Exclusive: We Spoke to ‘Stop Cop City’ Activists Facing Terrorism Charges

42 people have been arrested for alleged ties to the protest movement, which opposes a $90 million police training facility in the Atlanta forest.
Protesters march down a street in Atlanta holding banners that say "Stop Cop City / Drop The Contract" and "We Are All Forest Defenders"

When Vienna Forrest first heard she was being charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute last December, she thought it was some kind of cruel joke. “I was wearing camo in a public park, camping with my friends,” she told Motherboard. “[Terrorism charges] are not really what you expect to come out of that.”

The terrorism charge stemmed from her alleged involvement in the Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF) movement, a group which her arrest warrant claims is “classified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a domestic violent extremist group.” The DHS has since publicly refuted the claim that it lists DTAF as a terrorist organization, but prosecutors in Dekalb County have continued to charge people allegedly involved with the movement under the state’s terrorism statute—including attendees of a music festival that recently took place in the forest. 


So far, 42 people in total have been charged with domestic terrorism, which carries a minimum five-year and maximum 35-year prison sentence.  

Forrest recounted Dekalb County Jail conditions as “terrible, with tasteless cold food” and said full doses of her hormone medication were denied. She said she was aggressively misgendered throughout her two weeks in the men’s jail, and was forced to reveal her trans status at the jail hospital following a line of questioning pertaining to whether she had undergone gender affirming surgery. Without any explanation after the visit, she was moved from the jail’s general population to solitary confinement for four days in a cell with opaque windows and no way of communicating with guards in the case of an emergency.

Several weeks after she was released from jail, police shot and killed her partner, Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who was occupying the forest during a raid carried out by Georgia State Troopers and Dekalb County Police. The killing sparked international outrage, and catapulted the movement into mainstream news overnight. While police initially claimed Tortuguita shot at the officers first, an autopsy recently revealed they were sitting cross-legged with their hands raised when they were shot 14 times. 


“I don't know if I'll be able to fully process everything until it's over. But I always joke with my friends that it can't be post traumatic stress if there's no post. It’s constant ongoing trauma,” said Forrest. “When I got out of jail I was just very solitary, I wasn’t really engaging with my community at all in the way I wanted to. With Tortuguita’s death it kind of threw me back into it. I’m trying to live in Tortuguita’s legacy and do mutual aid and build communities of care like they always did.”

The sweep marked an escalation in police tactics against those who have been opposing construction of a $90 million dollar police training facility, which would destroy more than 400 acres of Atlanta’s South River Forest and feature a mock neighborhood. Critics, who generally call the project “‘Cop City,”’ cite environmental concerns, police violence against Black and other marginalized people, and a lack of legal channels for halting the project as reasons for participating in the movement. Activists have said the movement isn’t a membership based organization, but a nebulous intersection of students, clergy, abolitionists, and community members who are interlinking their tactics through informal networks to halt construction of Cop City.


The latest sweep in early March made international headlines after militarized police arrested and charged 23 people, seemingly at random, with domestic terrorism at a music festival organized by people involved in the movement. Atlanta Police claimed the arrests were connected to a demonstration earlier that day wherein a crowd stormed the ‘Cop City’ construction site, burned equipment and set off fireworks at police. But as The Intercept reported, the arrests at the music festival were made on shaky evidential grounds. Warrants cited mud on shoes and a legal support number scribbled on someone’s body as probable cause for arrest.

Eight of the 23 people arrested at the concert remain incarcerated. 22 of those defendants were initially denied bond by magistrate Judge Anna Watkins Davis, and 12 were later released on consent bonds. On March 23, eight of the remaining defendants were again denied release by Judge Gregory Adams, while two were granted bond at $25,000.

Prosecutors argued to keep defendants in jail by claiming that mud on their shoes, black clothing, and a phone number for a legal support line written on their arms were indicative of criminal intent, according Hannah Riley, a Communications Director with Southern Center for Human Rights, who attended the hearing. 


The Georgia Bureau of Investigation did not comment on the arrests when contacted by Motherboard, but sent a public press release related to the killing of Tortuguita.

