Since the beginning of 2023, prosecutors in Georgia have threatened to charge activists protesting against a planned police militarization facility known as “Cop City” with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Last week, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr indicted 61 people on RICO charges in Fulton County.
In indiscriminately lumping together scores of arrestees, many of whom have ostensibly never met, into a fabricated conspiracy case, the prosecution is attempting to criminalize protest itself. This case represents politically driven repression aimed at suppressing all forms of activism and dissent, in the style of Vladimir Putin. It should be of interest to anyone who is concerned about civil liberties such as the freedom to protest or the freedom to advocate against police brutality and authoritarianism or in favor of preserving the environment.
The indictment does not seem to indicate that prosecutors have any previously unreleased information at their disposal indicating the existence of a conspiracy, in the sense that the word is ordinarily employed. Rather, they have brought new charges against those whose names they already had as the result of previous arrests, and are now clumsily endeavoring to frame them as participants in a cohesive criminal enterprise.
The defendants include 42 people already charged with “terrorism” for allegedly participating in the movement to #StopCopCity, many of them on the basis of actions as simple as entering a forest or posting to social media; three more people already charged with felonies for allegedly distributing handbills; and another three people charged last May with “money laundering” and other crimes for organizing legal support for activists. None of these previous charges has resulted in a single conviction.
The only thing that connects all of these indictees is that they all appear to have been arrested or detained at some point, however randomly, on suspicion of protesting against the government’s plan to destroy the Weelaunee Forest.
A Tale of Two RICO Cases
Although the indictment took place in Fulton County, it is being prosecuted by the state Attorney General. This seems to indicate divisions within the authorities—but it is worth asking how deep these run.
The Fulton County prosecutor, a Democrat, already withdrew from all the cases related to the police training compound last June, citing irreconcilable differences with the state Attorney General, a Republican. The judge assigned to this new RICO case immediately recused himself from it today. Until now, judges have not recused themselves from cases related to the movement to stop Cop City even when they had clear ties to the campaign to build the police militarization center.
Fulton County now has two competing political RICO cases: one against Donald Trump, prosecuted by the county District Attorney, and one against those accused of protesting the construction of the police training center, prosecuted by the state Attorney General.
It remains to be seen whether there is any substantive conflict between local Democrat prosecutors and state-level Republican prosecutors in Georgia. Republicans would likely have pursued these charges even if Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis had not brought her own RICO case against Donald Trump and his cronies, but now they will cite Trump’s prosecution to rile up their base to support the use of RICO charges against environmental activists. For many Democratic voters, the use of RICO charges against Trump will only serve to legitimize the judicial system as a whole and RICO prosecution in particular, even as both are used chiefly against oppressed communities and protest movements. The fact that Republicans at the state level are pushing this case offers Democratic politicians plausible deniability so they can go on winning elections even if their voters disapprove of the criminalization of dissent. For their part, most Democratic politicians are just as dependent on police as Republicans, just as eager to see Cop City built, and just as eager to see protest movements rendered ineffectual.
Although the two RICO cases represent rival factions of the political class, the same grand jury that indicted Donald Trump is responsible for indicting those accused of “racketeering” for protesting Cop City. The court system is the central infrastructure for directing state violence; though naïve Democrats may portray it as a check on the aspirations of autocrats, it naturally lends itself to all forms of repression targeting the oppressed, and that is the chief role that it will always play.