Atlanta Police Department officers detain filmmaker Michael Watchulonis June 15, 2022 at the public safety training center site, where he was working on a documentary about tree-sitting protesters, before pressuring him to delete the footage in exchange for going free. The image is from footage he shot of the entire incident, which is now the subject of his federal court lawsuit against the officers and the City.

The time is ripe for a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) civil rights investigation of “Cop City” protest policing, as Atlanta’s long-burning pattern of retaliatory arrests against protesters and journalists is exploding with the fuel of “domestic terrorism” narratives.

For nearly 15 years, the City has proven incapable of policing its own police abuses in right-to-film cases, willing to quietly pay out lawsuit settlements years later rather than conduct City Council hearings or other open investigations. Now the Atlanta Police Department (APD) is allegedly disrupting protests of its own public safety training center with backing from state authorities willing to call anyone involved a terrorist with little or no evidence, and the abuses are escalating in number and brazenness. As two experts at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law told me, Atlanta and “Cop City” are part of a national structural problem with protest policing, where local authorities seize on the federal government’s overbroad terrorism laws and rhetoric to criminalize protests and stigmatize dissent on topics they don’t like.

Spencer Reynolds, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, previously worked as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attorney before becoming concerned about that agency’s overbroad powers on domestic intelligence gathering and use. He says the “Cop City” policing shows the DHS’s “pattern of blasting out unverified and sometimes outright false intelligence about so-called domestic extremists,” which local authorities then use to justify targeting protesters with whom they disagree.

“I think that’s the playbook we’re seeing in Atlanta,” Reynolds said. “…I think this is yet another example of a relatively local political matter that has dragged federal intelligence and counterterrorism officials into it with the high likelihood that state and local police are co-opting their messaging and rhetoric to crack down on critics. And that’s certainly something that’s concerning, and it’s something we’ve seen before…”

Brennan Center fellow Michael German previously served as an FBI special agent – including undercover work with white-supremacist extremists – before resigning after his whistleblowing on what he says was illegal recording of suspects. He likens the controversial aspects of “Cop City” policing to the infamous crackdown on 2020’s “Disrupt J20” protest that attempted to block President Trump’s inauguration. Washington D.C. ultimately paid more than $3 million in settlements to wrongfully arrested protesters and journalists.

“Almost all of those cases fell apart upon prosecution, but frankly, I don’t think convictions were the goal, similar to the [“Cop City”] cases in Georgia,” says German. “The goal is really to suppress the protests. And if those cases ultimately fail in court, the suppression of the protest activity is already accomplished.”

Brennan Center for Justice experts Spencer Reynolds, left, and Michael German.

The “Cop City” protests unquestionably involve some illegal activity, which has mostly involved property damage and trespassing, along with some assaults, such as throwing rocks at or near site workers, police officers and passers-by. Very questionable is if or how any of those minor crimes rise to the level of terrorism or organized crime and what that means for free speech, free assembly and the free press in Georgia.

The First Amendment threats in the “Cop City” policing are systemic and structural in several ways. APD has spawned years of scandals and lawsuits over wrongfully arresting people filming or photographing them – including me while covering a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest – dating back to at least 2009. In 2015, APD was held in contempt of court for failing to conduct training about the right to film officers, yet cases continue today.

APD repeatedly has this problem, no matter who is chief, and the City administration and City Council have failed to do anything besides fight lawsuits and pay settlements with Atlantans’ tax dollars, no matter who holds those offices. The City is also facing dozens of claims in lawsuits that officers unlawfully arrested left-wing Black Lives Matter protesters in recent years while staying hands-off on right-wing Trump protesters. In March, the City paid a photojournalist $105,000 to settle a lawsuit about his unlawful arrest while covering such a protest Downtown.

Then there are Georgia’s exceptionally broad laws regarding “terrorism” and “gangs,” which come with low standards for defining and proving charges and high penalties for conviction. In many ways, the state laws mirror federal ones that provoked controversy over rights to speech and assembly post-9/11 and in the 1990s “tough on crime” era, and that are often used on defendants who do not resemble what most people think of as terrorists and organized crime. The use of racketeering charges against educators in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal was a major controversy a decade ago. One of the prosecutors, Fani Willis, is now the Fulton County district attorney and is using the law against rapper Young Thug and likely on Trump’s attempt to sway the 2020 election results. 

All of these trends converge at the training center. There is the extraordinary overcharging of protesters – even concert-goers and a legal observer – as domestic terrorists based on accusations of minor crimes at worst. Last month came the highly controversial arrests of three bail-fund organizers who support the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movement. Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced the arrests with claims the defendants funded terrorism and telegraphing an investigation of the protest movement as organized crime. To the points raised by Reynolds at the Brennan Center, the bail-fund charges and those officials’ commentary were based on misinterpreting or mischaracterizing a DHS report that was vague to begin with.

There’s the internationally controversial state police killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran in January in an alleged shootout – alleged because state police still won’t accept the now basic police-reform standard of wearing body cams. An overlooked legal and constitutional element, though, is the issue of why the raid took place in a public park during opening hours.

