A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

The May 31 arrests of bail-fund operators was a watershed moment in the “Cop City” protests, generating unprecedented backlash as chilling free speech – especially Gov. Brian Kemp’s statement equating them with a “criminal organization” helping “domestic terrorism.”

What the public didn’t know, documents obtained by SaportaReport reveal is that Kemp’s commentary about the arrests was drafted at least the day before they happened — and with “feedback” from the police agency that conducted the raid.

The Governor’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) say that such pre-arrest statement drafting is routine and informational. But the statement contained no specific information about the arrests or charges — much of which is still unknown — and instead focused on political spin emphasizing the now notorious messaging that protesters are outside agitators and terrorists.

It also opens questions about the neutrality of such police actions when politicians are given advance notice and police agencies know ahead of time how the Governor and their bosses will spin it to the public. That’s especially important in the immense controversy over the Atlanta public safety training center, a plan Kemp supports, and where state and local police agencies are accused of retaliatory policing in what amounts to counterprotest activity.

The gist of Kemp’s statement was to smear the arrestees as terrorism funders and the entire protest movement as criminal without providing direct evidence or specific accusations. Two drafts obtained through a Georgia Open Records Act request show that the final version toned down some language that would have called all on-site protest campers “domestic terrorists” and explicitly accused the arrestees of “financing” terrorism. (The subject line of the original draft circulated via email was “Protests Financiers Arrests.”) On the other hand, the final draft added some stronger language, including a claim that the people involved constitute a “criminal organization” — a possible hint at a RICO prosecution to come. And a line that called the arrestees “criminal backers” was changed to dub them “extremists.” A theme of violence-promoting outsiders was retained in the form of a line about “mostly out-of-state activists.”

Also notable is what the drafts and related commentary did not contain: No reference to the sanctity of First Amendment rights, nothing about the significance of bail funds in arrests made a week before a City Council vote to devote millions of taxpayer dollars to the training center, and no information or questions about evidence directly tying the arrestees to violence.

“GBI has also reviewed and provided feedback,” said an official identified by the Governor’s Office as Director of Communications Andrew Isenhour in a text message to Kemp, sent shortly after the arrests finally happened, that also included the final draft. 

“Good here,” replied Kemp, approving the final draft for publication. It was posted on X – then still known as Twitter — about 45 minutes later.

The Governor’s Office did not make it easy to obtain drafts of the statement and showed little interest in discussing them. The office took eight weeks to provide SaportaReport with an email and three screenshots of a text conversation, a process that involved repeated reminders and the missing of self-declared deadlines for responses. The documents imply the existence of other drafts or discussions that SaportaReport could not immediately obtain. 

Garrison Douglas, Kemp’s press secretary, did not respond to specific questions about the statement, instead briefly describing the general process of creating any such publicity.

“It is standard operating procedure for the GBI to keep the governor’s office apprised on matters relating to public safety in high-profile cases,” said Douglas. “Such information allows our office to be better prepared to provide a statement or answers to questions from reporters such as yourself.” He later added, “We also request relevant agencies to review draft statements or responses to ensure said statements are accurate and do not hinder investigations or cases against criminals.”

GBI spokesperson Nelly Miles was a bit more forthcoming, including identifying herself as the official who reviewed Kemp’s statement ahead of time. “I provided the feedback,” she said.

“The GBI routinely discusses public safety matters with the Governor’s Office,” said Miles. “Communication about the May 31 arrests of individuals charged for their role in aiding criminal activity is no different. In this investigation, we provided feedback to ensure any statements made were factual. The Governor’s Office in no way directs the operations of GBI investigations, and the GBI did not draft the Governor’s statement.”

She said her feedback on Kemp’s statement included an email saying she would look at it, a text message about one of the charges, and a phone call. “I don’t recall the full extent of the call, but I do recall explaining what the charges would be, facts that I ended up putting in the [GBI’s own] news release,” she said.

The “Stop Cop City” and “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movements have strong local bases while also becoming national and international causes. Kemp’s statement fits into a theme of publicity and criminal charges that equate protesters with outsiders and terrorists. Relatively minor crimes and completely legal activity, such as traveling to Georgia from elsewhere to protest, have been described by some officials as terrorism. And in a series of intensely controversial domestic terrorism charges, there is often no publicly available evidence directly connecting the arrestees with any form of violence or destruction. 

One example came in another watershed moment — the December 2022 arrests of five protesters on domestic terrorism charges, kicking off the use of such powerful laws against the protests. At the time, the GBI — speaking on behalf of a multiagency policy task force — issued a press release naming the arrestees but not specifying what each did that allegedly constituted terrorism. A draft of the press release obtained by SaportaReport shows the GBI’s interest in emphasizing the arrestees as outsiders. The draft, sent by Miles to then-GBI Director Michael Register and other GBI officials, included an editorial note asking, “Where are these people from[?]… would like to include that or at least make reference to them not being Georgians.”

