A diverse array of major human rights and press freedom groups are among 90 organizations calling on Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to drop controversial racketeering charges against “Cop City” protesters.
Among signatories to a letter announced Sept. 28 are Amnesty International USA, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, PEN America, Greenpeace USA, March for Our Lives and the Movement for Black Lives. Similar to a letter sent in March decrying the use of domestic terrorism charges against protesters, the new letter calls the use of the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law a political attempt to chill free speech. Both letters were organized by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Defending Rights & Dissent.
“Overcharging alleged offenses as a conspiracy chills First Amendment-protected activity and tars political speech as intrinsically violence-prone, casting aspersions upon the Stop Cop City movement as a whole,” says the letter in part. “As a matter of democratic necessity, we urge you to drop this selective prosecution of political dissidents.”
In an indictment revealed earlier this month in Fulton County Superior Court, Carr’s office calls the Defend the Atlanta Forest (DTAF) movement opposing Atlanta’s public safety training center a criminal organization of “anti-police” anarchists. It charged 61 people with racketeering and other major felonies and was instantly criticized by protesters and free-speech groups.
The indictment contained factual errors about such topics as the training center’s land ownership and never clearly defined the supposed DTAF 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. It claimed that the RICO “conspiracy” predated 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.
The Sept. 28 letter expresses particular concern about the RICO indictment’s charging of bail-fund organizers and people who distributed leaflets identifying a police officer as the one who killed the protester known as Tortuguita in an alleged shootout.
“The indictment threatens political organizing, protected speech and press freedom, and the right to protest writ large,” says the letter, which also alludes to Atlanta’s Civil Rights history.
“Just as it would have been nonsensical to prosecute Morehouse students arrested during civil rights movement sit-ins as conspirators with the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this indictment takes the absurd leap of collapsing diverse protests into a masterminded conspiracy simply because the protests share similar goals,” says the letter. “By the logic of this indictment, every movement for social change would be a target for criminalization.”
Several signers added further criticism in a press release. Amnesty International USA called the indictment an “absurdly grotesque abuse of the criminal legal system.” The Freedom of the Press Foundation said it “makes a mockery of the First Amendment and the entire criminal justice system.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights called a “ludicrous and terrifying” new level of criminalizing speech, even in comparison to international examples. “Attorney General Carr has fabricated an expansive racketeering conspiracy from a jumble of scraps — a zine encountered on the forest floor, a flyer posted on a mailbox, reimbursements for bathrooms for a public event in a park — almost all of which are protected by the First Amendment,” said the organization in the press release.
Community Movement Builders (CMB), an Atlanta organizer involved in the protest movement, was among the signers. “The only conspiracy here is the one between the state and the city to unjustly charge organizers,” said CMB founder Kamau Franklin in the press release.
“You cannot silence a movement, Mr. Carr,” said Sue Udry, executive director of Defending Rights & Dissent, in the press release.
The backdrop for this debate is many other allegations of free-speech and free-press violations by authorities attempting to crack down on “Cop City” protests. They include the arrests of dozens of protesters and journalists, APD’s second-in-command urging residents to promote a “narrative” that any out-of-state protester is a terrorist, the removal of a skeptical member from an official advisory committee, lawyers attempting to demand internal records of advocacy journalists, and Georgia Tech’s removal of a student journalist’s blog post.