In a buttoned-down state Capitol, views differ on the line between "free speech" and "disruption"

By Maggie Lee

On a morning in March, instead of the normal four or five state patrol cars parked outside the state Capitol on a closed street in Atlanta, some of the regulars were startled to see about two dozen such cars.

It was the day the state Senate was set to pass an all but total ban on abortions. Democratic opponents to House Bill 481 lit up social media about the police presence, some using words like “overkill” and “unnecessary … dangerous.”

In a session that brought a divisive abortion bill after a tense election, Democrats see excessive policing with Republican fingerprints on it; while police say they’re just ensuring safety.

A file photo from March shows what was a common site at the Capitol this year: people protesting 481, dressed as women from The Handmaid's Tale, a book set in a theocratic America that subjugates women completely. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Some HB 481 opponents protested this year dressed as handmaids from The Handmaid’s Tale — a story set in a theocratic future United States where women hidden in red cloaks and large bonnets are owned by powerful men and raped in order to grow the population. Credit: Kelly Jordan

As 481 moved further in the Legislature, Democratic lawmakers would also feel it was too much when an officer used a bullhorn indoors to order a knot of a few dozen HB 481 opponents and legislators to disperse or face jail.

Yet the next Saturday, about 30 armed people showed up on the outdoor Capitol steps for a rally billed as a “Redress of Grievances.” A leader of a group called III% speaking there pledged to a WABE reporter that he would “kick a doctor’s ass” for performing an abortion. There were no extra cops around.

And there are the November charges still outstanding against state Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who’s since also become chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. She was arrested inside the state Capitol after a demonstration demanding every vote be counted in the state gubernatorial race — 14 others were arrested too. She said that she was not yelling, not chanting, and anyway that as a state legislator, she’s protected from such an arrest in her workplace.

In a First Amendment way, the Republican-led state Capitol can seem rather restrictive.

Rules that the state House and Senate wrote for themselves ban taking mobile phone videos in the public seating area during procedures.

There’s a crime of disrupting the Georgia General Assembly’s business. (That’s one of Williams’ charges; the other is obstructing an officer.) Disrupting the Georgia General Assembly can escalate to a felony on the third conviction, whereas the state’s disorderly conduct law doesn’t speak to subsequent offenses.

The right to hold a sign in the building was only written into Capitol rules by the state agency that oversees it after a 2018 ACLU lawsuit when officers prevented some people from entering the building with signs.

This year, Capitol police asked at least two people to remove Planned Parenthood buttons reading “Don’t Fuck With Us, Don’t Fuck Without Us.” Taken to court by the ACLU, a federal judge temporarily allowed the buttons, finding it likely that the buttons constitute protected political speech, not obscenity.

The rules can seem strange right in the center of a city that takes pride in a history of nonviolent protest. A city that for years, has elected John Lewis to Congress, a Civil Rights icon who talks up the “good kind of trouble:” when you see something that’s not right, you have to say something, you have to get in the way.

Despite the rules, crowds and noise are part of Capitol life during the first few months of the year, the legislative session. Only a minority of folks in there ever do carry protest signs or try to start chanting. Instead it’s legislators and staff, lobbyists, or constituents organized to come visit by trade or other groups. One day it’s hundreds of real estate agents, AARP members from all over southwest Georgia, and more. The next day, it’s other folks. And always school groups; sometimes the chorus sings. The governor’s office is there, too.

Another Capitol Hill tenant is Georgia State Patrol Post 50. State law enforcement, not Atlanta city police, has the primary responsibility for security at the Capitol and a handful of state office buildings near it. On any of the 24 hours in a day, the people in uniforms on Atlanta’s Capitol Hill are a mix of troopers, capitol police, plus non-sworn, unarmed safety officers.

During the session when crowds are larger, Post 50 always gets augmented with troopers on legislative detail. On any given day during the session, there can be more than 30 sworn officers on duty on the Hill during the main day shift — though that varies with training and leave. And outside troopers can be called in for certain days too.

State Rep. Renitta Shannon was among Democratic lawmakers and other opponents of HB 481 asked by Capitol law enforcement to disperse from a hallway after a key vote. Credit: Maggie Lee

State Rep. Renitta Shannon was among Democratic lawmakers and other opponents of HB 481 asked by Capitol law enforcement to disperse from a hallway after a key vote on March 29. Credit: Maggie Lee

The duties of troopers and officers look typical from the outside: patrolling, staffing the metal detector and checking IDs there, screening incoming deliveries and people — no guns are allowed in in the building. If there is an emergency, these officers will run toward it.

But none of that is what provoked complaints this session. It was the numbers of officers some days, zip ties brought out, requests to disperse.

On March 22, the day HB 481 was all but certain to pass the state Senate, there were 45 sworn officers who started shifts before noon. In addition to that, a total 26 extra troopers were called in.

