A police helicopter circled so close to a house in the leafy Atlanta neighborhood called Lakewood late on Saturday night that a resident said he could “damn near see the pilot”.
The resident, who asked for anonymity in order to speak with the Guardian, decided to go to a nearby friend’s house. Others were not so lucky. Several dozen other people, including members of a medical crew, were then rousted from campsites on the resident’s property during a post-dawn police raid that followed.
Up to 40 Atlanta police department officers swarmed the sprawling, hillside property, slashing medical supply tents, breaking windows of a camper van parked on site and ripping netting surrounding a greenhouse.
The Guardian has obtained a copy of the search warrant used for the raid and spoke to numerous people present during the police action. The document and the witness accounts offer telling insight into how law enforcement officials and the justice system in Georgia are prosecuting unprecedented state domestic terrorism charges against members of a broad social movement that opposes a $90m police and fire department training center, known as “Cop City”, planned for the nearby South River forest. The movement has also opposed a former film studio owner’s plans to convert 40 acres (16 hectares) of public park in the forest into private property, calling for the forest to be preserved.
The warrant states there was probable cause for believing that evidence of “conspiracy to commit domestic terrorism” could be found at the Lakewood location.
Objects officers sought included “cameras, radios … boxes of nails … lighters … tents, camping equipment, spray paint cans, [and] black clothing”, according to the warrant. The list also mentions “literature … related to defend the forest”. Although several dozen people were detained near the property for several hours, the only person arrested was Mark Lindsey, another year-round resident – for an unpaid traffic ticket. None of the half-dozen people present during the raid and interviewed by the Guardian had any items seized by police, or had heard of anyone else’s property being seized.
But the document’s language follows “what has become a playbook for how counter-terrorism agencies respond to protests”, said Will Potter, who has researched federal terrorism charges against environmental activists in his book Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege.
“In a few lines, it conflates the specter of violence with everyday items and basic organizing materials,” Potter said.
The raid was the latest escalation in the show of police force during a recent “week of action” by protesters highlighting the forest’s plight that ended on Sunday, after more than a hundred of the event’s attendees crossed from the public park on to Cop City land on the event’s second day, burning bulldozers and other construction equipment.
Twenty-three people were then arrested and charged with domestic terrorism under Georgia law. In the following days, several peaceful marches took place in Atlanta, as well as camping, a Jewish sabbath service, herbal and foraging workshops – and the scattering of Manuel Paez Terán’s ashes, who police shot and killed on 18 January while the activist, known as “Tortuguita”, camped in the public park in protest against Cop City.
The raided property’s 10 acres, with its towering oaks and pines, had been used in recent years for free food distribution and art and music events. A handful of people live there year-round, but the land had been used for the last week by medical personnel and people camping in tents. According to several people who helped set up the arrangement and spoke to the Guardian, the area was being used to provide a place to camp for families, people with limited mobility and anyone who didn’t feel safe staying at the forest.
The search warrant underpinning Saturday’s raid can be seen as the state “trying to build a conspiracy case, similar to Rico cases”, said Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides bail and other resources to protesters who have been arrested.
“It gives them the legal framework to go after organizers, [who are] seen as leaders – even though they haven’t done anything criminal.”
The innocuous items police sought according to the warrant also bring to mind raids on other political movements, Kautz said. “You can look at how many of these are household items,” he said. “It’s like you find a can of gas sitting next to a lawnmower, and say you’ve found evidence of bombs.”
The protest movement is broad-based. It includes local preschool families, Black faith leaders from Atlanta, local and national environmental groups, scientists, Native land and water defenders, and young people from across the US. Nonetheless, Kautz said, “investigators are convinced there’s an organized campaign to do terrorism – but so far, they’re not finding any, because it doesn’t exist. So instead, they go after any organizational infrastructure they can find.”
A certain amount of infrastructure, as well as personal items – including medical supplies at the property that were used by a rotating team of healthcare professionals – were destroyed during the raid.
Ric Simmons, a law professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said there’s a legal notion of “reasonability” that law enforcement must use when it comes to handling property while carrying out a court-ordered search. “This destruction doesn’t seem at all reasonable,” he said.
The medical team at the property included Sea, who has a counseling degree and helped with any mental health needs during the week’s events. Others contributed items such as sunscreen and Covid tests and masks. Sea was in their tent on Saturday morning trying to get some rest after a late-night shift when the sounds of police shouting orders and marching feet drove them out of their tent.
It’s a heavy-handed show of force, a destruction of property … It’s police trying to make you violated, and afraid
About 20 police officers were pointing guns at three members of the medical team, Sea said. “There was a lot of yelling. It was disorienting.” Some of the police stayed at the property, while others led Sea and a group of about 20 several blocks away to wait. During that time, police asked the detainees for ID and took their photos. The police eventually let them go.
Sea returned just before dusk to find the medical team’s tents slashed and some of the supplies destroyed. A colleague who preferred to remain anonymous and was also at the site of the raid said they “felt fear … but I know that this is how many people feel every day, just living their lives. If Cop City gets built, this fear and destruction … will only become more commonplace.”
Will Potter has interviewed people who have participated in political movements during the last four decades and undergone similar raids. “It’s a heavy-handed show of force, a destruction of property … It’s police trying to make you violated, and afraid.”
Potter called attention to the warrant’s reference to “literature”.
“This stands out to me,” he said. “It brings up freedom of speech and association concerns. If I were raided, my bookshelf doesn’t look so good.”
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