In an unusual legal maneuver, the district attorney in this suburb of Atlanta said Monday that he had won indictments against 15 supporters of the Confederate battle flag, accusing them of violating the state’s anti-street-gang statute during a confrontation with black partygoers in July.
Prosecutors say that members of the group, which calls itself Respect the Flag, threatened a group of blacks attending an outdoor birthday party on July 25. A cellphone video of part of the episode shows several white men driving away from the party in a convoy of pickup trucks with the Confederate battle flag and other banners, including American flags, fluttering from the truck beds.
The partygoers contend that members of the flag group yelled racial slurs and displayed a crowbar, a knife and either a rifle or a shotgun, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group in Montgomery, Ala., that is representing some of the accusers.
The Douglas County district attorney, Brian Fortner, a white Republican elected to the office in 2014, announced the indictments in a news conference Monday morning. Each of the 15 was indicted on one count of making terroristic threats and a second count of unlawfully participating in “criminal gang activity.”
Mr. Fortner, whose county has transformed from predominantly white to decidedly mixed over the past two decades, said that the Georgia statute upon which the second charge is based, the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, was “worded very broadly to deal with any type of activity that occurs with a group that’s organized that commits a crime.”
None of the accused had been arraigned as of Monday, and it was not clear if they had lawyers representing them. By Monday afternoon, none of them had applied for representation with the county public defenders’ office. But a member of the group told a local newspaper that the black partygoers started the confrontation.
Several criminal lawyers and legal scholars said Monday that they could not recall other instances in which a state anti-gang statute had been used to prosecute a Confederate heritage group in the Deep South. The first version of Georgia’s anti-gang law was passed in 1992 at the behest of Atlanta’s police chief at the time, Eldrin Bell.
The state’s General Assembly, in the law’s statement of intent, noted that citizens retained their rights to freedom of expression and association. But it also declared that Georgia was in a “state of crisis which has been caused by violent criminal street gangs whose members threaten, terrorize and commit a multitude of crimes against the peaceful citizens of their neighborhoods.”
Pickup trucks flying Confederate-themed flags have become a regular sight in many parts of the South since June, when a white gunman, apparently influenced by racist doctrine, massacred nine black worshipers at a Charleston, S.C., church. A subsequent effort by some elected officials in the region to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces has provoked a strong negative reaction from some white Southerners, who argue that the symbols are a part of their history and heritage.
The indictments were handed up Friday by a grand jury in Douglas County, a fast-growing county a few miles west of Atlanta that is about 52 percent white and 44 percent black. Suburban sprawl and the steady migration of blacks out of the city’s core have caused striking social and demographic change here: In 1990, blacks made up only about 8 percent of the population, according to census figures.
The anti-gang law defines a “criminal street gang” as “any organization, association or group of three or more persons associated in fact, whether formal or informal,” that engages in or conspires to commit a defined set of serious criminal acts. The law gives prosecutors numerous ways to define the existence of a gang, including sharing signs, symbols, tattoos, graffiti or “common activities.”
Critics challenged the law on First Amendment grounds, but it was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2009. Ronald L. Carlson, a law professor at the University of Georgia, said that Georgia’s law was generally “in line” with other state anti-gang statutes around the country.
Source: The New York Times | RICHARD FAUSSET