Statement on possible RICO charges against Stop Cop City Activists

February 27, 2023



Information has surfaced suggesting that prosecutors are preparing RICO charges against activists who oppose the construction of Cop City. While experts say there is no legal basis for bringing such charges against political activists, police and prosecutors seem to be reaching for any tool they can use to shut down even legal organizing against the increasingly unpopular Cop City project.  The timing of these new charges appears to be designed to disrupt the “Week of Action” events that Stop Cop City protesters have announced for March 4-11.

Over the past year, police spokespeople and Governor Kemp have repeated talking points which characterize Stop Cop City protesters as “terrorists” who “come from other states”. In court filings, prosecutors have taken the position that arrested protesters are guilty based on their “cooperation with Defend the Atlanta Forest” which they claim to be “a domestic violent extremist organization”.

This narrative, while completely fabricated and repeatedly debunked, is an attempt at concocting a “RICO-like” story about the movement, where protest is painted as a criminal enterprise. In actuality, protesters against Cop City constitute a broad swath of society including racial and environmental justice advocates, faith groups, abolitionists, artists, students, and people from all over the city and the country. These protesters aren’t members of any common organization, let alone a criminal organization: what they have in common is a desire to protect Atlanta’s largest remaining greenspace from becoming a militarized police compound. The constitution doesn’t allow prosecutors to hold one activist responsible for actions taken by others simply because they voice similar political demands.

Despite this, multiple insider statements suggest that prosecutors may be trying to do exactly that. A statement made by an Atlanta police officer suggests that an indictment related to the forest movement will be filed in the coming week. Another conversation between a defense attorney and a prosecutor assigned to protest cases suggests that a RICO indictment against activists is in the works. This egregious use of laws intended to combat organized crime as a tool to suppress environmental and racial justice activists represents a serious threat to the ability for citizens to stand up and have their voices heard. Community organizing, protest, and dissent are not criminal – they are the vital core of a functioning democracy.

State and local police have already shown their willingness to go far outside the bounds of the law to suppress protests against Cop City. Atlanta Police have conducted violent mass arrests, targeting journalists and arresting bystanders. They have arrested activists on absurd and unprecedented “domestic terrorism” charges for allegedly occupying tree-sits. Georgia State Patrol troopers shot and killed Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Teran during a military-style raid on the South Atlanta Forest, and then tried to claim Teran had fired at them first – a claim which recently released body camera footage showed even nearby Atlanta Police officers did not believe.

Marlon Kautz, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, gave a statement:

Authorities are hoping that taking extreme and unconstitutional measures against protesters will quell the movement against Cop City, but it’s actually just causing more outrage and determination. We won’t allow intimidation to deter people from participating in social movements. The Atlanta Solidarity Fund stands ready to support anyone who is targeted for protesting.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Attorney Don Samuel, a noted expert in Georgia RICO law, provided this statement:

The Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act was originally enacted by Congress to provide a comprehensive way to fight organized crime – in particular, the Mafia. In 1980, the Georgia Legislature passed its own version of the RICO Act. Rarely has a statute that was enacted with laudable purposes been so misused and abused by prosecutors. In Georgia, if two adolescents burglarize an abandoned building, they are subject to a RICO prosecution if a prosecutor chooses to ignore the original intent of the legislature. If a man engages in illegal gambling and gives the winnings to his wife, if the wife spends the money, she can be prosecuted for violating RICO even if she was not engaged in any illegal activity and uses the money to build an orphanage.

The notion that RICO would be invoked to punish protestors engaged in a widely-supported challenge to a government decision is a giant leap in the wrong direction. Threatening peaceful protestors with a seizure of their money and a twenty-year prison sentence not only mocks the purpose of the statute, it represents an assault on the most important and cherished rights of all American citizens: the right to protest, the right to seek redress of grievances, the right to enlist friends, colleagues, and the community to change government policy because the citizens want change. If the government of a state or county or municipality makes a decision, the citizens of that jurisdiction are not obligated to quietly obey.

The citizens are entitled to object, to protest, to challenge the wisdom and legitimacy of the decision. Threatening citizens with prosecution for doing so is anathema to the United States Constitution and violates the prosecutors’ oath of office. Threatening protestors (even if they trespass or engage in civil disobedience) by labeling them “racketeers” and “terrorists” is the behavior of a prosecutor in desperate need of finding another job.