Showing posts with label RICO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label RICO. Show all posts

Monday, January 22, 2024

State spending to prosecute – and defend – gang members on the docket for Georgia General Assembly

Several state agencies are seeking millions more in state funds to handle the growing caseload resulting from the state’s recent crackdown on street gangs.

Republican Attorney General Chris Carr and the directors of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Public Defender Council presented budget requests to state lawmakers on Thursday that include creating a new street gang task force, hiring new street gang data analysts, and hiring more attorneys who specialize in felony organized crime cases.

With the passage of a new state law endorsed by Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly, Carr’s office in July 2022, Georgia created its first statewide gang prosecution unit that has since led to the indictment of more than 100 people and two dozen convictions. The overall number of gang-related cases is more extensive across Georgia, with the GBI data confirming that in 2023 a total of 287 street gang investigations across 93 counties leading to 325 arrests on felony charges.

The Attorney General’s Gang Prosecution Unit based in Atlanta, with regional, satellite prosecutors and investigators in Albany and Augusta is seeking another $807,000 to expand with new units in Macon, Columbus and Savannah. Carr is also backing the GOP governor’s budget recommendation to use $1.6 million to boost AG’s attorney salaries as part of a multi-year recruitment and retention plan. 

It’s all part of a collaborative approach to targeting gangs that often spread violence in their communities, Carr said. 

“Any additional amount will help us and it looks like there’s always going to be a challenge. There is a gap between the public sector and the private sector, but there’s no doubt that it’s helpful,” he said. “What we’ve seen is there are issues and what we want to do is be regional in nature because we know that gangs don’t care where the city lines, where the state lines are from an efficiency standpoint.

 It is becoming increasingly common for people accused of being involved in criminal enterprises like street gangs to be prosecuted under the Georgia Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act,  which is modeled on the federal racketeering law intended to take down mob operations and other racketeering fronts.  Some detractors of the RICO-heavy approach say prosecutors and other law enforcement officials can unfairly ensnare people who are loosely affiliated with individuals connected to the group while still failing to address larger systematic problems.

During last year’s session, Georgia Republicans helped pass a highly-divisive bill that increased the severity of penalties for street gang-related crimes.

A 21% drop in Atlanta homicides in 2023 has been attributed  by the Atlanta Police Department and Mayor Andre Dickens to an increased focus on fighting guns and gangs, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

Atlanta rapper Young Thug and members of his record label, Young Slime Life, are facing first degree murder and drug trafficking charges in Georgia’s most high-profile street gang RICO case to date. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump headlined the 19 individuals indicted in August in Fulton County for allegedly participating in a racketeering conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.

Due to handling dozens of gang and racketeering cases over the past year, the state’s public defender’s council is requesting $5.7 million to pay for attorneys with special training in gang and RICO cases.

The additional funding for RICO cases would allow the organization to provide legal representation to people who cannot afford an attorney while also meeting the growing trend of gang-related investigations, according to Omotayo Alli, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council.

In the past year, the public defender’s office has handled nearly 70 street gang crime cases, with the number of defendants indicted ranging from six to upwards of 50 under the same overarching charge. Currently, it would cost the public defenders office at least $255,000 to contract enough private attorneys to represent 34 defendants charged in a single RICO case, Alli said.

“It’s been a lot of indictments for gang RICO defendants,” she said at Thursday’s budget committee hearing inside the state Capitol. “We understand that but we have to be able to represent those who have been indicted and arrested.”

The council is also requesting that the upcoming year’s budget have another $937,000 allocated for RICO cases along with another $9.1 million for attorneys salaries as part of the overall agency recruitment and retention programs.

The public defender’s office has been able to increase the starting pay for its attorneys from $45,000 in 2020 to $72,000 this year by consolidating job positions. The budget salary request includes money to boost the starting pay to $83,000 for the upcoming year.

“The attrition rate that we had in the past was quite detrimental, because  we train and we lose them. It’s like wasting money,” Alli said. We’re doing better because you have been considerate of our request.”

