I’ve worked with protest demonstrators of all kinds throughout my legal career in Georgia. What’s happening around the planned police training facility — referred to by opponents as “Cop City” — is the largest, most sustained attack on free speech since the Civil Rights Movement. It intensified earlier this month, when the state criminally indicted 61 people affiliated with the protest opposing the facility, followed by Atlanta officials challenging city residents attempting to place the construction of the facility on a ballot referendum. The one-two punch is part of a chilling string of retaliatory actions against Cop City protesters, further indicating that officials are willing to use every statutory tool in their arsenal to deny voters an opportunity to make their voices heard.
In the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., repression of any perspective — particularly progressive ones advocating for free expression and civil rights — signals the troubling ascent of an anti-democracy movement that is taking hold in more conservative states and municipalities across the country.
Public outcry has only grown since Cop City plans were approved by local officials in 2021. Activists rallied throughout 2022 around the call to #StopCopCity, both to prevent the deforestation that the center would inevitably cause and to challenge the narrative from Georgia law enforcement that a larger police presence better ensures public safety. The narrative has been proven false repeatedly, particularly as it pertains to racial justice groups and movements led by people of color. National data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a research entity that studies public demonstrations and the police, finds that police take a particularly heavy-handed, militarized approach when protestors rally around racial-justice issues. For example, authorities across the country are three times more likely to intervene in pro-Black Lives Matter demonstrations than they are in other demonstrations.
The events surrounding Cop City only reinforce these findings. The recent indictment alleges that a “criminal conspiracy” around the #StopCopCity movement began on May 25, 2020 — the day George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and well before plans for the police training facility were even announced. As Cop City activists conducted sit-ins around the area designated for clearing earlier this year, police violence toward protesters reached a fever pitch. It culminated when law enforcement killed local activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán. The official line from Atlanta and Georgia officials has been, to this day, that Terán opened fire first. However, their family’s lawyers have shared an autopsy report revealing that gunshot patterns show Terán’s hands were up, and that they were sitting cross-legged when shot. Terán’s murder, and subsequent police efforts to manipulate media coverage about it, have sparked more community outcry. Demonstrations have grown. Sit-ins continue.
Atlanta’s official response is to crack down on these forms of speech. In March, dozens of demonstrators were swept up in arrests, with a total of 42 individuals charged with domestic terrorism for participating in protests following Terán’s killing. Those charged face up to 35 years in prison for demonstrating. In May, three people were arrested in a suburb outside of Atlanta while distributing flyers that contained the names of the officers who killed Terán. They were charged with misdemeanor stalking and felony intimidation of a police offer. All were denied bond and face up to 20 years in prison. And late this spring, a heavily armed SWAT team from the Atlanta Police Department raided an Atlanta home, arresting three residents and charging them with “money laundering” and “charity fraud.” The three were activists and allies who support bail fund relief for protesters opposing construction of the police center. But even the judge assigned to these fraud cases admitted in their bond hearing: “I don’t find the evidence real impressive …There’s not a lot of meat on those bones.” Yet all of these individuals now also face charges of racketeering and criminal conspiracy.
In another era, protest demonstrations and leafleting were absolutely protected speech. The Civil Rights Movement was founded on the need to bring attention to long-ignored, suppressed racial inequities. Speech as conduct, in all forms, is a tool for the marginalized, for the unheard. Some of our country’s strongest legal rulings strengthening the right to free speech and protest came from Georgia courts.
The assault on free speech in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement is sobering, but it’s not all that surprising. In fact, the erosion of free speech here in Georgia is simply the natural consequence of years of conservatives sowing anti-democracy throughout the U.S. in order to delegitimize progressive movements. Not only are our courts stacked with mostly Republican judges who continue to deny First Amendment rights and find immunity for officials when we sue them, but our legislators and other leaders are stacking the deck to create statutory limits on free speech through more severe criminal penalties for activities previously considered protected.
In 2017, following almost two years of large-scale demonstrations around Georgia in support of Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, Georgia’s governor at the time, Nathan Deal, surreptitiously signed an executive order to grant state officials discretion to accept or deny permit applications for demonstrations. The move granted state officials unbridled discretion to pick and choose what speech they would allow — and they made good on that scheme by rejecting progressive demonstrators’ applications. I represented colleagues from March for Our Lives (the student activist entity formed to challenge gun violence in the U.S.) and Representative Mary Margaret Oliver of the Georgia General Assembly in a lawsuit challenging the governor’s permit scheme. The permit scheme was revoked and the students were allowed to protest.
The state’s loss did not weaken its resolve. Nearly every year since, we’ve seen legislators in Georgia introduce proposals to chip away at the First Amendment in the state. The domestic terrorism charge used against 42 demonstrators surrounding the Cop City protests in March is a relatively new, unused criminal charge, introduced and passed in the last several years as part of this legislative crackdown on free speech. The 61 new racketeering charges encompass actions taken long before the planned police training center was even announced and bear nothing resembling even a veil of a commitment to the rule of law.
But it’s not just Georgia that’s criminalizing protest rights. Since 2018, state lawmakers have pushed over 220 anti-protest bills around the country. This is a systemic attack to criminalize and narrow the avenues through which people can make their opinions heard. And these actions will continue to encroach on our rights until more people mobilize against them.
As the anti-democratic push has intensified, it has bled into other essential rights. Since 2017, a majority of state capitols have introduced over a thousand anti-speech legislative proposals to narrow various aspects of people’s First Amendment rights. Hundreds of proposals to limit ways for people to vote; hundreds to limit the teaching of “critical race theory”; and hundreds more still limiting expressive rights for LGBTQ+ communities. The litany of legislative attacks on basic rights keeps growing, driven by a combination of bigotry, authoritarianism, and a blatant disregard for the U.S. Constitution.
These legislative proposals are one of the greatest threats to freedom of speech today. Model legislation moving through a majority of states in the U.S. has been copied elsewhere around the world such as the UK, Australia, and elsewhere, to roll back basic free speech and free expression rights for us all.
Exciting countermeasures are popping up around the country in response to the anti-democratic movement. For example, we are seeing litigation efforts to challenge unconstitutional legislation like Florida’s anti-protest law, Tennessee’s ban on drag races, and Georgia’s sweeping anti-voting law. Other countermeasures are happening at the local level: just two days after the Atlanta City Council voted to support Cop City, activists introduced a referendum for voters to override the legislation.
With authoritarianism right in our front yard, Atlanta now has the potential to reject the anti-democratic movement by refusing to bankroll Cop City and lifting all charges for those prosecuted with crimes associated with the free exercise of their speech and assembly rights.
Atlanta should heed these voices. Over 100,000 Atlanta residents signed the petition in support of the referendum process to vote in opposition of the proposed facility. Unfortunately, the referendum process – and its underlying constitutionality – is currently under legal scrutiny and has been hamstrung by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that non-Atlanta residents cannot support the signature-collection process. We should take notice and support efforts to practice our basic First Amendment rights, not shut them down.
The United States has a proud history of civil rights champions who stood up for people’s rights and against racial and social injustice. A new generation of leaders is joining the fight against efforts to take away our basic rights surrounding Cop City and in statehouses across the country. They need everyone’s support right now, before the advances won by the Civil Rights Movement are unraveled and the sacrifices of so many are lost.
Nora Benavidez is a free speech and civil rights attorney, serving as senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press as well as on the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. She is based in Atlanta, Georgia.