To hear the professional fearmongers at Fox News tell it, the city of Atlanta has been practically burned to the ground in recent weeks by “antifa” rioters indulging in a wave of domestic terrorism. Fox pundits—notably Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters—have been leading that parade, with Watters hosting a segment discussing antifa “terrorism” with a chryon reading: “‘Night of Rage’ Destroys Atlanta”—as though General Sherman had recently revisited the city, rather than people protesting the murderous behavior of Atlanta police.
That right-wing narrative—generated with the eager assistance of white nationalists—turns out to be a tissue of lies. As in Portland and Seattle, the protesters did not burn Atlanta down: a vacant police car was set afire, and a few buildings were vandalized. The organizations behind the protests are not antifascists, but rather environmental activists. The primary act of “domestic terrorism” with which the 18 people arrested so far have been charged is that they were associated with the movement behind the protests, Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF). More outrageously, in arresting six of the forest defenders last month on domestic terrorism charges, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) issued affidavits falsely claiming that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has designated the DTAF as a “domestic violent extremist” organization. In fact, DHS has never designated any group, including DTAF, in such fashion.
Television audiences have been treated to this narrative all week at Fox News. On Tuesday, Watters invited on anti-antifascist crusader Gabriel Nadales to talk about the Atlanta protests, with video of the flaming police cruiser and broken windows downtown, and a chyron reading “Antifa is Ravaging America” and “‘Night of Rage’ Destroys Atlanta.” Nadales assured Watters that “the longer we don’t acknowledge the threat of antifa, the more it will grow and the harder it will be to fight them.”
What Watters’ segment failed to mention was that Saturday night’s protest at which six people were arrested involved a relatively small group of masked protesters, and it arose in response to the shooting three nights before, on Jan. 18, of a DTAF nonbinary protester, Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, who was shot in their tent at the site of the “Cop City” protest in Atlanta’s Weelaunee Forest after, police claim, they first shot a state trooper with a gun that was found on their person.
However, like most of the protesters drawn to the “Cop City” site, Paez Terán was an environmental-racism activist, not a member of any “antifa” group. The same is true of DTAF, which is not an organization but a movement based on a slogan—a coalition of environmental activists interested in preventing the ruin of the Atlanta forest by a planned police-training center scheduled to be built there, as well as anti-police-brutality activists.
The primary local antifascist group, Atlanta Antifascists, told Daily Kos via direct message: “We have nothing to do with organizing forest defense and have said so publicly several times, but no one listens,” adding that “we support the movement 100%, and we have been working on it a lot but in our role countering the non-state far right.”
Indeed, none of the 18 people arrested so far are known members of antifascist organizations, while any number of them may identify as generically antifascist. The majority of the protesters drawn to the “Cop City” protests, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has explored in depth, are primarily environmental-justice activists; the anti-police-violence element (which, again, is not a specifically antifascist movement) of the protest, however, has added to the breadth of its pull.
There have been three sets of arrests involving domestic-terrorism charges: On Dec. 12, when police arrested six protesters at the “Cop City” protest; on Jan. 18, the night Paez Terán was shot, when seven more protesters were also arrested and charged; and on Saturday, when six people were arrested during the downtown protest over Paez Terán’s shooting.
A review of the warrants issued for these arrests, moreover, reveals that the “domestic terrorism” charges are based entirely on their association with DTAF. Some of the warrants refer to the language of Georgia’s 2017 domestic terrorism law, describing the group as “domestic violent extremists” because members had thrown Molotov cocktails, rocks, and fireworks at police, and also shot metal ball bearings at contractors. The GBI also claimed the group had committed various acts of property destruction, including vandalism, discharging firearms at “critical infrastructure,” and committing arson of “public buildings, heavy equipment, private buildings, and private vehicles.”
However, as Alleen Brown at The Grist observes, aside from three rock-throwing charges, none of the warrants “appear to accuse them of committing any of the above acts that led to the designation.” Rather, the acts under which they were arrested include fleeing from an officer and causing injuries to his right knee, “said injuries being scrapes and cuts”; possessing road flares; “occupying a tree house on site, refusing to leave, and posting videos and calls for action on social media sites”; and “occupying a tree house while wearing a gas mask and camouflage clothing.” One was arrested while sleeping in a hammock and charged with trespassing.
