61 People Allegedly Associated with the Stop Cop City Movement Indicted on RICO Charges

Feature Image of Stop Copy City sign by CHENEY ORR/AFP via Getty Images. Yesterday, 61 Stop Cop City protesters were indicted on RICO charges via grand jury. 

The charges started coming through officially yesterday morning — Tuesday, September 5 —  with 61 Stop Cop City protesters indicted via grand jury on Georgia State RICO charges. After dozens of protesters were arrested on alleged domestic terrorism charges, and three bail fund workers — who are also now indicted with alleged RICO charges — were arrested on alleged money laundering charges in a home raid, it was clear that the state was just ramping up.

As the Stop Cop City movement continues to gain ground and, especially, collect signatures for a referendum that could invalidate the city’s lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation, it’s horrifying but not surprising that state repression also continues to escalate. The fight to Stop Cop City is in many ways a test case for whether domestic terrorism — and now RICO charges — can be used to stop activists and protesters from engaging in any kind of resistance, especially when it comes to resistance against the police state and encroaching fascism.

The Fulton County Indictment Document

One of the first things I saw on X (formerly Twitter) as I began to follow the announcement was that the RICO charges were all dated to the date of George Floyd’s murder, May 25th, 2020.

Cop City itself was arguably a reaction to the George Floyd Uprisings of 2020, an attempt to ensure that popular uprisings are no longer a possibility. What this document does, however, is attempt to trace the people indicted in the document on RICO charges related to the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement to the 2020 uprisings and the autonomous zones that proliferated during said uprisings, including the autonomous zone in Atlanta located at the site of a Wendy’s. Despite the date on the charges, plans for Cop City were not known to anyone until months after Goerge Floyd’s murder.

The indictment document is written as though we all assume that government should be involved in every aspect of our lives, that the existance of police is inevitable, and that their actions are wholly just. It takes aim at “anarchists” and Anarchist concepts such as mutual aid and solidarity.

While it’s certainly laughable that mutual aid would be outlined as a threat to the state, 1) it is a threat because effective mutual aid networks mean that people living in a fascist state under capitalism have a means of providing for their basic needs, thus building individual and community power outside of the state and 2) this document becomes less and less laughable the more it becomes clear that it is setting up anyone that is (or can be labeled as) an Anarchist as someone who can be thrown under the bus as a “violent” actor separate from “nonviolent” protesters.

It’s a continuation of the “outside agitator” narrative that we saw when arrests were made during the March 2023 Week of Action in the Weelaunee Forest, where there were reports of cops intentionally releasing people with in-state licenses and arresting people with out-of-state licenses in order to prop up the idea that any real resistance to Cop City is coming from people who don’t live in Atlanta, when that is clearly not the case as canvassers continue gaining signature after signature from Atlanta residents. The coalition Vote to Stop Cop City also condemned the state’s use of RICO charges on Tuesday.

So many, too many, of these charges are for blogging. For posting posts on the internet, for exercising First Amendment rights. We aren’t even talking charges directly related to being on the ground. We’re looking at charge after charge after charge that starts with “did publish a post on scenes.noblogs.org…” and go on to describe what the post was about. While some of the posts in question are, according to the document, “claiming responsibility” for actions, other counts are just for writing posts that link to other media, where the linking is the crime, where the linking is viewed as “an overt act in furtherance of conspiracy.”

Very, very few to none of these charges are for any actions that anyone could reasonable categorize as “conspiratorial” in the same way that we might think of RICO charges when it comes to the prosecution of mob bosses, for example. Instead, we are seeing that the indictment is full of statements like:

“On or about January 18, 2023, [REDACTED] did attempt occupy the DeKalb forest with camouflage, camping gear, and living supplies. This was done to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. This was an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

and

“On or about January 18, 2023, [REDACTED] did sign his name as ‘ACAB.’ This was an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

and

“On or about October 12, 2022, [REDACTED BY ME], and [REDACTED BY YOURS TRULY] transferred $19.42 in reimbursement from the Network for Strong Communities to an unindicted co-conspirator, whose identity is known to the Grand Jury, for harm reduction supplies which provided support for the Forest Defenders. This was an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

