On March 5, 23 people, including a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, were charged with domestic terrorism after an intense demonstration against a planned police training facility in Atlanta. Tom Jurgens, an employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center who was there as a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, has been the target of a right-wing media smear campaign claiming that the SPLC condones violence and has colluded with antifa.
Far-right activist Andy Ngo posted about the SPLC connection to one of those arrested on Twitter on March 6, and prominent right-wing media figures including Tucker Carlson and Jack Posobiec picked it up.
The confrontation with police occurred during a music festival held as part of a week of action in opposition to “Cop City,” a $90 million facility that many say was approved largely absent community input. Atlanta is already a highly policed area, and the facility will uproot parts of a culturally significant forest that is one of Atlanta’s largest remaining green spaces in a predominantly low-income, Black area.
According to police, hundreds of activists broke away from the concert and breached the site of the project. Footage from the construction site appears to show construction equipment on fire while protesters threw rocks and fireworks at police. Music festival attendees and community organizers alleged that arrests were made “indiscriminately” at the festival, which was about a mile away from the training facility and occurred an hour after the action took place. According to an attorney for some of the defendants, there has yet to be a charge for arson or interference with government property and arrest warrants cited evidence such as activists simply having mud on their shoes.
Police initially arrested 35 people. In response to Jurgens' arrest, SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang said in a statement:
“Tom was performing a public service, documenting potential violations of protesters’ rights. We are outraged that police officers present at the protest refused to acknowledge Tom’s role as a legal observer and instead chose to arrest him.”
Right-wing media are trying to delegitimize SPLC by suggesting it condones hate and violence and falsely claiming the group helped coordinate the event:
- Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Center, told Newsmax host Chris Salcedo that the SPLC is “in bed with antifa”: “What's so bad about this is that you have the Southern Poverty Law Center that is anti-law enforcement, anti-government, they’re in bed with antifa, but yet they hold themselves out as being the definer of groups that are anti-government. … This isn't the fox guarding the henhouse; this is the fox living in the henhouse, dining on chicken.” [Newsmax, The Chris Salcedo Show, 3/7/23]
- Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) told Fox host Sean Hannity that antifa members are “the ground troops of the Democrat party”: “You wouldn't be surprised to find out that the Southern Poverty Law Center, their own attorney, was one of them. This is who the Democrat party is. They are domestic terrorists, and antifa needs to be held accountable. And the Department of Justice better start doing their job.” [Fox News, Hannity, 3/7/23]
- Dinesh D’Souza called the SPLC a hate group: “The SPLC is itself a hate group, but a hate group on the side of the left. And so they promote violence. … Very often when you’ve got these rioters on the streets, you’ve got lawyers with the SPLC and other groups running around with the rioters and their idea is to quote ‘collect evidence’ that can be used to defend these people if and when they are arrested.” [Salem Podcast Network, The Dinesh D’Souza Podcast, 3/7/23]
- Former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston falsely alleged that SPLC coordinated the attack: “The Southern Poverty Law Center was the group that apparently coordinated that. That's who the lawyer worked for. I do think he should be disbarred, but it was actually an orchestrated attack.” [Newsmax, Wake Up America, 3/7/23]
- New York Post reporter Jon Levine implied that the Biden administration and SPLC turn a blind eye to domestic terrorism: “Let’s just put the shoe on the other foot here, Maria. Can you imagine if 23 Proud Boys were arrested for attacking a gender reassignment clinic in Atlanta? I mean, we’d already have — President Biden would probably already be down there giving a speech.” [Fox Business, Mornings with Maria, 3/7/23]
- Former Georgia Rep. Vernon Jones said the FBI should investigate the SPLC: “I would like to see the FBI investigate the Southern Poverty Law Center, because he [Jurgens] cannot be the lone wolf, the lone actor. … And if they were to delve into that organization, who's supposed to be about anti-hate, which this really, they reflect on, this individual reflecting so much hate, I think they'll find where not only has it been funded, but you’ll see others that have been involved in this prior to this incident and other incidents.” [Newsmax, John Bachman Now, 3/7/23]
- The New York Post wrote that the SPLC “lost its moral standing” by refusing to call antifa a hate group. [New York Post, 3/6/23]
- Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton: “So is SPLC officially a domestic terrorist group?” [Twitter, 3/6/23]
- Libs of TikTok: “The Southern Poverty Law Center called me a terrorist for posting a flyer of a publicly available drag show. Turns out one of their attorneys is an Antifa member and was arrested for domestic terrorism. It’s always projection with them.” [Twitter, 3/6/23]
- Fox News host Tucker Carlson and anchor Trace Gallagher said SPLC propogates hate and attacks its political opponents: Carlson said SPLC “exists solely to destroy the lives of anyone who stands in the way of the Democratic Party.” Gallagher claimed the center has “long been accused of monitoring hate while propagating hate” and that it defines hate as “anything SPLC disagrees with.” [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 3/6/23]
