A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

The Defend the Atlanta Forest (DATF) movement opposing the public safety training center is accused of being a criminal organization in a sprawling indictment charging 61 people with racketeering and other major felonies, setting up a First Amendment legal battle.

The indictment, dated Aug. 29 but released Sept. 5, was presented in Fulton County Superior Court by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr on the heels of his hotly controversial use of domestic terrorism charges against some of the same “Cop City” protest defendants. Carr’s use of the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law – the same one also controversially used to charge former President Trump and others in an election-conspiracy case – focused on allegations that DATF is an “anti-police” anarchist conspiracy. That drew condemnation from local organizers and national free-speech groups. 

“The overwhelming goal of this type of oppression is to make people afraid to participate,” said Lauren C. Regan, executive director of the Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center. “… For so many reasons, this is an incredibly broad net that probably is more likely intended to scare citizens from exercising political rights than it is to actually secure any kind of conviction.”

Regan said that in 25 years of civil liberties work, she has only seen RICO charges filed against protesters once and never at this scale. That threat to First Amendment rights, she added, will attract “dozens and dozens” of lawyers to Georgia to collaborate on “the strongest, scorched-earth defense.”

With 86 pages of accusations, the indictment provides more details on previously unclear charges against several defendants – including such major crimes as attempted arson of public buildings. Besides RICO charges, it also includes some new charges of domestic terrorism, arson and money laundering.

The indictment also has basic factual errors about such topics as the training center’s land ownership and never clearly defines the supposed DATF organization or who runs it. Some legal activities are listed as contributing acts in the alleged conspiracy, including owning a book and linking to a TV news story.

The indictment claims DATF has an ideology of “anti-police,” pro-environment anarchism, illustrating that with many quotes whose sources are not identified and often not specifically described as leaders of the alleged group. Containing a lengthy critical description of anarchism and its philosophy – material whose source is not identified – the indictment also presents politically biased accounts of hot-button issues in the training center controversy, such as the secrecy of its planning and the police killing of the protester known as Tortuguita. 

A major claim is that the RICO “conspiracy” predates the training center plan by several months, rooting it in the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.

Prominent figures in the indictment are three leaders of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (ASF), which provides legal support to protesters. Their arrests on money laundering and charity fraud charges earlier this year drew condemnation for search warrants that incorrectly claimed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had designated DATF as a group of “domestic violent extremists.” In fact, DHS makes no such designations and, while it had cited “alleged” extremists within the broader protest movement in a bulletin, did not use the DATF name at all.

Despite media debunking of that claim, the indictment continues to use it, albeit in vaguer language. The indictment claims in reference to DTAF that DHS “has classified the individuals as alleged Domestic Violent Extremists,” without naming anyone. Some activity broadly described by DHS in the bulletin is similar to accusations against some of those named in the indictment, but DHS did not name individual suspects or incidents.

The new RICO charges also encompass some defendants whose previous domestic terrorism charges drew controversy. Among them are a legal observer and concert-goers arrested following a mass assault by protesters on the training center site and activists arrested for distributing flyers in Barrow County identifying a Georgia State Patrol officer reportedly involved in the killing of Tortuguita.

Among the national groups condemning the RICO charges on social media was Washington, D.C.-based Defending Rights & Dissent, which organized a previous multi-organization letter condemning the use of domestic terrorism charges in the “Cop City” protests. The ACLU of Georgia also weighed in, saying, “Exposing individuals to at least 20 years of prison time for exercising their First Amendment rights should not be possible in a democracy.” The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights said it was contacting attorneys for some defendants and locating attorneys for others who need them.

Vote to Stop Cop City, the coalition attempting to put the training center’s lease on the ballot for voters to decide, issued a statement condemning Carr as an “authoritarian” motivated by gubernatorial ambitions. The statement also alluded to the controversy over Carr previously chairing a Republican attorney generals’ association that funded robocalls urging people to march on Washington in what became the Jan. 6 insurrection that resulted in some protesters receiving prison sentences with terrorism enhancements. Carr has said he was unaware of the calls and later resigned from the group.

“Carr’s actions are a part of a retaliatory pattern of prosecutions against organizers nationwide that attack the right to protest and freedom of speech,” said the statement. “The Vote to Stop Cop City coalition strongly condemns these anti-democratic charges. We will not be intimidated by power-hungry strongmen, whether in City Hall or the Attorney General’s office.”

The attempt to date the conspiracy to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the group added, is “a clear assault on the broader movement for racial justice and equity.”

