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Policing

The Stop Cop City Indictment Is An Act Of Desperation

11:31 AM EDT on September 12, 2023

Environmental activists hold a rally and a march through the Atlanta Forest, a preserved forest Atlanta that is scheduled to be developed as a police training center, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. Intent upon stopping the building of what they have called cop city, the environmentalists were evicted from the forest in January, resulting in the killing by police of Manuel Teran, a young activist and medic.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Early on the morning of Sept. 7, a Stop Work Order Notice was posted at the site of Cop City, a proposed police militarization facility that Atlanta residents have been fighting for over two years.

This order wasn’t like most. It was not issued by a governing authority. Instead, it was issued by the People; a group of five faith-based activists broke into the construction site and chained themselves to machinery, successfully shutting down that morning’s work. The reason for the order? “Destruction of a forest, destruction of the public trust, polluting Intrenchment Creek, violating the will of the community, undermining the democratic referendum process.”

This type of direct action is certainly not new to the movement against Cop City. Organizers and community members have been bravely putting their bodies on the line for years, even as the state has responded with extreme aggression. But this action was particularly notable, given that it came just two days after the announcement of a sweeping, 61-person indictment against people allegedly involved in the Stop Cop City movement—a document intended by the state to prevent exactly the type of action that these faith leaders carried out.

The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute was created in 1970, supposedly to enable prosecutors to group low-level mafia members and their alleged bosses under one case. Followed by the passage of similar state level statutes in the following years, RICO requires prosecutors to demonstrate that members of the organization engaged, or conspired to engage, in illegal acts to further the organization’s goals. By allowing the state to cast a wider net of defendants, RICO charges are also a tool used to coerce defendants into turning on each other—perhaps one of their most significant impacts.

Fulton County, where Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr secured the 61-person Cop City indictment, is no stranger to RICO cases. There is, of course, the current RICO case against Donald Trump and others who conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. But while many liberals have praised Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for allowing them to fantasize about Trump ending up behind bars, she has built other RICO cases in the same vein as the Cop City indictment. Willis previously brought RICO charges against a group of mostly Black women educators, and she is also currently using RICO laws to prosecute Young Thug and his alleged gang, Young Slime Life. 

Though Trump may be the current face of RICO charges, as Zak Cheney-Rice has written, RICO charges are “overwhelmingly used to punish poor Black and brown people for their associations, not would-be despots like the former president.” And as the Cop City indictment shows, if you’re someone who fights alongside others for justice, you could be next.

The sprawling Cop City indictment lays out an absurd theory that an “organization” known as Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF) formed in March 2020 with the purported goal of conducting a pattern of illegal acts to prevent the construction of Cop City. According to the state, DTAF is an anarchist organization “grounded in an anti-authority mindset” that promotes ideas including “collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity.” (These are, we’re meant to gather, bad ideas that should send people to prison). DTAF allegedly recruits members and spreads its ideas through word of mouth, the internet, writing, and—perhaps the pinnacle of evil leftist conspiracy—zines. These zines, the indictment says, “have been located throughout the forested areas occupied by the so-called ‘Forest Defenders.’”

How does the state claim to know that the supposed DTAF enterprise exists? Examples include people writing the phone number of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (a local bail fund) on their arm before protests, posting on social media about police repression, writing letters to criminalized protesters, and disguising their identity during protests (all of these are common activities at protests). In the state’s view, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund organizers, who have already been charged with money laundering and charity fraud, are at the center of the enterprise. Prosecutors would have you believe that acts such as bailing people out of jail and supporting protesters are not constitutionally protected behavior, but rather conduct that marks you as the capo of an organized crime syndicate.

The ridiculousness of these charges is evident from a cursory review of the indictment. In fact, the vast majority of acts alleged by the state—reimbursing protestors for food and supplies, signing one’s name on a form as “ACAB” ("all cops are bastards," a common chant at protests)—would not constitute crimes on their own. This is why the prosecutors are utilizing RICO: The state is attempting to criminalize constitutionally protected activities by putting them under the same umbrella as alleged criminal acts. And yet even the alleged criminal acts are unlikely to be proven in court, as every warrant to date has contained a stunning lack of any evidence against individuals charged. 

