The Flimsy RICO Case Against Atlanta's Cop City Protestors

Protesters in silhouette against the backdrop of the RICO indictment of Stop Cop City protesters.
Illustration: Lex Villena

On January 18, 2023, just before 9 a.m., cops entered a patch of forest southwest of Atlanta. The multiagency task force included officers from the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and a SWAT team from the Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS), headed up by agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).

Protesters had taken up residence in the forest nearly two years earlier, after the city announced it would build a new police and fire training facility on the site. The plan's opponents derisively called the project Cop City and rallied under the hashtag #StopCopCity, and many of them were camping there to prevent construction. The authorities had done another sweep of the area a month earlier. Now these officers were tasked with clearing out the protesters.

They approached cautiously. GBI agents passed out an informational packet at a predawn confab, according to incident reports filed weeks later. The packet reportedly claimed that the activists were members of a domestic terror group with nationwide reach, called Defend the Atlanta Forest. Agents speculated those in the forest may have been armed not only with handguns and rifles but with incendiary and explosive devices. Officers were cautioned to watch out for traps, including spikes and tripwires. One SWAT officer later relayed in an incident report that GBI agents had warned that lookouts might be posted in treehouses, ready to pelt any unwelcome entrants with human waste taken from "a carrier of a[n] STD." (The GBI declined to provide Reason with a copy of the packet, noting that as "part of a pending investigation or prosecution," it is "not subject to disclosure.")

APD body camera footage shows officers cutting down unoccupied tents and ripping them to shreds with people's belongings still inside. Incident reports note that SWAT officers found and cleared multiple occupied tents, finding the occupants "compliant" and turning them over to GBI agents "without incident." One protester told Al Jazeera that she was "sleeping in a hammock" when "15 or so police in full military combat gear" suddenly came through the forest with rifles drawn.

Just after 9 a.m., SWAT officers encountered an occupied green tent. What happened next is disputed, and no footage exists, as DPS state troopers are not required to wear body cameras. Body camera footage from APD officers elsewhere in the forest records four gunshots, followed by an eruption of gunfire from multiple weapons lasting around seven seconds. At the end of the exchange, a SWAT officer was wounded by a gunshot to the abdomen, and the tent's occupant—later identified as 26-year-old Manuel Paez Terán—was dead.

Two days later, the GBI released a photo of a handgun alleged to be in Paez Terán's "possession" and said "forensic ballistic analysis has confirmed the projectile recovered from the trooper's wound" matched the gun. Three days after that, the GBI announced that it had confirmed Paez Terán's purchase of the gun in September 2020.

Officers on the scene, however, seemed to suspect friendly fire: In bodycam footage, one APD cop wonders aloud, "You fucked your own officer up?" Another later asks, "Did they shoot their own man? We don't know whether he got shot by a deputy." ("Speculation is not evidence," the GBI noted after the footage was released. "Our investigation does not support that statement.") An autopsy by the Dekalb County Medical Examiner was later unable to find gunshot residue on Paez Terán's hands, while a separate autopsy conducted by the activist's family determined that Paez Terán was "in a seated position," with hands raised, when killed.

The events of that January morning were part of an extended conflict between Stop Cop City activists, some of them violent at times, and police. Dozens have been arrested, and in September 2023, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced that his office had indicted 61 protesters under the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Based on Reason's review of arrest warrants and court documents, the majority of those charged have not been accused of committing violent acts. And even for those who have, the justification for terrorism or racketeering charges is flimsy.

Not for the first time in recent years, law enforcement officials appear to have tarred ad hoc bands of protesters as members of an organized criminal movement, threatening prison time far in excess of what any specific allegations would merit.

Given the violence and property destruction involved, some criminal charges in this case can almost certainly be justified. But one need not approve of every individual protester's actions to recognize that the state is overstepping in an apparent attempt to silence people who oppose a police project.

Many of the state's actions constitute a severe violation of the protesters' civil liberties. It would be one thing to arrest defendants who verifiably committed acts of violence and charge them for those specific acts. Instead, prosecutors have bundled charges against a larger group of people simply for their involvement in a protest collective so informally organized it barely exists as an organization at all. It's no wonder the activists feel the state is just inventing an excuse to shut them up.


'A Police Militarization Facility'

In a 2017 PowerPoint presentation, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF)—a nonprofit that supports the APD—detailed the poor condition of the city's police academy: rodents, mildewed ceiling tiles, exposed ducts and power lines. Noting the 60-year-old building's $102,000 annual rent, and total repair costs estimated at nearly $2.7 million, the APF called for spending between $60 million and $80 million to build a new facility in South River Forest in an unincorporated part of Dekalb County. It would be built on the site of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm, which operated from 1920 until 1995 and has moldered in disrepair ever since.

