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Rights groups are alarmed over domestic terrorist charges in 'Cop City' protests

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Atlanta, the fight over whether to build a new police training facility dubbed Cop City has gotten more dangerous. One activist was killed by police in January. And now officials are accusing others of being, quote, "domestic terrorists." The use of that charge is alarming civil liberties and human rights groups across the country. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Luke Harper finally left Georgia in early June. He had gone there for a music festival protesting Cop City. He figured it would just be a weekend. But on his second night, he and nearly two dozen others were arrested and accused of being domestic terrorists.

LUKE HARPER: I was released on Day 90, which is basically the last day that they could legally keep me incarcerated without an indictment.

YOUSEF: Atlanta's police chief claimed the arrests were related to vandalism that had happened earlier in the day. At the location of the proposed facility, a different site, some people had torched a construction vehicle and thrown Molotov cocktails at police. Harper says he had nothing to do with that and that over multiple bond hearings and a preliminary hearing, the state offered no evidence to connect him to those crimes. The Atlanta Police Department didn't make itself available for an interview. But even without formal charges or evidence, Harper has been called a domestic terrorist by law enforcement. And just going through the airport in Atlanta to leave, he noticed a change.

HARPER: I'm a person of color. I have been patted down many times at the airport. It was nothing necessarily new. But 40 to 45 minutes going through my things?

YOUSEF: It happened at security. It happened again at his gate and then again in Salt Lake City, where he had a layover. Harper noticed his boarding pass had something new in the lower corner, four S's - secondary security screening selection. The TSA doesn't say why someone is selected, but Harper thinks he's been flagged to local and federal agencies.

Atlanta officials who support the new construction say it's time to replace the city's deteriorating public safety training facilities. But when it became known that it would be more than twice as large as other police training campuses, that it would require razing 85 acres of old-growth forest, that it would cost tens of millions of dollars more than initially disclosed and that much funding would come from Atlanta-based multinational corporations, the ideological left was activated. Matt Scott is a journalist with the Atlanta Community Press Collective.

MATT SCOTT: You have the fight against environmental defense. You have the fight for racial equality. You have the fight against capitalism. And of course, you have the fight against police militarization or the fight for abolition.

YOUSEF: That last concern about how this massive campus might further militarize police has felt salient to many in the movement. In January, a Georgia state patrol officer killed an activist named Manuel Teran while clearing an encampment of Cop City protesters. Police claimed Teran had shot and injured an officer. But autopsy results from the DeKalb County medical examiner's office have called that into question.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

YOUSEF: This past Saturday, activists gathered again to kick off a week of action against Cop City. As kids played on a bouncy house and people made protest art, the police cruisers in the area were conspicuous. That evening, uniformed officers appeared in the park. A couple dozen assembled in a line. And there was briefly a stunned silence as they walked toward the protesters.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Just a friendly reminder to let everybody know that the park will be closing at 11 o'clock. And everything has to be removed from the park at that time.

YOUSEF: But many said it didn't feel friendly. The police had been circling in their vehicles all day. And the very moment they appeared in the park was just when the vigil was starting for slain activist Manuel Teran, known to them as Tortuguita.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Murderers.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Don't worry, folks. It's all under control.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Murderers.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I'm with them.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Viva, viva Tortuguita. Viva, viva Tortuguita.

YOUSEF: Atlanta has a history of activists whose ideas challenge the authority of the state. And as police tensely walked the length of the park surrounded by angry demonstrators, Keyanna Jones summoned some of that history.

KEYANNA JONES: (Singing) Ain't going to let nobody turn us around, turn us around, turn us around. Ain't going to let nobody.

Dr. King was labeled an outside agitator at some point. And he's born right here in the city of Atlanta, just like I am.

YOUSEF: Jones says Republican leaders in Georgia are invoking the same language now, describing demonstrators as outside agitators. But she says it's inaccurate. She herself lived right next to the training facility site and had to move away because the police were already using it for target training. The constant gunfire created chronic stress for her 8-year-old son. But Attorney General Chris Carr has leaned hard on the outside agitator narrative. Here he is in an interview on Atlanta TV station WANF.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS CARR: If you come to this state, engage in acts of violence to destroy infrastructure and property with the intended effect of changing public policy, it is a domestic terrorism charge.

YOUSEF: But Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center says many states have terrorism statutes, and they can be misused.

LAUREN REGAN: They claim that they're passing these types of laws to deal with mass shooting and, like, mass murder of civilian populations. But yet legislators are using it as a cudgel against political activists and against people who dissent against state power.

YOUSEF: There may be signs that the prosecution is now struggling with how to charge Cop City defendants. So far, none of the 42 accused of domestic terrorism has been indicted. And late last week, one of the two offices prosecuting them abruptly recused itself from the case. One of the defendants is challenging the constitutionality of Georgia's domestic terrorism statute. Meanwhile, opponents of Cop City see one last legal avenue to stop the project. They're gathering signatures for a referendum that could potentially stop the plan altogether.

Odette Yousef, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "PRECIPICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.

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