Georgia prosecutors are using a unique strategy against a group of mostly out-of-town protesters who oppose a new police and fire training center near Atlanta, using a state domestic-terrorism law to charge more than a dozen people. It is the first time the law has been used in this manner, according to legal experts and the American Civil Liberties Union, and it is being watched closely by state and city governments, legal scholars and protest groups, reports the Wall Street Journal. Supporters of the tactic say it is necessary to impose stiffer penalties against people who want to commit violence under the guise of protest. Activists say the charges could stifle legitimate dissent. If successful in Georgia, such prosecutions could be used across the U.S. to chill involvement in protests on a range of issues, they say.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said his office “will not hesitate to hold accountable those who violate our laws, including, where appropriate, bringing charges of domestic terrorism that carry a maximum sentence of up to 35 years in prison.” The conflict over the training center heated up after city officials approved it in 2021. Clashes escalated between police and protesters self-identified under the “forest defenders” banner who were camped at the site and opposed razing trees to build the center, leading to dozens of arrests on low-level charges. Police say protesters set small fires, disabled or vandalized construction equipment, broke windows and harassed workers and law enforcement. A protest that turned violent in downtown Atlanta resulted in damage to several businesses and a police car. The situation intensified in December, when prosecutors for the first time filed felony domestic-terrorism charges against a handful of protesters, claiming the group harbored violent extremists. Marlon Kautz of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which raises money for legal defense and bail for arrested protesters, said these charges were misleading and unprecedented. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” Kautz said. “It’s an experimental prosecutorial strategy.”