Civil liberties advocates criticized the arrests as violating people’s first amendment rights. “Somebody who is watching a music concert cannot be held criminally responsible for people a mile away that allegedly engaged in economic sabotage,” Lauren Regan, the director and senior attorney at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, told Motherboard. “The legal system does not work that way. That's called vicarious liability. And that's not permitted.”  

The mass arrests are reminiscent of the 2017 “J20” case, where more than 230 people attending a protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. were arrested for being in the vicinity of property damage and wearing similar black clothing. The first round of defendants were acquitted at trial, and charges were ultimately dropped after a majority of defendants refused plea deals in solidarity with their co-defendants.


Regan said the weak nature of the cases in Georgia indicates the state isn’t necessarily using the terrorism statute to secure convictions, but to chill, repress, and stop the growth of the movement. “They are losing in the court of public opinion…when you can't win in the court of public opinion, you use the systems that you can control and one of those systems is the legal system,” said Regan. “They think that prosecuting activists for ‘domestic terrorism’ would make mom and pop disfavor activists, or be afraid to support it, to be afraid to join it, to donate to it.” 

Earlier this month, 69 organizations including the Civil Liberty Defense Center, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International USA called for the charges to be dropped in a letter to Georgia’s Attorney General Christopher Carr and Dekalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston. More than 300 academics released a statement last week announcing a boycott of academic conferences in the state of Georgia until the charges are dropped and an independent investigation into the killing of Tortuguita takes place. Health care providers also sent a letter to Dekalb County Jail with concerns over the health and safety of people being held at the jail, including defendants charged with domestic terrorism being denied epilepsy medication.


A representative from Dekalb County Jail could not be reached for comment.

Emily Murphy, a defendant who has been incarcerated at Atlanta City Detention Center for roughly two months after being denied bond, told Motherboard that guards tased a person who was advocating for food and blankets at Fulton County Registry during their booking process, and that staff frequently threaten incarcerated people with tasers. They said that many of the people they have met in jail are unable to afford to pay bail. “It isn't about how ‘dangerous’ the state thinks you are. It's about your ability to pay,” said Murphy, via an audio recording sent to Motherboard through their lawyers. “It's like you can be released for the right price.” Murphy was also repeatedly denied vegan food in jail, until a call-in campaign on her behalf pressured the jail into meeting her dietary needs. 

“The state wants to vilify us as much as possible,” Murphy said of the charges. “And you know, it's a scare tactic to try to break up the movement and prevent people from taking future actions. Activism is not terrorism.” 

A representative for the Atlanta City Detention Center did not respond to a request for comment.

Another defendant, Ivan Ferguson, who was released on bond on February 15, described every interpersonal interaction between guards and incarcerated people as full of neglect and contempt. But they also witnessed moments of connectedness and hope between incarcerated people during their more than three weeks behind bars. 


“I had some good times, met some good people, and played lots of card games. I met someone in my pod who is a preacher, and I'm not even religious, but it was beautiful hearing them speak to people and bring them together,” Ferguson told Motherboard. “I was so touched and moved by the way that this person was able to sort of highlight the underlying community and love that is still possible and alive in even the most barren and isolating places”  

Like many other defendants, Ferguson was released with an ankle monitor that surveils and restricts their movements. “I’m not allowed to get groceries, so other people bring me food,” they said. “It’s been lovely to have people who want to help.”

Defendants' pretrial release conditions forbid them from contacting their co-defendants, and in some cases they are prohibited from entering the state of Georgia entirely, a condition Regan said was very rare and speaks to the state’s true intention of using the criminal justice system to stop activism.  

The movement doesn’t appear to be slowing down since the arrests, however. At least for Ferguson’s part, they still feel a strong sense of solidarity and connection to others, despite being locked inside their home. 

“I’ve been reminded about how important and powerful and beautiful and lovely and divine that community is,” they said. “It’s been really really eye opening and inspiring to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that—and it’s so cheesy to say—I’m not alone [...] I'm the millionth person to say this, but it's been wonderful to feel I'm part of something larger. We're in this together.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of defendants who remain incarcerated after the arrests in early March.