Protester terrorism charges come amid legal battle over other arrests of demonstrators, journalists
By John Ruch
Concerns about biased policing of public safety training center protests sparked by remarks from the Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) second-in-command fit into a bigger picture that includes a pending lawsuit alleging illegal arrests of protesters and targeting at least two journalists documenting them.
The lawsuit’s allegations include retaliatory arrests for engaging in police-reform protests – and another set of such lawsuits is likely on the way. One journalist arrested while covering training center protesters told SaportaReport that APD seized and “disappeared” his notebook; another provided video of police pressuring him to delete his footage.
Drago Cepar Jr., a civil rights attorney representing those protesters and advising the journalists, says those cases and other police actions show a pattern of bias and “paranoia.”
“I don’t think it takes a lot to realize what they’re paranoid about is people trying to express themselves, people trying to make a statement, people trying to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Cepar said. “In this country, the First Amendment is extremely important. It’s not a coincidence it’s the First Amendment. If we don’t have free speech, if we don’t have free discussion, then we’re not able to have free democracy… and one of the issues right now is whether or not we should have this police training facility and whether or not this park should go away, this green space.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) made headlines last week with its announcement that five training center protesters were charged with domestic terrorism, among other offenses. The project is the target of a broad protest movement, “Defend the Atlanta Forest,” that includes peaceful rallies and marches; civil disobedience tactics like camping on the site in tree houses; and destructive acts like vandalism and tossing of Molotov cocktails at the site and at homes and offices of people and organizations involved in its planning. Some of the destructive acts may or may not qualify as terrorism under Georgia laws, but regardless, it remains unclear exactly what the five arrested on that charge are specifically accused of doing. Other protesters have said the charges are inflated, political attempts to chill free speech.
APD Assistant Chief Carven Tyus last week fed the latter interpretation by saying any out-of-state protester is inherently engaged in terrorism; calling for residents to promote a political “narrative” that the training center is opposed only by non-locals and is locally supported; and announcing a possibly unlawful arrest of a man for filming police by using another law as an excuse. Two civil rights attorneys previously said those remarks from that high up in the ranks endanger First Amendment rights, open the City to lawsuits, and suggest APD is veering into its own counter-protesting in support of a facility that benefits it.
The training center plan certainly has a political aspect that relates in part to protests by APD officers. Long planned quietly by the private Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) and City officials, the plan gained momentum after 2020’s tumultuous year combining Black Lives Matter police-reform protests and a crime spike. The relationship between APD and then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shattered as she criticized or fired officers involved in controversial incidents, particularly the controversial killing of Rayshard Brooks in Peoplestown. In response to charges brought against two officers in that incident, many others protested by calling in sick or reportedly refusing to respond to 911 calls.
While fundamentally intended to train police and firefighters, the training center also was promoted as essential to APD morale. An APF spokesperson previously likened the facility to fancy training facilities for college football athletes and described it as a way to support officers who felt the “City has not stood up for them in terms of support they need” and a way of going beyond “empty words.” In an attempt to address police-reform criticisms, its name originally included the term “Institute for Social Justice,” which quietly disappeared from the planning process.
APD also has a long history of lawsuits for unconstitutional arrests of people filming or photographing police activity. Under a previous settlement, APD is supposed to train officers about citizens’ rights to record them, and in 2015, a judge ruled the department in contempt of court for failing to do some of that training – which, ironically, would occur in the new training center. Gerry Weber, a civil rights attorney involved in some of those cases, said Tyus’s report of the recent arrest for filming is “troubling” and “disturbing.”
“It’s really disturbing to me because the training is critically important,” said Weber, adding Tyus’s remarks show that “top to bottom, APD officers are not getting it, from the assistant chief down to officers on the beat…”
Cepar said he is seeing a similar pattern in his cases of targeting journalists and using minor crimes as an excuse to arrest protesters with whom officers disagree, a practice that would be unconstitutional retaliation for First Amendment expression.
“I’m seeing a pattern of charges of ‘pedestrian in roadway’ and trespass being used to suppress speech,” he said. “And now they have gone further up to use more serious charges [of terrorism] to suppress speech. And we’ll see how that plays out.” He noted that the evidence for the terror charges remains to be seen, but said of police agencies, “they’re treading a very dangerous path legally.”
APD did not provide comments in response to concerns about Tyus’s remarks and did not respond to questions about the protester and journalist arrests and what directives officers are being given about citizens’ rights to film. The GBI — which allegedly was involved in one of the journalists’ cases — said only it had no information about such incidents and did not respond to questions about the the right-to-film directives given to its officers.
Protest arrests and lawsuit
Cepar is representing dozens of people arrested – and later freed with charges dismissed or never filed – in two Atlanta protests. He notes that winning such cases can be hard because of a controversial legal doctrine called “qualified immunity” that greatly restricts civil damages against police officers for negligence cases, the subject of many policing-reform efforts.
One protest was a Jan. 6, 2021 vigil and march near Centennial Olympic Park about the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake, which became a national police-reform issue. That’s the case that already has a federal lawsuit, Baker v. City of Atlanta, that consolidates the complaints of 19 protesters who alleged unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. The lawsuit reports that APD officers surrounded and mass-arrested people within minutes of the march beginning, using “pedestrian in roadway” charges. The march happened on the same day of the infamous insurrection attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which other protesters – including armed militia members blocking the road – demonstrated in favor of President Trump’s election conspiracy theory at the Georgia State Capitol with no similar arrests, the lawsuit claims.
The City is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit and among the claims is that someone in the crowd threw an object at officers.
