Georgia attorney general charges 61 ‘Cop City’ protesters with racketeering

The protesters had been involved in attempts to stop the construction of a new police training facility in the US.

Republican Attorney General Chris Carr
Georgia's Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, seen here in January 2020, is leading the case against the 61 defendants [File: John Amis/AP Photo]

Sixty-one activists have been indicted in the United States on racketeering charges, following a long-running state investigation into protests against a proposed police training facility in Atlanta, Georgia.

On Tuesday, prosecutors in Fulton County Georgia released a sweeping indictment against the protesters, who attempted to stop the construction of the facility, dubbed “Cop City” by its critics.

The indictment alleges that the defendants are “militant anarchists” who have supported a violent movement, stretching back to the racial justice protests in 2020.

All 61 defendants have been charged under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act, commonly known as RICO.

The “Cop City” construction project attracted national scrutiny since its announcement in 2021, as the US reckoned with questions of police violence.

But in the two years since, the protest movement against “Cop City” has, at times, veered into vandalism and violence.

Republican Attorney General Chris Carr is leading the case, which alleges the 61 protesters joined in a “conspiracy” to “prevent the training center from being built”.

The majority of those indicted were already facing charges stemming from their alleged involvement in the movement.

More than three dozen people face domestic terrorism charges in connection to violent protests. Three leaders of a bail fund have been accused of money laundering. Three activists were charged with felony intimidation after authorities said they distributed flyers calling a state trooper a “murderer” for his involvement in the fatal shooting of an environmental protester.

In linking the 61 defendants to a shared conspiracy, prosecutors have made a broad series of allegations.

Some defendants are accused of possessing fire accelerant and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers. Others are accused of being reimbursed for glue and food for the activists — something the indictment describes as a “furtherance of the conspiracy”.

Activists leading a continuing referendum effort against the project immediately condemned the charges, calling them “anti-democratic”.

“Chris Carr may try to use his prosecutors and power to build his gubernatorial campaign and silence free speech, but his threats will not silence our commitment to standing up for our future, our community, and our city,” the Cop City Vote coalition said in a statement.

Protests against the training centre escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as Tortuguita.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said state troopers fired in self-defence after Paez Teran shot at them while they cleared protesters from a wooded area near the site of the proposed facility.

But the troopers involved were not wearing body cameras, and activists have questioned the official narrative.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and others say the 85-acre (34-hectare), $90m facility would replace inadequate training facilities and help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers.

According to officials, recruitment became more difficult in the wake of the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the June 2020 police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, incidents that sparked widespread protests.

Numerous instances of violence and vandalism have been linked to the decentralized “Stop Cop City” movement.

A police car was set alight at a January protest in downtown Atlanta. In March, more than 150 masked protesters chased off police at the construction site and torched construction equipment before fleeing into the crowd at a nearby music festival.

Those two instances have led to dozens of people being charged with domestic terrorism, though prosecutors have previously admitted difficulty in proving that many of those arrested were in fact those who took part in the violence.

RICO charges carry a heavy potential sentence that can be added on top of other penalties.

Adopted in 1980, Georgia’s RICO Act makes it a crime to participate in, acquire or maintain control of an “enterprise” through a “pattern of racketeering activity” or a conspiracy to do so.

“Racketeering activity” can include more than three dozen state crimes.

At least two such acts are required to create a “pattern of racketeering activity”. That means prosecutors have to prove a person has engaged in two or more related criminal acts as part of their participation in an enterprise to be convicted under RICO.

The case was initially assigned to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the judge overseeing another state racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and 18 others.

But McAfee recused himself, saying he had been working with prosecutors on the case prior to his judicial appointment. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams is now overseeing the case.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press