In August, the news world was rocked by yet another wave of indictments against former President Donald Trump, this time relating to alleged election interference in the state of Georgia. Trump and 18 co-defendants, including Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows, have been charged under the Racketeering and Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly known as RICO, for attempting to alter the slate of electors sent from the state of Georgia and to “find [Trump] 11,000 votes.” The media produced a litany of think pieces and basic coverage of the charges against Trump and his cohort. The conservative media ecosystem has responded to the inclusion of tweets and other statements from Trump as evidence furthering the conspiracy in the indictment as an affront to the First Amendment and freedom of speech. But these same pundits have been curiously silent on another wave of RICO indictments in Georgia, which present a much more severe assault on free speech and freedom of protest than any of them care to admit.
In September, Georgia AG Chris Carr indicted more than 60 activists protesting against the construction of what’s become known as “Cop City,” a ‘public safety training center’ for the Atlanta Police Department to practice urban warfare against Georgia citizens, further militarizing the police and bloating their overinflated budget. The people of Georgia and across the world alike have been risking their lives to prevent the construction of Cop City for months on end, attempting countless democratic negotiations with which the City Council and police department have refused to engage. Atlantans have been expressing their outrage against Cop City since its inception, arguing that diverting 90 million dollars and over 85 acres of vital Weelaunee forest land to a mock city befit with shops, a bank, neighborhoods, and more for the police to practice murdering and brutalizing civilians in what will not only threaten public safety and the safety of individuals in Atlanta, but destroy one of the city’s bulwarks against the harmful effects of climate change by bulldozing the forest. National criticism reached an apex when the police murdered a forest defender named Tortuguita, who, as demonstrated by forensic evidence, was gunned down from a tree sitting peacefully with their hands in the air. They were unarmed, but state troopers still shot them fourteen times.
Before the RICO indictments, the city was already under fire, this time for refusing to engage in the democratic process. In September, the city of Atlanta refused to begin counting and verifying over 116,000 signatures of registered voters obtained by a group of Stop Cop City activists. Why? Because the petition would put the construction of the urban warfare training center up to a vote via state question, giving voters a voice in how this monumental decision will be made. The City Council has engaged in unconstitutional and antidemocratic efforts to stop the process of democratic community input, throwing anything and everything at the wall to see what fits. A few weeks later, the disastrous indictments came down against the forest defenders, initiating an unprecedented step to attack meaningful methods of political organizing outside of voting that have been a part of the American fabric for centuries.
Over 61 activists were indicted in the charges which vastly overreach state authority and criminalize political speech, including a protest observer; they face up to 20 years in prison. Three bail fund organizers were charged additionally with money laundering, and five individuals face state-level domestic terrorism charges, for alleged destruction or defacing of public property in order to further a political movement. To use RICO, a statute aimed at prosecuting mafiosi and organized crime syndicates, criminalizing opposition to the construction of Cop City is to engage in lawfare, chilling political activism and free speech to force this horrendous construction through. But Defend The Atlanta Forest, or DTAF, who the Attorney General’s Office of Georgia spent twenty-five pages disparaging in the indictment, has a saying: “Cop City will never be built.”
The indictment is objectively unprecedented and, in my view, horrifying to read about. One of the most offensive statements in the document is the insinuation that the so-called ‘criminal conspiracy’ against the police began on May 25, 2020, the day of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis which sparked mass protests against police brutality throughout the summer. The indictment refers to DTAF’s “anarchist ideals,” including the utilization of mutual aid and bail funds, advocacy for collectivist ideas, and even the creation of community zines as all overt actions in furtherance of the criminal enterprise to oppose Cop City. Other elements of the indictment’s criminalization of free speech, protest, and free assembly include charging individuals for peacefully occupying the Weelaunee forest to oppose construction, financial reimbursements for food or protest supplies, and relatively innocent acts like distributing literature and scrawling ACAB in chalk on the sidewalk.
The message of these charges is clear: you are not permitted to express dissent. You are not permitted to oppose the violent criminalization, incarceration, and brutalization of your communities that comes at the hands of the State, the legal system, and the police. If you’re upset about a governmental policy and want to express your dissent peacefully and through democratic means, the State will respond with the full force of the law against you and your compatriots. The city of Atlanta, the State of Georgia, and the whole of the United States should be ashamed of this clear abuse of power and constitutional violation in the form of these indictments. But instead of reacting appropriately, instead of calling for accountability, justice, and the ability of Atlantans to express their right to self-expression and governance, some cities have taken the polar opposite approach. Baltimore has decided to fund a 330 million dollar “tactical village” for Police and Fire to train for urban warfare, and more cities are following suit. To stop Cop City, to stop this abuse against protestors and the First Amendment,will require pressure from across the country against the City of Atlanta, the Georgia Attorney General Office, and the Atlanta Police Department. With sustained occupation of the forest and defense of those criminalized by the state, Cop City will never be built.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.