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RICO Charges Attempt to Paint Stop Cop City Movement as a Criminal “Conspiracy”

The sweeping 109-page indictment presents acts of mutual aid and zine reading as evidence of a criminal “conspiracy.”

Police watch as "Stop Cop City" protesters approach the Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse ahead of an expected indictment of former President Donald Trump in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 14, 2023.

In what may be a historic test case for law enforcement’s ability to cast a wide net and indiscriminately criminalize autonomous protest, 61 people allegedly associated with the “Stop Cop City” movement in Atlanta, Georgia, have been indicted under Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law by the state’s Republican attorney general after a local Democratic prosecutor recused herself from dozens of cases stemming from two years of protest.

The sweeping 109-page indictment accuses activists opposed to a controversial 85-acre, $90 million police training facility of participating in a “militant anarchist” enterprise that grew out of widespread protests against racist police-perpetrated violence in 2020. Critics say the indictment is riddled with factual inaccuracies and broad generalizations that attempt to paint a decentralized social movement and various formations within it as an organized criminal operation in order to quell protests against the training center and police. The indictment zeroes-in on a now-defunct forest occupation that temporarily blocked construction of the facility known as Defend the Atlanta Forest, which has been described more as a slogan or banner to organize under than a formal organization.

Entire pages of the indictment are dedicated to right-wing, Wikipedia-esq renditions of “anarchist” ideas, accusing the “anarchists” camping in the Atlanta forest as “casting all law enforcement as violent murderers” while conflating property damage with acts of violence. It says “zines” were found throughout the area occupied by Forest Defenders, a clunky reference to the do-it-yourself publications that grassroots writers and activists have made and distributed for decades. In addition to mentioning the zines, the indictment says Forest Defenders are offered “personal, financial, and emotional support” with language that attempts to twist activist organizing into something nefarious. Activists have called the indictment an attack on freedom of speech.

“What they identify is that the really problematic nature of this is that it’s anti-government and that it’s community care, essentially solidarity, and mutual aid absent the government. And that’s this dangerous thing according to them,” said Micah Herskind, a Stop Cop City activist labeled an “anarchist” in the indictment, in an interview with Truthout’s Kelly Hayes. “And so it’s pretty naked indictment, really, of what they characterized as anarchism or really just as mutual aid, solidarity, caring for each other.”

The list of defendants includes a legal observer with the Southern Poverty Law Center who was clearly identified as such when arrested during a concert on March 5, three members of a solidarity fund that supports arrested protesters, and three activists previously charged with felony intimidation for handing out flyers identifying the officer who fatally shot the activist known as “Tortuguita” in January.

At least 42 defendants already face state “domestic terrorism” charges, many of which critics say are based on flimsy evidence such as muddy clothes and appear designed to intimidate activists. As the Associated Press points out, the arrest warrants for the 23 people arrested and charged with “domestic terrorism” on March 5 did not accuse them of hurting anyone or damaging anything.

The evidence of purported criminal conspiracy provided by prosecutors in many cases consists of accusing defendants of authoring posts on an anonymous message board that mentions tactics such as property damage and exchanging small amounts money ranging from $10 to $100 between groups for such items as “kitchen materials” and “camping supplies.”

The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a group that raises money for people arresting during protests, predicted that RICO charges were coming back in February. The group warned that state officials were “concocting a ‘RICO-like’ story about the movement, where protest is painted as a criminal enterprise.”

“We won’t allow intimidation to deter people from participating in social movements,” spokesperson Marlon Kautz said in a statement at the time. “The Atlanta Solidarity Fund stands ready to support anyone who is targeted for protesting.”

A few months later, police raided the home of Kautz and two other Atlanta Solidarity Fund members and charged them with money laundering and charity fraud. All three are at the center of the indictment, which accuses them of making dozens of posts on an anonymous blog allegedly containing references to illegal activity and reimbursing indicted and unindicted “co-conspirators” with small amounts of money for “forest kitchen supplies” and other items through a grassroots nonprofit called the Network for Strong Communities.

“As if ‘domestic terrorism’ charges weren’t enough — or the arrests of bail fund organizers, or activists putting up flyers — this move seeks to paint the broad spectrum of community members opposed to the Cop City project as conspirators in a vast criminal enterprise,” the Atlanta Solidarity Fund said in a statement on Tuesday. “We know these charges will not hold up in court, and we know that they are not intended to: The point is to shut down the social movement currently taking place in Atlanta, and to send a message that anyone advocating for social change could be a target.”

No evidence has been submitted in open court, and much of the indictment appears to attempt to criminalize political ideas and constitutionally protected activities such as organizing free meals and other forms of mutual aid. Attorney General Chris Carr, a politically ambitious conservative Republican, reportedly used the same grand jury that indicted former President Donald Trump and his associates on racketeering charges for attempting to subvert Georgia’s 2020 election results.

“As this indictment shows, looking the other way when violence occurs is not an option in Georgia,” Carr said in a statement on Tuesday.

In many cases, authorities are conflating property damage with violence. Masked, anonymous protesters have embarrassed police on multiple occasions by damaging vehicles and construction equipment, including on March 5, when police conducted a mass arrest at a concert near the forest in retaliation for a rowdy, damaging direct action taken by masked protesters about a mile down the road. Organizers argue the police are stacking serious charges on any activist they can get their hands on in order to intimidate the broader movement.

In June, local Atlanta prosecutor Sherry Boston, a Democrat, recused herself from 42 cases involving the Stop Cop City movement, citing disagreements with Carr’s office and casting doubt on whether crimes in those cases could be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

For activists in Atlanta, the RICO charges are just the latest legal salvo by law enforcement against a movement that has stubbornly resisted the destruction of a beloved forest to make way for the facility known as Cop City, which activists argue will increase police militarization and rob a nearby neighborhood that has faced divestment of space and resources.

“These charges, like the previous repressive prosecutions by the State of Georgia, seek to intimidate protestors, legal observers, and bail funds alike, and send the chilling message that any dissent to Cop City will be punished with the full power and violence of the government,” the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said in a statement on Tuesday.

In the case of Tortuguita, police claim the activist shot at them first before state troopers returned fire during a forest “clearing” operation and mass arrest, but activists point to independent autopsy results showing that Tortuguita died with their hands in the air and without gunpowder residue on their hands.

Like other charges slapped on activists amid mass arrests throughout history, the RICO charges against Forest Defenders and others may be difficult to prove in court. While charges against some defendants may eventually be dropped for lack of evidence, the onslaught of charges ties up time and resources while giving police an excuse to make further arrests.

“Today’s charges are yet another example of the state of Georgia using our legal system to criminalize free speech and chill dissent of Atlanta’s proposed Cop City,” said Analilia Mejia and DaMareo Cooper, the executive directors of the Center for Popular Democracy, in a statement.

The Center for Popular Democracy is backing a petition campaign that has gathered more than 104,000 signatures to put a referendum on Cop City on the ballot for Atlanta voters to directly decide whether a large chunk of the Atlanta forest is razed to make way for the “public safety” training facility.

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