At the time, the idea seemed unlikely to go anywhere. Atlanta is known as "the city in the forest," thanks to a dense urban tree canopy credited with preventing floods and lowering temperatures. The same year the APF proposed building a police academy there, a city planning document referred to South River Forest as one of the city's four "giant green lungs"; Ryan Gravel, author of the city's early-2000s BeltLine development plan, called the site "the keystone for greenspace expansion."

But in 2020, as violent crime spiked nationwide after a three-decade decline, the project seemed to take on renewed importance. Homicides rose 58 percent in Atlanta that year and continued rising through 2022. Meanwhile, just two weeks after George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis officer, Atlanta police shot and killed a man named Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot; protesters later burned the restaurant down as news cameras watched live.

Amid the protests, more than 170 APD officers participated in a "blue flu" protest by calling in sick in June 2020. Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN that officer morale was down "tenfold."

In her March 2021 State of the City address, Bottoms acknowledged the "unrest" of the previous summer, "as thousands of people of all races took to the streets demanding police reform." But, she added, "supporting our officers and holding them accountable are not mutually exclusive." The city would build a new training facility, she announced. A city document promoting the project declared that it would "establish a new standard for career-long training for Atlanta public safety and law enforcement professionals."

The APF would build the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center on city-owned forestland at the old prison farm site. APF President Dave Wilkinson said it would be "a beacon for what we call 21st century policing" and "the place where the community and the police come together." There would be classrooms and a firing range, plus a horse barn, a kennel for K9 units, and a "burn building" for fire training.

There would also be a "mock village," with a fake house, convenience store, and nightclub, for training in a simulated urban environment.

The mock village spawned the nickname Cop City and sparked intense opposition. A Stop Cop City website calls it "a police militarization facility for police to train in urban warfare."

In September 2021, the city council approved the funding and construction of the facility on 85 acres of a 350-acre parcel, with the rest to be "preserved as greenspace." Supporters said that the more-than-$90-million project would cost the city only $31 million; the APF would cover the rest and handle construction.

The vote came after 17 hours of public comments, the majority of which were opposed. The optics of the deal were also suspect: The council was ruling on land that, while city-owned, is located outside the city. Gravel wrote that "the adjacent neighborhoods cannot hold decision makers for the property accountable or have input in its fate because they are not residents of the City of Atlanta."

Activists started camping out in the forest in an attempt to block construction. For more than a year thereafter, protesters had encounters with police, construction crews, and fire and rescue agents, leading sometimes to violence and occasionally to arrests. In May 2022, for example, protesters threw rocks and a Molotov cocktail at police near the construction site; eight were arrested on charges of criminal trespass and obstruction of law enforcement officers.


'If You Want To Write Defend the Atlanta Forest on Your Backpack, Great'

On December 13, 2022, more than a year after activists took to the forest, law enforcement tactics escalated. When GBI agents and APD officers cleared out protesters that day, enduring what the GBI later described as "rocks and bottles," they arrested six on charges of domestic terrorism.

Over the next six months, state and local law enforcement arrested dozens of protesters, more than 40 of them for domestic terrorism, though most of the conduct alleged in the warrants was nonviolent and rarely more severe than misdemeanor trespassing. One warrant for domestic terrorism, for example, listed the offenses as "fleeing from Atlanta Police Department Investigator Ronald Sluss, causing injuries to INV Sluss' right knee and right elbow, said injuries being scrapes and cuts."

In December 2022, after the first round of arrests, APD Assistant Chief Carven Tyus told a group of community stakeholders that the protesters, many of whom came from out of state, "do not have a vested interest in this property," adding, "why is an individual from Los Angeles, California, concerned about a training facility being built in the state of Georgia? And that is why we consider that domestic terrorism." APD Chief Darin Schierbaum said the following month, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist or an attorney to tell you that breaking windows or setting fires is not protesting; that is terrorism."

On August 29, 2023, an Atlanta grand jury returned indictments against 61 anti–Cop City protesters, all on charges of racketeering. Just days earlier, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis had charged former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants under the same law for their conduct after the 2020 election; in fact, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the exact same grand jury was used in each case. Five of the Cop City defendants were additionally charged with domestic terrorism and arson, and three arrestees who operate the Atlanta Solidarity Fund—a bail fund—were each charged with 15 counts of money laundering. In response to questions from Reason, the state attorney general's office did not directly explain why only five out of 41 defendants received domestic terrorism charges.

The indictment claims that all 61 defendants are members of "Defend the Atlanta Forest," which prosecutors defined as a criminal enterprise devoted to spreading anarchy and willing to use violence to achieve it. Each arrestee is then charged with racketeering—punishable by five to 20 years in prison—as an accessory to the criminal enterprise.

