Like a bad airplane-reading thriller, the controversial RICO indictment against “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protesters spins its yarn about anti-police conspirators around a core trio of characters from a local bail fund, who are presented as shadowy behind-the-scenes figures caught in the spotlight of justice.
It’s a tale that leaves out its own biggest plot twist. The government has long known very well who the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF) leaders are and what they do. In fact, the City of Atlanta has paid one of them $55,000 in recent years to settle lawsuits alleging Atlanta Police Department (APD) retaliation against their acts of free speech, and even as the RICO charges came down, he was getting ready to sue them again in a notorious “Cop City” protesters arrest case. All three regularly assist other activists who allege similar retaliatory arrests and have helped provide evidence, often videos, in several major metro Atlanta cases that have ended in settlements.
The ASF trio — Marlon Kautz, Adele MacLean and Savannah Patterson — can’t comment at this point per legal advice, according to Kautz. But civil rights attorneys who regularly work with them did. The trio operates with an umbrella organization that includes a “Copwatch” police-filming program and Atlanta Food Not Bombs, which feeds homeless people and has often come into conflict with police.
“They’re instrumental in addressing a lot of APD’s misdeeds over the years and have been victims themselves of APD’s misdeeds,” said Gerry Weber, a prominent Atlanta civil rights attorney who is senior staff counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights. He said he knows the trio “very well” and represented Kautz in a police-filming case but is not involved in their criminal defense.
Drago Cepar Jr., another prominent Atlanta attorney, is representing Kautz among many others in yet-to-be-filed “Cop City” protest cases and said he often works with the trio on other cases. “They are essentially providing a robust check on the government suppression of protests, which I think is the real reason why they are targeted in these RICO indictments because they are a thorn in the side of those that would like to run this state like a police state,” said Cepar. “Pretty sad.”
In short, the largely left-wing criticism of the RICO and other charges against the ASF trio as a First Amendment abuse centered on “Cop City” protests only touched the tip of the iceberg. This is the police raiding an organization that has regularly exposed alleged abusive arrests over many years in many different circumstances, from filming officers on the sidewalk to feeding homeless people in a park. It underscores the irony that the image of conspiracy emerging from these charges is less about anarchist Dr. Evils and more about police counter-protesting and retaliating while their governments cheer them on and figure they can cut more settlement checks on taxpayers’ accounts later.
Of course, that doesn’t mean all of the charges are automatically false. The ASF trio were originally charged — following a SWAT-style raid by state and APD officers in May — with money laundering and charity fraud allegedly tied to the financial support of “Defend the Atlanta Forest” (DTAF)/”Cop City” protesters. Lacking in both the state police’s publicity and ASF’s outraged response is clarity on if and how donors’ money went somewhere they were not expecting. According to claims in the indictment, the trio was involved in a website that published threats, calls for rioting, and celebration of vandalism. Much or all of that may be protected by the First Amendment — none of the trio are charged with any kind of threat or violent crime — but if true, it might take some shine off their armor.
Nonetheless, the silence is deafening in an indictment that describes Kautz as a “lifelong community activist” without saying that activism — via ASF and Copwatch program — has helped catch the government’s own police authorities in free-speech retaliation again and again. All of the settlements come with boilerplate about the government and police admitting no wrongdoing, and if you believe that in every single instance, I have a bridge in DeKalb County to sell you.
Likewise, the fiery denunciations from Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who called ASF a “criminal organization” involved in “violence and intimidation,” have yet to say zilch about how often ASF’s hand is in cases allegedly finding police officers engaged in crimes, violence and intimidation.
In 2010, Kautz was the target of an unconstitutional arrest for filming police — part of a long APD habit that is amped up in the “Cop City” protests. As one of several Copwatch members on the scene, he began filming a police raid of a shop in Little Five Points. Officers demanded he stop, claiming they were undercover — despite wearing jackets saying “police” — and which would not make his filming illegal anyway. When he refused, officers grabbed him, and one took his phone, refusing to return it until he provided a password and enabled them to delete the footage.
