Showing posts with label policing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label policing. Show all posts

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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Tuesday, November 21, 2023

County Exhumes Dexter Wade’s Body Before Family’s Arrival: ‘They Dug Him Up Without My Permission’

By Shaunicy Muhammad 

Hinds County exhumed Dexter Wade’s body from the local penal colony at 8 a.m. on Monday, hours before his family was set to arrive to witness his removal from the spot where local officials buried him long before notifying the family of his death.

The family’s attorney, Ben Crump, cited a signed letter from the Hinds County Board of Supervisors to Dennis Sweet, another attorney for the family. The letter said the “exhuming will take place on Monday, November 13, 2023 at 11:30am.”

Crump and Sweet said they had an agreement with the Hinds County Board of Supervisors that Wade’s mother would be able to attend the exhumation. The family only learned that his body had already been removed when they arrived at the Hinds County Penal Farm.


Wade died in early March after an off-duty Jackson Police Department officer fatally struck him with his vehicle as he attempted to walk across the southbound lanes of Interstate 55. His mother Bettersten Wade searched for him for months and reported him missing to police on March 15. But even though Dexter Wade had a prescription bottle with his name on it and the coroner’s office had already determined his identity by the time his mother filed the police report, JPD did not inform her of his death until late August—over a month after his burial.

Wade’s family asked to exhume his body on Nov. 13 in preparation for an independent autopsy and a “proper burial” for their loved one, Crump said.

“It was an agreed upon position with the County that Ms. Bettersten Wade would be here at 11:30 to commence the exhumation of her son,” Crump said at a vigil on Nov. 13. “Like a thief in the night, they went and took the body out of the ground. Ms. Bettersten asked, ‘Who gave permission to public works? What are they hiding?’” Crump said.

“Is this how the system works?” Bettersten Wade asked on Nov. 13 at the vigil. “They put him in the ground without my permission; they dug him up without my permission.”

Bettersten Wade, Dexter’s mother holding hands with Crump
Bettersten Wade, pictured with attorney Ben Crump, reported her son Dexter missing in March 2023. She learned in August 2023 that an off-duty police officer struck and killed Dexter Wade in March and that her son was later buried without her knowledge. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

Crump and Wade’s family have questioned whether the lapse in communication from officials was related to the 2022 conviction of a JPD police officer charged in the beating death of her 62-year-old brother George Robinson. Robinson was pulled from a vehicle in the Washington Addition neighborhood and beaten by officers, witnesses said in January 2019. He died days later.

Bettersten Wade questioned how officials could claim they couldn’t get in touch with her to tell her that her son’s body had been identified when she would have been on their radar following the high-profile court case.

“How could you not say this is a vendetta? I put in a missing person’s report. There’s my address; there’s my phone number. How could they not put all that together?” Bettersten Wade said at a press conference on Oct. 30.

Dexter Wade seen wearing a Justice for George tshirt
Dexter Wade was walking across Interstate 55 on March 5, 2023, when an SUV driven by an off-duty Jackson police officer struck him. Hinds County buried his body in a pauper’s grave at the Hinds County Penal Farm in July 2023. Photo courtesy Dexter Wade’s family

The Hinds County Coroner’s Office turned Dexter Wade’s body over to his family following the vigil. Crump said a public exhumation would have allowed for “full transparency” with the family and the public.

Since NBC News first reported about Wade’s death and subsequent burial, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said that the circumstances were not the result of police misconduct or maliciousness. “There was a lack of communication with the missing person’s division, the coroner’s office and accident investigation,” Lumumba said on Oct. 26.

At Monday’s vigil, Crump accused Jackson officials of shifting blame and “trying to wash the blood off their hands.”

“There is no excuse for the way this case has been handled,” the attorney said in a Nov. 13 statement following the vigil. “Every time Ms. Wade takes a step toward getting answers as to what happened to her son, Jackson officials bring her two steps back. We hoped today that Ms. Wade could receive some answers and closure, but once again she is just left with more questions and even more trauma.”

Coroner’s office remove Wade’s body
Investigators with the Hinds County Coroner’s Office removed Dexter Wade’s body and turned it over to his family on Nov. 13, 2023. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

Jackson Director of Communications Melissa Faith Payne sent a statement to the Mississippi Free Press on Oct. 26 saying that “officers were unable to identify him at the time” of his death on March 5.

