In separate preliminary hearings on May 4, Magistrate Court judges in both Fulton and DeKalb Counties upheld charges of domestic terrorism against one individual arrested after a protest on Jan. 21 and three more individuals arrested at the South River Music Festival on March 5.
In DeKalb County, Magistrate Judge James Altman upheld domestic terrorism charges against Luke Harper, Fredrique Robert-Paul and Victor Puertas. The three DeKalb defendants were the last people still held at DeKalb County Jail from amongst the 23 individuals arrested at the music festival and charged with domestic terrorism after a group of about 200 individuals set fires, destroyed equipment and knocked down security camera poles at the Cop City construction site a half-mile away from the festival.
In Fulton County, Judge Ashley Drake upheld a total of eight charges against Emily Murphy, including one of domestic terrorism. Murphy and five others were arrested Jan. 21 in the vicinity of a Defend the Forest protest three days after the killing of climate activist Manuel Paez “Tortuguita” Terán.
Preliminary hearings are held to determine whether the State has probable cause to charge someone with a crime. The threshold for probable cause is much lower than the threshold to convict someone of a crime.
Judge Altman explained that he decided whether to uphold the charges based on two criteria. The first was whether prosecutors provided enough evidence to satisfy the conditions set forth in the Georgia domestic terrorism statute, § 16-11-220, namely the threat to critical infrastructure. The second criteria prosecutors needed to meet was identification, or their ability to show that Harper, Robert-Paul and Puertas were each a party to the alleged crimes committed on March 5.
Prosecutors Lance Cross and Peter Johnson of the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office presented the case for the state, and across all three DeKalb hearings the background facts presented remained relatively the same. Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) Special Agent (SA) Ryan Long was the primary witness for the state. A second witness, Atlanta Police Department (APD) Sergeant Scott Farais testified at the 9:00 a.m. hearing in DeKalb County, but prosecutors explained he was unavailable at the later hearings due to the ongoing active shooter situation in Midtown at the time.
In his opening arguments, Assistant District Attorney Cross described the Defend the Forest Movement as being well funded and having a “pretty good propaganda arm” on social media. Upon Cross’ witness examination, SA Long testified to his view of the general structure of the Movement. He described the movement overall as a pyramid scheme, with each of the different names like “Stop Cop City” and “Defend the Forest” as subgroups designed to attract new members and subordinate to the leadership of a main group under what he called a command structure. SA Long asserted that activists present as ecologists one day and anarchists the next as necessary to further their cause. The latter label, however, stands at odds with the claim that the movement operates under some sort of command structure.
Prosecutors’ discussion of defendants’ social media accounts presented another troubling issue. Several times throughout the DeKalb preliminary hearings, prosecutors described defendants’ social media posts as illustrating an awareness of the nature of the Defend the Forest Movement as prosecutors painted it. In one instance, prosecutors cited Puertas’s social media posting labeling himself an “anti-capitalist” and “anti-colonial” as proof of criminal intent. While Judge Altman stated these social media posts did not factor into his decision regarding probable cause, prosecutors’ suggestion that supporting a movement or self-identifying as anti-capitalist or anti-colonial is evidence seen by prosecutors as an implication of guilt carries with it troubling ramifications for free speech.
Prosecutors also attempted to paint legal support resources as evidence of guilt. In the arrest warrants signed by SA Long on March 5 against the 23 individuals charged with domestic terrorism, frequent mentions were made about individuals having a jail support hotline phone number on their body. The next day, March 6, at the first appearance hearing for the 23 people arrested at the music festival, Cross described the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which serves as both a bail and legal defense fund for activists in the city, as a central part of the Defend the Forest Movement, saying, “they’re being investigated as a part of this whole thing.”
Throughout the United States, it is a frequent practice for activist groups to distribute jail support numbers in anticipation of police repression. This practice is common for protests of all types, from simple marches to direct actions, and speaks more to the constant threat to freedom of speech by police than it does to the intent of any individual protester. Similarly, the proliferation of bail and legal defense funds is a response to the harm created by the cash bail system in the US and political prosecutions of social, economic and environmental justice activists.
For all three of the DeKalb defendants, Judge Altman held that the first criteria for upholding the domestic terrorism charges had been met because the act of setting fire to the construction site close to a power line tower was a direct threat to critical infrastructure, even if the defendants did not themselves start any of the fires. Judge Altman recounted a 2017 case he presided over involving an individual charged with the setting of a fire that went out of control and destroyed a bridge over I-85 near Piedmont Road. He stated the 2017 fire started far smaller than those at the construction site on March 5. If the fires at the construction site had taken down the power line tower, Altman said, they would have caused a power outage to hundreds of thousands of people.
