Legal Observer Hit with Terrorism Charges After Mass ‘Cop City’ Arrests

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A legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild was arrested and charged with domestic terrorism while monitoring a Sunday night demonstration against an Atlanta police training facility that opponents have dubbed “Cop City.”

Thomas Jurgens is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the civil-rights group confirmed on Monday. Jurgens also works with the National Lawyers Guild, which monitors protests. Jurgens was acting as a legal observer at the time of his arrest in Atlanta, the NLG said in a statement. He is one of more than 40 people charged with domestic terrorism in connection to protests against Cop City, raising concerns from civil liberties advocates.

“An employee at the SPLC was arrested while acting—and identifying—as a legal observer on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG),” the SPLC said in a statement. “The employee is an experienced legal observer, and their arrest is not evidence of any crime, but of heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protesters.”

The proposed police training facility—a $90 million, 85-acre project on the current site of an Atlanta forest—has been the subject of long-running opposition from environmentalists, racial justice activists, and religious leaders. Tensions escalated at the proposed construction site in late 2022, when police began a series of arrests on domestic terrorism charges, even though many of the defendants are not accused of any illegal activity beyond misdemeanor trespassing, Grist reported at the time.

In January, police shot and killed the activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán, whom they accused of shooting at them. The case is currently under investigation, but has fueled a fresh wave of demonstrations, including a Sunday night concert in the forest.

Some distance from the concert, demonstrators set fire to construction vehicles, hurling objects over a fence into a construction area, video shows. In a statement, Atlanta police said they had “detained” 35 people, 23 of whom were soon charged with domestic terrorism.

“On March 5, 2023, a group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to conduct a coordinated attack on construction equipment and police officers,” the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement. “They changed into black clothing and entered the construction area and began to throw large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at police officers.”

Soon thereafter, concertgoers filmed mass arrests as police cleared out the makeshift music festival.

Aurielle Marie, a poet who won Georgia’s 2022 Author of the Year Award, attended the concert and live-tweeted the crackdown. “They were doing things like snatching and grabbing people indiscriminately and they ended up grabbing several legal observers who were there doing a protected job, which is to monitor protests,” Marie told The Daily Beast.

NLG legal observers are easy to identify, dressing in neon green hats to distinguish them both from protesters and police. Members of the group act as legal watchdogs at protests, recording potential abuses like police brutality. For its efforts, the group has sometimes become a target of the same forces it monitors. During protests in New York City in 2020, police were alleged to have given orders to “round up all the green hats.” The NLG legal observers who were targeted in that case later won a settlement in a federal lawsuit against the New York City Police Department.

Marie filmed police leading away one handcuffed NLG observer who was wearing the bright green cap. Although the man’s face is not visible in the short clip, he appears to have hair and a beard of the same color and length as Jurgens, and is wearing a light-green long-sleeved top, like Jurgens is wearing in his mugshot.

Reached for clarification on its statement, which describes the defendants as black-clad, the Atlanta Police Department referred The Daily Beast to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Jurgens has been charged with domestic terrorism, a rarely used Georgia statute that comes with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison if convicted, and a maximum detention of 35 years. Legal experts have raised concerns about the use of domestic terror charges against Atlanta activists.

“As someone who handled capital murder cases in Georgia, I can tell you Georgia law has a lot of ways to deal with violence against law enforcement or against anyone,” Patrick Keenan, a professor of law at the University of Illinois previously told NBC News. “So this domestic terrorism statute is not necessary and it can lead to this politicized use that I think doesn’t do anybody any good.”

As of Monday, more than 40 people are facing domestic terror charges related to the police training facility. The NLG and SPLC both issued statements condemning Jurgens’ arrest and police treatment toward Stop Cop City activists.

“Law enforcement detained at least 35 demonstrators in Atlanta on Sunday, including an NLG Legal Observer,” the NLG said in a statement. “All of these arrests are part of ongoing state repression and violence against racial and environmental justice protesters, who are fighting to defend their communities from the harms of militarized policing and environmental degradation. Each of these instances, including the many protesters charged with domestic terrorism, make clear that law enforcement views movement activists as enemies of the state.”

Marie said the moment calls for legal observers.

“As we’re aware, and the Atlanta Police Department is well aware, the legal observers are there to make sure the rights of protesters are not being infringed upon by law enforcement,” they said, “especially because of the death of Tortuguita that happened a month ago in the same forest.”

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