Skip to content
Georgia’s indictment against ‘Cop City’ protesters is an attack on free speech

In March, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation brought terrorism charges against people protesting the planned public safety training center in Atlanta – dubbed “Cop City” by its opponents. It was bad enough, but this week Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr unveiled a massive RICO indictment against 61 people that is so at odds with the First Amendment that it jeopardizes the rights of each one. With this indictment, the Republican Attorney General claims that the movement known as Defend the Atlanta Forest is an “anti-government, anti-police, anti-business” criminal organization.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has unveiled a massive 61-person indictment against RICO that is so at odds with the First Amendment that it puts everyone’s rights on the line.

The indictment names more than three dozen people who were already facing the domestic terrorism charges mentioned above and the leaders of a bail fund who were charged in June with money laundering. They also include three activists previously charged with felony intimidation after authorities said they distributed fliers calling a state trooper a “murderer” for his involvement in the fatal shooting of a protester.

The First Amendment guarantees our right to free speech, our right to peaceful assembly, and our right to demand change in government, but with his indictment, Carr is literally enacting a conspiracy theory that considers anarchism “anti-police” as inherently criminal and criminal. views virtually any protest activity as contributing to crime. Lauren C. Regan is the executive director of the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, which, as its website explains, “supports movements that seek to dismantle the political and economic structures that cause social inequality and destruction of the environment”. Regan told me that Carr’s accusations against RICO constitute a “massive violation” of free speech and the right to assembly.

Carr, of course, is using the same RICO law that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, uses to prosecute former President Donald Trump and 18 others accused of trying to undo Joe Biden’s victory. in Georgia in 2020. Liberals who applaud what Willis is doing should beware of the double-edged sword that is the RICO Act. Written to target the mafia, RICO laws are now used to indict political enemies.

Carr’s persecution of ‘Cop City’ protesters was already extraordinary, given that, in a move condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, he pushed for domestic terrorism charges against dozens of accused protesters. of minor crimes. Despite this, RICO’s indictment constitutes an unconscionable escalation that recalls the darkest days of the Red Scare with its criminalization of political dissent and its equally problematic charges of guilt by association.

In 2020, the same year Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and protests erupted across the country, Atlanta police were accused of brutality by multiple protesters and arrested a reporter who was recording an arrest. (The city later settled $105,000 with this reporter.) Also in 2020, an Atlanta police officer shot in the back and killed Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man whom police first approached after having received a call informing him that he had fallen. asleep in the drive-thru lane of a fast food restaurant. (In November, the Atlanta City Council voted 15 to 0 to pay the Brooks family $1 million.)

The RICO indictment is best understood as part of the government’s ongoing counter-protest. It’s a counter-protest led in part by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a corporate-funded nonprofit that provides money to the Atlanta Police Department and helps manage the massive network of departmental surveillance cameras. The proposed training center, dubbed “Cop City,” is the result of a secretly created plan politically fueled by conservative outrage over rising crime in 2020 and protests against the police.

Liberals who applaud what Wilis is doing should beware of the double-edged sword that is the RICO Act.

The training facility, which would serve Atlanta police and fire department recruits, is currently in the pre-construction phase on approximately 87 acres of what was once a forest outside the city limits in the county. unincorporated DeKalb, whose residents have no voting rights on the project. Not just a training center, it was billed as a thank you to the police for boosting morale and post-2020 recruiting, explicitly compared to the sanctuary-like facilities of major college football teams, complete with a gift shop. In what was a blatant attempt at propaganda, documents from the Atlanta Police Foundation reveal that an earlier plan was to dub the facility the “Institute for Training in Social Justice and Public Safety.”

The APF continues to ignore requests from the public records and many fundamental details remain unknown, such as the construction budget and the amount of green space that would remain. This has given rise to widespread opposition based not only on worries about police militarization and the environment, but also concerns about the general lack of transparency in government.

Vote to Stop Cop City, an effort to put a referendum on a training center on the ballot, claims to have garnered more than 100,000 signatures, which, if true, represents massive opposition to the city’s plan .

Georgia’s indictment against ‘Cop City’ protesters is an attack on free speech

The ‘Defend the Atlanta Forest’ and ‘Stop Cop City’ movements have risen in opposition to this official form of protest. Some protest actions have undoubtedly been violent or destructive, including the burning of police cars and the throwing of stones at police. Other actions were illegal but peaceful, such as the civil obedience tactic of refusing to leave the proposed construction site after being ordered to do so. Still other protests took the form of peaceful marches, and some of those charged with domestic terrorism in the march said they were simply attending a concert near the proposed training site.

But, like their civil rights-era predecessors, state and local government officials have resorted to aggressive law enforcement responses and used rhetoric calling the opposition “outside agitators.” and terrorists. Imagine if prosecutors in the 1960s could have brought charges against RICO. They might have been able to accuse nonviolent civil rights leaders of crimes committed by people who were not as committed to nonviolence as they were.

Like their civil rights-era predecessors, state and local officials have used rhetoric labeling the opposition as “outsider agitators” and terrorists.

In January, police killed a protester known as Tortuguita in an alleged shootout with the Georgia State Patrol. (We don’t know if there was a shooting because soldiers don’t wear body cameras, the most fundamental reform demanded in previous Black Lives Matter protests.)

In this context, bringing terrorism and RICO charges — too easy for prosecutors to prove and carrying mandatory minimum sentences of five years in prison — can be seen as yet another propaganda technique. Civil liberties experts tell me that the purpose of the charges may not be so much to secure convictions as to deter people from protesting.

The RICO indictment is a particularly blatant attempt at defamation. It contains fundamental factual errors. For example, it incorrectly reverses the City of Atlanta and the Private Atlanta Police Foundation in their roles as owner and tenant of the site. It includes sarcastic comments about anarchism and reveals an obsession with graffiti and online gossip. The indictment asserts that anarchist collectivism means that individuals have no choice but to sacrifice their income, liberty, or property and labels anarchy one of three “primary ideologies” that make Defend the “extremist” Atlanta Forest.

By claiming that Defend the Atlanta Forest is a criminal organization conspiring to shut down the training facility, he tries to link everything from arson to reimbursing protesters for glue and other camping supplies to possessing a book allegedly about criminal methods and the republication of a report.

Georgia’s indictment against ‘Cop City’ protesters is an attack on free speech

Among those charged with racketeering is a representative of the National Lawyers Guild, who says he is innocent and was only acting as a legal observer at a protest event. This is the problem with RICO fees more generally. They can link otherwise innocent acts to crimes.

The demonization of anarchist collectives and their calls for the abolition of government structures are no coincidence. Police and prison abolitionists in Atlanta have created a new medium called the Atlanta Community Press Collective. It is thanks to this collective that we know, for example, that the public funding of the training center is already much higher than what the officials had promised.

The stupidity of the indictment only makes it even scarier. The government’s willingness to criminalize any movement that opposes a plan or adopts an unpopular policy has no obvious limits and cannot end well. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this in Georgia.

The government’s desire to criminalize an entire movement that opposes a project or adopts an unpopular policy cannot end well.

There was an attempt during the civil rights era to overthrow a state legislator for opposing the Vietnam War. There was also Red Scare’s use of capital insurrection charges against Angelo Herndon, a communist labor organizer who violated segregationist sensibilities.

Although the ‘Cop City’ and Trump RICO cases are very different in detail, in both cases prosecutors are going after political enemies, not the mob, and possibly inspiring copycat lawsuits across the country. This means that, despite the existence of the First Amendment, if you are brought to protest your city’s version of “Cop City,” your local or state prosecutor may charge you with being part of organized crime.