On Tuesday morning, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced that a state grand jury had indicted 61 people allegedly connected to the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement, slapping a serious and shocking slate of RICO charges onto a decentralized movement that has sought to derail the construction of a massive police training facility for nearly two years. Activists and civil rights groups worry the indictment could set a dangerous, anti-democratic precedent for cracking down on similar protest movements nationwide.
The racketeering charges come amid an escalating, months-long campaign to squash the protest movement opposing Atlanta’s “Cop City” through a combination of brute force and drastic charges. Protesters active in the forest and around the Atlanta area have been charged with domestic terrorism, while more specific financial charges have been leveled against nonprofit workers connected to the movement. Many of those targeted in the past are also named in the RICO indictment, which has rocked the loose network of activists that have driven the DAF movement, sending members scrambling to find out if their names had appeared on the list.
“It feels like for a long time now we’ve been waiting for a ball to drop,” Gingham, a DAF activist who was not indicted, tells Rolling Stone. “In a way, there’s almost a sense of relief just to know that the state has played their cards now.”
That relief is scant consolation considering the broader scope of legal action leveled against protesters in Atlanta. In December of last year, Georgia prosecutors charged several individuals allegedly associated with the DAF movement with domestic terrorism, an action that activists told Rolling Stone was a “strategic political move” meant to scare and intimidate current or prospective members of the movement.
In January, a police raid on a DAF encampment inside Atlanta’s Weelaunee Forest — the planned site of Cop City — ended in tragedy when Georgia State Patrol officers shot and killed Manuel “Tortugita” Teran, a 26-year-old protester living full time in the camp. Georgia prosecutors continued to level domestic terrorism charges against protestors for a variety of offenses, ranging from documented vandalism of corporate property and police vehicles to far more innocuous actions like participating in a music festival that took place in the forest.
“There was the sense that if the state was willing to go this far, to tell these kinds of lies about protesters, and to advance these really intense charges, there’s no telling what they would do,” Marlon Kautz, a board member of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, told Rolling Stone in January.
Kautz’s worries were not unfounded, both for the movement and for himself. This spring, Georgia authorities’ brute force tactics gave way to a more targeted campaign to disrupt support networks that local and national activists had created to serve the movement. In late May, a heavily armed SWAT team arrested three board members of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, including Kautz, charging them with money laundering and charity fraud for their work, which collected and distributed funds to support or bail out arrested protesters. Kautz and the other two ASF members were also named in yesterday’s RICO indictment.
“This is a naked political attempt to criminalize political dissent,” Lyra Foster, an attorney who is representing several of the defendants in the RICO indictment and in ongoing legal cases involving DAF protesters, tells Rolling Stone. “Some of the defendants in this case are activists, some are people who just showed up to a protest or a concert. The indictments characterize this loose political movement as some intricate conspiracy going back to the murder of George Floyd.”
Indeed, the Georgia attorney general’s indictment opens with an exhaustive description of anarchist theory and philosophy. (“They do a decent job of explaining the ideology,” one activist tells me, sounding surprised.) That philosophical background is used as a primer to allege that common actions like “mutual aid” and “solidarity” are linked to the violent tactics used by some members of the movement against law enforcement and privately owned construction equipment, which Foster said could be used to criminalize “nearly any organizing effort against unjust public policies.” Civil rights activists were similarly concerned after the passage of Georgia’s domestic terrorism law in the wake of the 2015 Charleston Church massacre, and this law has been previously used against members of the DAF movement.
“The overbroad use of domestic terrorism charges serve to intimidate the people of this state and silence their voices,” Cory Isaacson, the Legal Director of the Georgia ACLU, told Rolling Stone in January.
Many of the state’s domestic terrorism charges and RICO indictments target members of the DAF movement who joined the protests after residing in another state, furthering Georgia authorities’ narrative that the movement was supported and run by “outside agitators.”
“As this indictment shows, looking the other way when violence occurs is not an option in Georgia,” Georgia AG Chris 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.”
Carr’s indictment lists the DAF movement’s various social media profiles and websites as well as the common practice of passing out zines and leaflets at public events as evidence of a sprawling movement that it seeks to hold collectively responsible for a litany of alleged “racketeering” activity. The indictment attempts to build a link between the various funding networks connected to DAF, including bail funds like the ASF, and the violent tactics of some individuals it associates with the movement, basing many of these links on small-dollar financial transactions and social media posts by the previously-arrested ASF board members. Bail funds and other mutual aid networks have been integral to social justice movements across the country for decades, meaning the outcome of Georgia’s RICO case could set a dangerous precedent for future protests nationwide. Activists, meanwhile, see the charges as a perverse application of a law meant to target organized crime.
“RICO is about trying to stop a criminal enterprise that is trying to make money,” Red Pixel, a DAF activist, tells Rolling Stone. “I just want to say that’s utterly ridiculous. There’s many people involved in this movement who are struggling not just for a world without Cop City but a world without commodities too. We do not care about money.”
In recent months, the threat of further domestic terrorism charges and the legacy of the brutal police raids that killed Teran have limited the movement’s direct activity at Cop City’s proposed site. An extensive police cordon and consistent patrols have allowed development on the site to begin, and dozens of acres of the forest have already been clear cut. But activists aren’t giving up: prior to the RICO charges, the movement was coordinating with other political groups and networks to mount a petition campaign to put the future of Cop City directly on Atlanta residents’ ballot in November. In July, a federal judge ruled that activists from outside the city were allowed to collect signatures for the petition. Activists say that the petition has easily passed the 70,000-signature threshold for inclusion on Atlanta’s ballots, but they are currently delaying filing the petition while they contest city officials’ use of an allegedly outdated “signature matching” system to verify the results.
While the fight over ballot signatures plays out in the courts, activists haven’t given up on the direct tactics that have made Cop City a national flashpoint in the debate — and sometimes battle — around policing, civil rights, and our environmental future.
“What the movement has to do now is rise to the occasion. When Tortugita was killed the movement was able to show that there are consequences for that,” Red Pixel says, referring to the wave of violent and non-violent protests in Atlanta following Teran’s death. “Now the movement needs to show that there are consequences for doing this kind of heinous legal stuff. People need to take action to show the state that this won’t go unchallenged.”