The indictment itself is not a surprise. In fact, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and other organizations had warned it was coming as early as February of this year. And in June 2023, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston made the high-profile decision to remove her office from the Cop City prosecutions, indicating her doubt in the evidence behind the charges. But the content of the indictment is nonetheless jarring in its clear purpose: to intimidate, silence, and disappear activists.

The indictment is first and foremost an attack on the 61 people currently charged. Prosecutors know that even if they cannot secure convictions, they can attempt to ruin people’s lives in the process. Charges do not have to stick in order for the state to inflict damage on someone’s life, whether through traumatic and potentially deadly time spent in pretrial detention, or the many collateral consequences of the prosecutions. Already, various #StopCopCity defendants have lost jobs, been banned from their campuses, had their bank accounts closed, faced discrimination at airports, and more. The mark of domestic terrorism is intended to hang over defendants’ heads for as long as possible.

Beyond an attack on those named in the indictment, the state is also sending a message to anyone else who opposes Cop City: You could be next. Continue to fight against Cop City at your own peril, because we’ll happily add your name to the indictment. You want to bail political prisoners out of jail? Write to incarcerated comrades? Attend a protest? Organize your neighbors? Tweet about police repression? Perhaps even just sign a petition to put Cop City to a direct vote by Atlanta residents? These might all be evidence of participation in the made-up organization the state is calling “Defend the Atlanta Forest.”

The state’s allegation that the so-called Defend the Atlanta Forest “organization” began in March 2020 is puzzling if you think that this indictment is only about the Stop Cop City movement. Indeed, the Cop City plans were not even publicly announced until nearly a year after that. By what magic can an “organization” form to fight something that no one would hear about for another year?

But in fact, this indictment is not just about the Stop Cop City movement. Instead, it is a way for the state to set its sights on the broader national and international movement to abolish policing, to abolish capitalism, and to transform the status quo of mass racialized oppression. According to the indictment, the date of the supposed organization’s formation is the day that George Floyd was murdered in cold blood by Minneapolis police officers—the moment that sparked the mainstreaming of abolitionist demands.

The indictment tells us in no uncertain terms that people who believe in caring for each other outside of what capitalism has to offer are a threat. It aims to teach us that those who believe in solidarity and collectivity are a danger; that those who believe a different future is possible and worth fighting for are to be eliminated through the violence of cops and cages; that those who refuse to accept the status quo will bear the full brunt of coercive state power.

It is a threat to not just those working to Stop Cop City, but those organizing against the violence of policing and environmental destruction everywhere. Climate disaster is already here, and cop cities are part of the capitalist contingency plan being enacted across the country. In addition to Cop Academy in Chicago and Cop City in Atlanta, cop cities have been proposed in cities and counties in Hawaii, Texas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, multiple municipalities in Georgia (Sandy Springs, Gwinnett County, Henry County, and Fulton County), New Jersey, Ohio, and elsewhere. The state wants organizers in Atlanta and elsewhere to believe that resistance is futile, and that it will land you in prison.

It’s worth stating directly that there is no such thing as the Defend the Atlanta Forest “organization.” There is a DTAF Twitter account and website, which are simply two of many platforms that share information about the struggle. But “Defend the Atlanta Forest,” like “Stop Cop City,” is simply a slogan used by many who oppose Cop City. In lieu of an actual enterprise to prosecute, the state has decided to fabricate one.

Meanwhile, as demonstrated by “The People’s RICO”—a satirical project doubling as political education tool—the real conspiracy has not been carried out by a decentralized movement of people fighting for a livable future free from police violence, but rather by a combination of powerful state and corporate actors: “After an extensive investigation, we’ve determined that there is an active criminal enterprise with clear intentions to extort and conspire to destroy our treasured south river forest.” 

It is the deep-pocketed Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), flush with cash from its corporate donors, that has colluded to destroy the forest and create Cop City alongside the Atlanta City Council and Mayor’s Office, an array of local, state, and federal police departments, other corporate formations such as the Atlanta Committee for Progress, and corporate-owned media outlets like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

There’s even smoking gun evidence. Consider, for example, the email sent by APF CEO Dave Wilkinson in June 2021 to the Mayor’s Chief Operating Officer at the time, Jon Keen, in effect threatening that if the Mayor didn’t ensure the construction of Cop City, the corporate leaders that reside in Buckhead would throw their weight behind the white supremacist Buckhead secession movement. Take another example: As the Saporta Report uncovered, the Georgia Governor’s office actively colluded with police forces to shape the public narrative around forthcoming arrests and then resist journalists’ efforts to obtain the pre-written documents.

