When Speech Is ‘Terrorism’: The Legal and Political Assault on Stop Cop City

The multi-year battle by local Atlanta and national activists to stop construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center – labeled “Cop City” by opponents – has entered a new phase.

On August 14, ABC News reported that “#StopCopCity protesters had collected more than enough signatures to move its referendum campaign forward in an effort to get the city to repeal the lease it has with the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center…” The proposed 85-acre facility, which would be built on existing forest areas in Atlanta, has become a political flashpoint, with police critics and environmental activists finding common cause to fight the project.

A little over two weeks after the ABC News piece aired, the State of Georgia filed a 109-page racketeering indictment against 61 people involved in the protest movement. The indictment is long on political rhetoric (the word “anarchist” appears 57 times in the text) and is a clear assault on the Stop Cop City movement as a whole. But Georgia officials may not be the only ones targeting Stop Cop City activists with potential criminal charges.

In March 2023, the left-leaning publication Unicorn Riot revealed the FBI had taken an interest in the Stop Cop City movement, specifically the Chicago variant of Stop Cop City. The FBI records, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), noted that the Chicago Stop Cop City entity had been put into the FBI’s “AOT-DT” category – “Act of Terrorism-Domestic Terrorism” – as part of an “Anarchist Extremist Matters Assessment” opened in August 2022.

The FBI equating petty vandalism – in which a number of activists apparently engaged – as “terrorist actions” is ludicrous. Further, the FBI’s categorization of the Stop Cop City activists as “violent extremists” predates by over six months the Atlanta Police Department’s charges against a number of local protestors under Georgia’s domestic terrorism law.

The FBI “Assessment” noted that the construction of a Chicago version of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, along with the Obama Presidential Library and the Tiger Woods Golf Course in Jackson Park, were the focus of Chicago political activists. Opponents of the projects in Atlanta and Chicago say that hundreds of acres of public green space will be destroyed to accommodate the aforementioned facilities.

In FBI parlance, an “Assessment” is a form of FBI investigation that can be opened without any criminal predicate. As the Cato Institute has noted previously, the FBI has made extensive use of Assessments to target domestic civil society organizations for varying levels of digital (i.e., social media, etc.) and physical surveillance. Earlier this summer, utilizing FOIA requests, Cato learned that the FBI Assessment targeting the Stop Cop City movement had evolved into a full-blown FBI criminal investigation.

Just before Memorial Day 2023, Cato received a FOIA response from the FBI denying in full any records on Stop Cop City by invoking FOIA exemption b7A, claiming there is “a pending or prospective law enforcement proceeding relevant to these responsive records, and release of the information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.” On June 23, DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) affirmed the FBI’s withholding. On July 23, the FBI likewise invoked FOIA exemption b7A regarding records on Chicago Stop Cop City, and on October 19, OIP also affirmed that FBI “pending investigation” withholding as well.

And through the fall of 2023, still more evidence of an FBI investigation involving the larger Stop Cop City movement has emerged.

The Georgia “domestic terrorism” indictment noted above featured a local organization known as Network for Strong Communities. That nonprofit, which has featured prominently in efforts to prevent the proposed Atlanta police training facility from being built, is also now the subject of FBI investigative interest.

On October 16, Cato received another FBI “pending investigation” FOIA denial response involving Network for Strong Communities. Whether individuals associated with the organization or the organization itself are the target cannot be determined from the FBI letter.

What it does confirm is that the overall Stop Cop City movement and/or people associated with Stop Cop City are the target of an active FBI investigation in Chicago, Atlanta, and possibly elsewhere, likely under the AOT-DT designation. Whether Georgia police authorities were “inspired” by the FBI to file those domestic terrorism and racketeering charges in Atlanta, or whether the FBI is now playing catch up by opening its own “domestic terrorism” investigation, is unknown.

What is clear is that police and their allies at the federal, state, and local level are determined to continue and deepen the militarization of America’s law enforcement organizations, and that those engaged in lawful protest and political activities are viewed as fair game for being labeled – and even charged as – would-be terrorists. These are hallmarks of an authoritarian police state, not a functioning democratic republic.

Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst and ex-House senior policy advisor, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.