But how much of an organization was Defend the Atlanta Forest in the first place? Several people—including indicted protesters, activists, and attorneys—tell Reason that it had no firm organizational structure or clear leadership. Several described it as a "decentralized" movement encompassing anybody who opposes the police facility, for any reason and in any manner.

Luke "Lucky" Harper, a Florida copywriter who was among the 61 indicted, says "Stop Cop City and Defend the Atlanta Forest are not even informally organized groups, let alone this shadow organization" that prosecutors depict. Rather, "these phrases are simply shorthand…used to express opposition and solidarity….If you want to write Defend the Atlanta Forest on your backpack, great, you're part of Defend the Atlanta Forest. That's how informal it is."

The indictment lists 225 "overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy" as evidence that all 61 defendants are members of the organization and thereby guilty of racketeering. Actions such as "occupy[ing] a tree house" and "refus[ing] police commands to exit a tree house" are presented as evidence of involvement in a criminal enterprise. The bail fund operators allegedly purchased camping equipment, handheld radios, and yard signs, and submitted receipts for reimbursement; these are also listed as further overt acts, as well as the basis for charges of money laundering.


A Statute That Covers 'Almost Anything You Can Imagine'

Georgia's RICO Act—passed in 1980 and modeled after the 1970 federal statute—is significantly broader than its federal counterpart. The law stipulates in its opening that "it is not the intent of the General Assembly that isolated incidents of misdemeanor conduct or acts of civil disobedience be prosecuted under this chapter" but rather to "apply to an interrelated pattern of criminal activity motivated by or the effect of which is pecuniary gain or economic or physical threat or injury." Unfortunately, the statute is in fact drawn broadly enough to make the former scenario almost inevitable.

"The federal statute covers a relatively small band of offenses, whereas the Georgia RICO statute covers almost anything you can imagine," says Andrew Fleischman, an attorney with the Atlanta firm Sessions & Fleischman. "What racketeering actually is, is not really clearly defined. It really seems like it is just implicit agreement to the overall aims of the conspiracy. So it [applies] even if there's no agreement on your part to do anything illegal."

"You don't have to show that any person that you're charging actually did any of the bad things you're alleging," Fleischman adds. "They could be acquitted of every overt act and still convicted."

In 2015, prosecutors secured 11 convictions and 21 guilty pleas related to a cheating scandal involving standardized testing in Atlanta Public Schools. Fleischman represents one of the convicted defendants, Sharon Davis-Williams, who was convicted of racketeering but acquitted on other charges, of false statements and writings, and giving false statements on official documents. Judge Jerry W. Baxter handed Davis-Williams a 20-year sentence with seven years to be served in prison; two weeks later, Baxter lowered Davis-Williams' prison sentence to three years.

In December, Baxter denied Davis-Williams' appeal for a new trial.

Some protestors have indeed committed violence on behalf of the Stop Cop City movement. In addition to those rocks and fireworks, they have burned police vehicles, vandalized offices of the contractors hired to build Cop City, and burned equipment at the contractors' other construction sites; individual contractors have also been doxxed and threatened online.

In November 2022, after a mechanic drove near the construction site, he said protesters overtook his truck and set it on fire, forcing him to flee. The weekend of July 4, 2023, eight police motorcycles were burned, for which self-described "vengeful wingnuts with nothing left to lose" anonymously claimed credit online.

But just as with the use of RICO, even the allegations of violence have sometimes led to overly aggressive charges. The five defendants indicted for domestic terrorism were charged on the grounds that they "did attempt to commit the offense of Arson in the First Degree" by trying to burn APD vehicles and the APF's office. The same five were then also charged with arson stemming from the same events.

Georgia's domestic terrorism statute, passed in response to 9/11, originally defined domestic terrorism as an act "intended or reasonably likely to injure or kill not less than ten individuals." But in 2017, after a white supremacist killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, the Georgia General Assembly updated the text, lowering the threshold from 10 individuals to "any" and adding the clause "or disable or destroy critical infrastructure," changing the definition of domestic terrorism so that it covers not just mass casualty events but targeted vandalism.

The only death associated with the Cop City protests was that of Paez Terán, a protester. Priscilla Grim, a protester indicted for racketeering who lives in Brooklyn, tells Reason, "On 9/11, I watched from my rooftop as thousands of people died in real time, and it is offensive to me to suggest that any of the acts alleged by Georgia law enforcement…are anything like terrorism."


The 'Interests of Justice'

If the government is hitting rowdy protesters with dubiously severe charges in an attempt to silence them, it won't be the first time in recent memory that it's happened.

Thousands of people protested President Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration in Washington, D.C. Police arrested more than 230 people for felony rioting, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A superseding indictment filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia later added more felony charges for 212 defendants, including multiple journalists, with potential prison sentences of 70 years or more. Six defendants were acquitted at trial in December 2017 before prosecutors finally dropped charges against all remaining defendants in July 2018, a year and a half after the arrests took place.