“Colonel McDonough knew that it was going to be on the floor that day,” said Sgt. Stephanie Stallings, public information director for the Georgia State Patrol, in an April interview. That’s Mark McDonough, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

HB 481 is a bill with lots of emotion on both sides, she said. From the department’s standpoint, Stallings said, their job is to make sure that anyone who wants to voice their opinion on that bill, regardless of the side, has a safe place to do it.

Orders had gone out for those extra troopers from as far away as Toccoa.

“And quite honestly, it was successful because there was you know both sides were able to voice their opinion in a safe manner. The legislators, they weren’t disrupted, which is great. They could do their job,” said Stallings.

It’s those out-of-town officers whose cars filled the closed street, and that made some observers feel unsettled. In an area of Downtown where the parking is tight, it’s closest place to park, Stallings said.

Capitol Views by Kelly Jordan

Georgia’s Gold Dome reflected in a state patrol car trunk. Credit Kelly Jordan

But the policing didn’t feel “successful” to everyone.

A week later, when final state House approval vote came for HB 481, so did anger, dejection, disappointment from opponents. Democratic House members went out in the hall to talk to bill opponents and reporters. Some chanting of “shame” was audible.

An officer with a bullhorn ordered people in the hall to disperse or face incarceration. At least one officer took out plastic handcuffs. One pulled out a mobile phone to read the text of the disruption law.

State Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur, was one of those legislators out in the hall, asking officers why people need to leave, and asking how their actions amount to disruption.

Later in an April interview, Shannon said she’s seen a change in the Capitol in the last year or so.

Earlier, there might have been one or two officers in, say, a committee room where there were a lot of people, she said. But now, she said there are more officers, and it’s when there are discussions on things like raising the minimum wage, voting rights, and reproductive rights.

That is, more officers any time the public is upset about bills the GOP is trying to pass, Shannon said.

“The public needs to understand that this is fascism in their House,” Shannon said. “What is happening is that the people that you have elected to represent you are basically now saying, ‘Thank you for your vote. But after you’ve elected me, I don’t want to hear what you have to say.’”

She said Republicans are using the police as a shield to make sure they don’t have to talk to constituents.

The law on legislative disruption speaks to “loud, threatening or abusive” language, and “disorderly or disruptive conduct,” among other things. It also speaks to not blocking the hallways.

Though there’s some discretion involved, given that it’s a loud, crowded building anyway.

It’s up to the individual officer to decide if they think that law on disrupting the General Assembly needs to be invoked, Stallings said. But if an officer has decided that there is a disruption and the dispersal announcement has been given, she said, then the people are required to disperse.

As for the III% event, that one happened outdoors and on a Saturday when the state Capitol was closed to the public and the normal skeleton crew of two was on daytime security duty. The agency that handles event permitting at the Capitol didn’t have any record online of the group being scheduled for a permitted rally.

So it may have been a rally without warning; or it may have been just a gathering of people on the stairs.

And groups of people — unarmed or lawfully armed — have the right to visit the Capitol stairs.

The Legislature’s top-ranking Republicans, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan both expressed support for officers’ work this session.

“I’m grateful for the work they do on our behalf and couldn’t speak more highly of their dedication and professionalism,” reads part of a written statement from Duncan, sent via a spokesman.

Ralston too has full confidence in the professionalism of the officers and in their planning to protect those at the Capitol, according to a written statement from his office.

“The speaker does not believe that security at the capitol should ever be made a political issue,” the statement from Ralston’s office continued.

Capitol Views by Kelly Jordan

Capitol Views by Kelly Jordan

Neither statement addressed more specific questions about any regular role they might have in policing decisions or about Democratic charges of overkill.

Williams, the Atlanta state Senator who was arrested with 14 other people, said that people have a right to bring their concerns to the Capitol. She said people are going to continue to raise their concerns and their voices, but that the “intimidation factors” need to stop.

“We need to make sure that people feel welcome in their state Capitol. You go through security when you go in, no one is hurting anyone inside of our Capitol,” Williams said.

“Standing and raising your concerns is not something that should have you on a watch list with Capitol Police or have you surrounded and being intimidated by Capitol Police and definitely not landing you in jail for multiple hours because you came down to raise your concerns to your elected officials,” she said.

Williams said she has a message to people who might be thinking of coming to the Capitol: don’t be intimidated.

“I’m willing to stand with any Georgian who wants to come down and make sure that their voices are heard,” Williams said.

Asked about such criticisms, Stallings said that the state patrol has heard critics and that word, “intimidation.” But she said from a department standpoint, it’s not that.

“One of the things that we never want to have happen is that there be a major disruption and there’s nobody there to handle it,” Stallings said. So a lot of times, it’s just mere preparation or ‘just in case.'”

It’s it’s certainly not an intimidation tactic. But it’s just to make sure that in the event something arises we do have a proper response for that. You know that the last thing we would never want anybody to get hurt on either side of it,” Stallings said.

Note to readers: While SaportaReport normally refrains from using language some may find obscene, we decided that in this case, it was relevant to this story and needed to be included.

Documents:

A clip from the Atlanta Constitution of March 10, 1987, on the passage of the law banning “disruption” at the Capitol

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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