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How Georgia’s organized crime law swept up dozens of nonviolent ‘Cop City’ activists

Despite the serious charges, most of the allegations in the indictment involve nonviolent activities like distributing flyers.

In Georgia, 61 environmental activists and other opponents of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, known as “Cop City,” are facing felony charges under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, a law originally designed to take down the mafia. Several defendants are also charged with money laundering or domestic terrorism. 

At a press conference on Tuesday, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr emphasized that the sweeping charges were meant to stop violent acts, such as the sabotage of the construction site and the assault of officers attempting to secure the property. However, the text of the indictment indicates that the majority of those charged are not actually accused of committing violence or property damage at all. In fact, more than half are accused of little more than trespassing, camping, and sitting in trees in the forest where the project would be built; distributing flyers; or being part of a loosely-defined “mob” that allegedly existed to cause property damage — an action that, according to the prosecutors, amounted to aiding and abetting acts of terrorism.

The 110-page document devotes several pages to an exposition of anarchist philosophy, and it appears to allege that the “criminal enterprise” in question began the day that George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020. In addition to the dozens of individuals it implicates, it specifically targets an Atlanta-area nonprofit that allegedly  purchased supplies for protesters.

“This is an intimidation lawsuit designed to stop and silence opposition to the project,” said Deepa Padmanabha, deputy general counsel for Greenpeace, in an email. The nonprofit environmental organization has spent years fighting a separate civil RICO case filed by the pipeline company Energy Transfer, claiming that Greenpeace conspired with others to concoct the 2016 Standing Rock movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. “It is clear that the intended message is: watch out, or you could be next.”

Though high-profile attempts to cast environmental protest movements as criminal enterprises have proliferated in recent years, there’s little precedent in the U.S. for a state entity to criminally indict environmental activists on RICO charges.

Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a legal aid organization that has supported Cop City opponents, said she’s aware of only one other criminal racketeering indictment of U.S. activists. The Indiana case targeted two protesters who participated in nonviolent actions opposing the expansion of Interstate 69. The racketeering charges were eventually dropped. 

“If these kinds of charges and this kind of state repression is permitted in a democratic country, that is really telling for other parts of the country and other parts of the world,” Regan said. 

At Tuesday’s press conference, Carr denied that the RICO case was an anti-democratic attempt to intimidate activists. Over the course of three years, he said, members of the movement known as Defend the Atlanta Forest had thrown rocks, Molotov cocktails, glass bottles, and fireworks at police, firefighters, EMTs, and contractors. They damaged safety vehicles, torched excavators and bulldozers, vandalized a church, punched a police officer, and harassed and intimidated law enforcement and contractors. They went on to trespass and destroy property in Florida, New York, Oregon, and Michigan, he claimed. “The individuals who have been charged are charged with violent acts,” Carr said emphatically. 

The indictment itself tells a more complicated story. Sixteen people’s RICO charges are tied to throwing objects, damaging property, or, in two individual cases, punching an officer and approaching police with guns and knives. The indictment also charges five people with domestic terrorism for attempting to commit arson.

However, most of the allegations involve nonviolent activities. Three defendants were swept into the RICO case for distributing flyers in the neighborhood of a state trooper, calling him a “murderer” in reference to the police killing of Manuel Paez Terán, a protester who went by the chosen name Tortuguita. At least seven are accused of little more than “attempting to occupy the forest,” apparently by camping or climbing into a treehouse. The campers separately face domestic terrorism charges in a different county — again, solely for camping.

More than 20 RICO charges stem from the events of March 5, when a crowd of protesters damaged equipment at a construction site before joining a music festival organized by Cop City opponents. At the festival, police conducted a mass arrest that included a staff attorney at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. The racketeering indictment says the activists participated in “an organized mob” designed to overwhelm police and cause property damage. It accuses none of them of actually damaging property, but says that joining the “mob” amounted to “aiding and abetting terrorism.” Most of those defendants were also previously charged with domestic terrorism in another county. 

The indictment’s biggest target is three leaders of the nonprofit Network for Strong Communities, which operates a bail fund that has supported Cop City arrestees. Police arrested the three earlier this summer for money laundering — a charge repeated in the new indictment. Prosecutors allege they misled donors by using contributions meant for other projects to pay for occupation of the forest. Fifteen counts of money laundering amount to less than $1,200 of mostly camping supplies, including $363 in food and “forest kitchen materials.” 

The trio also faces RICO charges for thousands of dollars spent on camping-related purchases, including tarps, tools, tents, and kitchen and bathroom supplies. They allegedly bought “radio communication supplies” as well as a generator, and paid to host climbing training sessions. Carr said in his press conference that the organization also paid for a drone and surveillance equipment. The only alleged transaction apparently associated with violence was one defendant’s purchase of $180 in ammunition — but what kind is not specified. Regan argued that the indictment provides no evidence that the various purchases were used for illegal activity.

Additionally, Georgia prosecutors allege that the trio published dozens of blog posts on the website Scenes from the Atlanta Forest, including comuniques that take responsibility for sabotage or call on people to join events opposing Cop City. The web site is set up to allow activists to submit messages that an administrator publishes. The indictment does not cite evidence tying the board members to the posts.

Though the charges were filed in a Fulton County court — the same court that indicted former president Donald Trump in recent weeks — most of the Cop City activities took place in neighboring Dekalb County. Dekalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston announced in June that her office would withdraw from criminal cases related to Cop City, citing discomfort with the attorney general’s charging decisions. The future is unclear for more than 30 domestic terrorism charges previously filed in Dekalb County.

When asked about the Fulton County case’s timeline, Carr said he couldn’t share details about legal strategy. But he added, “Today was an important day to send a message that we’re not going to allow violence to occur in this state.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How Georgia’s organized crime law swept up dozens of nonviolent ‘Cop City’ activists on Sep 6, 2023.


This content originally appeared on Grist and was authored by Alleen Brown.


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