The next day, Atlanta Police Assistant Chief Carven Tyus — the department’s second-in-command — made notorious comments at a meeting of the training center review committee, where he asked members to promote a “narrative” that protesters are outsiders and domestic terrorists

The May 31 arrests of three organizers of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a jail-support program part of their larger program Network for Strong Communities (NFSC), fit into that pattern. The actual charges are money laundering and charity fraud, accusing the arrestees of improperly reimbursing themselves for NFSC expenses — for such items as camping supplies, yard signs and gasoline — related to Defend the Atlanta Forest protests. But Kemp’s statement blasted them as far worse.

“These criminals facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism with no regard for others, watching as communities faced the destructive consequences of their actions,” said the governor’s statement. “Here in Georgia, we DO NOT allow that to happen. 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. We will not rest until they are arrested, tried, and face punishment.”

Issuing a similar fiery statement at the time was Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. He claimed the arrestees were involved in “violence and intimidation.”

But what specific “violence” did they support or assist? Carr’s spokesperson at the time could not identify any violent act to SaportaReport. Instead, she pointed to search warrants authorizing the raid, which claimed the alleged NFSC money laundering and fraud was “to fund the actions in part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists” and that has taken responsibility for various crimes of “intimidation.” In short, the fuzzy math was that the entire protest is terrorism, and thus so is any support of it, and anyone involved is responsible for crimes committed by anyone else.

In fact, Defend the Atlanta Forest is a movement, not an organization. Some protesters certainly have used destructive or violent illegal tactics, such as damaging construction equipment and throwing rocks at police officers and site workers. But the movement includes anyone who wants to use the term, from online activists to peaceful marchers to civil-disobedience tree-sitting campers. The training center is now the target of an attempted ballot question organized by protesters who say they have gathered more than 100,000 signatures from Atlanta voters.

And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in fact, makes no such group designations of terrorists and had only referred in a public bulletin to “alleged” extremists within the broader protest movement. A former DHS attorney previously told SaportaReport that even such reports are often inaccurate and are often abused by local authorities to crack down on protests they don’t like.

The arrests drew skeptical commentary from a DeKalb County magistrate court judge who set the arrestees’ bonds, and the bail fund has since returned. Several Democratic elected officials, including U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, also expressed skepticism about the First Amendment implications of the arrests.

Not Kemp. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June wrote a story about the facts of DHS’s designations, his personal Twitter account reposted it along with more fiery commentary. The comments were counterfactual spin: describing virtually any crime as terrorism per se when Georgia law contains other qualifications, decrying federal terrorism advice even though it was directly used as the basis for the arrests, and further connecting arrestees without evidence to the protester known as Tortuguita, who was infamously killed by police in an alleged shootout that wounded a state trooper.

Wrote Kemp: “We don’t need the advice from someone in Washington to know that in Georgia, when you shoot a member of law enforcement, break our state’s laws, and show reckless disregard for public safety, you are a domestic terrorist.”

Join the Conversation


  1. If the state wants a training center this badly, it should create one. Put it somewhere that wants it, certify graduates for work in all jurisdictions.

    Why Atlanta taxpayers must bear the financial, political, and environmental burden for this alone escapes me.

    1. Do you actually know how to read? This is a legit question – please take an english literature course at your local college before making another comment without the required reading comprehension skills.

  2. Dana Blankenhorn makes an excellent suggestion, one a friend who does not live in the City also made. Surely there is adequate space somewhere in the state that can provide state-of-the-art training in a state-of-the-art facility for all public safety officials in every county and city. Space that does not violate its adopted guide to development – adopted as part of the City Charter no less – as the current proposed facility does.

  3. I think there is interesting backstory to the arrests, which is that the so-called Tear-Down House which the so-called domestic terrorists inhabited in Edgewood was been a terrible thorn in the side of the APD for years now. I’m very sure the police have been looking for any pretext at all to get rid of them.

    I used to live a few blocks from their house. While I didn’t really agree with or much like their anarchism, they never seemed like “terrorists.” Unless you are a cop. They announced their hatred of cops in large graffiti all over the outsides of the house.

    There are such a lot of snarling, ugly tentacles to this story. Not one makes any government official look more than craven.

  4. For whatever reason the media has roundly parroted official press-releases and repeatedly failed to clarify that Tortuguita was gunned down by state police in Dekalb County’s now-shuttered Intrenchment Creek Park. “Tort” may have been unlawfully camping like many who are “unhoused,” but cannot be said to have been trespassing during normal park operating hours. So his slaying did not occur on City of Atlanta-owned property, which is located across the creek and west of the park.

    That’s the very same Intrenchment Creek Park that’s subject of a contentious land-swap with Blackhall Studio developer Ryan Millsap (who also has other large land development business on Kemp’s radar).

    The relationship between neighboring, designated public greenspaces that have both been absconded-with by monied private development interests is in sore need of sanitizing sunlight.

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