“Days later, the coroner’s office was able to identify the victim as Dexter Wade by way of medication found in his pocket,” the statement said. “However, the contact information for Mr. Wade was outdated, and neither the coroner’s office nor investigating officers were able to make contact with Mr. Wade’s family.”

“Subsequently, on March 14th, Dexter Wade’s family reported him missing to the Jackson Police missing person’s unit,” Payne continued. “Missing persons officers did not know that the pedestrian victim from March 5th was the same person reported missing on March 14th. The lead detective in the missing person’s case continued to investigate until he retired in July.”

Payne said a second officer began a follow-up investigation in August “that led back to the coroner’s office.”

“Through collaborative efforts, they were able to close the missing person’s case, by identifying Dexter Wade as the pedestrian who was killed March 5th,” the statement continued. “While this is a very tragic and unfortunate accident, our investigation found no malicious intent by any Jackson police staff.”

When asked for comment today about Wade’s exhumation, Payne said “the City had no part in either his burial or exhumation. That was entirely with the county.”

Continued Calls for a DOJ Investigation

Officials have not said who approved the 8 a.m. exhumation. The Mississippi Free Press was unable to reach the Hinds County Board of Supervisors for comment for this story.

Hinds County Administrator Kenny Wayne Jones told WAPT on Monday that the situation was “very unfortunate” but that there was “no cover-up or anything like that—just miscommunication.”

Crump looks on as Wade’s body is removed by Coroner’s office investigators
Attorney Ben Crump, right, and Bettersten Wade, center, look at Wade’s body bag as investigators with the Hinds County coroner’s office place him in the back of a hearse following exhumation on Nov. 13, 2023. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

Attorney Crump continued to call on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct their own investigation into the circumstances around Wade’s death and burial. U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Jackson, also voiced support for a federal investigation in a statement on Monday.

“The circumstances surrounding Mr. Wade’s death are deeply troubling,” Thompson said. “The pain his mother and loved ones are enduring is unimaginable. The extensive local and national media coverage of this tragedy has prompted numerous calls to my office from concerned citizens in Jackson who are also searching for answers. The system owes Mr. Wade’s family an explanation for the callous manner in which his untimely death was mishandled.”

Crump said the family plans to have an independent autopsy conducted on Wade’s body. Campaign Zero, an organization based in Washington, D.C., is assisting with the costs. The attorney said the family plans to give him “a proper funeral” on Nov. 20 and that he expects civil-rights attorney and MSNBC host Al Sharpton to attend.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, and we will keep fighting for justice in Dexter’s name until his mother gets the closure she deserves,” Crump said.

This article originally appeared in the Mississippi Free Press on November 17th, 2023.  

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Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Feds to probe Trenton police for ‘problematic’ use of force and illegal stops


The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into Trenton and its police department, citing concerns that officers use excessive force and routinely, illegally stop and search pedestrians and motorists without reason or warrants.

Investigators will probe “problematic” uses of force against people stopped for minor traffic offenses and those who were cooperating or already restrained, said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division.

They’ll also investigate allegations that officers have used force to punish people observing or questioning their actions and that officers have escalated tensions with residents, injuring people in mental health crises, Clarke said in announcing the probe Tuesday.

“These allegations are serious and credible, and our investigation will seek to establish whether these allegations are true,” Clarke said. “Effective policing requires public trust. When law enforcement officers violate the Constitution and federal law, it erodes trust and undermines public safety efforts.”

U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger said investigators will try to determine if the department has an unconstitutional, systemic “pattern or practice” of police misbehavior. The investigation is expected to take up to a year. A similar probe against Newark police a decade ago resulted in a 2014 consent decree that required the department to adopt reforms.

Investigators haven’t gotten specific reports of racial profiling, but 49% of the 7-square-mile capital city’s 90,000 residents are Black, while 37% are Hispanic or Latino, census figures show.

“We do not allege racial discrimination here. We are going to follow the facts and the law. We are aware, of course, that there is a sizable population of people of color within Trenton,” Clarke said.

Investigators will review use-of-force reports, court records, news media reports of police brutality and misconduct, officers’ body camera footage, officer training materials, and policies on how the department investigates citizen complaints and disciplines officers, Clarke said. They’ll also meet with police staff, observe officers on duty, and meet with the public, she added.

