Latest arrests of ‘Cop City’ protesters ‘feel like overreach’, experts say

<span>Photograph: Cheney Orr/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Cheney Orr/Reuters

Three activists have been arrested in confusing circumstances and charged under a little-known Georgia law – an apparent tightening of the state’s criminal justice system in response to a movement opposing the building of a huge police and fire department training center known as “Cop City” near Atlanta.

“Cop City” has sparked a broad-based protest movement in Atlanta and elsewhere, drawing global headlines when one environmental activist was shot and killed by police.

Related: Atlanta shuts down strategic park in ‘Cop City’ protest movement

The latest arrests are “stunning and feel like overreach”, said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. They come under a law making it a felony to intimidate a law enforcement officer, and are in response to a printed flyer.

“It raises serious first amendment concerns,” the ACLU of Georgia wrote in an email. “It is also part of a broader pattern of the state of Georgia weaponizing the criminal code to unconditionally protect law enforcement and to silence speech critical of the government.”

Caroline Hart Tennenbaum and Abeeku Osei Vassall, of Atlanta, and Julia Dupuis, of Fullerton, California, were arrested 28 April, after leaving a flyer on mailboxes in Cartersville, a Georgia town about 45 miles north-west of Atlanta.

The flyer, exclusively obtained by the Guardian, called a policeman who lived in the neighborhood a “murderer” for participating in the 18 January shooting and killing of activist Manuel Paez Terán.

Local police initially charged the three with stalking, a misdemeanor, according to the county sheriff’s report. The activists heard officers debating whether to arrest them, with one asking another, “Isn’t this freedom of speech?” according to Lyra Foster, an attorney defending the arrestees. But the sheriff’s department was soon “advised that GBI [Georgia bureau of investigation] and FBI agents would be en route to interview the suspects”, according to the report.

The arrestees declined to be interviewed without a lawyer. Felony charges were added at some point.

A GBI spokesperson, Nelly Miles, would not answer questions about how or why the agency became involved. Neither would the FBI. Events surrounding the arrest led Stewart Bratcher, another attorney representing the activists, to wonder, “are they investigating a crime here or are they not liking what people are saying and therefore looking for a crime?”

The day after the arrests, all three were placed in solitary confinement without explanation, and left there for nearly four days, said Caroline Verhagen, mother of Dupuis. Georgia’s deputy attorney general, John Fowler, will be prosecuting the charges – an indicator of the state’s approach to the case.

The officer mentioned in the flyer, Jonathan Salcedo, was one of six named in a recently released document from the GBI, the agency charged with investigating Paez Terán’s death. The 18 January incident was the first time in US history police have shot and killed an environmental activist while protesting, catapulting the training center, known as “Cop City”, and the forest in which it will be built, into international news.

The state alleges the activist shot first and the case is with a special prosecutor.

Paez Terán, or Tortuguita, was one of dozens of activists camped in a public park south-east of Atlanta in mid-January, protesting against the “Cop City” project, planned for a part of the South River forest less than a mile away, as well as a developer’s plans to convert 40 acres (16 hectares) of the park into private land.

In the ensuing months, dozens of protesters have been arrested and charged under a state domestic terrorism law – another first in US law enforcement response to environmental activism. Now the state appears to have added a legal arrow to its quiver, after Salcedo called local police on the three activists driving through his neighborhood in Cartersville. Two were leaving flyers under the flags on mailboxes in front of each house, while a third was a passenger, according to Foster.

The sheriff’s report indicates Salcedo saw the van drive by, leaving flyers on mailboxes, and “felt harassed and intimidated by these actions and wished to have them prosecuted”.

The flyer features a large-type, bold-faced heading. Written as if by a resident, it reads: “Dear Neighbor, a murderer lives in our neighborhood!”

The same flyer was made for several of the officers involved in the shooting; only the name and street location of the officer’s residence varies. It explains some of the incident, including that Tortuguita’s body sustained 57 gunshot wounds, according to the DeKalb county autopsy report. The flyer does not include physical or other threats. It finishes by stating that the officer “has blood on his hands and he lives in our neighborhood”.

The activists’ intent, according to Foster, was “to raise awareness of a tragedy”.

Language on felony intimidation of a law enforcement officer was added in 2012 to a statute on intimidating “any officer in or of any court” that had been on the books for three decades.

“I’ve never come across a law that makes it a felony to intimidate a law enforcement officer or his family through speech or communication – unless there’s a very specific threat,” said Paulson.

“Saying unpleasant and insulting things about the way a public employee does his job is at the heart of free speech in America,” Paulson added.

Bratcher, with two decades of Georgia practice, said he had never seen the charge prosecuted. Thaddeus Johnson, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University who is researching laws in 15 states with increased penalties for assaulting police officers, also had never seen the law used.

Meanwhile, the family of the one arrestee from out of state, Julia Dupuis, has been trying to understand both the jail’s treatment and the state’s charges. Verhagen, who lives in Massachusets, said that actions such as putting her daughter in solitary confinement and, afterward, leaving lights on all night, are “like a third-world jail”.

“I’m afraid they’re going to stretch this law on intimidation to fit their needs and my daughter winds up in jail for a couple of years,” she said.