Priscilla Grim and activists at the Atlanta Forest earlier this year. Photo: Supplied/Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
After more than 20 years away from her childhood home, 49-year-old Priscilla Grim flew back to Atlanta from Brooklyn, planning to work remotely with her laptop from the forest in protest of the new “Cop City” police facility that would be built on that land.Instead, she lost her job, was put in jail for weeks in pretrial detention to witness some of the “hardest” things she’s ever seen in her life, and now is facing the same RICO “mob boss” charges as Donald Trump, along with domestic terrorism.
“Either everyone's a terrorist or no one's a terrorist. They have completely obliterated, in my mind, the actual definition of what the word terrorism is,” Grim told VICE News in an exclusive interview. In the new sweeping indictment dropped by Georgia Attorney General, Chris Carr this month, 61 activists fighting against the state’s plans to raze the forest next to one of Atlanta’s Black-working class neighborhoods to build a brand new police facility including a mock city and a shooting range – dubbed “Cop City” – were hit with RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges. The 109-page indictment goes on to accuse some of the activists, like Grim, with domestic terrorism, citing things like wearing black clothing, “handing out flyers,” and using social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to share their “anti-authority” presence. The indictment also states instances of vandalism and “arson” by protesters.Terms also used to build an argument against the activists in the indictment include “mutual aid,” “protecting the environment at all costs”, and “solidarity” as rhetoric and tools for anarchy and terrorism.
“I literally saw thousands of people die in front of me in real time as a building collapsed on my rooftop,” Grim recalled of watching the attacks on 9/11 from her home in Brooklyn. “It's completely offensive to me that the state of Georgia is saying that someone who wears black is a terrorist.Wearing black is not akin to mass murder.”
In March, the 49-year-old mother returned to Atlanta after learning about the detrimental impacts the development would have on both the forest, as well as people of color fearing police brutality and militarized training. This includes a 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who was killed while sitting in the forest in protest. While cops initially ruled that he had attacked police first, an autopsy commissioned by the family later found he was shot at least 57 times while sitting down with his hands up.“I understood this to be at the intersection of Black Lives Matter, trampling freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and climate justice in order to uphold the violence of policing, which we're in a national crisis over,” Grim said. “I understood the struggle to be led by Black and Indigenous people of Atlanta fighting environmental racism.”But after spending a few nights in the forest, she and dozens of others were arrested.
“All that I knew was that I was being chased. I was not told I was being arrested. I just all of a sudden heard this very heavy, what I thought were male bodies behind me, screaming at me to stop and [being] tackled to the ground. And I literally thought I was going to lose my life,” Grim said.From there, she and five other forest defenders were put in the same pod at the DeKalb County Jail for pretrial detention with a group of inmates who were booked for things like “driving without a license” or “being homeless,” Grim said. She had no idea how long she would be detained, and called her employer back home in New York City to explain but ended up losing her job and locked behind bars in what would be the most traumatic moment of her life.
“I really saw it as a cage community. We just had to figure out how best to support each other to get through the hardest thing in our lives, you know?”In jail, Grim witnessed an inmate sitting in a “pool of period blood and feces” because they weren’t given enough sanitary napkins. She also witnessed jail staff bribing inmates with food—when they were being “starved” with food only arriving every 12 to 14 hours—to clean up a flood of contaminated water in the jail pod while only wearing socks and slides. When inmates were able to afford to buy items from the commissary, many bought ramen but had to use shower water to heat it, as there was no fresh hot water on site. In a commissary bill that Grim still has, essentials like shampoo, creams, and warm thermals were also taxed. One of the most haunting things Grim witnessed during her 31 days in jail was a fellow inmate who had attempted suicide by hanging herself with a bed sheet. “Everybody in the pod was freaking out, screaming ‘you need to help her.’ The guards laughed,” Grim said. “They finally got her out and took her away to medical. And the entire pod was yelled at for causing a problem.”As the days dragged on, Grim decided she needed to document it as a way to survive the trauma, but also to remember the horrifying experiences so she’d be able to share it with others one day when she was free. But without resources, she resorted to writing on legal documents her lawyer shared with her during her time in jail, as well as plates from jail meals.
When Grim was finally released after a month she immediately flew back home, to her daughter and community in New York City who had helped pay her rent while she was locked away. Despite trying to get back to her “normal” life, she admits she hasn’t fully recovered. “A streetlight could be in my eyes a certain way, and all of a sudden I'm back in my bed, in my cell, in my mind. It's just because our lights were on all the time,” she said. Sometimes, when she’s having a trauma-related breakdown, she’ll try to calm herself down by calling that panicked inner voice “Jail Priscilla.” “When ‘Jail Priscilla’ has a problem, she needs to be in the corner for a minute. I feel as though I have multiple realities at this moment and definitely life has affected me in ways that I am making different choices in life now,” she said. Grim is now preparing for an even bigger fight for the upcoming trial over her RICO charges, which could result in 20 years in prison. Despite that, she says she’s survived so far, and is hoping that her speaking out sheds light on how the country is affected by the inhumane prison industrial complex.“Angela Davis dealt with something way worse and she's surviving and thriving now. The Black Panther Party was attacked with RICO. So were the Puerto Rican independendistas,” Grim said. “We now have the internet so people can actually see what the actual stakes are out to the public in protest. So, you know, I'm in good company.”Grim added that it’s unsurprising that a country like the U.S. that totes free speech and the right to organize is now directly coming after protesters. In fact, it’s nothing new. “We need to all remember that the United States has never been a democracy. This is a country that was founded on genocide. They talk about freedom to assemble and freedom of speech, they actually murdered Indigenous people who were only living and trying to care for the land,” Grim said. “So, you know, the freedom of speech and gathering has only been protected for those in power, those who serve the interests of the white, wealthy classes.” In fact, Grim says what’s happening now, in light of being accused of domestic terrorism, is actually what the state is putting on her and other land defenders like her. “They're looking for ways to just put people in cages,” she said. “That's actually terrorism by the police state to us.”