As Georgia prosecutors pursue increasingly aggressive tactics against Cop City protesters, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr intervened to double down on domestic terrorism charges against a legal observer, previously unreported meeting minutes reveal.
Thomas Webb Jurgens, a legal observer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, is facing charges of domestic terrorism after being swept up in arrests made back in March at the forest-turned-construction-site outside Atlanta where activists have been protesting a multimillion-dollar police training center for more than a year.
But when DeKalb County’s district attorney called to drop charges against Jurgens, who was wearing bright green clothing to identify him as a legal observer at the time of his arrest, Carr, a conservative Republican with a Federalist Society pedigree, overruled the objections.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or GBI, Director Michael Register, an appointee of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, reported the exchange at a Georgia Board of Public Safety meeting in April. After confirming the state planned to pursue controversial racketeering charges against those arrested following a concert at the site on March 5, Register added that “Dekalb County wanted to drop the charges on the attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center who was arrested from this incident, and the Attorney General said no.”
After the concert in the park on March 5, a group of black-clad provocateurs broke away and began damaging construction equipment and throwing Molotov cocktails at police, according to law enforcement officials’ statements. The website Defend the Atlanta Forest, which activists have used for public communication, acknowledged that “a separate protest group with hundreds of people marched to the forest” during the group’s “week of action” concert, in response to the killing of environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán at the hands of police in January.
“Police retaliated viciously by raiding the entire forest, arresting at least 35 people at the nearby music festival, including people with no connection to or awareness of the action on the other side of the nearly 600 acre forest,” activists wrote.
Police charged 23 people after arrests at the event. Most are facing domestic terrorism and state racketeering charges, which are being prosecuted by the state attorney general’s office.
Carr has held a series of increasingly powerful institutional and politically appointed positions in Georgia’s Republican firmament, beginning with work as general counsel for the Koch-backed Georgia Public Policy Foundation, then as chief of staff for former Sen. Johnny Isakson, culminating in a 2016 appointment to succeed Sam Olens as Georgia’s attorney general. Carr has since won two statewide elections as attorney general and is widely expected to run for higher office.
Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature took a swipe at the autonomy of local prosecutors this year when Senate Bill 92 created the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, a statewide oversight council aimed at reining in locally elected prosecutors who engage in the “willful and persistent failure to carry out statutory duties.” Initially conceived as a reaction to prosecutorial failures in the Ahmaud Arbery case, Republican lawmakers more recently appeared to be motivated by a progressive prosecutor in Clark County — home of the University of Georgia college town Athens — who had begun refusing to prosecute minor drug cases.
Other Democratic district attorneys around the state have objected to the new commission, suggesting that it is designed to punish prosecutors who refuse to enforce the state’s newly empowered abortion laws or, in the case of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the potential prosecution of former President Donald Trump and alleged 2020 election interference conspirators.
Register’s comments suggest that decisions about prosecuting protesters on serious charges like racketeering or domestic terrorism are coming from the state’s Republican officeholders and not necessarily local law enforcement officials in overwhelmingly Democratic metro Atlanta counties.
The Southern Poverty Law Center did not respond to inquiries seeking comment. Jurgens’s attorneys, however, did.
“We are appreciative of GBI Director Register for bringing into the public light that the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office correctly wanted to dismiss the charges against our client Tom Jurgens,” said his attorneys L. Burton Finlayson and Andrew Hall. “Tom is not a domestic terrorist. Tom is a locally-raised, University of Georgia undergraduate and Law School graduate (‘Double-Dawg’), practicing Georgia attorney who was working as a volunteer legal observer to ensure that all [protesters’] constitutional and civil rights were protected. Ultimately, we believe (and hope) that cooler heads among the prosecution team will prevail and that, upon a sober examination of the facts, all charges against him will be dismissed.”
Earlier this month, apparently under the direction of Carr, police arrested three organizers of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund on charges of money laundering and charity fraud. The warrants for their arrest were sworn out by a GBI agent and not local law enforcement officials, describing them as “domestic violent extremists” as designated by the Department of Homeland Security. The term has become a flashpoint in the case. While the Department of Homeland Security used the phrase in a May 24 security bulletin referring to protests in Atlanta, the department — for the second time — denied using the term as a formal designation for the Cop City activists.
A spokesperson for Carr refrained from comment for this story. A spokesperson for the GBI acknowledged Register’s comments, noting that it was his practice to provide updates about major activities around the state to other law enforcement leaders.
The office of DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston also abstained from commenting directly on the protest case “because we cannot comment on an open case,” a spokesperson said. But her office did have something to say about the process.
“Domestic terrorism is one of only a handful of charges for which the state and county have concurrent jurisdiction,” Boston’s spokesperson said. “Early on, our office decided to join the multijurisdictional task force on the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in order to protect the people of DeKalb County and represent their interests. While the Attorney General can prosecute these cases without input from the Office of the DeKalb County District Attorney, DA Boston and our team continue to advocate for charging decisions that align with the alleged actions of each individual defendant, as well as the mission and values of the DeKalb DA’s office.”
Register’s comments to the Georgia Board of Public Safety are somewhat more expansive than other statements made about law enforcement’s response to Cop City protests, possibly because these staid meetings of the state’s senior law enforcement officials — usually held somewhere other than a metro Atlanta location — are rarely covered by the media and generally draw little public attention.
In previous comments to the board from March 9, four days after the protest arrests at the Cop City site, Register described the incident from law enforcement’s perspective in detail. Police reacted to approximately 150 people walking up a cleared Georgia Power corridor through the forest, he said, who “had protective clothing on and some had shields made out of 55 gallon drums. The officers had to retreat across the roadway to a fenced in area and into another fenced in area to lock themselves in. The subjects came into the construction site and were using fireworks to shoot at the officers and throwing objects, such as rocks, at the officers. While a portion of the subjects was doing this, the other individuals went to various pieces of equipment and burned two four-wheelers and a front-end loader, a trailer, as well as the cameras that caught the assault.”
Of the 23 people arrested by the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia State Patrol that night, only Jurgens and another protester, Jack Beaman of Decatur, were from Georgia, Register emphasized, according to the meeting minutes. “21 were from out of state and out of those, 2 were from out of country — Canada and France. Director Register stated the Bureau worked with its federal partners, as well as the State Department to contact their counterparts in Canada and France on these two individuals to dig a little deeper on them.”
Activists’ answer to this line of thought has been to suggest that police have deliberately targeted out-of-state protesters for prosecution, releasing people with local addresses after detaining them during demonstrations to inflate the perception of “outside agitators” spurring violence.