‘Their Overreach is Sowing the Seeds of Their Undoing’: Forest Defender Speaks from Bartow County Jail

Bartow County, GA — Over seven weeks after they were arrested while distributing fliers in a small suburb of Atlanta, Charley Tennenbaum continues to be held in the Bartow County Jail for actions they say are protected by the First Amendment. 

On April 28, Charley and two other individuals were arrested in the city of White, Georgia and slapped with felony charges for distributing fliers containing information about Jonathan Salcedo, a Georgia State Patrol trooper who has been linked to the killing of Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Esteban Paez Terán. Tortuguita was killed by police during a raid on the Weelaunee Forest on January 18.

The three are charged with “Intimidate Law Enforcement officer/family in retaliation to discharge of duties by force,” a felony, and misdemeanor stalking.

The felony intimidation charge GA Code § 16-10-97 (2018) carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison depending upon which section of the statute prosecutors plan to apply. The part of the statute that is specific to law enforcement officers carries a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum sentence of five years as well as a $5,000 fine. Warrants filed in the case do not specify which section they are applying. 

Despite the pending felony charges and the weeks they’ve spent in jail, Charley remains convinced that their actions were justified and fully legal.

“Yes, I did flier. I think it’s protected by the First Amendment,” said Charley. “I think that Georgia State Patrol officer should be charged with murder… I have the right to raise awareness about this. One hundred percent. And so I think it’s clear, it’s unfortunately clear really, that if we don’t continuously exercise our rights, our civil liberties, like the ability to legally protest and to dissent, the state will attempt to erode that.”

Heavily armed Atlanta Police officers guard the headquarters of the Atlanta Police Foundation at 191 Peachtree Street during a Black-led protest on Mach 9, 2023. A white male officer with nametag 'A. Luebbehusen' looks at the crowd looks at the crowd with what appears to be disdain or disgust on his face. He is flanked by two Black male officers - one masked, one unmasked with eyeglasses - both of whom have assault rifles strapped to their chests.
Heavily armed Atlanta Police officers guard the headquarters of the Atlanta Police Foundation at 191 Peachtree Street during a Black-led protest on March 9, 2023.

Over the course of the last six months, authorities in the state of Georgia have continually ratcheted up repression in the face of an increasingly powerful movement to stop their planned Cop City project.

The Atlanta City Council voted 11-4 in favor of funding Cop City on June 12, despite a public comment session that lasted more than 16 hours in which over 300 people expressed their opposition to the project and hundreds more packed into the building and gathered outside in protest.

The approved plan includes $31 million to pay for the project, plus another $1 million per year to pay back the Atlanta Police Foundation’s debt for the construction, according to reporting by the Atlanta Community Press Collective.

Ramming through an infrastructure project amidst popular opposition isn’t easy, and getting away with it requires increasingly ruthless tactics of state repression. Since mid-December, 42 people have been charged under a rarely used Georgia state-level domestic terrorism law for their alleged participation in the movement.

A white Georgia Department of Natural Resources game warden wears a small bulletproof vest with his belly protruding underneath looks to the side with his mouth agape, his face featuring a slightly phased and aloof look. Behind him and to the viewer's left, two people are face down in the process of being arrested by 4 Goergia state troopers - three troopers are white, one is black. They are wearing brown, black or light blue uniform shirts with pin striped gray pants. Most of them have plastic zip tie 'flex-cuffs' in hand as part of the arrest process taking place in the RC Field area of the South River Forest during the 'Stop Cop City' music festival on March 5, 2023. Trees can be seen in the forest behind the arrest scene; all is bathed in a pale faintly orange light as the sun begins to set.
Georgia State Troopers and Department of Natural Resources Game Wardens tackle attendees at the March 5, 2023 ‘Stop Cop City’ music festival before charging them with domestic terrorism.

On May 31, police raided the home of three activists and board members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a group that offers jail support for those in Atlanta who are arrested during protests, bails activists out of jail, and helps provide legal representation for activists charged with crimes.

“Their overreach is actually sowing the seeds of their undoing,” said Charley. “We have the opportunity now to further enshrine in case law that all of our activities are perfectly legal and should be defended in court.”

The flier the trio are accused of distributing contained information informing neighbors that a Georgia State Patrol trooper, Jonathan Salcedo, had “murdered” Tortuguita. After the incident, Salcedo told prosecutors that he “felt harassed and intimidated by individuals handing out these fliers,” according to court documents.