The multi-million dollar budget request designated for street gang enforcement caught the attention of Atlanta Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb on Thursday.

“It would be interesting to see over time if this an aberration or a new trend line on the number of resources that need to be devoted,” he said.

GBI Director Chris Hosey said Thursday that his agency supports the governor requesting nearly $6 million in next year’s budget be used to hire a 14-member GBI gang task force that would be based out of Columbus. The new Columbus gang unit would join other GBI gang units located in Atlanta and Macon to go along with regional gang unit specialists in other pockets of the state.

The increased focus on gangs is also supported by Kemp recommending that the GBI receive a total of  $395,000 over the next year to hire criminal intelligence analysts tasked with supporting a street gang database available to other law enforcement agencies throughout the state. 

“We have consulted on street gang cases more than 50 times with local partners,” Hosey said. “A lot of the cases we work there is another criminal element to it whether it be homicides, drugs, assaults, human trafficking so the importance of working that and addressing it is paramount to us.”

In addition to the tough-on-crime approach, Carr said research will continue on the most challenging task, which is identifying programs that best divert people from joining gangs. 

“How do you stop a young person from joining a gang where at best you end up in jail, at worst you end up dead,” Carr asked. “Who are the communities most often targeted by gangs?  Low income, racially diverse and immigrant populations.”

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder on January 18th, 2024.  

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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

A First Amendment battle looms in Georgia, where the state is framing opposition to a police training complex as a criminal conspiracy

By Rachel McKaneBrandeis University and David PellowUniversity of California, Santa Barbara

When does lawful protest become criminal activity? That question is at issue in Atlanta, where 57 people have been indicted and arraigned on racketeering charges for actions related to their protest against a planned police and firefighter training center that critics call “Cop City.” 

Racketeering charges typically are reserved for people accused of conspiring toward a criminal goal, such as members of organized crime networks or financiers engaged in insider trading. Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr is attempting to build an argument that seeking to stop construction of the police training facility – through actions that include organizing protests, occupying the construction site and vandalizing police cars and construction equipment – constitutes a “corrupt agreement” or shared criminal goal.

The indictment’s justification is rooted in long-standing anti-anarchist sentiments within the U.S. government. However, some civil rights organizations call this combination of charges unprecedented.

As scholars who study environmental change and social justice, we believe the charges seek to suppress typical acts of civil disobedience. They also target grassroots community organizing models and ideas rooted in the practice of mutual aid – people organizing collective networks in order to meet each other’s basic needs.

The RICO indictment against ‘Cop City’ protesters describes the accused protesters as ‘militant anarchists.’

The ‘Stop Cop City’ movement

“Cop City,” officially known as the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, was first proposed in 2017. The facility is expected to cost US$90 million and is located on 85 acres of public land in the Weelaunee Forest, once home to the Indigenous Muscogee Creek peoples. The site is owned by the city of Atlanta but sits on unincorporated land in DeKalb County, just outside the city.

The opposition campaign has garnered support from activists and environmentalists who are concerned about militarization of police forces and potential threats to the Black community, as well as to climate resilience in Atlanta.

Members of Defend the Atlanta Forest, a decentralized movement of grassroots groups and individuals, argue that the threatened forest provides essential ecological services – filtering rainwater, preventing flooding, providing habitat for wildlife and cooling the city in a time of climate change.

Activists have led protest marches, written letters to elected officials and organized a referendum for the public to decide the future of the property. Some have camped out in the Welaunee Forest – a method that radical environmental defense groups like Earth First! have used to delay or prevent logging. In one instance, activists reportedly set construction equipment on fire.

Authorities have responded with force. In January 2023, police fatally shot activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who had been camping on the Cop City site for months. Authorities assert that Terán had shot and wounded a state trooper, while Terán’s family contends that they were protesting peacefully.

An independent autopsy concluded that Teran was shot 57 times while sitting with hands raised. A prosecutor opted not to file charges against state troopers involved in the shootout, calling their use of deadly force “objectively reasonable.”