We see here that the act of buying less than $20 worth of harm reduction supplies (typically items like fentanyl test strips and Narcan, as well as clean needles. are kept on hand to help prevent overdose deaths and to reduce harm for people using substances) held up alongside supposed “aggravated assault” charges as part of the conspiracy. The conspiracy, according to the prosecution here, appears to be rooted in Anarchism and any Anarchist principles and practices found among the individuals participating in the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement. The “damning” evidence against these Anarchist practices:

“Anarchy is a philosophy that is opposed to forms of authority or hierarchy. Beginnings of anarchist ideals date back centuries, though usage of the term ‘anarchy’ did not exist until the 1800s. Over time, various philosophical forms of anarchy have emerged. Numerous anarchist philosophies exist, though anarchists are not required to subscribe to one particular belief of anarchy. Rather, the notion of anarchy, being grounded in an anti-authority mindset, primarily targets government because it views government as unnecessarily oppressive. Instead of relying on a modicum of government structure, anarchy relies on human association instead of government to fulfill all human needs. Some of the major ideas that anarchists promote include collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity, and these same ideas are frequently seen in the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. What I came away with, when I did, was that the real danger, according to the state and to police, is that this movement and the people involved have support.

From the document:

“In addition to handing out documents, individuals who join Defend the Atlanta Forest are offered financial, personal, and emotional support to remain loyal to the movement. Indeed, the “Forest Defenders,” are provided with monetary, emotional, and personal support during their occupation of the forest, during their incarceration, and after their incarceration. The discussions of support often refer to providing “mutual aid” and “solidarity.” In addition to providing monetary and emotional support, there is preparation for arrest. Most “Forest Defenders” are aware that they are preparing to break the law, and this is demonstrated by premeditation of attacks. Preparation efforts including efforts to avoid detection, plans to disguise their identity, and preparation in case of arrest despite efforts to avoid capture. Preparation includes, but is not limited to, disguising their face, bringing changes of clothing to blend in after the crime is committed, hiding in crowds, and using technology avoidance devices such as Faraday bags and burner phones, and memorizing or writing the Atlanta Solidarity Fund’s phone number on their body in case of arrest. Shortly afterward, in an effort to de-legitimize the facts as relayed by law enforcement and to keep the loyalty of the Forest Defendants, members of Defend the Atlanta Forest often contact news media and flood social media with claims that their unlawful actions are protected by the First Amendment.

After arrest, emotional and personal support is offered through letter writing campaigns and encouragements of “solidarity.” In doing so, this offers emotional support and maintains the loyalty of the accused with the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement. On the other hand, an accused that demonstrates potential disloyalty to Defend the Atlanta Forest risk losing all financial, personal, and emotional support that is offered.”

To break this down a bit, what we’re seeing here is that apparently it is wrong to:

  • Write and create your own zines and distribute them, to share information or your political opinions and beliefs.
  • Provide mutual aid to protesters.
  • Provide emotional support to activists.
  • Provide jail support (bail, commissary, legal assistance, other material support) to activists who are arrested.
  • Plan ahead for police repression at protests, including by wearing nondescript clothing and securing electronic devices so that it’s more difficult to track you. It appears to be wrong to in any way resist or attempt to avoid surveillance.
  • Claim First Amendment rights.
  • Write or receive letters while in jail or prison.
  • Not provide movement support to snitches (apologies, but that’s likely what’s being referred to by “an accused that demonstrates potential disloyalty to Defend the Atlanta Forest risk losing all financial, personal, and emotional support that is offered.”)

This is a laundry list of practices, identified by the state and by police, that make a movement stronger. This indictment is a transparent attempt to gut the infrastructure of support available to people exercising their First Amendment rights — and hell, to people just exercising their human rights. A reminder. What activists are fighting for in Atlanta are their human rights: their right to be free of surveillance, racism, and police violence; their right to clean water, to safety, to have government officials and politicians actually operate on behalf of the people who they serve, instead of for corporate and police foundation interests.