In criminal arrest warrants, prosecutors accused all three arrestees of “providing fliers in the neighborhood that Jonathan Sacledo [sic] on mailboxes [sic] that were claiming Jonathan was a murderer due to an incident that occurred in Atlanta.” (Salcedo’s name is misspelled by prosecutors throughout the warrant). 

During an April 15 hearing before Bartow Superior Court Judge Suzanne H. Smith, Deputy Attorney General John Fowler used evidence of reimbursements he attributed to Charley from the Forest Justice Defense Fund to allege that they had participated in crimes. Those reimbursements were for art supplies for a community event at the Weelaunee Forest and “power packs and lighters,” for outdoor cooking and for charging phones, according to Charley.

“I will say that the Forest Defense Fund is so above-board with all of their transactions that it is ludicrous that anything less than 110% above-board was ever possible to be done through them…,” said Charley. “They required receipts, and they required documentation and they required reimbursements to go to people’s PayPal account, which means it had to be a verifiable identity.”

The Forest Justice Defense Fund is run by Open Collective, a nonprofit offering legal and financial tools to grassroots projects. The group’s website boasts “transparent and open finances.”

The mission of the fund is to “provide and promote education of the public on subjects relevant to racial justice and environmental sustainability,” according to their website. (Open Collective did not respond to a request for comment.)

Prosecutors also used proof of reimbursement from the Forest Justice Defense Fund to arrest and jail the three Atlanta Solidarity Fund members who were arrested last week. Reimbursed expenses cited as proof of “money laundering” in the warrants include payments from April 2021 to March 2023 totaling less than $7,000 for expenses such as “forest clean-up,” “covid rapid-tests,” “media” and “yard signs.”

“Paying for camping supplies and the like — I don’t find it very impressive,” said DeKalb County Magistrate Court Judge James Altman during a bond hearing for the Solidarity Fund members. “There’s not a lot of meat on the bones of the allegations that thousands of dollars are going to fund illegal activities.” 

Charley says their attorneys are hoping to negotiate a consent bond, which would allow them to return home while their charges move through the court. In the meantime, Charley says they’re working on taking care of themselves and keeping their head up.

“I think gratitude is one of the keys for cultivating a sense of individual resiliency against hardship,” said Charley. “Being able to practice equanimity is extremely important, especially as the state’s use of scare tactics continues to escalate.”

Charley is also trying to keep the focus on Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán, whose memory they were trying to honor when they were arrested. More than five months after police killed Tortuguita during a forest raid to clear tree-sitters from the proposed ‘Cop City’ site on January 18, officials still refuse to name the officers responsible for their death or take any steps toward bringing them to justice.

Anarchist protesters march in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, 2023 in response to the police killing of Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán three days earlier.

Charley’s voice cracked through the jail phone when speaking of Tortuguita’s death. 

“All verifiable information shows that Tort was killed as a nonviolent environmental activist who was not resisting,” said Charley. “So when you ask, why do I feel passionately about this? Because Tort died in a barrage of 57 bullets. No one deserves a death like that. And, I think it’s really important that we don’t yield when acts of police brutality like this happen. So I’m using my right to raise awareness about that. And I think that’s the right thing to do.”

An altar memorializing Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán, cobbled together using rubble from a destroyed concrete path that once led into the forest, sits in the muddied parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park in January 2023.

You can read Unicorn Riot’s full-length interview with Charley Tennenbaum below. The interview has been organized and edited for clarity.

Unicorn Riot: The state alleges that you were arrested while distributing fliers calling a police officer known to be involved in the killing of Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Esteban Paez Terán a “murderer.” How do you respond to that?

Charley Tennenbaum: So my flyering… And we don’t have to be “alleged” about this, it has all been admitted in court already. So I’m not revealing anything new or anything that goes against my court case by stating the fact that: Yes, I did flier. I think it’s protected by the First Amendment.

I think that Georgia State Patrol officer should be charged with murder. This is police brutality. I have the right to raise awareness about this. 100%. And so I think it’s clear, it’s unfortunately clear really, that if we don’t continuously exercise our rights, our civil liberties, like the ability to legally protest and to dissent, the state will attempt to erode that.

Like I said before, their overreach is actually sowing the seeds of their undoing. We have the opportunity now to further enshrine in case law that all of our activities are perfectly legal and should be defended in court.

