More than 60 activists who challenged a planned Atlanta police and fire training complex have been indicted by a Georgia grand jury in a sprawling racketeering case, accused of engaging in violence, intimidation and property destruction as part of a campaign to stall construction of the facility known by its critics as Cop City.
The Georgia attorney general was pursuing the activists under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO — a powerful tool that has been employed by prosecutors to target street gangs and public corruption. Atlanta prosecutors also used a RICO indictment against former President Donald J. Trump and his allies for their attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia.
In this case, prosecutors have sought to portray the fight against the training facility — officially known as the Atlanta Public Safety Center — as a criminal enterprise. In an 109-page indictment, which had been handed up last week and was released on Tuesday, prosecutors accused those involved in the effort of arson, domestic terrorism and money laundering and outlined instances in which activists were accused of throwing Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police officers, firefighters and emergency workers.
“Looking the other way when violence occurs is not an option in Georgia,” Christopher M. Carr, the Republican attorney general, said in a news conference on Tuesday. “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.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics said the indictment reflected the relentlessly aggressive approach officials had taken to cracking down on protests and pushing forward with building the facility, which has included prosecuting dozens of activists on domestic terrorism charges.
“We are extremely concerned by this breathtakingly broad and unprecedented use of state terrorism, anti-racketeering and money laundering laws against protesters,” said Aamra Ahmad, senior staff attorney with American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
The $90 million project, which would be built on a stretch of forested land in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, has been a source of tension in the city for two years.
Supporters say the complex will provide the Atlanta Police Department with upgraded facilities to train officers to go about their work in a large and challenging city. It would include areas to practice driving techniques and mock setups of a convenience store, a home and a nightclub, allowing trainees to learn in simulations of circumstances they could encounter in the field.
But critics have said that the money could be better spent elsewhere and that the center would lead to a more militarized police force, worsening the friction between law enforcement personnel and minority communities in the city. There was also resistance to developing a stretch of urban forest, an old prison farm that had been reclaimed by nature.
The opposition to the facility escalated into a confrontation between law enforcement officers and activists who planted themselves in the wooded area to thwart construction. Those clashes led to the fatal shooting of an activist and the wounding of a state trooper, also by gunfire.
In May, officers raided the house that served as the headquarters of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which paid bail and provided legal support for protesters. Three people involved in the fund — Marlon Kautz, Adele MacLean and Savannah Patterson — were charged with money laundering and charity fraud.
Activists and other elected officials raised concerns about the arrests, painting it as retaliation for lawful protest. But Gov. Brian Kemp argued that the activists had “facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism,” and other state officials have argued that many of those trying to stop the facility were agitators from outside Georgia.
In the RICO indictment, prosecutors traced the roots of the campaign back to almost a year before city officials announced the leasing of the land to build the training center — to May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, touching off demonstrations across the country, including some in Atlanta. Those tensions only intensified after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by the Atlanta police outside a fast-food restaurant.
“Anti-government anarchists in Atlanta recognized an opportunity to rally against the law enforcement,” the indictment said.
Prosecutors described the movement to interfere with the construction, called Defend the Atlanta Forest, as broad, decentralized and autonomous. But in the indictment, prosecutors claimed that it had “evolved into a broader anti-government, anti-police and anti-corporate extremist organization.”
Prosecutors have relied on the RICO law because it enables them to stitch together seemingly disparate accusations and an array of people linked by their association to a criminal conspiracy or enterprise.
“They’re all working in some way, shape or form toward the same goal,” John Fowler, the deputy attorney general leading the prosecution division, said Tuesday.
Among the 61 people named in the indictment, 42 activists have already been charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute.
But activists in the city have challenged the prosecutors’ portrayal. “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,” the Atlanta Solidarity Fund said in the past to describe the diversity of their effort.
Some legal observers found it unusual that prosecutors also gave a detailed definition and criticism of anarchism as an ideology. “It seems like an indictment of an ideological disposition as much as identifiable criminal acts,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law expert at Georgia State University.
For months, another effort has been underway to collect signatures to put the decision to construct the facility before voters, but city officials have won a temporarily halt to that move through a legal challenge.
Activists say they will press ahead, but the indictment only added to their fears.
“This is meant to send a message,” said Kamau Franklin, an organizer for Stop Cop City. “‘Be scared.’”