(WASHINGTON)—PEN America said today it is deeply concerned over the arrest of “Cop City” protesters in Georgia on “domestic terrorism” charges, saying it worried this could lead to a chilling effect on the right to protest in the state. The charges were imposed in the wake of protests over the killing of environmental and justice activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, who was shot by a police officer.

On Thursday, Governor Kemp of Georgia issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to quell protests that have arisen in the wake of the shooting of Terán, who police allege shot and injured a state trooper; Terán’s fellow activists have contested the claims and called for an investigation into their killing. No body camera footage has been released and according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation there is none. Terán had been a member of Atlanta’s forest defenders protesting the planned development of a police training facility, which the protesters have named “Cop City.” More than a dozen protesters have been arrested

Teran, 26, was shot on January 18 at Intrenchment Creek Park, a planned site for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

Since Terán’s death and dating back to December of 2022, reports indicate that law enforcement in Georgia have arrested members of the forest defenders and other protesters and charged them with crimes including the broad and vaguely worded domestic terrorism statute.

“News that Governor Kemp and law enforcement in Georgia are arresting protesters on charges of ‘domestic terrorism’ is deeply concerning and could have wide-reaching chilling impacts on the right to protest in Georgia,” said Kate Ruane, PEN America’s US free expression program director. 

She stated: “Domestic terrorism statutes are often broad and vaguely worded, meaning they could include activities like protesting with a mask on or wearing black or camouflaged clothing. The use of these overbroad statutes that carry heavy penalties to punish and suppress protest is the logical next step after the waves of anti-protest legislation PEN America has previously reported on. Many of these bills have expanded the conduct and heightened the penalties for when protesting can be considered a riot, criminal obstruction, or a similar offense. Others criminalized mask wearing or other activities protesters and rights defenders often use to protect themselves from surveillance. The Georgia domestic terrorism statute, which vaguely criminalizes ‘intimidation,’ was one of the bills we warned about and now it is being used by law enforcement exactly as we feared it would be: to charge people who are accused of what would otherwise be minor offenses under a statute that could carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison. ”

Ruane said:, “The use of this statute, rather than less confrontational tactics or even lesser charges, brings the full force of the state’s power to bear in service of suppression of a message the government dislikes, and it should concern anyone who believes in the power of dissent and the right to protest in a democracy.”

In 2020, PEN America published Arresting Dissent: Legislative Restrictions on the Right to Protest, documenting a vast increase in state-level legislation introduced between 2015 and 2019 that would restrict the right to protest. In 2021, a follow-up report, Closing Ranks: State Legislators Deepen Assaults on the Right to Protest, documented a flood of additional legislation introduced following the 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd. 

The proposed location for the training facility is the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, and opponents of the facility object to this location because of its history and because destruction of the forest conflicts with their concerns about environmental justice, and attempts to preserve the land as an urban park and conservation area.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057