Stop Cop City Activists Just Got Slapped With RICO Charges. That’s Heinous.

Scores of Stop Cop City activists were hit this week with RICO charges and are now facing serious prison time. Prosecutors allege a sprawling, violent conspiracy — but what they’re really doing is trampling on democratic rights as basic as handing out flyers.

A police officer and a protester with the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 14, 2023. (Christian Monterrosa / AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Georgia attorney general’s office made public a sprawling indictment of sixty-one protesters and organizers, most connected to the Stop Cop City movement, under the state-level Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. Prosecutors allege a grand anarchist conspiracy to exact threats and violence upon society writ large.

Legislators passed RICO statutes in the 1970s and 1980s to ensnare slippery mafiosos, but in the decades since, the breadth of the crimes admissible under versions of the law have made it an attractive tool for enterprising prosecutors. Prior to Donald Trump’s recent indictment under the statute, RICO’s status as a catchall law that nonetheless levies hefty penalties made it a weapon of choice against groups as diverse as cheating schoolteachers, gang truce negotiators, unions, Major League Baseball, and tobacco companies. On the civil side, corporations have leveraged RICO statutes to undercut environmental and animal rights groups, including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the Humane Society of the United States, and Greenpeace.

In the indictment, Georgia concocts a red-string conspiracy theory linking crimes committed during the George Floyd uprising to the Stop Cop City movement (also known as Defend the Atlanta Forest). Since 2021, the Atlanta-based movement has organized against razing part of the city’s urban forest to build a $90 million police training center. According to Georgia prosecutors, the common thread uniting Stop Cop City and the 2020 protests is an alleged anarchist conspiracy, characterized by, among other things, talking about solidarity and sharing zines, that incites people to violence against police buildings, Cop City contractors, and random bystanders.

Even though the first alleged crime named in the indictment occurred on July 5, 2020, prosecutors made the symbolic decision to date the start of the conspiracy to May 25, 2020 — the day of George Floyd’s murder. The indictment flimsily construes a Bloods gang murder of an Atlanta child in 2020 as related to activism as far flung as handing out Defend the Atlanta Forest flyers, signing a name ACAB, and reimbursing the cost of restrooms at a protest week of action. Strikingly, the first crime listed in the indictment occurred months before the police training center in question was even proposed.

However cartoonish the claims in the indictment, the stakes of RICO prosecutions are high: organizers and activists are facing up to twenty years in prison. And by casting Stop Cop City activists as nefarious conspirators, officials aren’t just firing the latest salvo in a public relations war against Stop Cop City or plunging protesters into a nightmare of legal woes — they’re setting a repressive precedent that labels something as basic as putting up flyers as part of a violent conspiracy.

The Indictment

The indictment begins with a middle school book report–level summation of anarchist philosophy, with detours into the origins of protest against the June 2020 police murder of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta (taking pains to specify that the murder was justified, despite a $1 million dollar settlement to the Brooks family). The indictment stops just short of writing out the Webster’s dictionary definition of anarchism, but does trace the etymology of the word to the 1800s and provides a synopsis of “collectivism,” “mutual aid,” and “solidarity,” terms that the anarchists “weave . . . into their jargon.” Prosecutors write:

Violent anarchists attempt to frame the government as violent oppressionists [sic]. Indeed the belief is that the government is engaging in a form of violence by denying individuals basic needs through capitalism, government action, and law enforcement by police.

Not until the forty-ninth page do we reach the actual allegations, which center on the actions of the Network for Strong Communities, the parent organization of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. Because RICO is a racketeering law, many of the purported crimes focus on the Network for Strong Communities’ reimbursement of forest occupation expenses, ranging from camping equipment to a drone.

Georgia alleges that this fund allowed activists to sustain protest camps, resist surveillance, and purchase ammo without disclosing to donors what their money would be used for. The indictment casts the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and its parent organization as an extortion racket, in part because, instead of posting bail for the most indigent defendants in pretrial detention, they prioritized ideologically aligned protesters.

The indictment further alleges that three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund ran the anonymous submission-based website Scenes from the Atlanta Forest, which prosecutors say published a mix of calls to action, threats, and anarchist screeds. Some of the allegations stress test the use of RICO; one count suggests that a post calling for a Week of Action “thereby knowingly [used] threats against construction officials with the intent to cause and induce the construction officials to withhold records, documents, and testimony in official proceedings,” as if demonstrations that included some purely First Amendment–protected activity, some vandalism, and some trespassing were intended from the outset to intimidate trial witnesses.

Other parts of the indictment reflect previous allegations with a few additions. The alleged conspiracy encompasses people previously arrested on domestic terrorism charges, including people who appear to have done nothing more serious than trespassing, and some of whom were arrested for wearing black and having muddy shoes at an outdoor music festival. The arrest of a clearly marked National Lawyers Guild legal observer drew widespread consternation in March; that person remains named as part of the conspiracy in the indictment. Three people arrested for handing out flyers about the police killing of a Cop City activist were also indicted.

“Radicalize the Civilian”

Georgia’s conspiratorial sleight of hand not only intimidates and overcharges the people named, but takes aim at the movement as a whole. Prosecutors tie the uprisings of 2020 to the Stop Cop City movement not through common objectives of racial justice and social change, but primarily through shared tactics and civil disorder. The content of what activists are fighting for fades away, while the cent-by-cent details of financial reimbursements and the most damning stray words highlighted.

As in the Red Scare eras of yore, the indictment portrays activist counternarratives as malicious propaganda designed to ensnare dupes. Georgia prosecutors write:

Defend the Atlanta Forest uses websites, social media, and statements to traditional media to sow disinformation and propaganda to promote its extremist political agenda, legitimize its behavior, and recruit new members. This is traditional activity of anarchist organizations. To assist its members in promoting disinformation, Defend the Atlanta Forest uses written anarchist pamphlets, booklets, and writings.

Aside from demonstrating the need for a stronger hand in editing, the indictment depicts the communications and messaging tactics of any movement organizing — pushing back against police and media mischaracterizations, engaging in First Amendment–protected political speech — as sowing discord through disinformation. This message is clearest where the indictment appears to treat activists as an insurgency:

Once a civilian joins Defend the Atlanta Forest in person, Defend the Atlanta Forest members use disinformation, incomplete information, and propaganda to try to successfully radicalize the civilian.

In other words, politically persuasive speech is portrayed as intrinsically dangerous and political radicalization as inherently leading to violence, regardless of whether the “civilian” in question showed up to throw Molotov cocktails or to simply stand with a sign on the sidewalk.

An Attack on Political Organizing

Tuesday’s RICO charges should be seen as an assault on dissent and democratic rights.

The threat alone of five to twenty years in prison can intimidate protesters and those in the broader movement into taking plea deals or otherwise standing down. RICO charges can haunt activists as they go about their lives, with state-imposed gag orders, travel restrictions, and heightened risk for continued political organizing. Even if the charges against some activists are eventually dropped, tying up protest movements in protracted legal proceedings can derail organizing (including First Amendment–protected protest), to say nothing of the fear such prosecutions instill in other activists.

It doesn’t seem a coincidence that this sprawling indictment is appearing when the Stop Cop City movement has reached its zenith of public support. Activists campaigning to put Cop City on the ballot have gathered over 100,000 signatures, well north of the number of votes Andre Dickens secured in his race for the Atlanta mayorship. Mainstream civil and human rights organizations, including the King Center, have come out in favor of the ballot initiative. Stop Cop City solidarity groups have popped up in at least twenty-one states, and progressive groups nationwide have leaned into support. The Stop Cop City movement stands a fighting chance, and so the state has exacted retribution.