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ATLANTA – Surveillance cameras caught images of two white males laying Confederate battle flags on the ground near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church, but it wasn't clear whether they had committed a crime.
Atlanta police Chief George Turner said Thursday his officers were working with federal authorities and hadn't determined what, if any, charges might be sought. Turner said they had not ruled out a hate crime, though Georgia has no state hate crimes law.
An officer from the Atlanta FBI's joint terrorism task force was on the scene "to better determine if any specific threats were received" and to provide support to Atlanta police, FBI Special Agent Steve Emmett said in an email.
The placing of the flags was the latest provocative act involving the Civil War-era symbol since nine black church members were gunned down during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, and it happened in the heart of an area devoted to the slain civil rights leader, near his birthplace, his crypt and a center devoted to preserving his legacy.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, called placing the flags on church grounds a "terroristic threat."
"This act by a cowardly and misguided individual or individuals is provocative to say the least. It ought to get the attention not only of black people but of freedom-loving people," he said. "To place Confederate flags on the campus of Ebenezer Baptist Church after this horrific act in Charleston, in the wake of all this happening in our country, whatever the message was, it was clearly not about heritage, it was about hate."
Two former Georgia prosecutors said leaving the flags alone doesn't amount to a terroristic threat in the eyes of the law.
Bob Keller, the Clayton County district attorney for nearly three decades until 2004, said he couldn't think of a crime they had committed.
"It was certainly divisive and not acceptable behavior the way it was done, but I cannot find a criminal act to it," he said.
Ken Hodges, who served as Dougherty County district attorney from 1997 to 2008, struggled at first to think of a crime they might have committed before saying a charge of vandalism to a place of worship might be possible. That includes the malicious defacing or desecration of a church or other place of worship.
King preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, once a bustling center of commerce for Atlanta's African-American businesses and residents. The area is home to the historic church and a new church building where the congregation now meets and where the flags were placed. Nearby is the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and all of those buildings are just a short walk from the home of King's grandparents, where he lived for the first 12 years of his life.
Atlanta police officer Gary Wade said a maintenance worker discovered the flags at 6 a.m. Thursday and notified the National Park Service, which operates the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which is adjacent to the church.
The flags weren't stuck in the ground but instead laid flat. One was placed near a bell tower under a poster that said: "Black Lives Matter." The slogan, which has been spray-painted on Confederate monuments across the South this summer, has become part of a movement of civil rights supporters who say police treat blacks unfairly.
Warnock said black clergy from around the country were gathered at Ebenezer on Thursday to discuss the role of black churches in social justice issues, including mass incarceration. The placing of the flags only strengthens their resolve, he said.
Superintendent Judy Forte of the National Park Service said her office at the King historic site received a threatening phone message the day before the shooting at the South Carolina church. The message was rambling and "very alarming and they did mention coming here to the historic site," she said. There was no indication that was connected to the flags.
At some point within the last two years, a Confederate battle flag was placed at the tomb of King and his wife Coretta across the street from the church, said Forte, who couldn't recall exactly when that happened.
"It was disturbing and sickening, but unfortunately not terribly surprising," Warnock said of the latest incident. "We've seen this kind of ugliness before."
Associated Press writer Jeff Martin contributed to this report.