As for the second criteria on identification, Judge Altman ruled that prosecutors provided enough evidence against Harper and Puertas to make them at least party to the action at the construction site. Prosecutors showed images of who they identified as Harper on the construction site, which the judge quickly determined was sufficient identification. His decision on Puertas took more time since prosecutors could not provide photographs or video of Puertas in the crowd at the construction site or marching to it. The only identification evidence against Puertas was SA Long’s testimony that other officers saw Puertas leaving the woods near the living room and running from a Georgia State Police (GSP) officer. Judge Altman ruled that this was sufficient evidence for identification.
Judge Altman also declined to change the no-bond status previously set by a Superior Court judge for Harper and Puertas, citing his belief that they were flight risks. Judge Altman told defense attorneys they could file a motion for a reconsideration of bond status hearing for the two defendants in front of a Superior Court judge.
Judge Altman did not rule on probable cause against Robert-Paul, whose hearing ran about a half-hour over the allotted time. Robert-Paul’s defense attorney Holly Waltman had another court appearance scheduled and had to leave before she could present her closing argument against prosecutors’ probable cause evidence. After Waltman’s departure, the judge offered to rule on Robert-Paul’s bond condition, saying that if he granted bond then, the defense would not need to make their closing arguments. Matt Bass, the second attorney representing Robert-Paul, agreed to have the judge rule on bond in lieu of a probable cause ruling. Judge Altman set Robert-Paul a $25,000, with conditions that she surrender her passport, not return to Intrenchment Creek Park, not have any contact with her co-defendants and not post anything on social media regarding the Stop Cop City movement.
In Fulton County, the prosecution, led by state Deputy Attorney General John Fowler, argued that Murphy was a party to the alleged unlawful assembly and subsequent riot, arson and property destruction committed on January 21.
In closing arguments before Judge Drake, Fowler said that a repayment from the “Forest Defense Fund” to Murphy, who uses they/them pronouns, for supplies they purchased to set up a welcome station at a summer Week of Action in 2022 was evidence that Murphy was well positioned in the movement and knew what was going to happen at the protest January 21.
As in the DeKalb preliminary hearings, the prosecution argued that a social media post by Murphy sharing a flyer for a “night of rage” on January 20 was further evidence of their culpability but did not explain a connection between the flyer for January 20 and the alleged events of January 21.
Fowler invoked the outside agitator narrative against Murphy, saying, “[They are] from Michigan and there is no evidence that [they are] here for any other reason. What there is testimony of is that there are people from states all over the place — even out of the country — that are coming here solely for the purpose of Defend the Atlanta Forest. There is no other evidence of why [Murphy] is here. It’s not school, it’s not work, it’s not to visit anybody. It’s for the purposes of Defend the Atlanta Forest.”
“The whole trope of outside agitator has a long history in American history,” Professor Peniel Joseph at the University of Texas at Austin said in a 2020 interview, “and it’s been used by everybody from plantation owners in the South during antebellum slavery to big corporate industry magnates… to civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and certainly black power activists, including the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael.”
In more recent history, Joseph argues in the same interview, “[the outside agitator narrative has] been utilized against activists who are trying to transform the criminal justice system in the United States. Basically, what it’s meant is that whatever conflict, political rebellion or demonstration is happening, it’s not organically home grown, it’s not authentic. That none of these troubles would happen if not for outside agitators.”
The use of the outside agitator narrative in the city of Atlanta strikes particularly strange, with city leaders quick to invoke its status as the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. at any available chance. King himself addressed the outside agitator narrative in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, writing, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
Fowler also drew an extreme comparison between the Defend the Forest Movement and the 9/11 attack in New York City two decades ago saying, “[Protesters] were trying to knock out the windows of 191 Peachtree Street. That is a dangerous situation. That’s a twin towers.”
The 191 Peachtree building is the home of the Atlanta Police Foundation. It is by no means a symbolic or cultural touchstone for the city of Atlanta, nor has the building ever been under any threat of serious damage. In the almost two years since the start of the Stop Cop City movement, the building’s windows have been smashed several times, but that is the extent of the damage. The hyperbolic nature of Fowler’s comments underlines the State’s habit of categorizing any dissent as an extreme threat to the entire nation, which opens the door to deeper cycles of repression against those who protest systems injustice in this county.
Ultimately, Judge Drake upheld the charges against Murphy. Like her counterpart in DeKalb County, Judge Drake told the defendant that the bar for probable cause is low, and that prosecutors would need to reach a much higher standard when the case goes to trial.
Prosecutors and the defense attorneys representing Murphy agreed to a consent bond on April 24, but Murphy chose to remain in jail to force the preliminary hearing. Murphy’s bond was paid after their hearing, and they were released from Fulton County Jail in the early hours of May 4.
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