Muddy clothes? ‘Cop City’ activists question police evidence

Mar 22, 2023, 10:12 PM

A demolished bike path is shown in the South River Forest near the site of a planned police trainin...

A demolished bike path is shown in the South River Forest near the site of a planned police training center in DeKalb County, Ga., on March 9, 2023. Activists have been protesting the center's planned construction for more than a year, derisively calling it "Cop City." (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

(AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

ATLANTA (AP) — When police stormed an Atlanta-area music festival two days after a rainstorm, they were looking for suspects wearing muddy clothing.

Authorities moved in on the South River Music Festival on the evening of March 5, over an hour after more than 150 masked activists attacked a construction site about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) away, bashing equipment, torching a bulldozer and a police ATV, while throwing rocks and fireworks at retreating law enforcement officers, according to police surveillance footage.

Officials say many of the rioters trekked back to the festival ground, changing out of their all-black or camouflage attire in the muddy woods in order to blend in with the hundreds of peaceful concertgoers gathered to show their solidarity with the “Stop Cop City” movement — a decentralized campaign to halt the planned razing of an urban forest for the construction of a huge police and firefighter training center.

By the end of the night, 23 had been arrested, each facing between five and 35 years behind bars on domestic terrorism charges, even though none of the warrants accuses any of them of injuring anyone or vandalizing anything.

Civil liberties groups and defense attorneys say officials levied the disproportionate charges to scare off others from joining a movement that has only grown since January, when a activists have questioned that narrative and called for an independent investigation.

Officials say the protesters have attacked officers, destroyed property and unleashed anarchy, causing terror in the community.

“You can’t make a criminal organization out of a political movement,” said defense attorney Eli Bennett, representing three people who were arrested at the festival. “That’s just not what we do in this country, I hope.”

Following the arrests, numerous activists told The Associated Press that they fear being detained on flimsy charges that could have huge ramifications. But they are committed to ensuring that what they refer to disparagingly as “Cop City” will never be built.

“If I am arrested with domestic terrorism charges for camping in a forest, that’s something I’m willing to go to court for,” said Sam Law, an anthropology doctoral student from Texas. “If I have to spend a few weeks in jail, that sounds like a deeply unpleasant experience, but I don’t think it’s a reason not to stand with other people of conscience doing what I feel like the historical moment calls us to do.”

Vanderbilt University law and political science research professor Samar Ali said domestic terrorism charges should be reserved for heinous crimes such as the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing, and that Georgia authorities’ use of such harsh laws only fans the flames of distrust between activists and authorities.

If the prosecutions succeed, Ali predicted, conservative states could replicate Georgia’s broad domestic terrorism statute and target left-wing movements, while liberal states could take a similar approach against white nationalists, further increasing division in the country.

“This is going to be a test case in terms of an application against environmental activists,” Ali said. “If there is a harsh sentence against environmental activists, we are likely going to see replication of this across states.”

In their arrest warrants, police allege 17 of the 23 suspects wore muddy clothing and carried shields — evidence that they were among the band of violent protesters and not mere festivalgoers. But the warrants for five of the other suspects do not list any specific details to explain why they were arrested.

Six of the defendants, including a Southern Poverty Law Center legal observer accused of having muddy clothing, have been released on bond. The other 17 remain jailed without bond.

Bennett said none of his clients had shields despite the warrants’ claims. He said it’s ridiculous to call muddy clothes evidence of wrongdoing, given that it had rained that week and there were many muddy patches around the festival site, including by the stage where festivalgoers had been moshing to punk music.

“I understand law enforcement has a big problem on their hands in identifying the actual ‘vandals’ here,” Bennett said. “But that doesn’t justify arresting people who had no involvement and were just there for a music festival that was in support of an environmental cause and an anti-militarization of the police cause.”

Atlanta police declined to comment on how many shields were recovered and where and when the arrests occurred, though jail records say all 23 were arrested at 7:45 p.m., more than two hours after Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said the violence took place.

Ever since City Council approved the $90 million training center in 2021, the movement has brought together a whole host of leftists, including environmentalists and police abolitionists. They say officers at the 85-acre (34-hectare) center would be trained to become more militarized and quell dissent, all while hundreds of trees are cut down, damaging the climate and flood mitigation in a poor, majority-Black neighborhood.

Officials counter that the state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale beset by hiring and retention struggles following violent protests against racial injustice after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

Georgia’s domestic terrorism law originally applied only to crimes that were “intended or reasonably likely to injure or kill not less than ten individuals.” But state lawmakers broadened the law in 2017, removing the 10-victim threshold and adding attempts to “disable or destroy critical infrastructure” with the intent to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government.”

