By: Matt and Sam
Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned at their request.
CORRECTION: A claim regarding a defendant being punched by a Georgia State Patrol officer while being arrested was misattributed to that defendant’s lawyer in a previous version of this article. That information came from an individual familiar with the defendant’s case.
Sheer Fucking Luck
March 5, the second day of the Defend the Atlanta Forest week of action, began much like the previous day ended: with a music festival on the Radio Control Airplane (RC) Field in the Weelaunee Forest. The lighthearted, joyful nature present the first night of the festival found itself represented by a more physical manifestation the second day in the form of a large bouncy castle on the tarmac that sat in the middle of RC Field. The crowd grew throughout the day to about 1,000 attendees enjoying free food, laying in the sun, and listening to a variety of bands. The event was peaceful and relaxing.
By nightfall, everything changed.
I am finally going through my footage from last night. I didn't catch the first moment on film because it happened so quickly as they entered the forest that I didn't have my phone out yet. But I got this one.— Just Some Fucker (@just_somefucker) March 6, 2023
Holy shit y'all I got it. https://t.co/wLSLp0yVvz pic.twitter.com/bMDJUK9gUx
Around sunset on March 5, law enforcement officers from at least five different agencies began pouring into Weelaunee People’s Park through both the parking lot and the RC Field in response to a direct action that occurred at the Cop City construction site on the other side of the forest three-quarters of a mile away from the festival grounds. An intense and confusing scene erupted throughout the park, with officers arresting attendees seemingly at random. A video posted to Twitter shows a heavy cloud of tear gas while an officer nearby says, “you’re gonna get shot. I don’t know how else to put it, but you’re gonna get shot with a bullet.”
Another video from that evening shows an officer tazing an Indigenous festival attendee named Victor Puertas on the RC Field while other attendees continue to flee unpursued. The officer pins Victor to the ground, places him in a headlock and tazes him again in the side. A person familiar with the his case said that Victor was punched in the face by the trooper during this interaction. In the video, a trooper tells onlookers, “get gone or you’ll be next.”
Pehuén, a Georgia resident who witnessed Victor’s arrest, struggles to understand why he and many others were allowed to leave but Victor was singled out, pursued, and assaulted by the state trooper. “It feels like sheer fucking luck really,” Pehuén said, “I don’t know. I think it’s just luck. He was enjoying the music festival like I was. It doesn’t make sense why he was arrested and beaten up by the cops and I wasn’t. It feels very random.”
Catch and Release
Citrus, who uses they/them pronouns, said they were picking up trash on the festival grounds when they were arrested. As other concertgoers milled around freely, “several officers ran up out of nowhere, pointed at me specifically and told me to get on the ground,” Citrus said.
As a femme person of color standing alone some distance away from the crowd, Citrus believes police saw them as a target of opportunity. Police took Citrus to a staging area at a nearby park. Along with a uniformed officer, a man who identified himself as assistant district attorney for DeKalb County questioned Citrus and others one at a time, but told the detainees little about what was happening. At one point, Citrus overheard officers telling several young detainees that they would likely be released because their clothes were free of mud.
Even after several hours of being held, a number of individuals still awaited questioning. An officer ordered these arrestees to split in two groups based on whether they resided in-state or out-of-state, which sped up processing of the detainees. A short time later, police released Citrus and 11 others, telling them to leave the area and not return to the forest. Police brought the remaining 23 individuals to DeKalb County Jail on charges of domestic terrorism.
Doc, another festival attendee, was sitting at her campsite near the festival stage when she was approached by two officers, one of whom identified himself as Lt. Quigley of the DeKalb County Police Department. Quigley asked Doc whether she was local to Atlanta, to which she replied that she was. After Quigley verified her local address, he allowed Doc to leave the music festival without further detention.
Doc says its likely that if she did not prove her local residency, Quigley would have charged her like the others. Citrus also believes that she was not charged due to a combination not looking the part and Southern residency.
Stories from that night paint a picture of opportunistic arrests and police charging individuals based on a calculus designed to reinforce the outside agitator narrative.
On the Outside
Sam, a fan of punk music who came with friends to camp and attend the music festival, found himself on the wrong side of the calculus law enforcement made that night. Like Citrus, police arrested Sam while he was picking up trash around the festival grounds. “He wanted to be at the music festival,” Sam’s wife, Kayla, said, “I think he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Sam, like nearly every other individual arrested on March 5 and charged with domestic terrorism, was denied bond on March 7.
Kayla describes Sam as both her source of support and an incredible human being to others. “He met my mother shirtless,” Kayla said, telling a story about how just moments before Sam met her mother for the first time years ago, “he gave away his shirt to a man who was homeless and didn’t have a shirt of his own.” That generosity wasn’t rare for Sam. “He’s given his belt away,” Kayla said, “and given his last cigarette. He is the kindest man.”
