Anti-union RICO law used to indict Atlanta protesters

By Janice Lynn
October 2, 2023

ATLANTA — Just weeks after former President Donald Trump and 18 of his political associates were indicted here on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization charges, 61 opponents of the construction of an Atlanta police- and firefighting-training facility were charged with violating Georgia’s RICO Act.

The same grand jury that indicted Trump and his supporters also returned these charges. They were announced by Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr Sept. 5, targeting a number of anarchists and middle-class radicals who had set up a “Defend the Atlanta Forest” encampment at the site and, Carr says, “conspired to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.” 

The investigation was led by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in partnership with other cop organizations, including the Atlanta police and the FBI.

Georgia’s RICO law is one of the broadest in the country. It allows prosecutors to weave together a wide variety of alleged crimes by claims that they advance a single goal. There is no requirement under Georgia law that those charged even know each other. And it is set up with sentences of up to 20 years in prison to encourage witnesses to turn against each other and force confessions through plea bargains. 

RICO laws have been used for years to target unions and intervene in and impose government control over them. Court rulings, including by the U.S. Supreme Court, have given broad leeway in using these anti-labor laws. The 109-page RICO indictment alleges a total of 225 “overt acts,” including “payment of $12.52 for forest kitchen materials,” “$52.22 reimbursement for forest kitchen food,” and a reimbursement of $93.04 for “camping supplies.” 

‘Domestic terrorism’ charges

It also charges 28 defendants with “domestic terrorism,” claiming they threw Molotov cocktails, rocks and fireworks at firefighters and cops, as well as damaged construction equipment and vandalized the homes and offices of site contractors. Some individuals associated with the encampment have taken credit for many of these actions. In doing so, they provided the cops and government with a pretext to carry out their assaults on all those there.

Georgia State Patrol cops shot and killed Manuel Teran Jan. 18 during a “clearing operation,” claiming he shot at officers first. 

Chris Bruce, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, condemned the state’s use of domestic terrorism charges. It defines domestic terrorism as any felony meant to “intimidate the civilian population” or “change or coerce the policy of the government.”

Authorities also arrested three people who raised bail money for protest participants, claiming they engaged in money laundering. A heavily armed SWAT team in riot gear surrounded their house in May to arrest them. Other people are indicted for handing out flyers in April that identified one of the troopers involved in Teran’s death, and for posting material on websites, such as “calling for a week of Solidarity.” 

Lyra Foster, an attorney representing several of the defendants, said, “This is a naked political attempt to criminalize political dissent.” 

On Sept. 11 other opponents of the training facility submitted more than 116,000 signatures, twice the requirement, to put a referendum on the facility on the Atlanta ballot. Their petition has been challenged by city officials. 

Prosecutors say the roots of the “conspiracy” go back to 2020 protests in Atlanta held after the cop killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As part of these actions, antifa forces carried out attacks on police stations and burned down a Wendy’s restaurant. 

Lisa Potash, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Congress from Georgia, denounced the RICO indictments against both the Defend the Atlanta Forest protesters and former President Donald Trump.

“These laws are a threat to the unions and to our rights. No matter who is targeted today, workers, the unions and working-class political groups like my party, the Socialist Workers Party, are the ultimate target,” Potash said. “The defense of hard-won constitutional freedoms is crucial for the struggles of working people. 

“Drop all RICO charges against Trump and his associates, as well as the Defend the Atlanta Forest protesters.”