Georgia 'Cop City' RICO case could threaten the right to protest nationwide, advocates say

In the last 16 months, rapper Young Thug, former President Donald Trump and his allies and now 61 protesters have been indicted on racketeering charges.

A placard on a fence at the site of a planned Atlanta police training center reads: Stop Cop City.
A placard at the site of a planned Atlanta police training center on Thursday. (Megan Varner/Reuters)

The Georgia racketeering laws that have been used in cases against a rapper and a former president have now been turned on protesters who have fiercely opposed a planned police and firefighter training center in Atlanta.

On Tuesday, the state attorney general’s office announced RICO charges against 61 individuals for their efforts opposing “Cop City.” Social justice advocates say it’s a continued effort to target protesters who participated in the racial justice demonstrations that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and warn that if the charges are successful, their impact could have a chilling effect that stretches beyond Georgia.

“It’s not just the people of Georgia that should be alarmed, it’s across the nation,” Chris Bruce, policy director for the ACLU of Georgia, told Yahoo News. “Because if this actually does go through and stands, this could be used as a playbook for other attorney generals in other states to quell political dissent and put in jeopardy your civil rights and civil liberties.”

Micah Herskind, an organizer and writer based in Atlanta, called the indictments “bipartisan fascism” on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“It’s the state deploying criminal legal infrastructure to eliminate political dissidents –– to criminalize out of existence those who are fighting for a livable present and future,” Herskind, who’s used his large following on X to amplify the efforts of the “Stop Cop City” movement, posted on the social media site.

“They’re straight up political prosecutions,” he added. “But it’s not the time to panic, it is the time to organize.”

Read more from Yahoo News: Georgia RICO cases hit Trump, Giuliani and the rapper Young Thug — all from the same DA

The charges the 61 defendants are facing fall under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, which allows broader prosecution than the federal law and equivalents in other states. The law also carries a heavy potential sentence that can be added on top of penalties for other acts.

In May of last year, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, brought racketeering charges against Grammy Award-winning rap artist Jeffery Williams, also known as Young Thug, and 27 other defendants for allegedly leading a violent street gang known as Young Slime Life (YSL).

Last month Willis indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants on the same statutes, stemming from their alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.

The debate over ‘Cop City’

A police officer looks up as people protest against Cop City at Atlanta City Hall.
A protest against the controversial “Cop City” project inside Atlanta City Hall on May 15. (Megan Varner/Reuters)

The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, which is set to include a shooting range, fire training towers and a mock city featuring homes and streets, was approved by the Atlanta City Council in 2021 with the backing of the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a nonprofit largely funded by corporate donors. Amid multiple lawsuits attempting to halt the project altogether, a spokesperson for the city previously told Yahoo News that “construction is ongoing” but offered no specifics on the current status of the center.

Read more from Yahoo News: From Boston to Detroit — why Atlanta's 'Cop City' protests are galvanizing communities around the U.S.

The training center is estimated to cost around $90 million, a third of which is expected to be paid by taxpayers. The rest will come from private donations raised by APF.

Proponents of the center say it is needed to help boost law enforcement recruitment, retention and morale in the wake of severe staffing shortages in the city. But critics believe that besides harming the region’s environment, the facility will further strain relations between police and the community, particularly the Atlanta area’s majority Black population.

The land where the center will be built — a former prison farm in the South River Forest, a sprawling 3,500-acre green space just outside the city limits — was originally designated as part of a 2017 proposal to create green space and recreation options for underserved parts of Atlanta. But the City Council scrapped those plans just four years later, agreeing instead to lease the land to APF to build the training center.

Opponents of the training center have camped out at the site for months and clashed with police, who shot and killed a 26-year-old protester in January. While authorities said the 57 bullets that struck Manuel Esteban Paez Terán were fired in response to them shooting first, a DeKalb County autopsy did not find gunpowder on their hands. The officers were not wearing body cameras.

The indictment

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr speaks at a podium.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. (Natrice Miller/AP)

Opponents of “Cop City” have noted that authorities have tied the objections to the facility to a movement that predates its planned existence. The 109-page indictment brought forth by Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, alleges that the criminal activity related to the training center site happened “on or between May 25, 2020 and August 25, 2023.”

While the facility wasn’t announced until 2021, Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, with the video sparking a wave of protests across the country and world against police brutality.

“As this indictment shows, looking the other way when violence occurs is not an option in Georgia,” Carr said in a statement. “If you come to our state and shoot a police officer, throw Molotov cocktails at law enforcement, set fire to police vehicles, damage construction equipment, vandalize private homes and businesses, and terrorize their occupants, you can and will be held accountable.”

Read more from Yahoo News: Black Lives Matter once unified America. Now its chapters are divided on progress.

The indictment labels the opponents of the facility as “militant anarchists” and mentions their interest in mutual aid and social solidarity, which typically are tenets of community organizing.

People protest in Atlanta. One person holds up a sign reading: Stop Cop City.
Demonstrators in Atlanta on March 31. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)

One person was charged for an $11.91 reimbursement for glue that was provided to one of the anti-“Cop City” organizations, while another was indicted over a $61.98 reimbursement for food provided to another. A legal observer and staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center is accused of joining “an organized mob,” and leaders of a fund who provided bail money and attorneys for protesters were indicted for money laundering.

Others are facing charges of domestic terrorism that carry lengthy prison terms, although some of the evidence has been called into question.

“In emphasizing the charges of domestic terrorism, the attorney general is exposing again [that he wants to punish] everyday individuals, who have the right to protest, for up to 20 years in prison for expressing their political views,” Bruce said. “Using the domestic terrorism statute allows a whole parade of horribles that follows even the smallest charges.”

Read more from Yahoo News: How the fight over ‘Cop City’ divided Atlanta

The RICO charges are the latest from prosecutors targeting protesters. Following Trump’s 2017 inauguration, the Justice Department charged 234 demonstrators with felony rioting. After the first six defendants were all acquitted by a jury, the Justice Department dropped all remaining charges after it could not prove the defendants had damaged property. In the wake of the 2020 protests, a number of Republican-controlled states passed laws restricting demonstrations, including providing immunity to drivers who struck any protesters in the street.

For Bruce and other social justice activists, the fight to stop the construction of “Cop City” is an effort to show that there is more than one way to realize public safety — which, he says, should include “investing in the community, dealing with mental health, dealing with education, dealing with health care and job training.”

“Anything that’s jeopardizing civil rights and civil liberties is something that jeopardizes your way of life and our democracy dies in the dark,” Bruce said. “Everyone should be fully aware of what’s happening here to make sure it does not happen anywhere else.”