WASHINGTON — Charges of domestic terrorism against activists connected to protests of Atlanta’s proposed public safety training facility have repeatedly been justified by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security designation that does not exist.
Arrest warrants for dozens of people affiliated with the Defend the Atlanta Forest group, and three individuals who operate a charity that provided bail money for protestors, all has similar language tying the movement to extremist behavior. The three individuals arrested last week had their home raided by a SWAT team and are charged with financial crimes.
Each of their arrest warrants had a sentence tying their charity to extremism, saying it raised money to “fund in part the actions of Defend the Atlanta Forest, a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security as Domestic Violent Extremists.”
But Homeland Security officials have said that is not the case.
The agency has released national terrorism alert bulletins that described some of the protests of the Atlanta facility as exhibiting the characteristics of domestic violent extremists, but no individuals or organizations are named.
“The Department of Homeland Security does not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists,” a spokesman said in a statement shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The FBI, which tracks domestic terrorism threats nationwide, also said it “does not and cannot designate domestic terrorist organizations.” In a statement to the AJC, the FBI cautions against using group affiliations to condemn individuals’ behavior.
“It’s also important to note that membership in groups that espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself,” the FBI statement said. “Membership in a group alone is not sufficient basis for a domestic terrorism investigation.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigations said it is standing by the “domestic violent extremists” justifications used in the arrest warrants.
“Although DHS reports that they do not classify or designate any groups as domestic violent extremists, the description provided by DHS for a domestic violent extremist does in fact describe the behavior of the individuals of the group in question which is being investigated by the GBI multi-agency task force,” GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said.
Gov. Brian Kemp, who has condemned the protests and pledged to crack down on violence related to them, deferred questions to the GBI. So did DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, who has assisted the GBI in its investigation.
Attorney General Chris Carr, who has also criticized the protests, released a statement that did not directly respond to questions about why arrest warrants by Georgia officials misinterprets or exaggerates what Homeland Security said.
“Our office will continue to defend the First Amendment right to peacefully protest,” Carr said. “However, we will not tolerate acts of violence to person or property. Along with our law enforcement partners, we will not hesitate to hold accountable those who violate our laws including, where appropriate, bringing charges of domestic terrorism that carry a maximum sentence of up to 35 years in prison.”
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock on Wednesday asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to weigh in on whether Defend the Atlanta Forest should be described as a known “domestic violent extremist” group.
“I am seeking clarification about whether DHS has designated any group in Georgia as a DVE, and if not, I request that DHS share this policy clarification with any relevant state and local law enforcement partners,” Warnock said in a letter to Mayorkas.
The Atlanta Democrat also asks Mayorkas to provide guidance to state and local law enforcement agencies on how to address threats of violent extremism without infringing on rights to assemble and protest.
“The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of peaceful association,” Warnock wrote. “Consistent with these principles, I am concerned by any misunderstandings regarding a federal DVE designation and seek clarification for the public and our valued law enforcement partners.”