Georgia State Patrol troopers seen in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, 2023 after protests denouncing the police killing of Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán.

UR: At your bond hearings, both the Magistrate Judge and the Superior Court Judge have denied your bond. Your co-defendants, on the other hand, were granted bond. What do you want to say about that?  

Charley Tennenbaum: Well, I think it’s worth pointing out that the pattern of repression holds. So when the first bond hearing was held, the magistrate judge just didn’t even want to hear arguments and just kicked it up [to the Superior Court]. And so the five criteria that are supposed to be used for evaluating whether or not a defendant is going to be granted bond were not even given space during my first bond hearing.

It’s worth pointing out that when we were brought here, we were taken from holding and then put in isolation. So I was put in what’s called “double iso,” which is where you’re in a room, the lights are always on super bright. They never turn off. Every hour or two, someone, quote unquote, “checks on you,” which is really just code for sleep deprivation. It was really, really, really, really cold. I have a history of frostbite in my toes, and being in there reactivated my injury. I went to medical. They didn’t care.

When I was arrested, my felony was listed as “statute pending.” At my first bond hearing, it was then listed as “intimidation of an officer of the court,” which doesn’t even make sense. It was only during the second bond hearing that that felony charge was changed to “intimidation of a police officer.” So this shows that the state is just scrambling to come up with something, right? And as is the case, the state is overreaching so much so that it reveals how desperate they are. I mean, that’s part of the way that fear tactics work.

And yet, I do strongly believe, given all of the cases of arrest so far, not one has resulted in a single conviction. Right? And now looking at these three [alleged money laundering] cases, they get all three of them granted bond by the magistrate judge. So the state’s divided. Their overreach is leading to this division, causing… it’s just the seeds of their own undoing. Which I think actually gives us like some pretty powerful leverage here. Because… I do strongly believe that all of my actions were entirely covered by the First Amendment.

So there’s this court case, a 1962 court case in the Alabama Supreme Court, it’s The New York Times Company vs Sullivan. Um, and that was a situation in which a police commissioner was upset with The New York Times, saying that they were committing libel by reporting on some of his police department’s activities.

It actually went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the verdict held that… I just love this quote here. It’s: “Debate of public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open. And it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” And so that’s The New York Times Company vs Sullivan

So what this shows is that it’s so important for us to know that the First Amendment exists to protect speech that most needs to be protected, right? No one challenges statements like “I love cats.” There’s no need for the First Amendment protections around that. The First Amendment protections are specifically for things that make people uncomfortable.

So, going back to my bond hearing, it was sort of absurd that during the first bond hearing… no argument was even allowed. The five criteria for whether or not a person should be granted bond… this wasn’t even brought up.

During the second bond hearing, State Prosecutor Fowler was taking advantage, I believe, of the judge who didn’t have any background knowledge about the movement to defend Weelanuee and to Stop Cop City and was trying to obfuscate the issues here, which is my First Amendment right to a defense.

He took up so much space that those five criteria for my bond did not even get talked about. He was so obsessed with this nonexistent criminal organization. That doesn’t exist! This is a nonhierarchical coalition of autonomous groups and individuals who are exercising civil liberties to make it be known that we don’t want this police training facility. All that is perfectly legal.

Protestors carry a banner during a Jan. 21, 2023 protest in response to the police killing of Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán.

UR: Why did you feel so passionately about alerting the world about the troopers who killed Tortuguita?

Charley Tennenbaum: Well, I think that police brutality needs to be challenged every time it happens. I think that it has been really amazing to see just how successful the overall campaign about raising awareness about what took place on that day, January 18, 2023 [has been].

At first they tried to suppress all evidence, right? But then there was enough outrage both across… locally at the state level, at the national level, at the international level that we were able to force them into releasing some bodycam footage. And what we found was, and I’m not quite sure on the quote so double check me here, but there was that one [Atlanta Police] officer who was like, “did they just get their own guy?”

They were trying to claim that Tort shot first, but their own evidence seems to indicate that that’s a lie. An autopsy was conducted, they suppressed it. An independent autopsy was conducted and it showed that Tort had no gunshot residue found on their hands. And it also showed that Tort was sitting on the ground, cross-legged, with their arms in the air and their palms facing themselves when they were executed by a firing squad.

