The state of Georgia has handed down RICO indictments against 61 activists protesting against the development of an Atlanta police training facility, leaving many to raise questions about the criminalization of free speech.
Last week’s controversial indictments primarily target the Defend the Atlanta Forest organization, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Issued on Aug. 29, they accuse protestors of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Others were charged with money laundering, domestic terrorism, and attempted arson in the first degree, according to a press release from Attorney General Chris Carr. Out of those charged, only 13 are from the state.
Defend the Atlanta Forest organization has openly opposed the construction of “Cop City” — a proposed training center for officers and first responders on land owned by the city of Atlanta.
The city has invested $90 million in the project, which was met with a wave of pushback. The group wants to preserve the Weelaunee forest and emphasize that it’s “at risk of destruction as police and Hollywood make plans to pave over” the city’s “largest remaining green space” in the predominantly Black area that is just south of the city limits.
“This anarchist, anti-police, and environment activism organization coordinates, advertises and conducts “direct action” designed to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Police Public Safety Training Center and Shadowbox Studios … and promote anarchist ideas,” the indictment alleges. “This self-proclaimed ‘direct action’ has included vandalizing of private property, arson, destruction of government property, attacks on utility workers, attacks on law enforcement, attacks on private citizens and gun violence.”
The indictment says the foundation of Defend the Forest goes back to May 2020 following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer and whose death sparked a worldwide movement against police brutality. It argues that when the demonstrations started to cease, “an undercurrent of threatening, violent anti-police sentiment persisted” among some people in Atlanta, including members of the organization.
“Chris Carr may try to use his prosecutors and power to build his gubernatorial campaign and silence free speech, but his threats will not silence our commitment to standing up for our future, our community, and our city,” Cop City Vote, a coalition standing against the project, told the AP in a statement.
According to prosecutors, 225 incidents included in the extensive indictment highlight allegations that members threw rocks and a Molotov cocktail through the Department of Public Safety headquarters window, causing a fire and injuring two people in the summer of 2020. That summer predates the movement against Cop City by a full two years, as the Atlanta City Council’s vote to move ahead with the training center came in September 2022.
The indictment also lists an incident from earlier this year in March, where it accuses a member of assaulting a police officer and creating a mob that attacked law enforcement guarding the site while also setting “construction vehicles on fire.” Three activists who officials say handed out flyers that labeled a state trooper who gunned down a demonstrator who was camping on the site a “murderer” were included in the indictment.
“This country has been upended by governments across the nation trying to build cop cities in order to quell protests because the government is simply upset that people seek to oppose and use their First Amendment right to protest when we see injustice coming from those in authority,” Stop Cop City organizer Keyanna Jones said during an interview on Democracy Now.
Jones continued, “I don’t understand how opposing the government using your legal right to protest, your right to freedom of speech, is domestic terrorism.”