“As we begin this investigation, we recognize the challenges that Trenton and the Trenton Police Department face in addressing violent crime,” Clarke said. “But meeting these challenges requires confidence by the public that the police are committed to protecting them. It requires the assurance that police do not hold themselves above the law.”

Sellinger said he attended a town hall five weeks ago in Trenton where residents “raised concerns about excessive force, concerns about stops and searches done for no good reason.” Still, he and Clarke said no single incident prompted the probe.

But Trenton police have a long history of brutality and alarming encounters that have resulted in lawsuits and indictments:

  • An officer was criminally indicted last year for pepper-spraying an elderly man, Joseph Ahr, on his porch after officers went to the home to talk to his son in 2020. Ahr died three weeks later.
  • Two officers were charged in 2019 for beating a man after a routine traffic stop.
  • An officer’s 2022 shooting of an unarmed motorist, which left him paralyzed, drove the city council president to demand more transparency and ask for the police director’s resignation. The director, Steve Wilson, remains in charge, and a Mercer County grand jury deemed the shooting justified.
  • Officers made headlines in 2020 after they restrained a man in mental crisis by kneeling on him as he lay face-down in the dirt until he fell limp. He was declared dead minutes later.

In the state’s most recent report on major discipline meted out to law enforcement officers statewide, just one Trenton officer faced major discipline — for using a police department wash ticket to wash his personal vehicle. The police department has about 250 officers, and Trenton is the state’s fifth largest city.

Wilson’s office referred questions to Mayor Reed Gusciora, a Democrat who was a longtime state Assemblyman until he became Trenton mayor in 2018.

In a statement, Gusciora said he learned of the investigation Tuesday morning and has instructed all levels of city government to fully cooperate.

“My administration knows all too well the difficulty and danger police officers face on a daily basis. We thank and support the overwhelming majority of officers at the city, county, and state level who do the right things every day to keep Trentonians safe,” Gusciora said.

He credited Trenton officers for seizing drugs, more than 200 guns, and $133,722 from gun and drug traffickers in recent months.

“But we also recognize that the community’s trust in our police force is critical,” Gusciora said. “If any members of law enforcement violate the public trust or act in contravention of our state and federal laws, they should and must be held accountable.”

Patrick Colligan and Michael Cipriano, who head the state and city Policemen’s Benevolent Association, respectively, put out a joint statement that they “understand and respect the purpose” of the investigation and “remain committed to transparency, accountability, and continuous improvement.”

“However, we hope that this inquiry will also shed light on the pressing need for additional resources and support for our officers,” the statement read.

Trenton police respond to more than 100,000 calls for service a year, including 41 shootings in just the past month alone, Colligan and Cipriano said.

“Our police headquarters is in dire need of repair, and resources have been limited. The loss of 105 officers in 2012 has had a lasting impact, and we have yet to recover to a safe staffing level,” they said. “Retention of officers remains a significant concern, with the Covid-19 pandemic adding unprecedented burdens to our staffing levels.”

Sellinger said investigators’ goal is to improve policing.

“The object of a pattern and practice investigation is not to assign blame,” Sellinger said. “It’s to help fix problems that may exist. Whatever our findings may be, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the people of Trenton are served by a police force that effectively fights crime while respecting the constitutional rights of every person.”

Photo credits: New Jersey Monitor, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora (Edwin J. Torres Governor’s Office)

Originally published on October 24th, 2023, in the New Jersey Monitor.

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Monday, September 25, 2023

The Baltimore Sun’s Reckoning on Freddie Gray


Five days after Freddie Gray’s death, the Baltimore Sun (4/24/15) published on its website an interactive slideshow on his arrest, which it updated later that month as the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) added information. Audiences could click through a timeline of details of Gray’s long April 12, 2015, ride in a Baltimore police van, during which police reportedly made six stops before officers said they discovered their prisoner was unconscious. (Gray died on April 19, after a week in a coma.)

The slideshow was almost entirely sourced from the statements given by BPD leaders during press conferences, without independent corroboration. Some of the police claims were repeated as fact, with no attribution. “The driver of the transport van believes that Gray is acting irate in the back,” it stated at one point.

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