Most fundamentally, the state’s conspiracy is really just the daily functioning of capitalism. It is the “public private partnerships” that dominate Atlanta governance. It is the APF’s ever-increasing influence over city affairs while it operates the city’s network of surveillance cameras. It’s Mayor Andre Dickens withholding for two years the knowledge that Cop City would cost $67 million in public funds, rather than the $30 million he had long promised. It’s the Georgia State Police killing Tortuguita in cold blood, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations—which is “investigating” the killing despite having taken part in the raid itself—trying to suppress damning footage in which an APD officer directly contradicted the police narrative. The real conspiracy is to build Cop City, not to stop it.

As Dan Berger has noted, this is far from the first time that social movements have been framed as a conspiracy. RICO and other charges have long been deployed to turn political dissidents into political prisoners. As political prisoner Ray Luc levasseur warned in 1994 following the National Organization of Women’s (NOW) successful effort before the Supreme Court to expand the scope of RICO charges, “Virtually every progressive and radical group in the country—if its activity merits more than a few parking tickets—is now a standing target.”

But despite the horrifying nature of the indictment, recent history shows how the state’s fabrications not only can be defeated in court, but can lead to severe ramifications for those behind the charges. 

In the wake of the 2020 uprisings, Phoenix police and prosecutors assembled a false theory that a group of protesters who chanted “ACAB” were in fact part of an imagined “ACAB street gang.” This so-called gang, according to the state, was an extremist group with violent tendencies. Seventeen arrestees were rounded up and hit with charges for gang activity and a host of other felonies, potentially facing decades in prison. Prosecutors similarly sought gang enhancements for dozens of other protesters arrested during the 2020 uprisings—circumstances all too similar to those arrested while attending a music festival in the Weelaunee Forest and charged with domestic terrorism.

A subsequent investigation found “no credible evidence to support the assertion that ACAB is a criminal street gang, that it organized the protest … or was prone to violence.” Much like DTAF is a slogan, so is ACAB. Not only were these charges ultimately dismissed, but five police officers now face criminal investigations. The lead prosecutor on the case was also fired and is under State Bar investigation. Others in the police department were demoted, and the Department of Justice announced a probe into the Phoenix Police Department.

Perhaps the way things ended up in Phoenix should be a warning to the Georgia Attorney General’s office, Mayor Dickens, the Atlanta City Council, and the many police departments behind the prosecutions. They might not have the final word. Their choice to pursue blatantly political prosecutions might not end with defendants behind bars, but rather with politicians, police, and prosecutors out of a job.

The RICO indictment is an act of desperation by a set of powerful actors who know they have lost the battle of public opinion, decisively. More people signed a petition to put Cop City on the ballot than voted for all the candidates put together in the 2021 Mayoral general or runoff election. The forces behind Cop City know they cannot win popular approval, so they are trying to win a game of intimidation in criminal courts. But it’s not working.

It was under these conditions, just two days after the indictment was announced, that the activists chained themselves to construction machinery. “Despite the repressive tactics of authorities who wish to disenfranchise the community and charge protestors with domestic terrorism and RICO, people of faith will continue to act to resist the militarization of our society,” the protesters declared.

Importantly, they weren’t alone. While the protest went on, others gathered in solidarity (remember, this is a bad word according to the indictment) on the road outside the site. That evening, after the activists had been taken to the notorious DeKalb County Jail, another group hosted a rally outside the jail to support the arrestees. The following day, while some dropped a banner declaring “Resistance ≠ Terrorism,” others defiantly sang, chanted, and protested outside the state capitol.

The state can try to criminalize collective care and solidarity. But it cannot stop people from caring for each other. It cannot stop people from moving in solidarity with one another. If the history of this movement tells us anything, it is that in response to escalated police repression, the people of Atlanta will only fight harder to stop Cop City.

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