Attorney General Carr indicted 61 activists on Sept. 5, 2023, under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is a broader version of the 1970 federal RICO law. Three defendants have been charged with money laundering for transferring money to protesters occupying the forest around the construction site, and five are charged with domestic terrorism and arson. Some of the accused face up to 20 years in prison.

Clashes between protesters and police have continued. Protesters organized a march for Nov. 13 and were met by heavily armed police officers in riot gear. When activists attempted to push past the officers, the police used tear gas and flash-bang grenades.

How does RICO apply?

Georgia’s 109-page indictment of “Cop City” protesters paints a broad – and, in our view, troubling – picture of the actions and beliefs that allegedly contributed to what it describes as a corrupt agreement.

The indictment cites the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police as the event that sparked the “conspiracy.” It refers to the Atlanta-based movement as the Defend the Atlanta Forest “Enterprise” and describes participants as engaging with “anarchist” ideas and practices such as “collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity.”

Protesters use these practices, the indictment asserts, to advance their goal of stopping construction of the training center. As evidence, it cites examples, including posting calls to action on online blogs, reimbursement for printed documents and transferring money to activists for materials such as camping gear, food, communications equipment and, in two instances, ammunition.

Threatening First Amendment rights

As we see it, these activists are being criminalized for their political beliefs and for engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment, such as exercising free speech. Throughout the indictment, the Georgia attorney general uses the term “anarchist,” we believe, as a synonym for “criminal.”

Such language echoes the Immigration Act of 1903, also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act. This law targeted anarchists for exclusion from the U.S. solely based on their political beliefs. Section 2 of the law states that “anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the government of the United States or of all governments or all forms of law, shall be excluded from admission into the United States.”

This wording reflects a widespread view of anarchy as a state of violent disorder. In fact, however, many anarchist thinkers actually proposed to organize society on the basis of voluntary cooperation, without political institutions or hierarchical government.

Another, broader view of anarchy is that it is an ideology and practice of organizing communities and society in ways that confront any and all forms of oppression, including oppression by government.

Why would such a philosophy be deemed threatening? Consider recent U.S. history.

The Black Panthers

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government sought to repress and criminalize the Black Panther Party for Self Defense as part of a covert and illegal counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO.

The Black Panther Party created extensive community survival and mutual aid programs for Black communities at a time of ongoing government neglect. Offerings included free access to medical and dental clinics, ambulance service and buses to visit friends and relatives in prison.

The Black Panther Party organized dozens of social programs to directly meet local needs in underserved areas like New York’s South Bronx.

The Black Panthers’ free breakfast for children program fed thousands of children across the country. In Chicago, local police destroyed food the night before the program was set to begin operations. A memo by an FBI special agent called the program an attempt to “create an image of civility” and “assume community control,” thus threatening the centralized authority of the U.S. government.

Federal agencies relied mainly on covert tactics to surveil, infiltrate and discredit the Black Panther Party. Like the Cop City protesters, the Black Panthers also engaged in direct confrontations with police.

However, we see the current use of RICO charges to address political activism and protest activities as a new tactic.

Future implications

In our research, we have explored how mutual aid groups establish networks of care and survival in the face of climate change. We expect mutual aid to become even more important for Black and Indigenous people of color as environmental disasters become more frequent.

From our perspective, efforts to stop Cop City demonstrate the interconnection between two critical issues: overpolicing of communities of color and climate change. We see Georgia’s RICO indictment as an attempt to repress social movement activity, using the state’s tools of legal interpretation and enforcement.

Criminalizing collectivism, mutual aid and social solidarity is particularly concerning for historically marginalized populations, who often rely on these tactics for survival.

Seeking to use the state’s political processes, organizers recently collected over 116,000 signatures supporting a ballot referendum that, if approved, would cancel the lease of the city-owned site for the training center.

