On Nov. 6, I sat in a courtroom in downtown Atlanta as 57 people churned through arraignments on charges tied to a sweeping racketeering case. The case in question is as light on the evidence as it is clear in its aim: to suppress the movement to stop Cop City from being built in an Atlanta-area forest. The arraignment process was the first of what will likely be many surreal days in court as the state attempts a prosecution unprecedented in both size and scope.
Being somewhat confused by the inner workings of our byzantine court system on even the best days, I didn’t know what to expect from a mass arraignment of this many individuals. It turns out that most people in the room—judge and attorneys included—felt the same. By the end of the proceedings, the hearing had laid bare the logistical, logical, and legal nightmare this prosecution represents.
To understand how we got here, we must first look at what’s been happening in Atlanta for the past two years. Since 2021, a large and diverse group of people in the greater Atlanta area and beyond have been resisting the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, better known as Cop City, a proposed police and fire training facility that would further militarize policing while simultaneously destroying critically important forest land, all at an enormous and ever-growing financial cost.
The movement has brought with it many firsts—some good, many horrifying. In January, Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Terán, a 26-year-old forest defender, became the first modern climate activist killed by U.S. police when Georgia State Patrol officers entered the forest and fired into Terán’s tent. The killing was just one of many escalations against Stop Cop City activists, who have been criminalized in increasingly dubious ways over the past year. Such methods include baseless domestic terrorism charges and, more recently, a broad and sweeping RICO prosecution that has raised many eyebrows in the legal community.
Before entering the courtroom that day, defendants gathered in a hallway where bailiffs read off their names one by one. Each person was given a neon green sign with a number on it. They were then split into groups of five. The courtroom wasn’t big enough to fit all of them at once.
A short time earlier, the bailiffs had run the defendants through the rules of Judge Kimberly Adams’s courtroom. Don’t rest your arms on the back of the benches. Never use the word “ma’am” when addressing Adams. Don’t click your pen. Don’t let the gate swing behind you as you approach the bench. (After spending a few hours in her courtroom, I would add: Do not blow your nose; enunciate clearly and loudly when you say “yes” and do not under any circumstances say “yeah”; do not speak, even when people are standing up and milling around the courtroom; and if you are wearing shackles, try to somehow ensure they make no noise when you are led in and out of court.)
On the morning of the arraignments, 57 of the 61 defendants were present. Some still needed a lawyer. As defendants were called to stand before Adams, she intermittently made small talk.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Are you OK?” Adams asked Francis Carroll, who’d spent months in the Fulton County Jail.
I couldn’t make out Carroll’s quiet response, but the reason was obvious. He had just been trapped in one of the nation’s deadliest jails and was now swept up in a mass prosecution that could result in 5 to 35 years in prison. It wasn’t a ghost he saw. It was something far more real—and far more strange.
A single defendant’s trial can entail a dizzying amount of evidence, so the trials of 61 people promise to be a special kind of chaotic. In court, the lead prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General John Fowler, told Adams that the state has five terabytes of evidence. The process of transferring the evidence to the defense lawyers would take 61 days, Fowler said. Assuming all the files make their way to the herd of defense attorneys by December, Adams will allow them an additional four months to sift through it all. Final pleas in the case will be due in June 2024. Asked how long the trials might last, Fowler gave a range: approximately eight weeks for batches of 11 to 12 defendants, six weeks for groups under five, and just under four weeks for one defendant at a time. But he didn’t reveal how he planned to divide the groups.
There are also much bigger questions about what, exactly, the state will be working to prove as it attempts to portray this group of people as part of a broader criminal enterprise. The bizarre, 110-page indictment is rife with examples of prosecutors criminalizing basic concepts of progressive left political organizing, including “social solidarity,” “mutual aid,” and a bumbling attempt at describing anarchism— “viewing their own violent acts as political violence, violent anarchists attempt to frame the government as violent oppressionists, thereby justifying the anarchists’ own violence”—that reads like a mediocre high school essay. Many other claims strain credulity: One defendant is accused of signing his name on an arrest form as “ACAB”—an acronym for the slogan “all cops are bastards.” This, the state alleges, “was an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
Another defendant allegedly refused “police commands to exit a treehouse in the DeKalb Forest.” As officers attempted to remove him from the structure, he allegedly took “photos and video” of police, which he then posted to social media—an act the state claims was also “in furtherance of the conspiracy.” Three organizers of a local bail fund that has provided legal support to criminalized protesters have been accused of engaging in a dizzying array of activities for the benefit of this supposed conspiracy, including the unfathomable act of transferring “$19.42 in reimbursement[…]for harm reduction supplies which provided support for the Forest Defenders.”
These details would be almost laughable if not for the harm they’ve caused. As of the morning of the arraignment, a number of defendants hadn’t yet surrendered to the Fulton County Jail. One defendant was arrested at the Atlanta airport after he landed on Nov. 3 and posted bond after a night in jail. Another person had turned herself into the jail a week earlier, only to be told she would need to surrender again after the hearing concluded. Two defendants were brought to court directly from jail, shackled and still in their jail uniforms. Adams told other defendants the process of surrendering would be quick and painless, allowing them to turn around and immediately post their bond. This turned out not to be remotely true. Many defendants spent days in jail.
The person who has been incarcerated the longest, Victor Puertas, was not in court because he remains in ICE custody in South Georgia. Puertas, an indigenous water-rights activist who had been living in Provo, Utah, says he was attending a music festival in Georgia’s Weelaunee Forest in March when protesters burned Cop City construction equipment in a separate action more than a mile away. Police proceeded to swarm the music festival and indiscriminately arrest attendees over claims that they had been involved in the property destruction. Officers tackled Puertas to the ground, tased him, and placed him in a chokehold—all of which was caught on video. Puertas spent roughly three months in the DeKalb County Jail without being indicted and, upon his release, was immediately detained by ICE. He has now been caged for over eight months in some of the most horrific detention centers in both Georgia and the nation.
The indictment guiding this case begins with a factual error in the first paragraph. The City of Atlanta owns the forest and leases it to the Atlanta Police Foundation, not vice versa, as the document alleges. This carelessness is symbolic of the prosecution as a whole. The state can make sloppy mistakes and throw spaghetti at the wall as it seeks to destroy people whose names it consistently misspells in legal documents. The powerful are never subject to their own rules. It doesn’t matter that the state’s indictment reads like it was written by ChatGPT; dozens of defendants still have to slog through months of court proceedings and jailings before any official determination of guilt. Many have already seen their lives upended by a system that allows the state to detain, torture, and even extrajudicially execute legally innocent people. And amid all of this, the state can claim, without a shred of irony, that writing “ACAB” makes you part of a criminal enterprise.