Civil Rights Groups Criticize Overuse of RICO to ‘Stigmatize’ Dissent – Atlanta ‘Cop City’ Indictments Challenge Environmental, Justice Reform Movement

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By Crescenzo Vellucci and Cheyenne Galloway

ATLANTA, GA – The ACLU and other civil rights groups are strongly criticizing the Georgia attorney general’s indictments under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law of more than 60 nonviolent environmental and justice reform demonstrators who have spent months protesting the construction of “Cop City.”

In addition to the indictments, some protesters even face additional charges related to money laundering and domestic terrorism.

The RICO legislation was created to combat organized crime in the state, but the ‘organized crime’ in this instance regards the protests against “Cop City,” a proposed $90 million police training facility in Atlanta, noted the ACLU.

Aamra Ahmad, a senior staff attorney with ACLU’s National Security Project, said, “We are extremely concerned by this breathtakingly broad and unprecedented use of state terrorism, anti-racketeering, and money laundering laws against protesters.”

“Georgia law enforcement officials are disproportionately wielding these overbroad laws to stigmatize and target those who disagree with the government,” Ahmad continued.

As far back as late 2021, protesters have raised concerns surrounding “Cop City” and its prospects to worsen climate change, increase militarized police forces, and displace Black communities, argued the ACLU.

Under the protest banners “Stop Cop City” and “Protect the Weelaunee Forest,” protesters continue to fight against the development of “Cop City” by camping out in the forest, organizing community events, and staging marches.

“Democracy requires dissent, and our state’s officials should not be exposing individuals to potentially decades in prison for engaging in protest,” said ACLU of Georgia Policy and Advocacy Director Christopher Bruce.

“This prosecution is clearly politically motivated by the ridiculous imagination of the far-right, police unions, and their backers,” charged the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center.

“We…remain dedicated to our mission to support movements that seek to dismantle the political and economic structures at the root of social inequality and environmental destruction,” the legal defense group maintained.

“Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr is placing ideas and political ideologies on trial by spending millions of dollars and dozens of pages of the indictment describing First Amendment protected speech and associations like mutual aid, zines, ‘solidarity,’ and what he believes defines anarchism. The obvious intention of this indictment is to scare people into submission and to chill political organizing, activism, and financial support,” added CLDC.

The civil rights group explained, “This is a large and diverse political movement that opposes this land use in order to build the largest police training facility in the country. Atlanta residents and movement participants oppose destroying vital environmental habitat while forcing Atlanta taxpayers to foot the bill.”

“Political beliefs and espousing ideas are protected activities under the 1st Amendment and are essential to any democracy. Political prosecutions like this are unconstitutional, expensive, and frankly unpopular. We are confident that this movement has the global support to withstand this baseless attack…the State of Georgia’s intended chilling effect will not be tolerated,” critics said.

The ACLU notes that since late 2021, protesters under the banners of “Stop Cop City” and “Protect the Weelaunee Forest” have raised concerns over climate justice, displacement of Black communities, and increasing militarization of police forces.

In Georgia, according to the New York Times, arrested activists are part of a movement seeking to stop the construction of a $90 million police training facility located in a forest in Southeast Atlanta. Protesters have camped out in the forest, staged marches, and hosted community events.

Georgia police have responded with overwhelming and disproportionate force. Police killed one protester in January, said NPR.

They have arrested dozens more, including a legal observer associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Lawyers Guild. And prosecutors have levied severe charges under Georgia’s rarely-used domestic terrorism statute.

Until 2017, Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute criminalized acts intended to, or are reasonably likely to, kill or injure at least 10 people. In the wake of the massacre of nine Black parishioners by a white supremacist gunman in Charleston, South Carolina, the Georgia legislature amended the statute to vastly expand its reach, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes.

The new law broadened the state’s definition of “domestic terrorism” to include certain property crimes committed with the intent to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government” by “intimidation or coercion.”

The amendment added a stigmatizing label and a harsher punishment — up to 35 years in prison — to property crimes that were already illegal, simply because of accompanying political expression critical of government policy, said the Atlanta newspaper, adding at the time of the amendment’s passing, the ACLU of Georgia and other civil rights groups objected that the statute could be weaponized to suppress protected First Amendment activity.

The ACLU said recent arrests demonstrate how overbroad laws like Georgia’s can be wielded to disproportionately punish people who express political beliefs.

Civil rights groups note the “Stop Cop City” accused are not charged with “injuring, or even attempting to injure, anyone at all. At most, they are accused of damaging property, and some defendants appear to be accused of no more than misdemeanor trespass.”

The ACLU said “the state has chosen to press extreme charges of ‘domestic terrorism’ because the defendants were also engaged in a political protest that challenges the increasing militarization of the police.”

“Prosecutors’ rush to slap ‘domestic terrorism’ charges on protesters also threatens to chill the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights by the protestors’ allies and others. The danger of facing such severe charges can force protesters to make a difficult choice: surrender their cause or risk being labeled and locked up as a terrorist,” said the ACLU

“The events in Atlanta reflect a disturbing nationwide trend to respond to the very real problem of rising white nationalist violence with broad ‘counter-terrorism’ measures that can stifle dissent. On the heels of the January 6 riots at the Capitol, President Biden announced an unprecedented nationwide strategy to combat domestic terrorism,” explained the ACLU.

The civil rights groups added that strategy has “left open the possibility of a new federal domestic terrorism statute, despite the dozens of existing laws that already criminalize hate-motivated and other violent acts. It did nothing to rein in national security policies that target Black and Brown communities and people engaged in dissent for unjustified surveillance, investigation, and prosecution.”

The ACLU and other civil rights groups argue “domestic terrorism” laws can penalize “wholly innocent or constitutionally protected activity” and be “stigmatized with a politically-charged label.”

They add, “Domestic terrorism laws — whether at the state or federal level — are not only unnecessary but dangerous. Prosecutors in Georgia should drop the domestic terrorism charges against the ‘Cop City’ activists and stop using the statute to punish and chill legitimate political protest.”


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