However, Atlanta officials have refused to verify those signatures as they await a federal court ruling on whether the organizers missed a key deadline. Meanwhile, Atlanta is already clearing land for construction at the training site.The Conversation

Rachel McKane, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Brandeis University and David Pellow, Department Chair and Professor of Environmental Studies and Director, Global Environmental Justice Project, University of California, Santa Barbara

Originally published on December 1st in The Conversation.  

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Friday, September 15, 2023

Georgia’s RICO Law Is in the News—but Its Use to Silence Protesters Gets a Pass

Georgia’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law, modeled on the federal statute designed to attack mob bosses, has been in the news a lot, ever since  Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis used Georgia’s law to charge former President Donald Trump and his associates with attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
CNN: The dangerous precedent set by Trump’s indictment in Georgia

CNN op-ed (8/26/23) criticized the RICO indictment of  Donald Trump because it could “open the door to unwarranted prosecutions of others.” But when Georgia initiated one of those “unwarranted prosecutions” just a few days later, CNN ran no critical op-ed.

And with the news has come the inevitable hand-wringing about whether the RICO charges against Trump were a good idea. CNN (8/26/23) published an op-ed questioning whether the indictments were too broad, saying, “Casting a wide net can also raise serious First Amendment issues.” One New York Times op-ed (8/29/23) worried that the case against Trump was overly complex, offering him the ability to mount a strong defense by delaying the proceedings.

Trump and his supporters are fond of framing the charges as a political hit against the ex-president and an attack on free speech, as if a mob boss can invoke the First Amendment when ordering the killing of a police informant. New York (8/17/23) did offer some valid criticism of the use of RICO laws, saying they have often been used for reactionary ends: 

The immediate concern is its continued legitimization of RICO laws, which are overwhelmingly used to punish poor Black and brown people for their associations, not would-be despots like the former president.

But when a new example arose of RICO being used to punish the powerless rather than the powerful—coming from not only the same state but from the very same grand jury—such cautiousness was hard to find in corporate media.

Accused of militant anarchism

Mo Weeks: Solidarity? That's anarchist. Sending money? Printing a zine? That's anarchist.

Interrupting Criminalization’s Mo Weeks (Twitter9/5/23) noted that the Cop City indictment included this passage: “Anarchists publish their own zines and publish their own statements because they do not trust the media to carry their message.” “Don’t trust the media and want to speak to people directly?” wrote Meeks. “RICO criminal enterprise apparently.”

Georgia’s RICO law was also invoked by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr when he targeted 61 opponents of the construction of Cop City, a sprawling police training center on the south side of Atlanta. The case against the protests alleges that protesters, some of whom have destroyed construction equipment, are engaged in a conspiracy to stop the complex’s construction, likening even nonviolent political action, commonly used across the political spectrum, to the workings of the Mafia. Joe Patrice at Above the Law (9/6/23) masterfully outlined the difference between the Trump case and the Cop City case: Both indictments include protected speech as “overt acts.” That’s fine. But one indictment identifies the underlying criminal enterprise as election fraud and the other as political protest itself. The latter is actually seeking to criminalize speech.

Patrice explained: If Trump and team actually conspired to commit election fraud by, among other things, inducing legislators to illegally certify phony Electors in Georgia, then otherwise protected speech acts like complaining about fake voter fraud can be overt acts.

In the Cop City case, on the other hand, “handing out leaflets doesn’t tie all that well to property damage” against the construction of Cop City because if “a conspiracy is limited to sabotaging construction vehicles, it’s hard to rope in defendants who weren’t buying equipment to destroy vehicles.”

In addition to the RICO charges, prosecutors charged a bail fund with money laundering and others for domestic terrorism. The indictment calls the protestors “militant anarchists” and incorrectly states the Defend Atlanta Forest group began in summer 2020, even though the indictment also states that the Cop City project was not announced until April 2021.

‘Clearly a political prosecution’

Democracy Now!: “A Political Prosecution”: 61 Cop City Opponents Hit with RICO Charges by Georgia’s Republican AG

Organizer Keyanna Jones (Democracy Now!9/6/23): “This is retaliation for anyone who seeks to oppose the government here in Georgia.”

