Cop City Protesters Hit With RICO Charges in Latest Act of Political Repression
Organizers with the movement say the charges are meant to “send the chilling message that any dissent to Cop City will be punished with the full power and violence of the government.”
Meg O'Connor Sep 05, 2023
This is a breaking story and it may be updated as the situation develops.
The state of Georgia has indicted over 60 protesters on organized crime and racketeering charges over their involvement in the movement to stop the construction of a $90 million police training facility in Atlanta that opponents have dubbed “Cop City.”
On Tuesday morning, the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a not-for-profit media organization, announced that Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, had filed RICO indictments against dozens of people allegedly involved in the “Stop Cop City” movement. Many of those charged had previously been arrested in connection with protests, according to 11 Alive, a local news outlet. Some are also facing prior domestic terrorism charges, in controversial prosecutions that legal experts have decried. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a copy of the indictment, which is dated August 29.
Organizers with the Cop City Vote coalition, a group working to place the fate of the police training facility on the ballot, were quick to denounce the charges.
“These charges, like the previous repressive prosecutions by the State of Georgia, seek to intimidate protesters, 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,” organizers said in a statement emailed to The Appeal. “The Cop City Vote coalition strongly condemns these anti-democratic charges.”
The Georgia Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
The indictment alleges that the criminal enterprise—which it refers to as the “anarchist Defend the Atlanta Forest movement”—began with the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The document lists the May 25, 2020 date of Floyd’s death as the start date of the alleged conspiracy. The land lease agreement for the construction of the Cop City facility wasn’t announced until almost a year later, in April 2021.
Prosecutors claim that the conspiracy “contained a common purpose to commit two or more acts of racketeering activity in Fulton County, Georgia, elsewhere in the State of Georgia, and in other states.” Many of the people listed in the indictment are accused of simply occupying the forest or joining a fiery March protest near the proposed construction site of the training complex. In some cases, prosecutors have identified secondary acts allegedly taken “in furtherance of the conspiracy.” A large portion of the charges revolve around reimbursements for food and supplies from mutual aid groups, activities that constitute racketeering and money laundering, according to prosecutors.
“Mutual Aid is a term popularized by anarchists to describe individuals who exchange goods and services to assist other individuals in society without government intervention,” the indictment states.
The attorney general alleges that one man, Geoffrey Parsons, participated in a criminal enterprise in part because he signed his name as “ACAB” after his arrest in the DeKalb forest earlier this year. Although Parsons is also facing other charges including domestic terrorism, prosecutors allege that his use of the acronym—typically an abbreviation for “All Cops are Bastards”—was an “overt act in furtherance of the [criminal] conspiracy.”
Stop Cop City organizers have fought for years to halt the construction of the massive police and fire training facility. Opponents have expressed concern that it will lead to further police militarization, while also destroying several acres of forestland that they say are crucial to the area’s climate resiliency. In January, Georgia State Police officers shot and killed activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán while clearing out a protest encampment in the forest. Authorities claim Paez Terán fired on officers first, but Paez Terán’s family has contested this narrative. An independent autopsy released by the family in March showed that Paez Terán’s hands were raised at the time of the shooting.
The state’s use of RICO charges against Stop Cop City activists marks the latest escalation in an increasingly authoritarian crackdown on the protest movement. Earlier this year, prosecutors with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office and the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office filed domestic terrorism charges against 42 Cop City protesters, many of whom are also named in the RICO indictment. One of the people hit with RICO charges had previously been arrested for handing out fliers calling one of the officers involved in Paez Terán’s killing a murderer.
In May, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Atlanta Police Department arrested three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund on charges of money laundering and charity fraud. The organization provides aid to people arrested for protesting. Those organizers now face RICO charges as well.
Activists and legal experts have routinely criticized these tactics, characterizing them as a repressive attack against the constitutional right to protest. National civil rights groups on Tuesday quickly pushed back against the RICO indictments.
“We are extremely concerned by this breathtakingly broad and unprecedented use of state terrorism, anti-racketeering, and money laundering laws against protesters,” said Aamra Ahmad, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s National Security Project, in a statement. “Georgia law enforcement officials are disproportionately wielding these overbroad laws to stigmatize and target those who disagree with the government.”
RICO charges originated as a mechanism to take down organized crime syndicates like the mafia. But prosecutors, particularly in Georgia, have come to use the law to trump up charges against defendants, often forcing them to take plea deals to avoid decades in prison. RICO charges can result in a fine or a five to 20 year prison sentence in Georgia.
Earlier this summer, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis filed RICO charges against former President Donald Trump and his associates, alleging they participated in a criminal conspiracy to change Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results. Last year, Willis’s office also brought RICO charges against rappers Young Thug and Gunna, built around claims that their record label, Young Stoner Life, or YSL, was a “criminal street gang.” In 2015, Willis, then a prosecutor in the DA’s office, helped convict 11 Black school teachers in Atlanta on RICO charges for allegedly cheating on standardized tests.
Organizers with the Stop Cop City movement have collected tens of thousands of signatures for a ballot referendum that would allow voters to decide whether to approve the costly police training facility. Activists have said they’ll continue collecting signatures until late September, likely meaning the measure could not make it onto the ballot until March. Organizers have accused Atlanta officials of attempting to sabotage the effort with an onerous signature-verification process that amounts to voter suppression.
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