The charges contained in this indictment represent a terrifying attempt by the state to effectively criminalize protest, free speech and activism. Georgia is already a test case for repressing a popular movement via domestic terrorism charges. Now, it’s a test case for repression via RICO.

What Are RICO Charges?

RICO stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act which was enacted in 1970, ostensibly, to go after organized “white collar” crime. According to Revolt, “To convict a defendant under RICO, the government must prove that the defendant engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity and that the defendant directly invested in, maintained an interest in, or participated in a criminal enterprise affecting interstate or foreign commerce.” Conviction requires proof of a “pattern” of legal offenses, thus making the case for calling something a conspiracy.

In “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” published in The Drift, we learn:

“Normally, ‘you can’t penalize someone just for being a gang member, or being a member of an organization, or being a drug addict,’ said Fareed Nassor Hayat, a professor at CUNY School of Law and a writer on racism and constitutional violations in gang prosecutions. RICO was crafted to avoid outlawing mere membership in the Mafia, which would likely have been found unconstitutional. But in practice, ‘what the gang statutes do, what RICO does, is say: we’re going to take that status, and then we’re going to add a criminal act to it,’ Hayat went on. ‘And now we can penalize you for being a gang member who sells drugs, and if you sell drugs while a gang member, we’ll penalize you for that as well. So then we get two bites at the apple of punishment.'”

The article goes on to talk about people being indicted on RICO for knowing other people brought up on charges, even for living in the same housing complex. The possibilities for injustice with RICO charges are vast. With the indictment of multiple people allegedly involved with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, as well as multiple people who blogged at the same website, we see, once again, that association with an organization, a website, or even just a person is enough to potentially merit criminal charges.

What Is a Grand Jury?

So, a “petit” jury is the kind of jury most of us would be familiar with where you get called for jury duty and it is for a public trial. In the case of a grand jury:

“In the federal legal system, the grand jury is used to decide whether someone should be charged (‘indicted’) for a serious crime. The grand jury hears evidence presented by the prosecutor: the U.S. Attorney. The grand jury uses subpoenas to gather this evidence. It can subpoena documents, physical evidence, and witnesses to testify. The ‘special’ federal grand jury, created in 1970, can be used to investigate ‘possible’ organized criminal activity rather than a specific crime. The California legal system also has grand juries, but it is optional whether criminal prosecutions are initiated by grand jury indictment, or by a complaint by the District Attorney and preliminary hearing before a judge.”

The State of Georgia’s grand jury system functions similarly to the federal one described above. Many might be familiar with hearing about grand juries when it came to Trump’s indictment. And indeed, it was the same exact grand jury that indicted Trump that indicted the 61 people named in the Defend the Atlanta Forest related RICO charges. This isn’t surprising, as grand juries indict in 99% of cases — unless, of course, those being charged are cops.

The indictment against the 61 individuals was achieved via Attorney General Chris Carr’s office making use of a grand jury. Notably, when I looked at the charges, there appeared to be a lot of evidence that was somehow obtained via the internet, but very little obtained from witnesses.

Unlike in a trial, one does not have the right to plead the 5th if subpoenaed by a grand jury. Recently, because of the use of grand juries to obtain indictments, there has been more and more literature and media dedicated to the practice of grand jury resistance.

And Now…

As we discussed last week, there are ways to help.

This is also a reminder, for all of us, that the state has not forgotten the uprisings of 2020. As we see rising fascism and right-wing extremism across the country, it’s important to keep our eyes on activists who are facing trumped up charges, to provide the support the state so deeply wants to undercut.

Charges like this aren’t just intended to punish the individuals involved, they’re intended to sow fear and deflate movements, to create a chilling effect and scare activists into taking a step back. These charges are designed to paint a picture, so that the general population can distance themselves from the fact that these people are neighbors, loved ones, family, friends — that the reason activists are fighting to Stop Cop City is because of unchecked and unmitigated police and carceral violence. And that this use of RICO ties right into that entire system.

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.

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