There’s no way that Tort could have possibly shot first in this position. So then as the movement for accountability grew, what we were seeing was that the state was yielding. The first autopsy report was eventually released, and that showed that the coroner had ruled it as a homicide. So from the very beginning, from the first autopsy, it was known that it was ruled as a homicide. And the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Atlanta Police Department and the DeKalb Police Department and Georgia State Patrol all wanted to suppress that fact.

They wanted to create a false narrative. And they thought that they could do it if there was an information vacuum. But the more information that came out, the second autopsy being done, the first autopsy being revealed. And then also the police report coming out. At first it was a redacted version, and then it was a non-redacted version. And the body cam footage.

All verifiable information shows that Tort was killed as a nonviolent environmental activist who was not resisting. So when you ask, why do I feel passionately about this? Because Tort died in a barrage of 57 bullets. No one deserves a death like that. And, I think it’s really important that we don’t yield when acts of police brutality like this happen. So I’m using my right to raise awareness about that. And I think that’s the right thing to do.

Hundreds protested in the streets of downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, four days after police killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán.

UR: What are you able to say about the Forest Defense Fund and these reimbursements that they’re alleging? What are you able to say about that?

Charley Tennenbaum: I will say that the Forest Defense Fund is so above board with all of their transactions that it is ludicrous that anything less than 110% above-board was ever possible to be done through them…They required receipts, and they required documentation and they required reimbursements to go to people’s PayPal account, which means it had to be a verifiable identity.

So they did everything super above-board. So it’s just absurd that they would try to say that… Like in my case, they’re trying to say that buying art supplies is somehow bad. They’re trying to say that buying power packs… I don’t know if you’ve ever been homeless or if you’ve ever been around homeless or unhoused people, but it’s really hard to charge your personal devices. So it’s really important to have access to power packs, which you can then put your personal device into so that you don’t need a power outlet for keeping your devices charged in court.

…And they tried to claim that having lighters was an indication of like, possible arson, which is just absurd. Again, if you’ve ever been homeless or unhoused… It’s really difficult to light propane gas stoves unless you have a good lighter. You can burn yourself. And so we said in court that these supplies were for the homeless and that the art supplies were for the art event that I helped organize and participated in that focused on oftentimes on just children, but also on adults.

Weelaunee at the time was still recognized as a public park. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing art in a public park. There’s nothing wrong with practicing solidarity by buying materials that help unhoused people and then being reimbursed for these kinds of expenses.

The state was trying to argue from both sides of the fence. They were trying to say, “Oh, well, these reimbursements, they’re not actually for what they’re saying they’re for. And also, you know, they are what they’re for.” They’re trying to say the lighters were for arson or the art supply are for not art.

So, they have no scruples, right? They’re just so desperate that all they can really do is just wave their hands and take advantage of a judge who did not have the background knowledge. To play upon her belief that he was acting in good faith.

And, you know, I think that, of course, this is still an act of injustice. But my perspective is that all of this is going to help make my countersuit even stronger.

13 Atlanta Police officers stand behind the empty seat in Atlanta City Council chambers labeled" Keisha Sean Waites Post 3 At Large. Sgt. Neil Welch leans against a waist-high wall gazing into the distance with sweat on his face and his cell phone in his right hand. To his left a younger officer with a lot of hair gel in his hair stares menacingly directly into the camera.
Atlanta Police officers including Sgt. Neil Welch occupy the councilmember’s seating area during the June 5, 2023 hearings that ended in city council voting 11-4 to fund ‘Cop City’ despite over 15 hours of public comment in opposition to the project. Photo contributed by John Malamatinas.

UR: What are the conditions in the Bartow County Jail like?

Charley Tennenbaum: Yeah, I mean, it was really surprising to be put in solitary confinement. I kept asking why I was in solitary confinement. You know, there’s a buzzer, and they were like, “You just are, relax.” I would ask the deputies and they wouldn’t tell me. And they’d be like, “Too bad.” I asked to file a grievance, they denied my request. The Bartow County Handbook does state very clearly that “inmates that are populated in areas without access to a kiosk are granted access to a paper grievance form instead.” I requested a paper grievance and was denied. Because when you’re in double iso, you don’t have access to care, so they’re not even able to follow their own rules.

Eventually, after four days, 24 hours after my first bond hearing, I was populated into gen pop. And then I filed my grievance using the kiosk, saying, “Why was I held in isolation without a reason? And why was I denied access to a grievance to ask even earlier?” And the answer I got is, quote, “The deputies were told to keep you separate from your codefendants. We were waiting until we were told it was all clear for you and your co-defendants to be populated out of administrative segregation. They were just following orders.”

