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Editorial: Terrorism charges against UNC activist indicative of unjust police violence, overreach

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UNC Law Students walk through the Pit on Thursday, April 13, 2023. The students walked out in support of Jamie Marsicano, a student removed from the program after her arrest in Georgia.

Content Warning: This article contains mention of gun and police violence. Videos linked in the article may contain depictions of police and gun violence. Viewer discretion is advised. 

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First-year UNC student Ariel Halperin's mind lives among the trees of South River Forest. Halperin fostered a profound connection with the forest and found a community that welcomed them. 

Located in Atlanta, the forest is also referred to by protesters as the Weelaunee People's Park, to pay respect to the Muscogee Creek indigenous population who were removed from the land in the 19th century. 

Halperin and others gathered in the forest to protest the destruction of over 300 acres of trees to build North America’s largest police training facility, a movement that’s come to be known as "Stop Cop City." For their efforts, protesters have become the target of police violence. 

UNC, from two states away, has not been unaffected by fallout from Stop Cop City. Halperin found themself a victim of violent Atlanta Police Department crowd control tactics. Perhaps most notably, UNC Law student and protester Jamie Marsicano was arrested on March 5 and charged with domestic terrorism.

We believe that the actions taken against Halperin, Marsicano and the Stop Cop City protesters by law enforcement were extreme and unjust.

A violent history of police and protester interactions in Weelaunee People's Park

The construction of the training facility, which began last June, has drawn activists from across the world to the forest. Mobilization efforts have been bolstered by the distinctly intersectional nature of the project: both racial and environmental concerns have been raised about the clearing of large swathes of forest to build a police facility in a predominantly Black area. 

Tensions between law enforcement and protesters escalated following the death of Tortuguita on January 18. The 26-year-old activist sustained 14 bullet wounds during an armed police raid on the protesters campsite and died on the scene. 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims that Tortuguita fired first, citing a ballistics report from a gunshot wound received by an officer at the scene that shows bullet markings consistent with a gun legally owned by Tortuguita.

However, body camera footage indicates the gunshot wound to the officer may have been the result of friendly fire. In a video posted to Twitter by the Atlanta Community Press Collective, an officer can be heard saying “Man… you f---ed your own officer up,” presumably in reference to an officer that was shot. 

The GBI has controversially halted the release of additional body camera footage to Tortuguita’s family. 

Moreover, Halperin points out that Tortuguita died in a position from which it would’ve been difficult to fire.

“They were sitting criss-cross with their hands in front of their face," Halperin said. 

An independent autopsy examining the laceration patterns of the bullets confirms this. 

Arrests at the Stop Cop City music festival

On the morning of March 5, several masked protesters raided a construction site to attempt to destroy equipment. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police officers in the area. 

A Stop Cop City music festival was taking place nearby on the same day and the day before. Halperin said they and Marsicano were in attendance at the time of Marsicano's arrest.

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Police were given orders to disperse the crowd and make arrests in relation to the earlier raid. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used on the festival-goers. 

One of the attendees was reportedly tased by an officer while trying to flee the scene. Another attendee captured a video of an officer threatening to use lethal force, saying “I don’t know how else to put it, you’re going to get shot.”

Halperin also mentions the deployment of long-range acoustic sonic weapons on them and other festival attendees. The use of such devices on civilians is extremely controversial because of their potential to permanently impair a victims hearing and balance. While Halperin avoided long-term damage, they still experienced severe adverse effects.

“I felt like I couldn’t think," they said. "My brain felt like it was being super overloaded and there was a ringing sound in my ears. I felt super nauseous and dizzy... and I didn’t have the strength to stand up.”

Festival-goers were only allowed to leave when they alerted police that children were present, according to Halperin.

Another lasting impact of law enforcement overreach at the festival comes from the charges pressed by the Atlanta Police Department and the GBI. 

Marsicano and 22 others were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Arrests were made indiscriminately. Two of those charged – Grace Martin and Alex Meissner – were with Halperin at the festival during the construction site raid, Halperin said. 

One of the main pieces of evidence used to rationalize the arrests according to warrants obtained by the Associated Press were just as arbitrary: muddy clothes. The festival was outdoors and it had rained in the area two days prior. 

“It is common for police to bring absurd charges against protesters to scare people away from trying to make change,” Gina Balamucki, Orange County lawyer and UNC alumnus, said.

Balamucki also spoke to the profound negative impact that such charges could have on an individual’s personal and professional life, even if found innocent.

UNC's action against Marsicano

Following Marsicano’s charges in Atlanta, the matter was handled by UNC's Emergency Evaluation and Action Committee. This body has the authority to bypass the typical disciplinary process and unilaterally ban Marsicano from campus and her classes. 

Manasi Deorah, a close friend of Marsicano and future co-president of UNC National Lawyers Guild, provided a written statement to The Daily Tar Heel regarding Marsicano’s punishment:

“The university's ban is unconstitutional and unjustifiable; our legal system is based upon a presumption of innocence until guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the complete opposite of the EEAC's policies.” 

Marsicano is the current president of UNC NLG. 

UNC students staged a walkout on Thursday in support of Marsicano. 

Marsicano declined public comment at this time. The GBI referred the Editorial Board to statements published on their website.

The future of student protest

For any student involved in social change, Halperin and Marsicano’s experiences are crucial to understand. 

Their time in Atlanta reflects a power dynamic between law enforcement and protesters that has become increasingly prominent in America, in which law enforcement justifies the use of Draconian, disproportionate force by misrepresenting dissenters as violent aggravators. 

We hope their stories serve as a warning, that the measures taken by law enforcement to suppress the Stop Cop City protesters are indicative of a nation that is crushing its own mechanisms for societal change. 

Within each student is the ability to disrupt, upend and modify a status quo in need of mending. Student activists have long been on the forefront of civil advocacy and, by extension, have received the brunt of repressive violence from the institutions they challenge.

The subjugation of student activists at Stop Cop City represents a risk to our civil liberties at large.

This can not continue to happen.

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this article said the UNC NLG organized the walkout on Thursday. The walkout was organized by students at UNC and UNC Law, and members of the UNC NLG participated in the protest. 

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com