Four protesters and a journalist claim they were unlawfully arrested by Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers as retaliation for a protest against the public safety training center on the day the City Council approved its lease.
According to lawsuit complaints filed in U.S. District Court, the arrests happened as the plaintiffs left a Sept. 8, 2021, protest outside the home of then City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong. The protesters’ chanting had been audible via Zoom during a virtual council meeting where the body approved the training center lease after hours of largely negative public comment.
The plaintiffs include documentary filmmaker Lev Omelchenko and protesters Johnna Gadomski, Hadar Ben Simon, Kelsey Smith and Juan Zapata.
The plaintiffs claim they were falsely arrested on “pedestrian in the roadway” charges as an excuse to retaliate against the protest. Omelchenko’s complaint says he did not participate in the protest and merely filmed it but was arrested “because officers believed that he shared the views of the protesters.”
The plaintiffs say Archibong never called the police or asked the protesters to leave.
Each plaintiff filed separate lawsuits on Sept. 8 — exactly two years after their arrests — with representation from civil rights attorney Drago Cepar Jr., who could not immediately be reached for comment. The lawsuits named the City and various APD officers as defendants. APD said it does not comment on pending litigation. The City press office did not immediately respond to a comment request.
Zapata announced the lawsuits in a Nov. 3 press release, which quotes an unidentified plaintiff as saying: “As we protested police violence and the use of public resources to build Cop City, the police held their own counter-protest. They were out there to intimidate us and criminalize our beliefs, not to protect our rights.”
The complaints note that APD has a long history of allegations of unlawful arrests of people photographing or filming officers, including a contempt of court ruling in 2015 that found the department had not conducted training on filming rights that was required by a settlement of an earlier lawsuit. In May of this year, the City paid $105,000 to settle a photojournalist’s lawsuit over his 2020 arrest while covering a Black Lives Matter protest downtown.
The City and APD officers are facing another civil rights lawsuit filed earlier this year by a filmmaker who says police in 2022 unlawfully detained him at the training center site and pressured him to delete footage. A similar incident was the 2022 arrest of a man who claimed to be a journalist for filming police from a vehicle.
The new lawsuit complaints also note that there are other recent cases where protesters have alleged their arrests were motivated by retaliation for speech or politics. Cepar is representing 19 plaintiffs in another lawsuit regarding arrests at a 2021 Black Lives Matter protest. Another case involves APD and state police arresting more than a dozen protesters and a journalist at a 2022 march against the training center.
Official reactions to the movement against the training center, which protesters have dubbed “Cop City,” have generated many free-speech and free-press controversies. They include the state’s use of racketeering and domestic terrorism charges, 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 involved in the police killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran.