When author and environmental movement expert Will Potter saw the Atlanta police chief, Darin Schierbaum, tell a recent press conference "it doesn't take a rocket scientist or an attorney to tell you that breaking windows and setting fires is not protest - it's terrorism", he could not believe his ears.
The problem, Potter told the Guardian, is that while you may not have to be a rocket scientist, "the reality is, it's been difficult to come to an understanding of what terrorism is and what political violence is for decades".
Schierbaum was speaking about a march through midtown Atlanta, Georgia, last Saturday night that began peacefully, only to see several protesters separate and begin breaking windows of businesses and lighting fire to a police car. The marchers were protesting "Cop City", an 85-acre, $90m training facility planned for South River forest, a wooded area south-east of the city.
They were also protesting the fatal police shooting of Tortuguita, a fellow activist, less than a week earlier, on a raid in the Atlanta forest where dozens have been tree-sitting and camping for more than a year.
The march, arrests of 18 activists charged under a state domestic terrorism law, a series of raids on the forest in recent weeks and Tortuguita's killing have escalated tensions over Cop City. They culminated Thursday afternoon in the Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, declaring a state of emergency. Under the order, up to 1,000 national guard troops will be available until 9 February or upon further order.
These actions have also been matched by a strident rhetoric from police and politicians in Georgia, seeking to define a largely peaceful protest movement - often focused on environmental and racial justice issues - as terrorism and those who participate in it as terrorists. It has shocked many observers including Potter, who see a crude attempt to use as powerful tools as possible to crush opposition.
"I can't help but think it's to shut the protest down and remove them from the public spotlight," Potter said of Kemp's order Thursday.
Potter has looked at changing federal government approaches to pursuing terrorism charges against environmental activists in his book, Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege. These efforts culminated in attempts to charge activists with domestic terrorism during the 2000s on at least 70 occasions - succeeding in only 18, according to a 2018 report by the Intercept.
On Saturday night, six activists in Atlanta were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism, bringing the total since December to 18. All have been charged under a Georgia statute, marking the first time state law has been used this way in the history of environmental movements in the US.
On 18 January, Tortuguita also became the first environmental activist killed by police in US history, experts said. The Georgia bureau of investigation said Tortuguita, or Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, had shot an officer first, and in recent days has produced photos of a gun and a Firearms Transaction Record that appears to be in Terán's name. The agency charged with investigating Georgia police shootings also said ballistics evidence from the wounded officer matches the gun - and that there is no body-cam or other footage of the shooting.
The arrests come on the heels of at least a year's worth of rising public chorus from Kemp, law enforcement officials and others using the term "terrorist" to describe the protesters, even as opposition to the Cop City project has grown since Atlanta city council approved it in late 2021.
Eli Bennett and Joshua Schiffer, two Atlanta attorneys representing some of the activists, both told the Guardian the state statute is "overly vague". Four of the 18 cases brought under federal domestic terrorism charges during the 2000s were dismissed due to allegations being too vague, according to the Intercept. "It's too easy to abuse, and I strongly have issues with how domestic terrorism is thrown around" in the state law, Schiffer said.
Arrest affidavits obtained by the Guardian for seven activists arrested 18 January during the same police raid on South River forest in which Tortuguita was killed begin by alleging that the defendants were "participating in actions as part of Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF), a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as domestic violent extremists".
But a homeland security (DHS) spokesperson responded to a query by the Guardian: "The Department of Homeland Security does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists" - adding that the agency also "regularly shares information" regarding perceived threats to the "safety and security of all communities".
Meanwhile, a White House bulletin issued early in the Biden administration underlined: "The two most lethal elements of today's domestic terrorism threat are (1) racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race and (2) anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, such as militia violent extremists."
Potter's work looks at several decades of efforts by corporate leaders to create a legal and policy framework for prosecuting groups such as the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, which in the 1990s used tactics such as vandalism and even arson to defend animals and the environment - but never harmed a person. In the mid-2000s, corporations such as Pfizer, Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline joined the United Egg Producers, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and others in pushing Congress to consider these acts "terrorism", he writes.
Broadening definitions and sentencing guidelines arising from these efforts resulted in a situation where "even writing pro-animal slogans on the sidewalk in chalk" could get you charged with terrorism, said Ryan Shapiro, co-founder of Property of the People, a national security-oriented nonprofit organization focused on transparency that has released thousands of FBI and CIA documents exposing government overreach.
Similarly, Bill McKibben, author of 20 books on climate change and other subjects, wrote this week that, according to Georgia's domestic terrorism law, "lie down in front of a police car and you're a terrorist who could spend many many years behind bars".
Shapiro shared documents with the Guardian obtained through FOIA showing that lack of agreement on legal frameworks around terrorism inhibit DHS's work.
In one email chain between a DHS agent and a regional director from 2021, the former says: "The lack of a consistent, applicable definition of DVE [domestic violent extremism] that has been coordinated and agreed upon" is the "greatest challenge in preventing … the DVE threat". The agent goes on to write:, "Anyone can fall into any category based on an independent interpretation of what DVE term is being implied."
The case in Georgia arises from another thread in the recent history of approaches to domestic terrorism, Shapiro noted. "The post-9/11 downward creep of national security justifications has provided local police with counterterrorism powers previously limited to the FBI and other federal agencies," he said.
An additional aspect of the ongoing conflict in Atlanta worth noting is that activists opposing both the training center and separate plans to expand a film studio on the South River Forest land approach the issue from "two of the most targeted groups" by the FBI for decades, Shapiro said. Those are the racial justice and environmental movements.
The arrest affidavits appear predicated on the notion of arrestees allegedly belonging to a group that the state has linked to acts such as burning construction vehicles needed for the training facility or film studio, as well as vandalizing other property.
"Language matters," said Potter. "Terrorism and violence have meanings. It's misleading to characterize broken windows, even arson, in the same breath as murdering people in a nightclub." Potter pointed to other political movements throughout US and global history that have used similar tactics - including women suffragettes and gay rights activists, he said. "How we evaluate these things really depends on how we see the movements," he said. "We're going to look at the tactics of prior movements differently now, because they're more mainstream."
Moving forward, another aspect of this movement may prove challenging to pursuing domestic terrorism charges due to supposed affiliation in a group, Potter noted.
Opposition to development in South River forest has included neighborhood associations, established environmental groups, local schools, Atlanta-area citizens, and many others, he said. As for those who have chosen to stay in the forest, attracting the most attention of law enforcement (and media): "They don't have an official leader. They don't have a spokesperson. We don't know who's classified as a member … or not," Potter noted.
"It's like trying to turn a political movement into a criminal organization," Bennett said.