Cop City protesters indicted on RICO charges

Cop City protesters have periodically occupied the streets of Atlanta for over a year with many arrests and detainments. The facility is set to open at the end of 2023 in DeKalb County. // Photo by Joey D’Adamio Student Publications

Georgia attorney general Chris Carr announced last Tuesday that 61 protesters opposing the building of “Cop City” have been indicted under Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges by a Georgia grand jury. The indictment comes after a sweeping investigation by the Atlanta Police Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and several other government and
law enforcement agencies.

Originally passed to fight organized crime, RICO laws allow prosecutors to charge large groups of people at once by connecting them to a “criminal enterprise.” The enterprise must carry out its objectives through a pattern of “racketeering activity,” which includes a wide assortment of felonies. 

Last Tuesday’s indictment charged the defendants with attacking numerous police officers and destroying property, including a major incident wherein a mob of protesters “succeeded in overwhelming the police force… in an attempt to occupy the DeKalb forest.” 

Select “Cop City” protesters were indicted for more serious crimes, including domestic terrorism, first-degree arson and money laundering.

“We will not waver when it comes to keeping people safe, enforcing the rule of law and ensuring those who engage in criminal activity are vigorously pursued and aggressively prosecuted,” said Carr in a press
conference last Tuesday.  

Supporters of the protesters, however, assert the attorney general’s approach is needlessly aggressive. Oliver Gray, second-year ECON/BA, is the treasurer of the Organization for Social Activism at Tech and has participated in several “Stop Cop City” protests. 

“The charges Chris Carr brought up are a repression of free speech. You could say it’s an affront to our first amendment rights. It goes against our freedom of expression and our ability to organize under that freedom of expression,” said Gray. 

Protesters believe that the building of an Atlanta police training facility nicknamed “Cop City” represents the militarization of the police force in the state and needless destruction of DeKalb County’s forests. The organization “Defend the Atlanta Forest” is the most prominent group of protesters. The group aims to prevent the construction of the facility, described on the organization’s website as a “dynamic and diverse collection of grassroots groups and individuals dedicated to fighting the creeping dystopia of police militarization and ecological ruin.”

The indictment, however, describes Defend the Atlanta Forest as an “anarchist, anti-police and environmental activism organization designed to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Police Public Safety Training Center. It also alleges that the group is the criminal enterprise through which the 61 defendants violated RICO statutes. 

The “Cop City” protests began shortly after the 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd, with disparate groups of social activists, environmentalists and other interest groups forming a loose coalition with the goal of preventing construction
of the training facility. 

“It’s a cry for a change in policing,” Gray says. 

Since then, the Cop City protesters have had numerous incidents with law enforcement, with many of them devolving into violent altercations, including one resulting in the killing of a protester by state police. 

The death of Manuel Esteban Paez “Tortuguita” Terán propelled the Cop City story to front-page national news, with the Georgia State Patrol stating that troopers fired on Terán in self-defense. Those supporting the “Stop Cop City” movement, however, publicly decry the incident, alleging that Terán did not fire on the troopers at all. None of the state troopers involved in the incident were equipped with body cameras. 

After the killing of Terán, protests became more intense, with a clash between protesters and police officers in March ending in domestic terrorism charges being brought against 23 of the protesters. It also is one of the main examples referenced in both the indictment release and Attorney General Carr’s press conference.

“If you come to our state and shoot a police officer, throw Molotov cocktails at law enforcement, set fire to police vehicles, damage construction equipment, vandalize private homes and businesses and terrorize their occupants, you can and will be held accountable,” Carr said.

Despite the charges, though, the “Stop Cop City” movement remains united, and the protestors remain persistent in their efforts. 

“I think we are all unified in what we want, short term — stop Cop City — but there doesn’t have to be fissures or a splitting of the movement just because 60 of us are handed down RICO charges,” Gray says. “And we don’t have to disown those 60 people, even if some of them did commit violent acts, because they were fighting the machine.”