In October 2020, the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) arrested protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally on charges including riot and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault on an officer. The following week, prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (MCAO) convened a grand jury that charged 15 protesters with assisting a criminal street gang, on the basis that since protesters were chanting "all cops are bastards," they belonged to a street gang called ACAB, organized "for the intent to create violence" against police.

The Phoenix protesters filed motions alleging that the MCAO had presented "false and incomplete information" to, and withheld exculpatory evidence from, the grand jury. After the Phoenix New Times reported on the motions, prosecutors announced that "in the interests of justice" they would drop the gang charges, but without prejudice, meaning they could refile charges again later. Four months later, the MCAO dismissed all charges—this time with prejudice, meaning the charges were permanently eliminated.

The city later retained law firm Ballard Spahr to investigate police and prosecutors' conduct. Despite stonewalling from police, it found that the decision to charge the protesters as a gang involved the PPD and MCAO, as well as input from another local police department and the FBI, yet "pointedly omitted" the PPD's Gang Enforcement Unit, a specialized team required to lead gang-related investigations. PPD officers even entered ACAB into the state's gang database as an "extremist" group with "violent tendencies," but the only justification given was that protesters "marched downtown Phoenix with other members chanting, 'ACAB, all cops are bastards,' and wearing all black clothing." (The PPD is not even allowed to do this: Only the state Department of Public Safety is allowed to add gangs to the database.)

A charge of gang affiliation may not seem as severe as being accused of racketeering or domestic terrorism, but there are overlaps. "Obviously, when you hear the word terrorist, there's a certain type of individual or organization that you have in mind that might face even greater stigma than being characterized as part of a gang," says Heather Hamel Robles, a Phoenix civil rights attorney who defended protesters in that case.

But "it's the same underlying theory of liability where you have a so-called violent organization, that people are members of or affiliated with, that commits crimes. Both of those are predicated on those same legal theories, and both of them are very serious criminal charges that come with a lot of prison time."


Gag Order

In October 2023, Stop Cop City defendant Ayla King filed a motion demanding a speedy trial. On December 5, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams granted King's motion and set a trial date for December 11. On the first day of the trial, Esmond Adams noted King's alleged actions taken in furtherance of the conspiracy as criminal trespass and joining a mob.

She further ordered attorneys and defendants "to refrain from any extra-judicial communications concerning the proceedings, including, but not specifically limited to, granting interviews, making or expressing opinions about the subject matter of these proceedings; posting, commenting or 'liking' posts on social media; or, more generally, any other communication concerning the proceedings, the parties or the subject matter of the indictment." Even though King is the only defendant currently being tried, an attorney representing another defendant declined to speak to Reason on the record, citing the gag order and noting, "no one knows for certain if it is just for King or everyone." (All defendants and attorneys involved in the case who spoke to Reason did so before the issuance of the order.)

Much of the opposition is now focused on a referendum effort to put Cop City on the ballot and let Atlantans decide whether it should be built. That requires collecting signatures from 15 percent of the city's voters—in this case, around 70,000—in 60 days.

Organizers submitted more than 116,000 signatures on September 12, but the issue is tied up in litigation with the city over whether or not canvassers have to be Atlanta residents. Citing the ongoing lawsuit, the city has so far declined to count the signatures, pushing past the deadline for the November ballot. If successful, the earliest that Cop City could be on the ballot would be for Georgia's presidential primary date in March—and given that President Joe Biden faces no serious primary challengers, that election will almost certainly attract more Republican than Democratic voters.

The state faces an uphill battle in prosecuting a case. But prosecution may not be the point.

Using guilt by association, protesters who in many cases are accused of little more than trespassing face five to 20 years in prison if convicted. Even if they're acquitted—for that matter, even if their cases never go to trial—state prosecutors are subjecting dozens of people to the stress and the expense that comes with mounting a criminal defense.

Fleischman characterizes it as "pure political malice." Kamau Franklin, an attorney and political organizer involved with the referendum effort, thinks the prosecution is likely a "political stance" to help Carr in a future run for governor. Hamel Robles calls the state's actions in both Phoenix and Atlanta an "intimidation tactic" being used "to try to stop the protests."

Whatever the reason for the prosecutions, the state's case is flimsy—and could have an impact on far more than the Stop Cop City movement.

When police raided the offices of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund before later charging its operators with money laundering, the fund's president told Reason that "this is about much more than the police training facility. It sounds hyperbolic, but this is about the future of public participation in politics in Georgia."

The post The Flimsy RICO Case Against Atlanta's Cop City Protestors appeared first on