Leaders of a legal support organization for protesters against Atlanta’s public safety training center were arrested on fraud and money laundering charges on May 31 as Gov. Brian Kemp and other authorities painted the entire protest movement as a “criminal organization” of terrorists.
Protesters called it an attack on free speech and planned a rally at the DeKalb County Jail later in the day, and two prominent elected officials called for more information.
Continuing a pattern from previous, highly controversial domestic terrorism charges against protesters, authorities refused to release basic details about the arrests while using broad commentary linking the defendants to violence without evidence.
Police agencies involved in the arrests are themselves accused — informally as well as in federal lawsuits — of illegal activity in political support of the training center via unconstitutional arrests and the possibly unlawful killing of a protester. Available information does not directly connect the May 31 arrestees to violence but does present the entire “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement as criminal and suggest authorities — as protesters have long alleged — are preparing a case under federal anti-gang laws.
“These criminals facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism with no regard for others, watching as communities faced the destructive consequences of their actions,” said Kemp on social media about the May 31 arrests, providing no evidence of his claims. “Here in Georgia, we DO NOT allow that to happen.”
“This latest attack is a desperate move by the state to quash a rapidly expanding social movement,” said organizers of the “Stop Cop City ATL” movement in a press release that also announced the jail rally, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on May 31.
Two prominent elected officials called for more information and warned of free-speech effects — state Sen. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs) and District 5 Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari.
“I am really concerned about this and working to learn the specific basis for these charges,” said McLaurin on Twitter. “What we can’t tolerate is any use of the criminal legal system to disrupt or chill lawful protest. If that’s what’s happening, I’m going to be loud about it.”
McLaurin followed up by criticizing Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who is involved in prosecuting the case. “It’s an attempt to score cheap political points by being reckless with people’s lives. This empty, 1990s-style tough-on-crime bullshit is tired and dangerous,” said McLaurin.
Bakhtiari issued a press release noting that the raid happened in her district and saying she would “remain transparent” and an “impartial resource.”
“I am deeply concerned that in polarized times, actions like these can inadvertently set new precedents that can jeopardize the rights that we value as Americans,” Bakhtiari said. “Given the heightened state of tension throughout our community related to the public safety training center, this action deserves the utmost scrutiny and sensitivity as it moves through the legal process.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), supported by the Atlanta Police Department (APD), conducted the May 31 raid at 80 Mayson Ave. in Atlanta, an anarchist collective hub known as the “Teardown House” for activists’ agitation against gentrification. The house is known for being painted with such slogans as “No Cops” and “Build Up Resistance, Tear Down Oppression.” It sits a few doors down from an APD-run community building that was acquired by the Atlanta Police Foundation, the developer of the training center.
The house is also the base for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF), which provides legal support to people arrested while participating in or reporting on protests, including the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” movement that opposes the training center. ASF provides bail money, access to lawyers, and “jail support,” meaning the tracking of arrestees and defendants through the criminal justice system.
ASF has provided support to many of the protesters charged with domestic terrorism and to journalists, including one who is suing APD and the City for unconstitutionally pressuring him to delete footage at the training center site. ASF is one initiative of an umbrella program called Network for Strong Communities (NFSC), which also includes programs on mutual aid for disasters, food assistance, a “Copwatch” police monitoring, and leadership training.
The GBI identified the arrestees as Marlon Scott Kautz, 39; Savannah D. Patterson, 30; and Adele Maclean, 42. All three were charged with money laundering and charity fraud, according to the GBI in a brief press release. Kautz has been among the prominent activists denouncing arrests of protesters in his role leading ASF. DeKalb County property records list Kautz and Mclean as owners of the Teardown House.
The GBI press release did not say where the arrests happened and the agency would not release basic details — even the name of the charity allegedly used for fraud. “This is all that we are releasing right now,” said GBI spokesperson Nelly Miles. “The case remains under investigation.” The agency also did not immediately respond to a SaportaReport request for arrest reports. APD would only say it assisted in the raid and referred questions to the GBI.
However, search warrants obtained by journalist George Chidi of the Atlanta Objective provide details of allegations of misuse of funds related to NFSC. They include self-reimbursements for camping supplies, COVID tests, yard signs, gasoline, phone lines and community meetings related to Defend the Atlanta Forest protests.