More egregiously, the GBI’s warrants for the six Dec. 12 arrests specifically claim that DTAF had been designated a “domestic violent extremist” group by DHS. However, both Brown and Tim Craig at The Washington Post inquired about this with DHS, and were informed the agency “does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists.” The agency noted, however, that it “does share information with state and local officials when it believes domestic groups or individuals could resort to violence.”
A GBI spokesperson responded to a Daily Kos query about this discrepancy, saying: “This investigation is still active and ongoing. As we continue to prepare the case for prosecution, I’m not able to comment on those investigative details that could compromise the integrity of the case.”
The remaining warrants do not reference any DHS designation, but rather appear to reference language from Georgia’s 2017 domestic-terrorism statute (which defines domestic terrorism as “any felony intended to intimidate civilians or coerce the government”), saying that DTAF “has publicly claimed responsibility for numerous acts while stating their intent was to intimidate employees of the government and private companies.”
That law was passed largely in response to Dylann Roof’s racist rampage in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015, and was criticized at the time of its passage as a dubious law more likely to be weaponized against left-wing protesters than its intended target.
“They should not be charged with this law, because this law should not be on the books in Georgia,” Christopher Bruce, policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, told Craig. “This law is overly broad, and it could actually quell political speech, which is what every American should be concerned about.”
The ACLU of Georgia told Daily Kos via email:
The First Amendment right to protest is a critical tool for people to make their voices heard and it has been used successfully to bring about positive change in Georgia and the nation throughout history. Unfortunately, politically motivated lawmakers have recently deployed the indiscriminate use of domestic terrorism charges during civil protests in order to restrict civil rights and liberties rather than protecting them. The ACLU of Georgia will always work to protect the right to peaceful protest, which is fundamental to our democracy.”
Michael German, a senior national-security analyst with NYU’s Brennan Justice Center and a former FBI agent, told Daily Kos that the pattern of law enforcement’s tactics in Atlanta add up to an attempt to suppress the First Amendment right to protest. He notes that the GBI’s tactics mimic those deployed by the FBI since the 9/11 terror attacks, what he calls a “conception of disruption.”
“The idea is that if they can’t prove terrorism charges against an individual they suspect is involved in terrorism, they will find some other avenue to disrupt their activities, and that could include some kind of selective prosecution for minor crimes that normally wouldn’t be investigated or prosecuted, or extralegal tactics that they would employ—using informants to help break up their group, or otherwise discredit them within the movement,” German said.
He observed that Washington, D.C.’s Metro Police Department, working in concert with the Justice Department, used similar tactics against the anarchist “Disrupt J20” protesters who were arrested for planning to protest and create disruptions during Donald Trump’s 2017 Inauguration. Some 214 people were arrested, but eventually, all their cases were dismissed.
“We’ve seen this same sort of application of very aggressive laws against a group of people who are not engaged in serious violence of the sort we would normally associate with terrorism—in that case, breaking a window—that appear more intended to dissuade other protesters and create a penalty in the expenses in hiring a lawyer to defend yourself against these charges, the inability to travel freely or maintain employment when you’re under charges,” German said. “All sorts of problems happen before you ever get to a courtroom to defend your rights. And even after that, the financial burden is significant.
“It serves under this sort of disruption strategy as the penalty that’s being imposed through overzealous prosecution. And it sounds like this is a similar attempt that is less about winning these cases, than creating a risk to anyone who would go out and support this protest group.
The GBI’s tactics, in effect, criminalize protest, he said: “It’s less about punishing people for something they did and more about creating a penalty for participating in a protest that the government doesn’t like.”
The agency’s use of false information about DHS’s designation of DTAF in obtaining warrants also raises concerns about its integrity in reporting on violent situations—particularly the shooting of Manuel Teran.
A GBI press release said that officers “located a man inside a tent in the woods” at about 9 a.m. the morning of Jan. 18. “Officers gave verbal commands to the man who did not comply and shot a Georgia State Patrol Trooper. Other law enforcement officers returned fire, hitting the man. Law enforcement evacuated the Trooper to a safe area,” the release said.
Investigators found a gun and expended shells inside the tent with Paez Teran, and its make and caliber matched the bullet that wounded the trooper. Craig spoke with friends of Teran’s who said that he had purchased a gun recently. “I am going to be honest with you … if anyone was going to shoot a cop, it would have been Manny. He just really hated cops.”
That same person, however, insists that the gun police showed from the scene was not the one Paez Teran had bought. Disconcertingly, GBI told reporters that there was no body cam footage of the shooting, ostensibly because state troopers weren’t required to use them (though photos at the scene show multiple officers from other agencies wearing them).
