ATLANTA – A judge on Friday granted bond for three activists involved in supporting the protest against a planned police and fire training center in Atlanta that opponents have derisively dubbed “Cop City.”
Adele MacLean, 42, Marlon Scott Kautz, 39, and Savannah Patterson, 30, were arrested Wednesday on charges of charities fraud and money laundering. They lead the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has provided bail money and helped find attorneys for arrested protesters.
Prosecutors had asked Magistrate Court Judge James Altman to deny bond. But Altman granted $15,000 bond to each of the activists, expressing concerns about their free speech rights and saying he did not find the prosecution’s case, at least for now, “real impressive.” That bond was to be subject to various conditions that Altman planned to outline in a written order later Friday.
The office of state Attorney General Chris Carr is leading the prosecution. A spokesperson for Carr in an email characterized the arrests and the search of a home owned by MacLean and Kautz as “a multi-agency effort and part of an ongoing investigation into violent activity at the site of the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and other locations.”
Deputy Attorney General John Fowler argued against bond, saying the activists are flight risks and pose a danger to the community.
“On its face, it appears to be laudable, it appears to be lawful,” he said of their nonprofit, noting that they run a bail fund and a food fund. But he said investigators have found that the activists “harbor extremist anti-government and anti-establishment views and not all of the money goes to what they say that it goes to.”
Fowler said some of the money has been used to fund violent acts against people and property around the city of Atlanta. He cited an attack on Georgia's Department of Public Safety headquarters in July 2020, vandalism at Ebenezer Baptist Church in January 2022, and protests related to the planned training center that turned violent.
Defense attorney Don Samuel said Fowler was engaging in hyperbole and that none of the three is accused of having participated in violent behavior.
“The fact that what you do happens to help some people do bad things doesn't mean that you're guilty of joining in a conspiracy with them," Samuel said. "It doesn't mean that the action that you've taken, even if it facilitates misconduct, is something that renders you culpable.”
The training center, approved by the Atlanta City Council in September 2021, has drawn opposition from the start. City officials say the new 85-acre (34-hectare) campus would replace inadequate current training facilities and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice three years ago.
Local opponents, who have been joined by activists from around the country, say they fear it will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage. Protesters had been camping at the site since at least last year, and police said they had caused damage and attacked law enforcement officers and others.
Tensions escalated in January, when officers shot and killed 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said officers fired in self-defense after Terán shot at them while they cleared protesters from the site. But the state troopers involved weren't wearing body cameras, and activists have questioned the official narrative.
Several dozen people accused of involvement in the protests have been arrested since May 2022, including more than 40 who have been charged with domestic terrorism, a weighty felony charge that carries a penalty of five to 35 years in prison.
The arrest warrants for MacLean, Kautz and Patterson say that they committed charities fraud by misleading contributors by using funds collected through the Network for Strong Communities, which runs the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, to fund the actions of Defend the Atlanta Forest. The warrants say Defend the Atlanta Forest is “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists” and that its members have engaged in vandalism, attacked police officers and committed arson.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said by email that the department “does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists." But in a terrorism advisory issued May 24, the department referred to the conduct of alleged domestic violent extremists who “have cited anarchist violent extremism, animal rights/environmental violent extremism, and anti-law enforcement sentiment to justify criminal activity in opposition to a planned public safety training facility in Atlanta.”
The money laundering charges stem from a transfer of funds out of and then back into the Network for Strong Communities account and reimbursements from the organization to the personal accounts of the organization's officers, the warrants say.
MacLean, Kautz and Patterson are respectively the CEO, chief financial officer and secretary of the Network for Strong Communities. The cited reimbursements were for expenses including “gasoline, forest clean-up, totes, covid rapid tests, media, yard signs." Other expenses include moving a jail support hotline to a new phone plan and adding two phone lines, and expenditures for Forest Justice Defense Fund townhall meeting and building materials, according to the warrants.
The arrests Wednesday came less than a week before the City Council is expected to vote Monday on whether to approve $31 million for development of the $90 million training center. The Atlanta Police Foundation is to foot the rest of the bill. The city’s agreement with the foundation also includes a “lease back” provision requiring the city to pay $1.2 million a year for use of the facility over 30 years, which the city said is less than the $1.4 million it currently pays annually to lease training space.