On March 7, Kayla found herself unexpectedly separated from her loved one for an indefinite amount of time, as did the families of the other 22 arrestees from the festival who did not receive bond at their first appearance. Sam’s detention immediately effected Kayla. “I suffer from paranoia,” Kayla said, “which has gotten worse since [Sam was arrested]. I don’t feel safe in my house a lot of the time. I have this sinking feeling of when he gets home, will someone come take him again?”
For the last three years, Sam played the role of primary caretaker in their relationship. Kayla has mobility issues and previously suffered from depression and anxiety, which Sam’s detention only worsened. On the advice of her doctor, Kayla doubled her anxiety medication to combat the stress of her partner’s detention.
As days drew into weeks, Kayla found herself unable to eat with her anxiety making it impossible to keep down all but light soups or salads. Despite her mobility issues, she took to pacing as a coping mechanism, which only increased her physical pain. Eventually she was unable to leave the house, relying on the solidarity of her friends to run errands.
Sam was released from DeKalb County Jail on March 23; while he was in jail, however, Sam knew nothing of Kayla’s struggles. Incoming calls are not allowed for detainees inside DeKalb County Jail, so Kayla had to wait for Sam to call her, which she said he was able to do so just once or twice a day. The jail limits those conversations to 45 minutes. In that time, Kayla tried to stay positive with Sam, explaining, “I can’t make things worse for him.” Sam, for his part, carried that same concern for others above himself. Friends banded together to put funds on Sam’s phone and commissary accounts, as the couple did not want to take extra resources away from the Atlanta Solidarity Fund while other arrestees, as Sam and Kayla believed, had higher needs.
On the Inside
April was one of those higher-need individuals. After the March 7 hearing in which Judge Davis denied bond for her and 21 other individuals arrested at the music festival on March 5, April was separated from the rest of the group. Originally placed with a group of women, guards attempted to move April, who is transgender, into a male section before settling on placing her in a medical pod, separated from any other activists. April’s cellmates told her early on that the medical pod was the worst part of the jail. It is the most locked down, with less freedom of movement than other pods, and bright lights remained on day and night, disrupting sleep.
April suffers from epilepsy and went without her medication for several days; in the interim, jail medical staff replaced her non-habit forming epilepsy medication with the highly addictive benzodiazepine Ativan. April’s various cellmates faired just as badly, if not worse. One cellmate faced an even more severe case of epilepsy than April’s that went similarly ignored. Another suffered from congestive heart failure, which was left untreated by medical staff causing April to worry her cellmate would die in jail.
April’s fear was not unfounded, given DeKalb County Jail’s track record for in-custody medical incidents. Over the course 2022, a total of nine prisoners died while in held in DeKalb County Jail as reported by Decaturish. An individual arrested for criminal trespass near the RC Field in May witnessed the death of Taneeka Holmes, who was still in jail despite receiving a signature bond. Holmes had a seizure while still in custody, but received no medical attention from jail staff.
Dekalb jail conditions are frequently described as brutal and unsanitary. April reported stepping over human feces once while on the way to see her lawyer, and another defendant complained of sewage from the floor above flowing into their cell for several days.
Conditions are DeKalb jail have been a cause for concern for years. In 2019, an Instagram account from Malaya Abdullah-Tucker, whose son was held at the jail at that time, posted pictures sent by individuals inside the jail with messages scrawled on styro-foam food trays that said things like, “we sleep and breathe mold,” and “please help, we dying.” The caption on Abdullah-Tucker’s post reads, in part, “most of them are there awaiting trials or traffic tickets…They are innocent until PROVEN guilty.”
Presumed Innocent but Still Suffering
Courts have yet to require prosecutors provide actual evidence against the defendants arrested at the music festival on March 5. In one case, a defense attorney argued at the March 23 bond hearing that video released by APD showed his client standing in the back of the crowd and not participating in the alleged destruction at the construction site, yet the judge still denied the defendant’s bond at that hearing.
Most of March 5 arrestees had been granted bond by March 23; eight of the original 23 arrestees, however, were denied bond at their second hearing. On March 30, one more individual was granted bond and released. The following day, March 31, prosecutors and defense attorneys worked out bond agreements for another three individuals, two of whom will be released in the next few days while the third may not be released due to an ICE hold. Four festival attendees, including Puertas who also has an ICE hold, have yet to receive bond and will remain in jail until either a later bond hearing or their trial date.
Like the March 5 arrestees, most of those suffering the horrific conditions in DeKalb County Jail have not been convicted of any crime. The most recent monthly snapshot of Georgia’s jail population conducted by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Office of Research showed on Feb. 1, of DeKalb’s 1431 prisoners, 1102, or 77%, were awaiting trial.
DeKalb County is not an anomaly. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 80% of those in jail nationwide are unconvicted and many of them remain in jail because they are not wealthy enough to afford bond.
Loved ones are forcibly separated from, and often unable to help, defendants nationwide who suffer horrible jail conditions as a result of the harmful existence of bail requirements in our legal system.