Kei Diliza, a resident of nearby Gresham Park, told CNN that “reports from other members who were near the site conflicted with the account that law enforcement gave regarding a protester shooting at them.”
Terán’s mother in Panama told The Guardian: “I will go to the US to defend Manuel’s memory … I’m convinced that he was assassinated in cold blood.”
GBI’s narrative about the protests—and particularly about the “forest defenders” movement—reflects the long-running smear of “antifa” concocted by far-right conspiracy theorists and white nationalists in 2017, and inflamed to wild proportions during the summer of 2020, with a boost from the Trump administration. Unsurprisingly, it has been supercharged in right-wing media with help from a notorious white nationalist and a similarly notorious faux journalist.
Atlanta Antifascists released a report this week detailing how one of the primary sources for the narrative that the DTAF protesters are “antifa” is none other than Nathan Damigo, the notorious founder of the violent white-nationalist group Identity Evropa. Damigo has a long history of organizing far-right street violence, including in Berkeley, California, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Damigo’s group disbanded in 2020, and he moved to the Atlanta area, where he currently operates the anti-antifascist “William McKinley Institute” (WMI), which describes itself as “at odds with the Jewish values that dominate our civilization today, infecting every institution with perversion, degeneracy, confusion, and chaos.”
According to the antifascists, Damigo has been using WMI to take photos and videos at the recent protests that are then amplified by faux journalist Andy Ngo, who has a long history of ethically challenged reporting on antifascists:
WMI recently circulated photographs of Saturday’s protest in Atlanta over the death of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who was shot and killed by the Georgia State Patrol during a multi-agency raid on the Weelaunee Forest / “Stop Cop City” protest site on Wednesday, January 18th. Some politically targeted property destruction occurred during the Saturday protest responding to the murder, and a series of violent arrests by police then followed. As part of a broader right-wing campaign to identify and harass those they claim are part of the movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest, WMI published video and still photographs from the Saturday protest after sending someone to spy on the event. These images were then picked up by the “Antifa Watch” doxing blog, and eventually circulated by far-right propagandist Andy Ngo. While Ngo promoted WMI to his mass audience, he did not note its white nationalist and virulently antisemitic nature.
Ngo’s reportage (including a New York Post piece) was then cited in coverage of the Atlanta protests by National Review, and at Fox News (notably by Tucker Carlson). And the narrative was off and running.
It fit in neatly with Fox News’ recent spate of scaremongering about cities as crime-riddled hellscapes. And it gave Carlson the opportunity to add a fresh twist to Fox’s long-running eliminationist narrative depicting “antifa” as an existential threat to America. In Tucker’s fresh retelling Tuesday, “Antifa is the armed militia of the Democratic Party and is back in force”:
So in retrospect, it's very clear who Antifa was and is. Antifa is the armed instrument of the permanent Democratic establishment in Washington. Their job is to mobilize when politically necessary. Now, this is a new thing in the United States, but political militia are a common feature in third world politics. They were a staple in Haiti. In our country, however, only one party has them, the Democratic Party. They're the only ones with armed militia in the street.
You might even get the impression, listening to Tucker—who described the death of Paez Terán by saying “the cops shot back and killed it”—that “antifa” is just a term by which Fox News—and by extension, the broader right-wing media—actually just means the political left as a whole, including Democrats. Or anything they don’t like.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s approach to the protests has been based on the same long-running antifa demonization narrative. “Violence and unlawful destruction of property are not acts of protest. They are crimes that will not be tolerated in Georgia and will be prosecuted fully,” he tweeted on Saturday.
Law enforcement officials parroted the message that any protest in which property damage occurs is innately terrorism. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that breaking windows is not a protest, that is terrorism, and they will be charged accordingly,” Atlanta police chief Darin Schierbaum told NewsNationNow.
German observes that the scenario raises the specter of police control of free speech. “It’s the problem with the broad use of these terms. The definition of terrorism is often overly broad and selective—it’s not every window breaker who the government determines is a terrorist, as we saw with far-right violence across the country for the last four years,” he told Daily Kos. And they’re still reluctant to investigate threats to school officials and other local officials from far-right local people.
“When you bring in a term like terrorism, who the subject is is in the eye of the beholder. And it allows for discriminatory treatment by public officials. They’re supposed to be protecting the public, not deciding who is allowed to protest and who isn’t.”