ATLANTA (AP) — Sixty-one people have been indicted in Georgia on racketeering charges following a long-running state investigation into protests against a proposed police and firefighter training facility in the Atlanta area that critics call “Cop City.”
In the sweeping indictment, prosecutors allege the defendants are “militant anarchists” who have supported a violent movement that prosecutors trace to the widespread 2020 racial justice protests. The Aug. 29 indictment under the state’s racketeering law, also known as a RICO law, was released by Fulton County officials on Tuesday and was brought by Republican Attorney General Chris Carr.
The “Stop Cop City” effort has gone on for more than two years and at times veered into vandalism and violence. Opponents say they fear the Atlanta-area training center will lead to greater militarization of the police and that its construction will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.
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. And 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 the woods.
In linking the defendants to the alleged conspiracy, prosecutors have made a huge series of allegations. That includes everything from possessing fire accelerant and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers, to being reimbursed for glue and food for the activists who spent months camping in the woods near the construction site.
Activists leading an ongoing 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 center escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said state troopers fired in self-defense after Paez Terán shot at them while they cleared protesters from a wooded area near the site of the proposed facility. But the troopers involved weren’t wearing body cameras, and activists have questioned the official narrative.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and others say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities, and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers that worsened after nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. The demonstrations erupted 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. Those events preceded the public announcement of the proposed training center by months.
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 and blending in with a 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 they have had 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 the penalty for the underlying acts.
Georgia’s RICO Act, adopted in 1980, makes it a crime to participate in, acquire or maintain control of an “enterprise” through a “pattern of racketeering activity” or to conspire to do so.
“Racketeering activity” means to commit, attempt to commit — or to solicit, coerce or intimidate someone else to commit — one of more than three dozen state crimes listed in the law. At least two such acts are required to meet the standard of a “pattern of racketeering activity,” meaning prosecutors have to prove that 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 the racketeering case Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis recently brought 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.