While the Trump indictment predictably took center stage, the Cop City indictments received a fair amount of down-the-middle, straight reporting (AP9/5/23; New York Times9/5/23CNN9/6/23Washington Post9/6/23). However, compared to the Trump story, corporate media have shown far less concern about the broadness of Georgia’s RICO statute and how it has been invoked to essentially silence dissent against Cop City.

In left-of-center and libertarian media, the criticisms are there. MSNBC (9/7/23) called it an attack on dissent, and Devin Franklin of the Southern Center for Human Rights told Democracy Now!:

I think that when we look at the number of people that were accused and we look at the allegations that are included in the indictment, what we see are a wide variety of activities that are lawful that are being deemed to be criminal, and that includes things such as passing out flyers—right?—a really clear example of the exercise of First Amendment rights. We see that organizations that were bailing people out for protests or conducting business in otherwise lawful manners have been deemed to be part of some ominous infrastructure. And it’s just not accurate. This is really clearly a political prosecution.

The staff and readership of Reason (9/6/23) might not like a lot of the anti–Cop City’s economic and social justice message, but the libertarian magazine stood with the indicted activists on principle: 

To say that the indictment paints with a broad brush is an understatement. Prosecutors speak about “militant anarchists” and their tactics, but also spend a considerable amount of time describing conduct that is clearly protected speech. “Defend the Atlanta Forest anarchists target and recruit individuals with a certain personal profile,” the filing alleges. “Once these individuals have been recruited, members of Defend the Atlanta Forest also promote anarchist ideas through written documents and word of mouth”; such documents “decry capitalism in any form, condemn government and cast all law enforcement as violent murderers.” (All protected speech.)

Unconcerned about protest attacks

AP: 3 activists arrested after their fund bailed out protestors of Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’

Georgia has prosecuted activists even for participating in the criminal justice system (AP5/31/23).

However, corporate media appear unconcerned with the broad use of RICO to prosecute the anti–Cop City protesters. While many “RICO explainer” articles (NPR8/15/23CBS8/15/23) discussing the Trump case mentioned that Georgia’s RICO statute is broader and easier to prosecute than the federal statute—it’s “a different animal. It’s easier to prove” than the federal statute, a defense attorney told CNN (9/6/23)—the notion that this might be in play in the Cop City case was overlooked in many of the articles discussing that indictment (e.g., AP9/5/23CNN9/6/23New York Times9/5/23).

The indictment of the forest defenders is an escalation of previous attacks on free speech, advocacy and free association. Earlier this year, Atlanta police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three activists operating a bail fund for opponents of Cop City protesters (AP5/31/23FAIR.org6/8/23). An “autopsy of an environmental activist who was shot and killed by the Georgia State Patrol” at an anti-Cop City protest “shows their hands were raised when they were killed,” NPR (3/11/23) reported.

So one might think that even more sweeping prosecutorial action would arouse more suspicion. An opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (9/11/23) admitted that the RICO charges against the protesters were overly broad and thinly supported, making for inefficient prosecution. But the piece seemed dismissive of First Amendment concerns: “Civil liberties groups are howling, saying the indictment is an affront to free speech,” Bill Thorby wrote, adding that “so are the supporters of Trump & Co.”

The Above the Law piece linked above explores and debunks this analogy, but the statement exhibits the lazy journalistic trick of lumping Trump and social justice activists as two sides of the same extremist coin, suggesting centrism is the only legitimate political position.

Anger against Cop City is growing, not just because of the political repression being used against activists, but because the project is the product of  police militarization, whopping spending on security at the expense of other needed services, and the destruction of forest land.

With Georgia’s RICO law in the news because of Trump, the media should be connecting this law to the broad suppression of legitimate dissent in Atlanta. While the prosecution is not going unreported, the urgency of the Orwellian use of state power is not felt in any kind of news analysis or in opinion pieces in the mainstream corporate press. At least not yet.

Research assistance: Pai Liu