Atlanta police have arrested three organisers behind a nonprofit group that provides bail and legal support to arrested protesters involved with a monthslong campaign against a sprawling, multi-million dollar law enforcement complex.
Marlon Kautz, Adele Maclean and Savannah Patterson – all board members with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund – were charged with one count each of money laundering and charity fraud on 31 May. If convicted on money laundering charges, the organisers could face up to 20 years imprisonment and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Bail fund organisers and civil rights groups have warned that the arrests mark a rapid and unconstitutional escalation of law enforcement retaliation against demonstrators involved with the “Stop Cop City” movement.
Atlanta activists also fear that prosecutors are planning to indict those arrested in connection with the protests as a “criminal organisation” under Georgia’s sweeping state-level statute that has been used to target organised crime.
Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, called the arrests an “extreme provocation” from Atlanta Police Department and state prosecutors.
“Bailing out protestors who exercise their constitutionally protected rights is simply not a crime,” she said in a statement. “In fact, it is a historically grounded tradition in the very same social and political movements that the city of Atlanta prides itself on. Someone had to bail out civil rights activists in the [1960s] – I think we can all agree that community support isn’t a crime.”
The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center project has been at the centre of “Stop Cop City” protests and occupations since its proposal in 2021, expected to occupy 85 acres in a historically and environmentally significant forest area owned by the city of Atlanta.
The police training facility in the South River Forest has drawn widespread opposition from environmental groups and criminal justice reform advocates.
Police have arrested dozens of people during protests, including more than 40 people facing “domestic terrorism” charges.
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund – among similar organisations across the country that provide bail support and legal aid – has predated the “Stop Cop City” movement and provided grants to a number of groups in the Atlanta area. The fund also has provided legal aid and bail assistance to protesters facing excessively high bonds, with some as high as $300,000.
A statement from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation accuses the three arrested organisers with committing “financial crimes”; an arrest warrant for Ms Patterson connects a “money laundering” charge to reimbursements from the nonprofit to a personal PayPal account for expenses including “gasoline, forest clean-up, totes, [Covid-19] rapid tests, media, yard signs and other miscellaneous expenses.”
These arrests - which were a joint effort between the Atlanta Police Department and GBI -- are a massive escalation against people working to provide legal support and to oppose criminalization of protest. It's a massive escalation against the Stop Cop City movement as a whole 5/
— Hannah Riley #StopCopCity (@hannahcrileyy) May 31, 2023
“As we have said before, we will not rest until we have held accountable every person who has funded, organized, or participated in this violence and intimidation,” Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said.
The arrests of the bail fund organisers on 31 May comes roughly one week after news of the project’s $67m price tag, more than double the $30m projected cost, and days before the Atlanta City Council’s anticipated vote on 5 June on whether to fund the facility.
In a written statement prepared in the event of an arrest, Kautz said that criminal charges against the Atlanta Solidarity Fund “will have repercussions on the ability of movements to create change across the country,” a tactic from “a new playbook that criminalizes the coalition of advocates who are providing financial and physical support to movements.”
Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organisation founded by Stacey Abrams in 2018, stressed that “legal aid groups and bail funds are, and have long been, critical resources for those seeking to make their voices heard in their communities.”
“The timing of the state actions – just one week before a controversial vote – is not a coincidence,” the group said in a statement condemning the arrests. “Bail funds were integral during the Civil Rights Movement, oftentimes serving as the only path to freedom for arrested protesters. The incendiary rhetoric against and criminalization of these institutions by the Kemp administration represents an alarming escalation of tensions in the face of serious community concerns.”
I’m deeply concerned about the raid directed by the Georgia Attorney General’s office today in Edgewood, a dense and thriving residential neighborhood in Atlanta.
I’m trying to get more information. pic.twitter.com/xMFpeRe3UV
— Rep. Saira Draper (@SairaForGeorgia) May 31, 2023
Sherilynn Ifill, former president and director counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, said the arrests “demand explanation” from Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta Police Department chief Darin Schierbaum.
“They may wish to recall that targeting the charitable status [and] legitimacy of groups involved in civil rights organizing has a long and ugly history in the South,” she said. “This is dangerous stuff. It is anti-democratic and menacing to organizing and protest – core protected activity in a democracy.”
State Senator Josh McLaurin lambasted Mr Carr for what he called an “attempt to score cheap political points by being reckless with people’s lives.”
“This empty, 1990s-style tough-on-crime bull**** is tired and dangerous,” he said.
Georgia state Rep Saira Draper, whose district includes the area where the arrests were made, said she is “deeply concerned” about the case and the “grossly excessive” use of a SWAT team and helicopters to make the arrests.
“What I do know is weaponizing the powers of the state for political gain is abuse of power,” she said.
Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari also said the case deserves “the utmost scrutiny and sensitivity as it moves through the legal process.”