Regan at the Civil Liberties Defense Center said the 2020 references are likely an attempt to “muddy the water” by tying the DATF movement to unrelated activity that might scare the public. That’s also part of the attempt to present anarchism as criminal. “A lot of what I’m seeing in this indictment is First Amendment-protected speech [and] First Amendment-protected assembly…,” said Regan, adding that success on such charges would be “a massive transgression of what are normally believed to be First Amendment rights, especially when it comes to political activity.”

RICO use and abuse

RICO laws at the federal and state levels date to the 1970s as a method of prosecuting complex organized crime, such as the Mafia, and adding hefty prison sentences. Georgia’s version is especially easy to prosecute, needing only one person and two criminal acts – from a long list of potential crimes – that contribute to a criminal “enterprise.” Georgia’s penalty for a RICO conviction is a minimum of five years in prison and up to 20 years.

Much like terrorism laws, RICO laws are known for being used in modern times in cases far different than the plots of the Mafia or street gangs. In Fulton, RICO was controversially used to prosecute teachers and principals in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and is in the spotlight again as Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis uses the law to prosecute former President Trump and other alleged conspirators in their scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, is a former FBI agent and a critic of the politicized use of terrorism laws to target particular alleged ideologies rather than crime per se. He was unavailable to comment on the new RICO cases but previously told SaportaReport that domestic terrorism charges in the “Cop City” cases likely were intended more to chill protests than succeed in court. And, he said then, RICO laws were subject to similar abuse, today often contributing to “overreach” by prosecutors, with a disproportionate impact on minority communities. 

“So domestic terrorism isn’t the only problematic categorization of the public that law enforcement engages in,” German said, calling RICO abuse “just another example of the government framing a problem and using the authority they gained to target a different population.”

Criminal ‘enterprise’ claims

The indictment appears to claim that DATF itself is the criminal “enterprise” subject to RICO prosecution, with the conspiratorial aim of occupying the training center site to prevent construction. 

Aside from official charges, the source of much information in the indictment document, such as an overview of anarchism and alleged quotes from protests, is unclear. An Attorney General’s office spokesperson said prosecutors “prepared” the indictment but could not immediately provide a source for the information about anarchism. As noted by Regan, the indictment document indicates that a single Georgia Bureau of Investigations agent, Ryan Long, served as a witness for the grand jury that handed down the indictment. That’s the same GBI agent who previously signed warrants authorizing controversial domestic terrorism charges against some suspects. Regan questioned how a sole agent could testify credibly about the actions of 61 defendants.

In laying out the “enterprise” claim, the indictment incorrectly reverses the City of Atlanta and the private Atlanta Police Foundation in their roles as owner and lessee of the site. It also appears to confuse the roles of Shadowbox Studios, the former Blackhall Studios and developer Ryan Millsap in a DeKalb County parkland swap also targeted by DATF protests.

As for the claim that DATF is a distinct entity rather than a movement, the indictment gives varying and somewhat contradictory descriptions. DATF is variously called a “self-identified coalition and enterprise” and an “unofficial, Atlanta-based organization” yet one whose members do not meet in a single location. The indictment claims DATF “has evolved into a broader anti-government, anti-police, and anti-corporate extremist organization.” 

The indictment rejects, without clear evidence, protesters’ claim that there is no such organization, just a leaderless movement anyone can and does join. It mentions large peaceful protests and rallies conducted in DATF’s name only in passing to claim they are dupes or fronts for violence. There is no doubt that some destructive or violent acts cited in the indictment happened, such as burning of police cars and throwing rocks at construction workers. But most protesters present those as fringe activities, while the indictment claims they are the core functions.

The indictment claims DATF has three main ideologies: anarchism, environmentalism “at all costs,” and a “core driving motive” of “threatening, violent anti-police sentiment.”

A thrust of the argument is that anarchism is inherently dangerous or criminal and that DATF conducts its activities “all while promoting virulent anarchist ideals.”

On some topics, the indictment presents incomplete or alternative histories. The training center plan is presented as though it were fully transparent and non-controversial, rather than intensely debated in part for secret planning and budgeting, and described in marketing terms of fighting “violence” on the streets and improving training to lessen police “violence.” 

The enormously controversial killing of Tortuguita in an alleged shootout with state troopers – who did not wear body cameras – is presented as an example of a “false narrative” of “police aggression” promoted by DATF. The indictment claims a DATF blog “even admitted its member shot the trooper first” – quoting a single line that does not actually say that and does not come with an attribution that would show the writer’s actual authority or knowledge.

The indictment claims DATF had “beginnings” that were not in the forest but rather in the 2020 protests, and, in particular, the Wendy’s restaurant in Peoplestown that armed protesters took over for weeks after the police killing of Brooks. The indictment does not make any clear connection to that occupation, however, and how that can be the same DATF. However, the charges do include a firebombing of the Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters elsewhere in Atlanta during a separate protest at that time.