And there are new allegations – some well-documented – of police illegally arresting journalists and others for filming them at the training center site. A filmmaker who is now suing the City and APD last year filmed his own interrogation by Atlanta and possibly state officers who pressured him to delete his footage. In extraordinary public comments last year, APD’s second-in-command lauded the apparently illegal arrest of a man for filming officers and urged citizens in a training center advisory group to promote a political “narrative” that all out-of-state protesters are terrorists.

As I’ve noted, the “Cop City” situation is not about police versus protesters. The police and government are themselves protesters advocating for a training center – and, more importantly, the political power and control over Atlanta that it has come to symbolize.

Journalist Sharif Hassan is arrested on curfew violation charges by Atlanta Police Department officers while covering a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest. The charges were dropped and the City paid Hassan $105,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations. (Photo from a press release via University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic.)

Protests that target police priorities and practices are more likely to bring unconstitutional targeting of protesters and journalists for arrest, illegal surveillance and other abuses, as noted in such studies as a new report from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

The federal government may offer support for such abuses. Reynolds says a “really key example” is the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Ore., a national controversy that included arrests of scores of protesters, journalists and legal observers. DHS and other federal agencies deployed there and in several other cities, where they were involved in such controversies as injuring protesters with tear gas guns and keeping intelligence files on activists. President Biden later revoked the authority for such federal policing, but DHS’s intelligence work continues and its advice is clearly influential in the “Cop City” protests. The FBI has had an undisclosed role since accepting an APD invitation to help policing in April 2022. Unicorn Riot revealed this year that the FBI was conducting an intelligence “assessment” of “Cop City” protest activity in Chicago, which included monitoring a bookstore there.

A DOJ civil rights investigation is one tool for addressing such abuses. The DOJ is authorized to conduct what it calls “pattern-or-practice” investigations – which means looking at systemic abuses in police departments. The DOJ does not investigate sporadic or one-time incidents but rather ongoing and repeated incidents. An investigation typically involves public hearings as well as internal reviews and discussions and can conclude with a reform agreement enforceable by a federal court. 

The most recent such agreement came this month after a DOJ investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, the trigger of the historic 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The report found systemic police misconduct that included excessive force, racial and behavioral-health discrimination, and retaliation against protesters and journalists for First Amendment activity. Another investigation still underway in Phoenix is looking at such alleged abuse as targeting protesters by mischaracterizing them as organized criminals called the “ACAB Gang.”

The DOJ already has one investigation ongoing in Georgia, looking at deplorable conditions in the state prison system – a circumstance that should add to skepticism about state claims on the front end of the criminal justice system. The DOJ also investigated police in Georgia 20 years ago when it reached an agreement with Villa Rica over abuses by a drug squad. (That department was in the news last week for a controversy over its use of a shooting range target featuring a Black man with a gun.)

DOJ civil rights investigations are relatively rare and entirely discretionary. The DOJ says its decision-making about such investigations is not “complaint driven,” but relies on a wide variety of information sources that can include public and confidential complaints.

The DOJ did not respond to questions about any complaints about Atlanta or “Cop City” policing. Gerry Weber and Drago Cepar Jr., two civil rights attorneys involved in some of the lawsuits about Atlanta and state policing of Black Lives Matter and “Cop City” protests, said they are unaware of any such complaints filed with the DOJ. Cepar added: “That may change in the future, though.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that DOJ has plenty to look into in Georgia,” Reynolds said. But, he added, the DOJ can’t end systemic abuses by the likes of DHS. What ultimately worked on the ground in places like Portland, he said, was press revelations of abuses and public pressure on elected officials, particularly in Congress — which is to say, political leverage.

In Atlanta, elected officials have been timid at best. Buried in the City Council’s hugely controversial ordinance this month approving public funding for the training center was a list of types of training expected to be held there, including: “protecting free speech and the right to publicly and peacefully dissent.” Nowhere was there discussion that APD and state police might be regularly violating that right in their quest to build the center itself.

District 9 City Councilmember Dustin Hillis, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, did not respond to my questions about the possibility of an investigation into such alleged and well-documented abuses. Self-policing isn’t much better. APD says it is internally investigating the case of the filmmaker who was pressured to delete footage – and has been for more than six months now. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said it won’t investigate its possible role at all.

If any topic has managed to pass as apolitical in the political battle over the training center, it’s the notion that training itself is good per se. The Brennan Center’s German says in fact it often – formally or informally – perpetuates systemic problems like racial discrimination. He notes a key example: Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis Police officer who directly murdered Floyd, had a long history of misconduct – yet was made a field training officer.

“Who’s going to be doing the training?” asks German, noting that something and someone is perpetuating the kind of First Amendment policing abuses Atlanta and other cities are seeing. “….Police training is often raised by policymakers as a solution to the problem when I think in many cases it’s the foundation of the problem.”

With such questions in the air and such politics involved, Atlanta could use the sort of independent examination the DOJ can bring.

Join the Conversation


  1. I appreciate all the work you’ve done laying out the current situation. It really helps to keep everything that’s happening into proper perspective.

  2. It’s a cautionary parable, but only one may live at-a-time and the phoenix only rises from the ashes of its predecessor who burned itself up.

    Therefore, maybe it’s true that the only way for Atlanta to rise above requires making an ash-heap of the combustible officials and institutions who are building a constitutional pyre called
    “Cop City.”

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