The underlying allegation is that the funds were used to support protests, which in turn are presented as terrorists. The warrants claim that Defend the Atlanta Forest is “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.” The warrants list a variety of crimes attributed to some protesters, but do not directly connect the arrestees to any specific cases.
Defend the Atlanta Forest is a movement, not an organization, that includes anyone who wants to use the term. That ranges from peaceful marchers to casual Twitter users to civil-disobedience trespassers to people engaged in such criminal activity as vandalism and tossing of rocks and Molotov cocktails toward police officers and contractors on the site.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on May 24 for the first time included some training center opposition activity in its National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, a public alert about a variety of actual and potential terrorism risks. However, the bulletin did not specify Defend the Atlanta Forest by name nor identify it as a group.
“Since spring of 2022, alleged DVEs [domestic violent extremists] in Georgia have cited anarchist violent extremism, animal rights/environmental violent extremism, and anti-law enforcement sentiment to justify criminal activity in opposition to a planned public safety training facility in Atlanta,” said DHS in the bulletin. “Criminal acts have included an alleged shooting and assaults targeting law enforcement and property damage targeting the facility, construction companies, and financial institutions for their perceived involvement with the planned facility.”
DHS did not immediately respond to questions about its role in policing or monitoring the training center protests, nor why the bulletin did not also include allegations of police agencies engaging in politically motivated criminal activity as a counterprotest.
The GBI’s press release said only that the charges against Kautz, Patterson and Maclean are “stemming from the ongoing investigation of individuals responsible for numerous criminal acts at the future site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and other metro Atlanta locations.”
“Today’s announcement is a reminder that we will track down every member of a criminal organization, from violent foot soldiers to their uncaring leaders,” said Kemp in his social media statement, underlining the word “every” and adding, “We will not rest until they are arrested, tried and face punishment.”
According to the GBI, the case is being prosecuted by the offices of the Georgia attorney general and the DeKalb County district attorney. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also blasted the arrestees in a social media comment.
“Today’s arrests are about the violence that occurred at the site of the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and elsewhere,” Carr said. “As we have said before, we will not rest until we have held accountable every person who has funded, organized, or participated in this violence and intimidation.”
Carr’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about how the alleged fraud is connected to violence.
Response from protest organizers focused on the arrestees’ ties to ASF and painted the crackdown as an attempt to chill free speech by making it harder to be bailed out if arrested during a protest. APD and the City are facing dozens of claims of wrongful arrests of protesters in federal lawsuits. The response did not address the search warrant claims of misuse of funds.
“This is a direct attack on the tens of thousands of people who have contributed small dollar amounts to support the exercising of First Amendment rights,” the Stop Cop City ATL press release said in response to Carr’s comments.
Lauren Regan, an attorney and executive director of the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, has been working with protesters to connect to local legal advisors. The press release quoted her as blasting the arrests as an attack on bail funds.
“This is an extreme provocation by Atlanta Police Department and the State of Georgia,” Regan said. “Bailing out protestors who exercise their constitutionally protected rights is simply not a crime. In fact, it is a historically grounded tradition in the very same social and political movements that the city of Atlanta prides itself on. Someone had to bail out civil rights activists in the ’60s — I think we can all agree that community support isn’t a crime.”
“This is targeting of organizers and movements by the police and the state,” said Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders, an organization involved in the protest movement. “Bail funds have been a part of organizing the Civil Rights movement and labor movement. We will continue to fight back against Cop City and the political arrest of our friends and comrades.”
Attempts to crack down on the “Cop City” protests have produced a large number of allegations of free-speech and free-press violations. They include the use of domestic terrorism charges in cases with no obvious violence, the retaliatory arrests of dozens of protesters and journalists, APD’s second-in-command urging residents to promote a “narrative” that any out-of-state protester is a terrorist, the removal of a skeptical member from an official advisory committee, lawyers attempting to demand internal records of advocacy journalists, Georgia Tech’s removal of a student journalist’s blog post, and felony intimidation charges against activists who posted flyers in Bartow County identifying a Georgia State Patrol officer reportedly involved in the police killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. That killing of Teran — allegedly after the protester shot an officer — is itself a major controversy also involving the GBI, which has refused to identify officers involved.