For more than five years, the statute was rarely employed. That changed in December, when six self-described “forest defenders” were removed from the training center site. Since then, 35 other alleged members of the movement have been jailed on the charge, including seven who were arrested during the clearing operation when authorities killed Tortuguita, whose given name was Manuel Paez Terán.

Four days after the festival, dozens of activists remained in the nearby woods. Some were cleaning up trashed campsites, while others prepared lunch. The activists insisted they had the moral high ground and would not back down to “heavy-handed” police tactics.

Some conceded that facing a domestic terrorism charge could have huge personal implications.

Kira, an Atlanta-based technical writer who has served as a medic during “Stop Cop City” demonstrations, said she does not engage in violence, and that a domestic terrorism charge could ruin her career, even if it is later dropped. She left the festival after she heard that officers were on their way.

“My instincts told me, ‘OK, it’s time to get out,’” Kira said. “I’m middle-aged. I have a good job. I would take an arrest if I feel that it’s justified but I’m not going to get arrested out of collateral damage.”

Ashley Dixon, a local organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice, said she and her friends didn’t realize the vandalism was going on and that she was shocked to see an officer holding a weapon running toward her.

“The officer tased someone right in front of me,” Dixon said. “I heard him yelling something, but I don’t know what he was yelling because I was in fight-or-flight mode. I was in fear for my life and I just kept running.”

But fear of being charged won’t stop her activism.

“If anything, it makes me want to fight harder because it just seems that much more important,” Dixon said. “If they’re already using this level of violence against protesters now, imagine what they will do if they have this militarized police training center.”

United States News

Protestors gather in the atrium of Atlanta City Hall to protest the proposed police training center...

Associated Press

Atlanta project decried as ‘Cop City’ gets funding approval from City Council

ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta City Council on Tuesday approved funding for the construction of a proposed police and firefighter training center, rejecting the pleas of hundreds of activists who packed City Hall and spoke for hours in fierce opposition to the project they decry as “Cop City.” The 11-4 vote is a significant victory for […]

3 hours ago

President Joe Biden listens as he meets with Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in the Oval...

Associated Press

White House website highlights infrastructure as Biden pushes policy wins

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Tuesday is launching a website to map and track tens of thousands of manufacturing investments, an effort by the administration to show the positive impact of its policies on the U.S. economy to a skeptical public. The site,, documents roughly 32,000 infrastructure projects and more than $470 […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

California investigating whether DeSantis involved in flying asylum-seekers from Texas to Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Officials were investigating Tuesday whether Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis was behind a flight that picked up asylum-seekers on the Texas border and flew them — apparently without their knowledge — to California’s capital, even as faith-based groups scrambled to find housing and food for them. About 20 people ranging in age […]

1 day ago

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, poses for a selfie after a town hall style meeting a...

Associated Press

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie set to launch 2024 presidential bid at New Hampshire town hall

NEW YORK (AP) — Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is set to launch his bid for the Republican nomination for president at a town hall in New Hampshire on Tuesday evening. The campaign will be the second for Christie, who lost to Trump in 2016 and went on to become a close on-and-off adviser […]

1 day ago

This booking photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows Michael Tisius. Tisius ...

Associated Press

Missouri man facing execution for killing 2 jailers in failed bid to help inmate escape in 2000

A man who shot and killed two rural Missouri jailers nearly 23 years ago during a failed bid to help an inmate escape is set to be executed Tuesday evening. for killing Leon Egley and Jason Acton at the small Randolph County Jail on June 22, 2000. Tisius’ lawyers have urged the U.S. Supreme Court […]

1 day ago

FILE - E. Jean Carroll arrives at Manhattan federal court, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in New York. Donal...

Associated Press

Trump’s lawyers say defamation claim by NY writer must fail because jury agreed he never raped her

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York writer who won a $5 million jury verdict against ex-President Donald Trump can’t win a pending defamation lawsuit against him because the jury agreed with Trump that he never raped her, his lawyers told a judge Monday. The lawyers urged Judge Lewis A. Kaplan to reject columnist E. […]

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]



Why drug-free weight loss still matters

Wanting to lose weight is a common goal for many people as they progress throughout life, but choosing between a holistic approach or to take medicine can be a tough decision.


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

How to identify the symptoms of 3 common anxiety disorders

Living with an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and cause significant stress for those who suffer from the condition.

Muddy clothes? ‘Cop City’ activists question police evidence