By Justin A. Davis / Waging Nonviolence
For the past two years, calls to “stop Cop City” and “defend the Atlanta forest” have shaken the political and corporate establishment of Georgia’s state capital. Although Atlanta City Council has approved a lease and funding for a massive Public Safety Training Center in the city’s Weelaunee Forest, the sustained, popular #StopCopCity movement has effectively halted its construction.
In response, local and state government have used a variety of tactics to move things forward — including police raids (which led to the killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán), domestic terrorism charges against activists and a highly-controversial “signature verification process” that could undermine a proposed referendum. Last week, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced a new tactic to suppress the movement: a sprawling, 61-person RICO indictment under the state’s anti-racketeering law.
A website for Defend the Atlanta Forest, or DTAF, describes itself as “a movement, slogan, and media platform,” made up of “a dynamic and diverse collection of grassroots groups and individuals.” The state of Georgia has taken a much narrower view, however: Carr’s indictment paints DTAF as an anarchist organization that uses “violence, threats and property damage” to promote extremist politics and criminal activity. Across 110 pages, terms like “mutual aid” and “solidarity” appear as dog whistles for anti-government conspiracy, and an Atlanta-area bail fund is accused of money laundering to support protesters’ needs.
Georgia prosecutors have deployed the state’s expansive RICO law in a number of high-profile cases, such as an Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, rapper Young Thug’s YSL collective and former President Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine election results. But this latest case against DTAF — which frames the decentralized social movement as a violent “racketeering” enterprise — represents a chilling new phase in the ongoing struggle between Georgia’s political class and a huge cross-section of its citizens.
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I recently spoke with Priscilla Grim, one of the activists named in this recent indictment. Currently living in New York City, Grim’s charges stem from a trip she took to Atlanta in March — where she attended a “week of action” that included protests, a music festival, arts workshops and a free clinic. We discussed her reaction to the RICO indictment, her past experience in Atlanta’s carceral system and what activists can learn from Georgia’s repeated efforts to stifle the Stop Cop City demand. “The biggest thing is people shouldn’t be scared,” she told me at the start of our conversation. “This is a time for solidarity, and a time to know that the ancestors have us.”
When did you get the news about this RICO indictment, and did you have any idea that something like this might be coming?
I was at Brighton Beach, here in Brooklyn, New York, because I knew there was going to be some kind of announcement, and I just wanted to be in a place where I felt safe and happy. Now that we’ve all read the indictment, it’s even more ridiculous than what I thought it might be. There are many mistakes in it, they lie in it — we’ll see what the public has to say about it.
It’s a very strange, Kafkaesque situation I’m in right now … I don’t know if I’m going to be kidnapped in the middle of the night with an arrest warrant. I don’t know if my home is going to be searched by the police. I have no idea if I’m going to be required to go down to Georgia, check into jail and wait until they give me a bond — or if I’m going to have a bond. It’s all very nebulous right now.
The thing that really makes me most upset in this situation is how it’s affecting my daughter. She doesn’t need to worry about getting her mom out of jail or raising rent money or doing any of that stuff — she needs to just be a kid right now.
Talk to me in broad strokes about the community you saw while supporting the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta earlier this year.
What made me so excited about the Stop Cop City movement was that it is so principled, so decentralized, and led by Black and Indigenous people based in Atlanta, with broad support of the most directly affected people. Everybody was so creative and kind, and all of these things that we need in the world.
As a New Yorker who saw our city council vote to build new jails — even as the entire city said, “We don’t want this” — it gave me a lot of hope. I wanted to be a part of a movement that was actually bringing a demand and looking like they could possibly win. And it’s still looking like they could win, which is exciting to me. We’re all being abused by capitalism right now, and it’s not getting any better. We have to make some real choices about how to stop the way corporations and the 1 percent are brutalizing us on all the different fronts.
This new indictment comes from Fulton County, Georgia, where 10 people have died in the county jail this year. Back in May, you wrote an article for Scalawag detailing your experience being jailed in neighboring DeKalb County. What are some vital strategies for taking care of yourself and others while you’re in the midst of that kind of violence?
When I was in jail for 31 days at DeKalb County Jail, I had two mantras inside my head. The first was from Stephen Biko from South Africa, who famously said, “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I’m not going to allow my mind to be turned against me. The other was understanding that Angela Davis went through something way worse than this — and she survived, and she’s thriving now. [I was] really looking at the activists of the past, because we have transparency and real history that we can grab onto.
