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Lawyer's Arrest at Atlanta Protest Sparks Criticism of SPLC

Newsweek 3/7/2023 Matthew Impelli
Tom Jurgens, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, was arrested on Sunday for domestic terrorism at a protest in Atlanta, Georgia. © Atlanta Police Department Tom Jurgens, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, was arrested on Sunday for domestic terrorism at a protest in Atlanta, Georgia.

Nearly two dozen individuals were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, on Sunday while protesting near the police department's Public Safety Training Center, including a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), prompting criticism of the organization and allegations that the employee was a member of antifa.

On Monday, the Atlanta Police Department announced 23 people were charged with domestic terrorism over a recent protest at the training center, which has been dubbed "Cop City" by critics of the center and its location. The training center has captured the attention of police opponents and environmental demonstrators. In January, an environmental protester was fatally shot by authorities after, police said, she shot at a state trooper.


Atlanta police condemned Sunday's violence and blamed a "group of violent agitators" using the cover of a peaceful protest to launch a "coordinated attack." Police said protesters threw large rocks, bricks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks at officers. Videos released by the police department showed a construction vehicle on fire and police dodging fireworks at the gate of the construction site.

Included in the arrests was Thomas Jurgens, attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC confirmed Jurgens' employment and told Newsweek in a statement that Jurgens was at the protest as a "legal observer" with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG).

"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 SPLC said.

The NLG said legal observers play an "important role" in supporting movement organizers and activists and reaffirmed NLG's commitment to supporting protests. NLG dismissed the arrests as being an "ongoing part of state repression" and as a sign that law enforcement "views movement activists as enemies of the state."

Both the Atlanta Police Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation directed Newsweek to a previous statement about the arrests.

Following the arrest, many Twitter users criticized the SPLC, such as North Carolina Representative Dan Bishop, who asked if the organization will call itself a "hate group."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote, "This is not the first time the Southern Poverty Law Center has been connected to domestic terrorism. SPLC was connected to a 2012 domestic terrorist shooting at @FRCdc but this one will be hard for them to dodge. An SPLC attorney was among the 23 Antifa terrorists arrested."

Conservative commentator Charlie Kirk also responded to the arrest, saying, "Here are the 25 Antifa thugs who burned down government property and assaulted cops yesterday in Atlanta, including an SPLC lawyer. How many FBI agents were reassigned to harass parents, pro-life activists, and Catholics instead of arrest these terrorists?"

Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch questioned if the SPLC was "officially a domestic terrorist group?"

Antifa's been accused of being behind the protests and Jurgens' arrest sparked claims that he was a member of the anti-fascist movement.

"Domestic terrorism suspect Thomas Webb Jurgens (b. Feb. 1995) is a staff attorney for the @splcenter. The nonprofit's staff has a chummy relationship with #Antifa on Twitter," conservative journalist Andy Ngo wrote in a tweet, sharing a photo of Jurgens.

Accusations against Jurgens for being a member of antifa spilled over into criticism of the SPLC, which has been used by the FBI as a source for categorizing domestic terrorists.

Libs of TikTok Twitter account also responded to the arrest: "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."

Atlanta police haven't identified antifa as the group behind the violence on Sunday and the SPLC did not respond to Newsweek's emailed inquiry about accusations that Jurgens is a member of the movement.

Following the arrests, some of those in opposition of the public safety training center responded, offering to help those charged.

"As always, we are committed to providing bail assistance and access to legal representation for everyone arrested protesting. We are already coordinating a network of lawyers to respond. Please donate to help us continue this work. Solidarity means nobody faces repression alone!" The Atlanta Solidarity Fund wrote in a tweet.

Other organizations, such as Defend the Atlanta Forest, have expressed opposition to the training center, arguing it will harm Atlanta's environment.

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