U.S. and World Politics

Atlanta Police Arrest Organizers of Bail Fund for Cop City Protesters

By Natasha Lennard

On May 31, 2023, a heavily armed Atlanta Police Department SWAT team raided a house in Atlanta and arrested three of its residents. Their crime? Organizing legal support and bail funds for protesters and activists who have faced indiscriminate arrest and overreaching charges in the struggle to stop the construction of a vast police training facility—dubbed Cop City—atop a forest in Atlanta.

In a joint operation with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or GBI, Atlanta cops charged Marlon Scott Kautz, Adele Maclean, and Savannah Patterson—all board members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund—with “money laundering” and “charity fraud.”

The arrests are an unprecedented attack on bail funds and legal support organizations, a long-standing facet of social justice movements, according to Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center.

“This is the first bail fund to be attacked in this way,” Regan, whose organization has worked to ensure legal support for people resisting Cop City, told me. “And there is absolutely not a scintilla of fact or evidence that anything illegal has ever transpired with regard to Atlanta fundraising for bail support.”

While the Atlanta Solidarity Fund has been a crucial resource for activists facing harsh repression for their involvement in Stop Cop City, the nonprofit predates the movement and has been providing bail funds, jail support, and assistance with legal representation for Atlanta activists since the 2020 Black liberation uprisings.

The fund, a project of the registered nonprofit Network for Strong Communities, has also provided grants to support an array of anti-repression work in Atlanta, including to groups working with unhoused trans youth, Black worker-owned cooperatives, and abolitionist community builders.

“What happened this morning is a terrifying escalation by the state, and a chillingly direct attack on the First Amendment. This is fascist political repression,” Hannah Riley, an Atlanta-based organizer, told me. “Providing mutual aid to people exercising their constitutionally protected rights to protest and dissent is not a crime.”

A public statement from the GBI said that “[a]gents and officers executed a search warrant and found evidence linking the three suspects to the financial crimes.” The warrants for all three arrestees cite “records and reports of certain currency transactions” and “fraudulent, misrepresenting, or misleading activities regarding charitable solitations.” (“Solitations” is, of course, not a word, but the apparent misspelling of the word “solicitations” appears on all three arrestees’ warrants.)

A more detailed arrest warrant for Patterson notes that the alleged “money laundering” charge relates to reimbursements made from the nonprofit to Patterson’s personal PayPal account for minor expenses including “gasoline, forest clean-up, totes, COVID rapid tests, media, yard signs and other miscellaneous expenses.” Targeting the organizers with a militarized SWAT raid based on such expenditures only clarifies the desperation of law enforcement agencies in going after the movement.

According to the GBI statement, “All three charged will be booked into a local jail and will have a bond hearing scheduled soon.”

Wednesday’s arrests are just the latest in extreme law enforcement persecution of the popular Stop Cop City movement. A total of 42 activists are currently facing state domestic terror charges on the flimsiest of police claims, while three others face hefty felony intimidation charges for distributing flyers that named a police officer connected to the brutal police killing of 26-year-old forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” TerĂ¡n.

Kautz, one of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund organizers arrested on Wednesday, had previously shared numerous reflections with The Intercept on the Atlanta cops’ extreme repressive tactics. He noted that the indiscriminate arrests and use of state domestic terrorism charges against protesters represented “an unprecedented level of repression” and a “strategy of blatant malicious prosecution.”

It is a vile irony that for his own role in legal support work and rightful criticism of police violence, Kautz is now part of this same pattern of apparent prosecutorial abuse.

Unconstitutional arrests

In targeting the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, police and prosecutors are attempting to further the groundless narrative that the multifaceted movement against Cop City is a “criminal organization,” enabling profoundly unconstitutional arrests based on no more than association with a resilient anti-racist, environmentalist movement.

Politicians keen to see Cop City built in Atlanta have doubled down on the pernicious line, none more so than Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp. “These criminals facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism,” said Kemp in a statement responding to Wednesday’s arrests, despite the fact that no one has been convicted in the weak domestic terrorism cases.

Organizing bail funds and legal support for protesters facing charges, however serious, is a decades-old social justice movement practice. As the Atlanta Community Press Collective noted on Twitter, “When Dr. King was held in Birmingham Jail, churches and community groups including the NAACP came together to fund his $4000 bail—the equivalent of $39,000 today.”

Like the overreaching domestic terrorism charges, if any established legal standards and precedents are upheld in these cases, no financial crimes or money-laundering charges will stick. Yet even unsuccessful malicious prosecutions exact a painful toll on movements, especially when a resource hub like the Atlanta Solidarity Fund is targeted.

“They are trying to drain our morale and trying to drain our resources,” another person associated with the fund told me, withholding their name for fear of police persecution following their associates’ arrests. “These arrests send a message that if you run a nonprofit that they find to be at odds with their colonial project, they will target you.”

A dangerous precedent

The charges indeed risk setting a dangerous precedent in criminalizing bail funds and legal support networks. “Bailing out protestors who exercise their constitutionally protected rights is simply not a crime. In fact, it is a historically grounded tradition in the very same social and political movements that the city of Atlanta prides itself on,” said Regan, the attorney, in a separate press statement. “Someone had to bail out civil rights activists in the ’60s—I think we can all agree that community support isn’t a crime.”

Wednesday’s arrests come just days after it was revealed by reporters that Atlanta officials have known for some time that the cost of building Cop City to the city of Atlanta would amount to at least $51 million in public funds, instead of the $30 million that city officials promised since 2021.

Local opposition to the project has been strong, with hundreds of people attending a recent city council meeting to speak out against Cop City during a public hearing. The city council will vote on whether to approve the growing cost of the vast militarized policing facility on June 5. “The charges against organizers of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund come as the public becomes increasingly aware of the corporate funding and interests backing the Cop City project and the Atlanta Police Foundation non-profit,” Nora Scholl from the Atlanta Community Press Collective told me. “Law enforcement agencies are using force and imprisonment against protestors to buffer them from widespread opposition to the project.”

The Intercept, May 31, 2023