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A constitutional showdown is on the horizon in Georgia as the state characterizes resistance to a police training complex as a criminal conspiracy, sparking a First Amendment debate.

The question of when lawful protest crosses into criminal activity is under scrutiny in Atlanta, where 57 individuals face indictments and arraignments on racketeering charges linked to their protest against a proposed police and firefighter training center known as “Cop City.” Racketeering charges, typically applied to those involved in criminal conspiracies, such as organized crime or insider trading, are being used by Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr to argue that efforts to impede the construction of the police training facility – encompassing activities like organizing protests, occupying the construction site, and damaging police vehicles and equipment – constitute a “corrupt agreement” or a shared criminal objective. Rooted in long-standing anti-anarchist sentiments within the U.S. government, the indictment faces criticism from civil rights organizations, which consider this combination of charges as unprecedented. As scholars specializing in environmental change and social justice, we assert that these charges aim to suppress customary acts of civil disobedience, targeting grassroots community organizing models and principles rooted in mutual aid practices where people organize collective networks to meet basic needs.

The movement against the establishment of “Cop City,” formally designated as the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, emerged when the proposal was initially introduced in 2017. Envisioned to cost $90 million, the facility is situated on 85 acres of public land within the Weelaunee Forest, historically inhabited by the Indigenous Muscogee Creek peoples. Although the city of Atlanta owns the site, it is located on unincorporated land in DeKalb County, just beyond the city limits.

The opposition, known as the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement, has gained support from activists and environmentalists concerned about the potential militarization of police forces and perceived threats to the Black community, as well as implications for climate resilience in Atlanta.

Defend the Atlanta Forest, a decentralized coalition comprising grassroots groups and individuals, contends that the imperiled forest plays a critical role in providing essential ecological services, including rainwater filtration, flood prevention, wildlife habitat, and urban cooling amid climate change.

In response to the proposed development, activists have undertaken various forms of protest, such as organizing marches, drafting letters to elected officials, and initiating a public referendum to determine the fate of the property. Additionally, some activists have resorted to camping in the Welaunee Forest, adopting a strategy reminiscent of radical environmental defense groups like Earth First!, which historically leveraged such tactics to impede or thwart logging efforts. In isolated instances, reports indicate activists set fire to construction equipment.

Authorities responded forcefully to the situation. In January 2023, police shot and killed activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, who had been camping at the Cop City site for months. Authorities claim Terán shot and wounded a state trooper, while Terán’s family asserts that they were engaged in peaceful protest.

An independent autopsy revealed that Terán was shot 57 times with his hands raised. A prosecutor chose not to press charges against the state troopers involved, deeming their use of deadly force “objectively reasonable.”

On September 5, 2023, Attorney General Carr indicted 61 activists under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a broader version of the 1970 federal RICO law. Among the charges, three defendants are accused of money laundering for transferring funds to protesters occupying the forest, while five face charges of domestic terrorism and arson. Some could potentially face up to 20 years in prison.

Protests and clashes with the police have persisted. A march organized by protesters on November 13 was met with heavily armed officers in riot gear. When activists attempted to move past the officers, tear gas and flash-bang grenades were deployed by the police.

The 109-page indictment of “Cop City” protesters in Georgia presents a comprehensive and, in our perspective, concerning portrayal of the actions and beliefs purportedly contributing to what is described as a corrupt agreement. The indictment links the conspiracy to the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, labeling the Atlanta-based movement as the Defend the Atlanta Forest “Enterprise” and characterizing participants as embracing “anarchist” ideas and practices such as “collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity.”

According to the indictment, protesters employ these practices to advance their objective of halting the construction of the training center. Examples cited as evidence include posting calls to action on online blogs, reimbursement for printed materials, and transferring funds to activists for necessities such as camping gear, food, communication equipment, and, in two instances, ammunition.

Endangering First Amendment rights In our perspective, these activists face criminalization due to their political beliefs and participation in activities safeguarded by the First Amendment, such as exercising free speech. Throughout the indictment, the Georgia attorney general appears to use the term “anarchist” interchangeably with “criminal.”

This choice of language bears resemblance to the Immigration Act of 1903, also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act. Targeting anarchists for exclusion from the U.S. based solely on their political beliefs, Section 2 of the law stipulates 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.”

Despite the law’s depiction of anarchy as a state of violent disorder, in reality, many anarchist thinkers proposed organizing society through voluntary cooperation, devoid of political institutions or hierarchical government.

An alternative and broader perspective views anarchy as an ideology and practice oriented toward organizing communities and society to confront all forms of oppression, including government oppression.

Why might such a philosophy be perceived as threatening? Examining recent U.S. history provides insight.

The Black Panthers During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government sought to suppress 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 established extensive community survival and mutual aid programs for Black communities during a period of governmental neglect. These initiatives included free access to medical and dental clinics, ambulance services, and buses to facilitate visits to friends and relatives in prison.

The Black Panthers’ initiative, such as the free breakfast program for children, provided sustenance to thousands nationwide. In Chicago, local police intentionally destroyed food on the eve of the program’s launch. A memo from an FBI special agent characterized the initiative as an effort to “create an image of civility” and “assume community control,” posing a perceived threat to the centralized authority of the U.S. government.

Federal agencies primarily utilized covert strategies to surveil, infiltrate, and undermine the Black Panther Party. Like the protesters at Cop City, the Black Panthers also engaged in direct confrontations with law enforcement.

However, we perceive the current application of RICO charges to address political activism and protest activities as a novel tactic.

Future implications In our research, we have delved into how mutual aid groups establish networks of care and survival amid the challenges posed by climate change. We anticipate mutual aid becoming increasingly crucial for Black and Indigenous people of color as environmental disasters grow more frequent.

From our viewpoint, the attempts to thwart Cop City highlight the intertwined nature of two critical concerns: the overpolicing of communities of color and climate change. We interpret Georgia’s RICO indictment as an endeavor to suppress social movement activity, leveraging the state’s tools of legal interpretation and enforcement.

Criminalizing collectivism, mutual aid, and social solidarity is especially disconcerting for historically marginalized populations, who frequently rely on these strategies for survival.

In an effort to utilize the state’s political processes, organizers recently gathered over 116,000 signatures supporting a ballot referendum. If approved, this referendum would annul the lease of the city-owned site for the training center. However, Atlanta officials have hesitated to verify the signatures, awaiting a federal court ruling on whether the organizers missed a crucial deadline. Meanwhile, Atlanta has commenced land clearance for construction at the training site.

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