And the police officer that, like, had me also responded, like, “Oh [bleep].” Like, they knew something bad happened.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: While Sarah was being arrested, a team of officers killed Tortuguita in a barrage of gunfire.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous also spoke to Indigenous forest defender Victor Puertas in a video call inside ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where Puertas was held for over seven months since his arrest. After being released on bond from DeKalb County Jail, Puertas was immediately taken into custody by ICE.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: After weeks of negotiations with the detention center, we were able to speak to Victor by video call.



This is the first time he’s spoken to the media since his arrest.

VICTOR PUERTAS: It feels like you’re like living a completely parallel life, you know? Like, your life is stopped the moment that you got arrested. And now you have to make meaning of all this, you know?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And why is this movement so important to you, Victor?

VICTOR PUERTAS: I care about the land. I care about the people. I care about life. I care about the water. I deeply care about those things. I grew up in that way. I was raised in that way.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So, what do you think it does to movement when the state labels it as a violent extremist organization and then charges its participants, like you, with domestic terrorism?

VICTOR PUERTAS: You know, you don’t believe it at first, you know? And then you realize, yeah, actually, they’re, like, passing these kind of laws, you know, to targeting certain groups of people. What’s happening here in Georgia, in Atlanta, you know, it will have a repercussion all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Sharif Abdel Kouddous is still with us, correspondent for this Al Jazeera Fault Lines report. And Kamau Franklin is joining us, founder of the organization Community Movement Builders, who’s been part of the now two-year movement to stop Cop City.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Kamau, for the latest news of this week, over 60 people in court, many of them charged with domestic terrorism. Can you talk about the significance of what this means, as we heard this woman say domestic terrorism, and how it affects their whole lives?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yes. Thanks for having me.

I mean, this issue goes to the heart of the militarization of the police and the criminalization of movements. What we’re witnessing in Atlanta is a rebirth of the COINTELPRO movement to stamp out organizers and activists, to scare people into not speaking up and participating in movements. You have people who came to Atlanta who previously were not involved in any Cop City activity, but who happened to get rounded up by police. And the police looked at IDs. And if they had Georgia IDs, they let them go. If they had out-of-state IDs, they arrested them and charged them with domestic terrorism and later added on the charge of RICO.

So you have people whose lives have been turned upside down, people who have been engaged in acts — some people who have been engaged in acts of simple civil disobedience by sitting in tents, by sitting in tree huts, who now, again, have domestic terrorism charges and RICO charges. And so, as you stated and as the documentary was saying, people’s lives have been turned upside down because of the state’s attempt to criminalize and brutalize activists and organizers who are working against police violence in our city.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the range of opposition? I mean, it’s not just one group. It’s people who are deeply concerned about police brutality. It’s also religious leaders, Indigenous leaders. Talk about the area where it’s being built.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah, one of the things about this movement has been, since the very beginning, it’s been vast in its outreach, everything from community organizers like myself, environmentalists, religious leaders, voting rights activists, yes, including anarchists, other people who are community members, who have been engaged in this because they see two things happening. One is the — what we spoke about a couple of seconds ago, is the continued overpolicing of Black and Brown communities that will be happening if Cop City is built. Two is the attack against movements, which is the very reason why this vast militarized facility is even being proposed.

And then three is the environmental degradation of the Weelaunee Forest, which is going to be ripped apart. Over 300 acres have been rented at $10 a year. Ninety acres have already been cut down. This forest has been promised to a working-class adjacent Black community for use of park space, for camping space, for trails, walking trails. All of those plans were ripped away as soon as they decided to put Cop City in. It’s already caused environmental degradation in the neighborhood. And that will continue to happen as they go forth with their plans to try to build Cop City.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the referendum? What’s happened to it, an Atlanta-wide referendum so people could decide?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: The city of Atlanta, along with the Clerk’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, have basically sat on this referendum. They’ve done nothing to move this forward, even though the organizers who did this, we collected over 116,000 signatures. The City Council and the Clerk’s Office could have started verifying these signatures as soon as we turned them in, but they decided to halt that process and to not do it.

Further, the City Council on its own could put a referendum on the ballot without even considering the signatures. And again, they have failed the city of Atlanta, they’ve failed the people in Atlanta by allowing the people to decide. People, again, over 116,000 signatures of people saying that they want to vote on this, they want a voice on this. But the city has ignored it because it prefers to do backroom deals with corporations and with the Atlanta Police Foundation and with the police themselves and the state government. You have here a right-wing, white Republican state apparatus teaming up with a so-called liberal, moderate Democratic Black mayor apparatus. And the things that they agree upon most is how to protect cops and capitalism. And that’s what’s happening right now. And the referendum is being put on ice, so that it can’t be voted upon by the people in Atlanta.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you spoke to Belkis Terán, the mother of the forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, who was killed by Georgia police in January. Belkis traveled to Georgia from Panama, where she lives. We’re going to just play a short clip.

PROTESTER: You [bleep]ed your own officer up.

BELKIS TERÁN: I really don’t believe anything what they say. I think they are lying. And that is nothing new. Everybody knows the police lie.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The county medical examiner didn’t find any gunshot residue on Tortuguita’s hands. And an independent autopsy suggests that Tortuguita was shot while seated with hands raised.

BELKIS TERÁN: Manuel really was pacifist. He disliked the police very much, but not to kill anybody or to try to kill anybody. Manuel’s life and message is to save the world, to save the green areas, to take care of the oceans.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, one of the first people we hear in your Fault Lines documentary, “'Now you're a terrorist,’” is the mother of Tortuguita, Belkis Terán. Your overall take from covering issues all over the world, from going down to Atlanta and seeing what people were confronting here and now what they’re being charged with? I mean, that’s not to say Tortuguita, who was killed.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, I think what’s important to note about the movement to stop Cop City and defend the Atlanta forest is its resilience. You know, it’s brought together, as you mentioned, abolitionists, environmentalists, Indigenous rights leaders, religious leaders — a multifaceted resistance movement against this massive planned police training center. And the movement’s lasted well over two years now. It’s still going, despite this massive amount of state repression against it.

And what we try and document in the documentary is that many of these — there’s a crackdown on even lawful political activities. And lawyers say this is unprecedented, that it’s basically criminalizing political association. The indictment, where 61 people are charged in this wide-ranging racketeering case, the ACLU called the theory in the indictment shocking and unprecedented. And it basically relies on people’s beliefs and community organizing as the basis for the sweeping criminal liability.

And just finally, as we’re talking internationally, too, you know, there’s protests by the Stop Cop City movement in support of Palestine, as well, and against what’s called the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, or GILEE, where law enforcement officers from Atlanta, from across the state and the U.S. travel to Israel to receive training from Israeli police forces. And, you know, Israel has long taken these strategies and techniques that are honed on the Palestinian body and then exported them abroad. And so we see these ties —

AMY GOODMAN: Four seconds.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: — between Israel and police forces in Atlanta.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, he is the reporter on “'Now you're a terrorist,’” the Fault Lines documentary. You can watch it online. And Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders.

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Autopsy Suggests “Cop City” Protester Sitting Cross-Legged, Hands Up, When Shot 14 Times by Police

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