At Atlanta’s ‘Cop City,’ when does protest become terrorism?

When protesters launched fireworks at Atlanta police and set a construction tractor ablaze Sunday, police say they crossed a line. This was “a coordinated attack on construction equipment and police officers,” a department spokesperson said. 

The result: Nearly two dozen protesters were charged with domestic terrorism. 

Why We Wrote This

The United States is gripped by sharp disagreement about when activism tips into lawlessness. This week, left-wing protesters in Atlanta were charged with terrorism, laying down a new marker in the debate.

The subject of their ire is “Cop City” – a proposed police training facility in a city forest. And the clash is raising new questions in the national conversation about the line between activism and a loss of law and order.

Amid a surge in political violence, more states are expanding domestic terrorism laws – and using them. But the inability to clearly define what terrorism actually is makes applying them to situations like the one in Atlanta a fraught prospect. Left-wing violence is increasing, data suggests. But police can tend to focus on left-wing extremism while excusing right-wing extremism, some experts say.

Says Patrick Keenan of the University of Illinois College of Law: Laws intended to deal with international terrorism like 9/11 “are used more often in ordinary domestic crimes … [so] they become regularized, normalized.”

Within hours of arriving in the South River Forest last Sunday, Annie, a tall, dreadlocked woman from “another city” with multiple facial studs, hunkered down. Swarms of police were entering the forest, grabbing people from the shadows and cuffing them.
Moments before, she says, a friend she traveled with had gone off “to take a walk through the forest.” Prosecutors say he was on a mission of domestic terror. He was arrested along with 22 other activists that day and is now being held without bond and facing state charges that include domestic terrorism.

The protesters are here to stop what they dub Cop City – a proposed police training facility in the South River Forest, also known as the Weelaunee Forest. They are a mix of environmentalists, anti-police activists, and a loose confederation of like-minded groups. But police say they have gone beyond trespassing and are destroying property and using violence to push an ideology and endanger public safety. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is mulling federal charges.
“Everyone who comes here [to protest] knows full well they could catch a ‘DT,’” or domestic terrorism charge, says Annie, who refused to give her real name or allow a picture, concerned she would be targeted for arrest.

That is raising the stakes even higher, she adds. “Someone has died,” she says, referring to the police killing of a protester in January. “More could die.”

Why We Wrote This

The United States is gripped by sharp disagreement about when activism tips into lawlessness. This week, left-wing protesters in Atlanta were charged with terrorism, laying down a new marker in the debate.

Americans have for years debated where to draw the line between law and order and the right to confront authority. But the use of domestic terrorism charges in Atlanta marks a new threshold. To many Americans, it’s a long overdue step to take a firmer stand against political unrest and violence. But to others, the move speaks to a dangerous push to silence dissent and criminalize protest.
In that way, the clash over “Cop City” is adding new questions to the national conversation: Where should the lines of terrorism be drawn in the name of public safety, and what does justice look like?

The fact “that all sorts of actions could be terrorism really speaks to the leaky nature of it as an idea,” says Dana Williams, a sociologist at California State University, Chico and co-author of “Anarchy & Society.” “Is the purpose to simply get people off the street who are a danger to public safety? Is it to punish people for very specific acts for which there is documentary evidence? Or is it to sort of suppress a movement that has some traction, where applying the word ‘terrorist’ helps to coat people’s perception of it?”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

A memorial to Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, an environmental activist killed in January by police, rests near a contested forest, March 7, 2023. The city of Atlanta plans to build a police training center in the forest. Police say Mr. Terán fired first.

What happened in Atlanta

The latest domestic terrorism charges arose from events that happened on Sunday. Police released a video that showed a crowd of people emerging from the woods and spreading out into a fenced-off clearing. As the group advanced, a pair of police officers retreated behind a gate. They ducked as fireworks popped near them. Soon, construction equipment on the scene was burning.