Kautz sued. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, the City settled for a $40,000 payment to him and Copwatch. APD mildly disciplined the officers and agreed to conduct new training in the right to film them, which would go on to be violated repeatedly. That includes a police-filming case involving this writer — whom Weber represented — that was part of the grounds for a court to rule the City in contempt in 2015 for not conducting such training required in the settlement of yet another case.
The “Teardown House” — the communal house at 80 Mayson Ave. in East Atlanta owned by Kautz and MacLean that was the target of the May raid — was the subject of another settlement in 2020. The case dated to a 2016 incident where City Code Enforcement officers who are part of APD cited them for “graffiti” for artwork on the house that included slogans unlikely to make friends in blue, such as “No Cops” and “Make My Day, Pig.” Other artwork included “Black Lives Matter,” “Fight Gentrification,” and the circle-A anarchy symbol now cited in the RICO indictment as a supposed conspirator sign.
Kautz sued, claiming the citations were unconstitutional content-based discrimination against messages the police didn’t like, as well as retaliation for the settlement in his previous filming arrest. City Department of Law records show an approval for a $15,000 settlement.
MacLean was the target in a 2017 case where she and others fed homeless people in Woodruff Park as a regular service that was repeatedly questioned by police. She was cited for failure to display a food service permit. Weber said the case was dismissed after a challenge that the permit law didn’t apply to such individual volunteerism, and even if it did, it would be unconstitutional.
Weber said the trio played a crucial role in providing video and witnesses for a more attention-grabbing Food Not Bombs case in Woodruff Park in 2014. In that case, an APD officer allegedly hovered nearby to annoy the volunteers, then arrested one for disorderly conduct — under a code about starting a fight or inciting a riot — for yelling at him to go away. Part of the allegation was the arrest was retaliation because the arrestee was also a Copwatch member who had helped to film the officer a week earlier. An appeals court, in a lawsuit the volunteer filed, ruled there was no probable cause for the arrest but also no direct evidence of bad intent. Weber said the volunteer lost the rest of the case in a jury trial.
ASF often provides legal assistance connections and bail funds to arrestees in other cases, and Copwatch may have video evidence. Recent controversial cases where they were involved in securing settlements for alleged unconstitutional arrests included Georgia Tech police’s allegedly evidence-free “inciting a riot” claim against a GSU student involved in a 2017 protest about another student killed by police and police targeting of counterprotesters at a 2018 KKK rally in Newnan.
Patterson was directly involved in a high-profile national case as well. She was among the more than 200 people arrested for participating in or observing the 2017 “DisruptJ20” protest in Washington, D.C. — a protest coalition effort to disrupt President Trump’s inauguration. Decried by civil libertarians for their attempt — much like Georgia authorities in “Cop City” protests — to criminalize mere attendance or reporting on the event as conspiracy to riot, federal prosecutors eventually dropped the charges on the vast majority of protesters, and the City paid $1.6 million and set new policing policies to settle lawsuits. The exact disposition of Patterson’s case was not immediately available, and her arrest was largely documented through right-wing media concerned with “Antifa.”
Trump famously talked publicly of designating Antifa — an antifascist movement focused on direct action and sometimes deploying vandalism or physical violence — as a terrorist organization, despite it not being an organization and his lack of the legal ability to do so. The same Trumpian tactic can be seen with the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” terrorism and RICO charges, the latter of which refers to Antifa as overlapping with the supposed DTAF organization. However legally unlikely to succeed, the charges make political sense, as demonizing a fringe political movement often fries bigger fish.
Politics matter here because both police and DTAF activists are protesters when it comes to the public safety training center and the post-2020 crime obsession that has fueled national politics and its trickle-down here. Conservative outrage that year fueled the Buckhead cityhood movement, which police and supporters seized to gain backing for the largely secret training center plan. Secession’s existential threat to Atlanta is why liberal City and conservative state leaders have an unusual unity on the local project that is the training center — as do their police forces.
That also raises the stakes for concerns about retaliatory police action that is already sky-high in the internationally controversial killing of the protester known as Tortuguita. Among the cases that Cepar said ASF has recently assisted with is the dozen-plus people — including protesters and a journalist — arrested by APD and Georgia State Patrol officers in Freedom Park following a 2022 “Cop City” march.
Among the names of those who filed notices of intent to sue the City: Marlon Kautz.