Two armed police officers walking in front of a large lit up American Flag on the side of a building.
Image Credit: Roman Koester on

Over the past six years, there has been a rapid increase in the political repression and prosecutions of protesters and movement organizers advocating for their safety and bodily autonomy. This is currently playing out in Atlanta as the Stop Cop City protests are underway. The Stop Cop City movement was formed in reaction to a proposal to destroy Weelaunee forest to build a privately operated law enforcement training facility. Elected officials and law enforcement have responded with legislation and politically motivated prosecutions with the goal of eroding public and philanthropic trust in social movements.

This is a critical moment for philanthropy to stand up for and protect democracy. The time is now for the philanthropic sector to exercise its power and make its resources more accessible to protesters and organizers on the ground fighting for climate justice, racial justice and land justice.

All Eyes Are on Atlanta

The Atlanta City Council voted to spend between $30 and $50 million this week on “Cop City.” Over 200 people testified during the vote over 14 hours to stop the council from funding Cop City. According to the public comment tally, they voted against what a little over 98 percent of the public commenters asked them to do. The number of people who came out against Cop City was record-breaking for the city council. If this doesn’t ring the alarm for funders, it’s hard to know what else will.

According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, since January 2017, 45 state legislatures have introduced 268 bills that restrict the right to protest.

As a response to the protests that have made national headlines these past few months, police, prosecutors, and lawmakers are using new and existing laws to increase surveillance of grassroots movements and organizations, increase pretrial detention, extend protracted legal fights, and establish harsher punishment.

Over the past six months, the Stop Cop City movement—an intersectional, multiracial coalition of protesters and movement organizations—stood up against the developments to clear land and fund the police training compound. As a result, the movement has been targeted in the courts by Governor Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr who brought domestic terrorism charges and courtroom allegations of racketeering, fraud, and conspiracy.

Then just last week Wednesday on May 31, Attorney General Carr ordered the Atlanta Police Department to raid the Atlanta Solidarity Fund—a volunteer-run bail fund that has operated since 2016 to help people who have been arrested for involvement in protests and movements. Police arrested three leaders of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund on charges of money laundering and charity fraud for organizing legal support and bail funds for protesters and activists.

As these movements build power, they are met with increasing force. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, since January 2017, 45 state legislatures have introduced 268 bills that restrict the right to protest.

Taken in combination, these acts of repression are not just a threat to movements for social justice, but to our collective vision of a multiracial democracy as well.

For example, nine states along the Mississippi River watershed have enacted 23 new laws that expand the criminalization and punishment of water protectors who protest oil and gas pipeline construction on tribal lands. In Arizona, county prosecutors and city officers created a fictional gang organization named “ACAB” to arrest a group of Black Lives Matter protesters and add them to their gang database. In Colorado, protesters speaking out against the death of Elijah McClain were hit with kidnapping charges that attorneys claimed were politically motivated and intended to stop free speech. The charges were ultimately dropped.

Taken in combination, these acts of repression are not just a threat to movements for social justice, but to our collective vision of a multiracial democracy, as they work to silence dissenting voices and eliminate checks and balances among branches of government.

History has taught us that these attacks on protest movements pushing for democracy are not isolated. During the Civil Rights Movement, we saw countless violent attempts to silence the movement. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer murders were attempts to rob us of a generation of movement organizers, eliminate thought leaders, and scare ordinary citizens from taking to the streets to demand change. Earlier this year, the violent killing by Georgia state troopers of Weelaunee forest defender and Stop Cop City protester Tortuguita was reminiscent of this time period.

The eyes of the nation are on Atlanta as that familiar pattern is building momentum today, as other states across the South and United States are starting to use the same tactics happening now in Atlanta to stop similar protest movements in their communities.

Defending Liberated Futures

This is the time for philanthropy to stand up and support against these unprecedented attacks on social movements, bail funds, and legal support organizations.

Borealis Philanthropy recently developed a toolkit to help educate peer philanthropic organizations on how they can support protesters experiencing violence. Currently, they are planning a site visit to bring fellow funders to Atlanta this month to show them the grassroots mobilization on the ground. The goal is to give funders strategies and ideas about where to direct resources and emergency support for those on the front lines, and challenge the criminalization of grassroots mobilizing that elected officials are trying to bolster in Atlanta.

The Communities Transforming Policing Fund, Democratizing Justice Initiative, Piper Fund, CS Fund, and Funders for Justice are calling on fellow funders and affinity groups to fully support the rights and defend the abilities of communities to protest oppressive government and corporate structures.

The Stop Cop City movement is presenting philanthropy with an opportunity to help over-policed communities who have experienced divestment get much-needed justice and resources.

We ask our fellow funders to stand with communities and employ three critical strategies:

1) Don’t act out of fear of reactionary narratives. Philanthropic strategies must be shaped by our grantee partners and movement leaders who are using organizing and direct action as a powerful tool in their work and are closest to the solutions. Many in philanthropy have echoed far right-wing tropes against movements, rooted in hate for marginalized communities, and advanced antidemocratic narratives.  These narratives are then used as “justification” for not funding social movements—particularly those led by people of color or LGBTQIA+ folks. This is doing our opposition’s work for them. It undermines the effort of social movements working for collective liberation.

2) Resource the safety, security, and legal support of movements. In order to confront a violent and well-resourced opposition, funders need to support the real safety, security, and legal costs associated with movement work. This looks like providing rapid response support to groups who are experiencing digital and physical attacks. This also means resourcing the political and legal defense infrastructure necessary to support these groups when they are confronted with the “political prosecution playbook” (including criminalization, surveillance, pretrial detention, high or no bail, RICO charges, domestic terrorism charges). To make it plain: if funders do not start investing in safety, security, and legal support infrastructure ahead of time, there will be no one to answer the call when the attack comes.

3) Be the trusted partner your grantee needs. Build relationships so that groups on the ground are willing to tell you of threats on the horizon, or when an attack has occurred. Furthermore, believe grantee partners when they describe being targeted or assaulted by police forces while exercising their First Amendment rights. Then go into action: raise the alarm by empowering your institution and other funders to keep the resources flowing.

Through their protests for justice and equality, communities of color and LGBTQIA+ communities have been and remain the perfecters of our democracy. This work might go underfunded by philanthropy, but it does not go unnoticed or unchallenged by authoritarian ideologues or fascist movements. Therefore, it is up to funders to respond with newfound courage and urgency to this growing storm.