I found out on the first day inside that they would only give you two Maxi Pads at a time, and we’d have up to 30 people with uteri in the podcage. I would ask for pads every single day, so that I had a big stack that I could just give out to people when they needed them. The only reason we got blankets is because we organized everyone to submit complaints about the temperature.
I work for Beautiful Trouble now, and we put out a self-care and resilience module to help train social justice trainers. All the somatic exercises that we talk about in that, I actually did while I was there. One of the biggest things you saw with other people [was] rocking our bodies, to try and feel more in our bodies and to find some calm.
Some of the other forest defenders led yoga sessions. I led some meditative visualizations for people, in which I basically took them on a journey outside of the jail … Even though we’re inside of this terrible building filled with concrete, it was still part of nature, and still part of the earth. If we touch the walls, we’re still touching the earth, and we’re still connected, and we have to believe that in order to survive — because part of the punishment is to separate you from society and from the earth.
In the past, you had some involvement with the Occupy Wall Street movement. How did the state repression that activists were experiencing back then compare to what we’re seeing now with Stop Cop City?
I mean, policing is policing. Their job is just to put people in cages. They will say whatever they want to in order to achieve the goal, which is to put people in cages. They arrested 800 people on the Brooklyn Bridge during Occupy. They would act with complete abandon.
The only thing that surprised me with Georgia is that, in New York City, if you get arrested for a political arrest, they usually send you to a jail that doesn’t have non-political arrests there — because they don’t want you organizing people inside. So we were actually helping people, giving them advice on their legal stuff, trying to do what we could to help raise bail for other people who didn’t have money to get out, because so many people in Georgia are just left in there.
My last cellmate, who was there for a year and a half without a charge, was there because she couldn’t afford $1,500. She had a child there. Because of the situation, she had really high blood pressure, so they wound up putting her in medical solitary for seven months because they didn’t want her to die. She still hasn’t been charged for anything.
The RICO indictment focuses intensely on forest defenders, but the Stop Cop City movement has been much more than that. There have been solidarity protests in cities around the country, and a referendum campaign in Atlanta that’s got over 100,000 signatures. Why do you think the indictment ignores that mass movement while framing this as a fringe organization?
In my mind, this is purely a political game. This has zero to do with any of us personally, and everything to do with allowing police and corporations to steal public resources from the people of Atlanta.
For the amount of different tactics that people have tried — and the amount of people both inside and outside of Atlanta who have come to support — this indictment is very intentional about framing the movement as anarchist. Do you think Stop Cop City has been as ideologically rigid as critics have suggested?
No — that’s why there’s the whole Stop Cop City vote effort. This is the difference between the North and the South, as someone who’s lived in both places. In my experience in New York City, people really get hung up on the ideological approaches to how to solve things. We have rent control here, a social safety net — and I guess having some of that makes people more comfortable in holding onto ideology a little bit harder. But in the South, it seems that people have more of a sense of solidarity and allow for a diversity of tactics within the community. It seems to me that it’s in such a crisis, that people always work together once a common interest has been determined. You know, if you fight, you could lose. But if you don’t fight, you’re lost.
The way Georgia’s used domestic terrorism and racketeering charges for these kinds of movements is a pretty rare sight. Do you think we’ll see other places using these tactics on progressive and radical campaigns in the future?
Not if we fight back appropriately, and not if we win these cases. That’s kind of why I want to be as public as possible with my fight. We have an opportunity to really shine a light on how political repression works and what it looks like.
If I want to live a life in which I’m an activist who is part of efforts that really change things, I have to be okay with the fact that I’m going to have some brutal uncertainty and actual brutality inflicted on me and the people around me. That being said, being an activist in jail for ridiculous charges, luckily there’s a real sense of solidarity with people all over the U.S. and the world. You know, people have been charged with terrorism for giving money to Palestinian causes for years.
I’m just trying to be the best activist I can be right now and expose the realities of jails in Atlanta, expose the realities of these charges being used specifically to frighten people into not engaging with political activism. They absolutely should — and they should not be frightened, and they should go full force in whatever they’re doing to change this world because it’s literally on fire right now.
A number of arrestees are raising money for basic survival needs and legal costs, including Grim. You can learn more about their efforts here.
Justin Davis is a writer and labor organizer. His poems are published or forthcoming in places like Washington Square Review, Anomaly, wildness, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He’s published non-fiction with Scalawag, Science for the People and Labor Notes. He’s been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.