- Newsmax host Rob Schmitt said people like Jurgens want to “kill you and destroy your country.”: “These are all a bunch of angry white kids that still live at home at the age of 28 and hate capitalism. … One is allegedly an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the same organization which the FBI’s Richmond division recently used as a source for equating traditionalist Catholics to violent extremists.” [Newsmax, Rob Schmitt Tonight, 3/6/23]
- Human Events editor, neo-Nazi affiliate, and conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec called the legal observers an “antifa degenerate.”: “Here is a photo of the 23 Antifa degenerates arrested for Domestic Terrorism in GA last night after torching gov’t equipment and throwing rocks at cops. 1 of them is a lawyer for the SPLC. Sponsor? Almost all are from out of state. Proof that Antifa is a nationwide terrorist organization.” [Truth Social, 3/6/23]
- Lauren Witzke, a far-right political activist and president of the Stew Peter Network, posted to Gab an image of Jurgen’s LinkedIn profile: “An SPLC staff attorney was arrested and charged with domestic terrorism at last night’s #Antifa ‘Stop Cop City’ riot in Atlanta. Now It’s time to shut down the ENTIRE SPLC terrorist operation.” [Gab, 3/6/23]
- Far-right troll Eoin Lenihan: “Highly significant! An SPLC attorney arrested in Atlanta last night for terrorism. The SPLC is currently the biggest ally of Antifa relying on their hacked materials & doxes of individuals for their “hate watch” list. The SPLC actively hires Antifa “researchers” & “journalists”… [Twitter, 3/6/23]
Andy Ngo, who has covered the protest extensively on social media and accused legal observers of “helping antifa in the violent conspiracies,” has also acknowledged his disdain for SPLC based on the center’s criticism of him. The center has called out Ngo for trafficking “in politically charged disinformation,” accepting money from a Polish cultural center for giving an anti-antifa speech in Warsaw, and being friendly with the far-right Hungarian government.
Ngo’s fixation on antifa and SPLC has helped spur responses from lawmakers. In 2021, his coverage of clashes between the Proud Boys and left-wing activists in Portland, where he was allegedly attacked by demonstrators, was an impetus for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) bill to designate antifa as a terrorist organization. On March 8, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced similar legislation to declare antifa a terrorist organization, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said he wanted to open an investigation into the FBI’s reliance on SPLC to identify extremist threats.
This is not the first time right-wing media have come after SPLC
SPLC is a legal advocacy organization that focuses on civil rights and is widely considered to be an authoritative voice on extremism. The center identifies and tracks hate groups and has helped law enforcement and the FBI respond to them.
The center has drawn the ire of right-wing media for calling out hate speech from conservative groups in the past. In 2017, FoxNews.com promoted the false accusation that SPLC added a conservative writer to a “hate list,” when it simply noted that she has been a guest on a radio show produced by the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council. FRC and other hate groups have united to smear SPLC for accurately labeling them as such. FRC’s official position is that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large” and “is by definition unnatural.”
In 2012, FRC tried to blame SPLC for a shooting that took place at its office because the shooter was allegedly motivated by FRC’s anti-LGBTQ hate group label. At the time, FRC President Tony Perkins doubled down on hateful rhetoric saying SPLC needs “to be held accountable, and they need to be stopped before people are killed because of their reckless labeling and advocacy for homosexuality and their anti-Christian stance.” Perkins also used the Atlanta incident to denounce SPLC for Jurgens’ presence at the protest.
There’s a good reason why legal observers are necessary at protests
Opposition to Cop City has already proved fatal. In January, Manuel Terán, a young activist who opposed the project, was killed by Atlanta police under suspicious circumstances. Police maintain that Teran was to blame for the confrontation and shot an officer first.
It’s not uncommon to have legal observers at protests, particularly when tensions between law enforcement and demonstrators are high. According to the New York City Bar Association, the “work includes documenting arrests, use of force, intimidating display of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and sidewalks, and any other behavior on the part of law enforcement that appears to restrict demonstrators’ ability to express their political views.”
Legal observers have helped protect the rights of protesters in the past. For example, according to The Intercept:
Collecting the names of people arrested at protests is the first step toward ensuring that they have legal representation. During the mass arrests at the 2004 Republican National Convention, those names allowed lawyers to secure a habeas corpus writ for hundreds of protesters who were unlawfully detained by the NYPD, sometimes for days, without access to lawyers.
Legal observers have also been punished for their work in the past. In 2021, 12 legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild sued the New York Police Department, alleging the department violated their constitutional rights at a 2020 protest in the Bronx. Even though the NYPD patrol guide says legal observers are entitled to be present, the observers allege they were prohibited from carrying out their function and even met with violence. In fact, New York City just agreed to pay more than $20,000 each to hundreds of individuals who were trapped by police and attacked with batons and pepper spray during that same protest.