A First Amendment battle is looming in Georgia, where the state is calling opposition to a police training complex a criminal conspiracy

When does lawful protest become a criminal offense? That issue is controversial in Atlanta, where 57 people have been indicted and charged with racketeering for their actions related to their protest against a proposed police and fire training center that critics have dubbed “Cop City.”

Racketeering charges are typically reserved for people accused of conspiring to achieve a criminal goal, such as members of organized crime networks or financiers who engage in insider trading. Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr is trying to argue that the attempt to stop construction of the police training facility – through actions such as organizing protests, occupying the construction site and destroying police cars and construction equipment – constitutes a “corrupt agreement” or common criminal represents target.

The grounds for the charges are based on long-standing anti-anarchist sentiments within the US government. But some civil rights organizations call this combination of allegations unprecedented.

As scholars who study environmental change and social justice, we believe the charges are aimed at suppressing typical acts of civil disobedience. They also address grassroots community organization models and ideas rooted in the practice of mutual aid—people organizing collective networks 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 $90 million and will be located on 85 acres of public land in Weelaunee Forest, once home to the indigenous Muscogee Creek people. The site is owned by the city of Atlanta, but is located on unincorporated land in DeKalb County, just outside the city.

The opposition campaign has drawn support from activists and environmentalists concerned about the militarization of police forces and potential threats to the Black community and 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 stormwater, 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 public referendum to decide the future of the property. Some have camped in the Welaunee Forest – a practice that radical environmental groups like Earth First! used to delay or prevent logging. In one case, activists reportedly set fire to construction equipment.

The authorities responded with violence.

In January 2023, police fatally shot activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who had been camping on the Cop City site for months. Authorities claim Terán shot and injured a police officer, while Terán's family claims they were protesting peacefully.

An independent autopsy revealed that Teran was shot 57 times while sitting with his hands raised. A prosecutor declined to file charges against the state troopers involved in the shooting, saying the use of deadly force was “objectively reasonable.”

Attorney General Carr filed charges against 61 activists on September 5, 2023, under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a broader version of the federal RICO law of 1970. Three defendants were charged with money laundering for transferring money to protesters attacking the forest occupied around the construction site, and five defendants were charged with domestic terrorism and arson. Some defendants face up to 20 years in prison.

Clashes continued between demonstrators and police. The demonstrators organized a march on November 13 and were met by heavily armed police in riot gear. When activists tried to push past officers, police fired tear gas and stun grenades.

How does RICO apply?

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

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

Protesters used these practices, the indictment says, to further their goal of stopping construction of the training center. Examples cited as evidence include posting calls to action on online blogs, refunding printed documents, and transferring funds to activists for materials such as camping equipment, food, communications equipment, and, in two cases, ammunition.

Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr has filed a sweeping RICO indictment against dozens of activists who protested the proposed police training site.
AP Photo/John Amis, File

Threats to First Amendment rights

In our view, these activists are being criminalized because of their political beliefs and for engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment, such as the exercise of free speech. We believe that throughout the indictment the Georgia Attorney General is using the term “anarchist” as a synonym for “criminal.”

This language is reminiscent of the Immigration Act of 1903, also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act. This law aimed to exclude anarchists from the United States based solely on their political beliefs. Section 2 of the law states: “Anarchists or persons who believe in or advocate the violent overthrow of the government of the United States or of any government or of any form of law are barred from entry into the United States.”

This formulation reflects a widespread view of anarchy as a state of violent disorder. However, many anarchist thinkers actually proposed organizing 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 a way that confronts all forms of oppression, including government oppression.

Why should such a philosophy be considered threatening? Consider recent US history.

The Black Panthers

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

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

The Black Panther Party organized dozens of social programs to directly address local needs in underserved areas such as 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 began. An FBI special agent's memo called the program an attempt to “create an image of civility” and “seize community control,” thereby threatening the centralized authority of the U.S. government.

Federal authorities relied primarily on covert tactics to monitor, infiltrate, and discredit the Black Panther Party. Like the Cop City protesters, the Black Panthers engaged in direct confrontations with police.

However, we view the current use of RICO charges to combat political activism and protest activity as a new tactic.

Future Impact

Our research examined how mutual aid groups build networks of care and survival in the face of climate change. We expect that mutual aid will become even more important for Black and Indigenous people of color as environmental disasters become more common.

In our view, the effort to stop Cop City highlights the connection between two critical issues: excessive surveillance of communities of color and climate change. We view the RICO indictment against Georgia as an attempt to suppress the activities of social movements by using the state's tools of legal interpretation and enforcement.

The criminalization of collectivism, mutual aid, and social solidarity is particularly troubling for historically marginalized populations who often rely on these tactics to survive.

Taking advantage of the state's political process, organizers recently collected over 116,000 signatures for a referendum that, if approved, would result in the termination of the lease on the city-owned site for the training center.

But Atlanta officials have refused to verify those signatures as they await a federal court ruling on whether organizers missed a key deadline. Meanwhile, Atlanta is already clearing building land on the training grounds.