The political momentum for the training center itself dates to the 2020 protests and police counterprotests and the related Buckhead cityhood movement. State and local police have faced numerous complaints – formal and otherwise – of retaliatory arrests or harassment of protesters and journalists.

Appearing repeatedly in the indictment are Marlon Scott Kautz, Savannah D. Patterson, and Adele Maclean, who are known as operators of the ASF legal-support organization and an umbrella organization called Network for Strong Communities (NFSC). The indictment includes many money-laundering charges against them, revolving around claims they misappropriated funds donated for other causes to reimburse civil-disobedience campers at the training center site. The indictment also ties Kautz and Patterson to similar reimbursements for ammunition, radios and “camp fuel” in the fall of 2020, which was well before the “Cop City” protests and are unclear in purpose.

The indictments also identify that trio as publishers of numerous posts on a blog called “Scenes from the Atlanta Forest.” The blog presents itself as an anonymously run platform for material self-submitted by protesters locally and around the country. Its content has included various calls for destruction or violence and claims to have committed such crimes in the promotion of “Cop City” protests. The blog was previously among the media targeted by subpoenas in a civil lawsuit over the parkland swap, which appears to have gone away after resistance from First Amendment attorneys.

Various posts cited in the indictment allegedly exposed the personal information of developers and contractors, repeated threats or claims of vandalism, and linked to an Atlanta News First article about such crimes.

The indictment cites Antifa and anarchist graffiti as signs of the conspiracy, suggests that working with filmmakers and podcasters is propaganda activity, and claims DATF is following Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” DATF members “often contact news media and flood social media with claims that their unlawful actions are protected by the First Amendment,” the indictment complains.

Among many other allegations is a RICO charge against an employee of the security firm Flock Safety for allegedly revealing the future locations of cameras to protesters.

The specific domestic terrorism and arson counts are aimed at five people for a Jan 21, 2023 arson or attempted arson of Atlanta Police Department vehicles and at a Downtown tower that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The case was originally assigned to Judge Scott McAfee, who until recently served as the Georgia inspector general, overseeing an anti-corruption office. However, on Sept. 5, McAfee recused himself, saying that as inspector general, he had “discussed aspects” of the RICO investigation with the Attorney General’s office. McAfee and the Inspector General’s office did not immediately respond to questions about that discussion.

Regan noted that Carr presented the indictment in Fulton County, while the training center site is in DeKalb. She predicted Carr would present further indictments in the Superior Court in that county.

Full list of people indicted

Jack Morgan Beamon, Max Jacob Biederman, Timothy E. Bilodeau, Emma Katherine Bogush, Andrew Carlisle, Francis M. Carroll, Amin Jalal Chaoui, Brooke Elaine Courtemanche aka Brooke, Elaine Courtemanche, Colin Patrick Dorsey, Julia Caroline Dupuis, Ariel Caitlin Ebaugh, Lillian Pearl Ellis, Madeleine Feola, Ivan James Ferguson, Phillip Allen Flagg, Maggie June Gates, Nadja Geier, Priscilla Christine Grim, Sonali Gupta, Luke Edward Harper, Serena Abby Hertel, Marianna Elizabeth Hoitt-Lange, Thomas Webb Jurgens, Hannah Margaret Kass, Marlon Scott Kautz, Ayla Elegia King, Katie Marie Kloth, Madeleine Gunther Kodat, Zoe C. Larmey, Ana Gypsy Lee, Dimitri Roger Leny, Spencer Bernard Liberto, Mattia Luini, Matthew Ernest Macar, Adele Garrett Maclean, James Lee Marsicano, Grace Taylor Martin, Kayley Cheryl Meissner, Emily Murphy, Timothy A.R. Murphy, Tyler John Norman, Ehret William Nottingham, Leif Kingfisher, Nicholas Novak, Nicholas Dean Olson, Alexis Achilles Papali, Geoffrey Parsons, Savannah D. Patterson, Kamryn Durel Pipes, Victor Enrique Puertas, Christopher Reynolds, Fredrique Robert-Paul, Arieon T. Robinson, Teresa Yue Shen, Abagail Elizabeth Skapyak, Caroline Hart Tennenbaum, Geneva Rose Tilbury, Abeeku Osei Vassail, Leonard Zen Voiselle aka Leonardo Zen Voiselle, Samuel Clemens Ward, William Budden Warren, and Sarah Wasalewski.

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  1. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Obviously, opinions differ, even with respect to what the actual facts are. I have no problem with protests. What I do have a problem with is when protesters resort to destruction of property, intimidation, and interfering with the free movement, lives, and work of others. That is no longer, in my less-than-humble opinion, not free speech and goes far beyond what was intended by our founding fathers.

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