The irony of that last sentence is not lost on me, right? They were “just following orders.” Now, administrative segregation exists so that when an inmate is demonstrating a risk to themselves or to public safety, they can be put into isolation. I was not a risk to myself or others. I took the tuberculosis test, I did not resist arrest. None of my co-defendants resisted arrest. And yet we were all put in isolation. My co-defendants were put in single iso or SHU, solitary housing unit, but I got put in a double ISO, which is just like a little bit worse.

Basically, in SHU you are in there for 23 hours and the lights dim at night. But in double ISO, it’s 24 hours constant bright [lights]. And, you don’t get out at all. So and then while in there because it was so cold, the frostbite on my feet is now really aggravated. So I will also be including that as I file for my countersuit.

Now, generally, I think it’s definitely worth pointing out that all jails are inhumane. This jail is no exception, but I have plenty to be grateful for. I think gratitude is one of the keys for cultivating a sense of individual resiliency against hardship. Being able to practice equanimity is extremely important, especially as the state’s use of scare tactics continues to escalate.

So the conditions are, you know, they suck, but they’re not as bad as DeKalb. Like, if our sinks or our toilets malfunction, maintenance does fix it within a couple of days. Yes, there’s mold in the showers, but it’s just in the showers. Yes, the food is terrible, and it makes people sick, but at least there aren’t maggots in it like there are at DeKalb. Stuff like that.

There’s a lot of arbitrary punitive treatment here. And there’s a lot of neoliberalization of services. So, for instance, there is a library here, but because of COVID, allegedly, we no longer are able to go to the library to check in and out books. But the library is now used for court for some people, and for church. And so people will go to the library for these other things, and then ask to take the books back.

And in doing so, the general population blocks create a little mini-library. But the other night, apparently this was just too much for them. And they decided that they would return to enforcing the two books and a Bible per person rule. So they came through and they did roll call and room inspection and then all the books that were not personal property or exceeded this rule were piled into a laundry bin and taken away.

They did leave us a couple of books, and I guess we’re supposed to be grateful for that? But, this is neoliberalization. You take a crisis, you use it as an excuse to reduce services, and then the new thing becomes institutionalized as the norm. They’re doing the same thing by canceling the GED program. They canceled it because of COVID, but no one takes COVID tests. So it’s just an excuse.

But, I mean, in general, yeah, they keep us [in a] very, very small space. We don’t get to go outside very often. Supposedly, we’re supposed to go outside every weekend, weather permitting. But that is not the case. I’ve gone outside, twice for 30 minutes each, and I’ve been here since April 28. And today is June 5th. So, I think that’s probably the hardest part, the confinement. But like I said, I have a lot to be grateful for and I’m glad that my friends have been able to help mail me books. You’re allowed one book per month as long as you can purchase it through Amazon. Because this is a modern world, right? Is that you have to go through Amazon to get a book mailed to you.

#StopCopCity protesters projected messages onto the side of the DeKalb County Jail during a detainee solidarity noise demonstration on March 8, 2023.

UR: What’s next in your case?

Charley Tennenbaum: I know that my lawyers are trying to get me a consent bond. I am very hopeful that it will be granted, given that there’s only been a couple of exceptions where [forest defenders] did not get bonded out… I’m not a flight risk. I look forward to this trial. I look forward to the countersuit. I have a lot of connections to my community here in Atlanta and also other places. All of my character statements speak to that. And so I believe that I deserve a bond…there’s no reason to believe that I am not suitable for bond.

So right now I’m just holding steady. I’m working on my mental, physical and spiritual growth. Taking care of my needs and trying to show kindness to people in here where I can. And I’m really grateful for my support crew. They’ve been really amazing…

I think that at this point, you know, ultimately this is an opportunity for us to expose the state for how desperate their scare tactics are and if we’re able to say in solidarity with each other, we can leverage this in a way where we further enshrine our civil liberties and rights to political dissent.

It sucks that we have to constantly be reaffirming this every couple of years, couple of decades, right? But it takes constant work because that’s how the state works: they encroach, and they erode, and they try to take away our rights and they try to tell us that, “Well, that’s just how it is.”

But thankfully, I know that all of my actions are just and I do have the First Amendment on my side… I think that just being resilient is key to playing this waiting game. I have confidence that I will win in my case. And I believe that others will too.


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