By Ryan Fatica / Unicorn Riot
Atlanta, GA – Community organizations involved in the ongoing campaign to defend the South River Forest outside Atlanta, Georgia and ‘Stop Cop City’ say state prosecutors are planning on releasing indictments in the coming weeks charging them as a “criminal organization” under RICO statutes.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, targets organized criminal enterprises and was created in the 1970s to more effectively prosecute the mafia. Since then, RICO statutes have been used against participants in the 2019 college admissions scandal, anti-abortion groups, insider traders, and now, environmental and climate justice activists.
Rather than charging individuals with specific crimes they committed, RICO indictments target alleged criminal organizations in which people collaborate together to commit a series of interrelated crimes in furtherance of a common criminal goal. For charges to stick, prosecutors must prove that those charged engaged in a “pattern of racketeering” activity involving “at least two acts” in furtherance of “one or more incidents, schemes, or transactions.”
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Community Movement Builders, along with attorneys at the Civil Liberties Defense Center and Georgia attorney Donald F. Samuel made the announcement today after they became aware of information about the indictments.
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Marlon Kautz, a member of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, explained that they believe the indictments are coming “based on a statement made by an Atlanta police officer.” He also said that they “understand that an indictment against activists is forthcoming, likely in the coming week.”
According to Kautz, the group’s information is also “based on a conversation between a defense attorney who is representing activists and the state prosecutor assigned to those cases.”
Unicorn Riot was unable to independently confirm the leaked information regarding the coming indictments.
The activists believe state prosecutors plan to charge them under Georgia’s state-level RICO statute. Georgia recently leveraged its RICO statute to charge rappers Young Thug, Gunna and dozens of others for their alleged participation in a street gang known as Young Slime Life, or YSL. In that case, the Fulton County District Attorney alleged in their indictment that participants in the group engaged in a slew of criminal activities in furtherance of a common enterprise, including murder and multiple charges of aggravated assault and armed robbery.
Kamau Franklin, of Community Movement Builders, connected the RICO charges to efforts by law enforcement to repress the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement in the past:
“The city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia are working together to repress the Stop Cop City movement. Just as historically, the state has always tried to repress movements to fight for people’s rights and Liberties. Just as in the past, it was the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement that was targeted by the state. Now we have movements today which are fighting against police violence and police militarization, which are also being targeted by the state. We must stand strong and stand together and fight against these efforts to repress our movement.”Kamau Franklin, Community Movement Builders
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a not-for-profit organization that provides resources to those facing state repression, may be one of the groups that prosecutors plan to target. Atlanta Solidarity Fund offers jail support for those in Atlanta who are arrested during protests, bails activists out of jail, and helps provide legal representation for activists charged with crimes. It is one of many such organizations currently doing this work around the country.
Such organizations routinely manage large sums of money that are donated to them from networks of activists and concerned people around the country. Bake sales, punk shows, online donations and other grassroots fundraising campaigns are frequently the main source of funding for such organizations, in addition to grants.
The Atlanta Solidarity Fund is a project of the Network For Strong Communities, a 501(c3) non-profit. In 2020, the most recent year about which information is available, the Network for Strong Communities reported $3,614,028 in income from all its activities and fiscally sponsored organizations.
If found guilty, those charged under Georgia’s RICO law face “not less than five nor more than 20 years’ imprisonment” in addition to fines totaling “the greater of $25,000.00 or three times the amount of any pecuniary value gained by him or her from such violation.”
“The notion that RICO would be invoked to punish protestors engaged in a widely-supported challenge to a government decision is a giant leap in the wrong direction,” said Don Samuel, a Georgia attorney who has written about Georgia RICO statutes. Samuel’s written statement was shared by the groups during their announcement.
“Threatening peaceful protestors with a seizure of their money and a twenty-year prison sentence not only mocks the purpose of the statute, it represents an assault on the most important and cherished rights of all American citizens: the right to protest, the right to seek redress of grievances, the right to enlist friends, colleagues, and the community to change government policy because the citizens want change […] Threatening citizens with prosecution for doing so is anathema to the United States Constitution and violates the prosecutor’s oath of office. And threatening protestors (even if they trespass or engage in civil disobedience) by labeling them ‘racketeers’ and ‘terrorists’ is the behavior of a prosecutor in desperate need of finding another job.”Don Samuel, Georgia attorney
Georgia RICO law names 42 specific acts that may be charged as part of a “pattern of racketeering activity,”including homicide, kidnapping, burglary and arson, as well as any crime named under the federal RICO statute. It is unclear what criminal acts Georgia prosecutors plan to allege Atlanta activists engaged in.
Under the Georgia RICO statute, “acts of domestic terrorism” can also be used as proof of a “pattern of racketeering activity” as well as “any criminal attempt, criminal solicitation, or criminal conspiracy related thereto.” Nineteen activists and forest defenders in Atlanta were recently charged under domestic terrorism statutes for their participation in the effort to defend the forest. It is unclear how those charges, which have been criticized for excessively criminalizing protest, may be linked to the potential RICO charges. Some of the domestic terrorism charges against activists are apparently based only on minor allegations like making social media posts, occupying a treehouse or running away from an arresting officer.
In addition to criminal charges, RICO statutes in Georgia allow for civil remedies, including seizing group and personal assets from those found guilty. A group’s assets can be frozen prior to trial.
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, an Oregon-based legal non-profit that is assisting in legal efforts for the Atlanta campaign, said in a pre-recorded statement:
“Whenever political movements are successful, particularly when you are fighting against a massive police training facility that will train cops to maraud civilians and quell dissent, you should expect the state to utilize its power of repression against your growing movement. One way the state thinks it can crush environmental and social justice movements is by threatening, or attempting, to prosecute activists’ organizations and campaigns for racketeering.”Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC)
The CLDC went on to say, “Know your rights, do not cooperate with the state to do harm to yourself, your comrades or the political movements you support, and trust that there is a strong and vigorous legal support structure in place to defend you, if needed.”
Neither the Fulton County or DeKalb County District Attorney’s Offices responded to Unicorn Riot’s request for comment as of publication time. The Georgia Attorney General’s office could not be reached for comment.
Editor’s Note: Listen to Robert Scheer’s SI interview with Kamau Franklin on Cop City here.