Cepar’s other case involves 12 to 15 arrested after a May 14, 2022 protest march in the Little Five Points and Inman Park neighborhoods in opposition to the training center. The march ended in Freedom Park, where APD and Georgia State Patrol (GSP) officers who had followed along suddenly arrested protesters and a journalist. Some were hit with the “pedestrian in roadway” charges and some were not charged. Cepar said he has filed notices of intent to sue with the City and, with no settlement offer or other response, will be suing soon.
The journalist arrested was Ryan Fatica, an Arizona-based freelancer on policing, incarceration and social movement issues who was reporting for a national nonprofit news collective called Unicorn Riot. A video published with his story shows a GSP officer arguing with a protester on a sidewalk with such anger that APD officers intervene and physically direct the officer away. That same GSP officer is later seen arresting the same protester in the park – then nodding at Fatica himself and saying, “Him, too! He was in the street!”
Fatica said he was zip-tied by APD officers, detained for hours and taken to jail, only to be released because no one had any information about what he was accused of or even his name. But along the way, Fatica said, an APD sergeant took his reporter’s notebook, which was never returned to him. Cepar said he has visited the jail and police stations in person asking for the notebook but has only been able to find out that a “special unit” was making the arrests.
“They basically disappeared that notebook,” Fatica said. “…They saw I was taking notes, and instead of thinking that was First Amendment-protected activity, they saw it as an opportunity for intelligence-gathering.”
Weber, the civil rights attorney, says that filming an arrest in a public park is perfectly legal unless it is so close that it interferes with the arrest. He said a federal court also recently shot down the “pedestrian in roadway” pretext for arrests on roads that are not actually carrying traffic at the time, as during a march. And, he said, this is hardly the first report of APD seizing journalists’ materials, raising First and Fourth Amendment issues.
“I’ve got a case right now against APD where part of the claim is some of the … memory cards were not returned to our client, who was a journalist filming arrests during the Black Lives Matter protests,” he said.
Pressure on a journalist
Even more direct pressure was applied to the other journalist Cepar is advising, a documentary filmmaker who was detained by police for more than 90 minutes on June 15, 2022, at the training center while working on a film about the tree-sitting protesters. The filmmaker said he is not planning to sue at this point and asked not to be named in this story. However, he is a professional whose work has appeared in such outlets as CNN and the Discovery Channel.
The filmmaker said he was walking through the forest with his cameras and while wearing a vest bearing the word “press.” He was stopped by APD officers, including a major – apparently Maj. Jeff Cantin – who initially told him he was under arrest for trespass. Despite the filmmaker’s compliance and agreeing to leave the property, he said, the officers detained him. Then some type of officer arrived in an unmarked Dodge Charger who identified himself only as “Mike” and as working with APD. The filmmaker believes Mike was a GBI agent but remains unsure.
Mike and the APD major then pressured the filmmaker at length to delete his footage in exchange for going free. Meanwhile, the filmmaker continued filming the entire encounter. He provided SaportaReport with an edited and captioned excerpt of the incident, much of it while the camera is laying still and the three are talking.
“I’m going to ask you to delete all the footage that you have today since it was obtained illegally. And depending on how the rest of this interview goes, will determine whether or not you’re going to be arrested….,” Mike says in the footage.
“I can’t delete my footage, guys,” says the filmmaker, repeatedly identifying himself as a journalist. “Arrest him,” says Mike to the APD major.
But no one arrests him. Instead, the officers continue to pressure the filmmaker, variously threatening to prosecute him for “illegally” shot footage, suggesting they might visit his home or office, and offering to become sources for his story. At one point, the APD major says the footage could jeopardize an unspecified “investigation.” He says: “We have to seize the cameras. We have to see what he’s got on there… We’re not interested in the other stuff. We’re just interested in what you took of us.”
When the filmmaker continues to refuse, Mike tells the APD major to issue a citation and return the gear, adding, “and I’m sure our paths will cross again.” The filmmaker says he was not charged or cited and was merely allowed to leave with a warning not to return.
Cepar says the line about crossing paths was a “clear threat” meant to intimidate the press. “It’s like a thug in a dark alley telling you, ‘We’re gonna meet again,’” he said. “That’s how a totalitarian government works, not a free government.”
Weber said there could be legal debates about whether the filmmaker was trespassing and the officers’ ability to enforce that, but that a much bigger issue is involved. “What I do know is that encouraging the journalist to delete their images in exchange for either lesser charges or the lack of a criminal trespass warning is a First Amendment violation and, under the APD’s policies, results in dismissal of the officer,” he said. “That’s one of the changes that was made as a result of these [previous] lawsuits.”
“It was really stupid and highly illegal to detain a journalist,” said the filmmaker. “… When cops know you’re a filmmaker – they know – and hold you for an hour and a half to hold your footage …that’s a serious violation of First Amendment rights, and it’s wilful. This guy is an experienced guy. This guy was not a rookie… He knew exactly what he was doing and that it was illegal.”
To Fatica, the Unicorn Riot journalist, his arrest and the other allegedly unlawful lock-ups underscore the policing issues that are drawing national protesters and press attention to Atlanta.
“I mean, the Atlanta Police Foundation is clear that they’re building a regional training center in collaboration with police and military forces actually around the world in hopes of expanding police tactics that will affect police power everywhere,” he said. “And so to me, this isn’t a local issue. Everyone, everywhere concerned about both climate change and the expansion of police power should be concerned about what’s going on in Atlanta.”
Editor’s Note: The columnist was once represented by Weber in a police-filming lawsuit against the City that is unrelated to the current protests but was part of the 2015 contempt of court ruling.