Anger against Cop City is growing and not just because of the political repression being used against activists.
Georgia’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law, modeled on the federal statute designed to attack mob bosses, has been in the news a lot, ever since Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis used Georgia’s law to charge former President Donald Trump and his associates with attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election.And with the news has come the inevitable hand-wringing about whether the RICO charges against Trump were a good idea. CNN (8/26/23) published an op-ed questioning whether the indictments were too broad, saying, “Casting a wide net can also raise serious First Amendment issues.” One New York Times op-ed (8/29/23) worried that the case against Trump was overly complex, offering him the ability to mount a strong defense by delaying the proceedings.
Trump and his supporters are fond of framing the charges as a political hit against the ex-president and an attack on free speech, as if a mob boss can invoke the First Amendment when ordering the killing of a police informant. New York (8/17/23) did offer some valid criticism of the use of RICO laws, saying they have often been used for reactionary ends:
The immediate concern is its continued legitimization of RICO laws, which are overwhelmingly used to punish poor Black and brown people for their associations, not would-be despots like the former president.
But when a new example arose of RICO being used to punish the powerless rather than the powerful—coming from not only the same state but from the very same grand jury—such cautiousness was hard to find in corporate media.
Accused of militant anarchism
With Georgia’s RICO law in the news because of Trump, the media should be connecting this law to the broad suppression of legitimate dissent in Atlanta.
Both indictments include protected speech as “overt acts.” That’s fine. But one indictment identifies the underlying criminal enterprise as election fraud and the other as political protest itself. The latter is actually seeking to criminalize speech.
If Trump and team actually conspired to commit election fraud by, among other things, inducing legislators to illegally certify phony Electors in Georgia, then otherwise protected speech acts like complaining about fake voter fraud can be overt acts.
In the Cop City case, on the other hand, “handing out leaflets doesn’t tie all that well to property damage” against the construction of Cop City because if “a conspiracy is limited to sabotaging construction vehicles, it’s hard to rope in defendants who weren’t buying equipment to destroy vehicles.”
In addition to the RICO charges, prosecutors charged a bail fund with money laundering and others for domestic terrorism. The indictment calls the protestors “militant anarchists” and incorrectly states the Defend Atlanta Forest group began in summer 2020, even though the indictment also states that the Cop City project was not announced until April 2021.
‘Clearly a political prosecution’While the Trump indictment predictably took center stage, the Cop City indictments received a fair amount of down-the-middle, straight reporting (AP, 9/5/23; New York Times, 9/5/23; CNN, 9/6/23; Washington Post, 9/6/23). However, compared to the Trump story, corporate media have shown far less concern about the broadness of Georgia’s RICO statute and how it has been invoked to essentially silence dissent against Cop City.
In left-of-center and libertarian media, the criticisms are there. MSNBC (9/7/23) called it an attack on dissent, and Devin Franklin of the Southern Center for Human Rights told Democracy Now! (9/6/23):
I think that when we look at the number of people that were accused and we look at the allegations that are included in the indictment, what we see are a wide variety of activities that are lawful that are being deemed to be criminal, and that includes things such as passing out flyers—right?—a really clear example of the exercise of First Amendment rights. We see that organizations that were bailing people out for protests or conducting business in otherwise lawful manners have been deemed to be part of some ominous infrastructure. And it’s just not accurate. This is really clearly a political prosecution.
The staff and readership of Reason (9/6/23) might not like a lot of the anti–Cop City’s economic and social justice message, but the libertarian magazine stood with the indicted activists on principle:
To say that the indictment paints with a broad brush is an understatement. Prosecutors speak about “militant anarchists” and their tactics, but also spend a considerable amount of time describing conduct that is clearly protected speech. “Defend the Atlanta Forest anarchists target and recruit individuals with a certain personal profile,” the filing alleges. “Once these individuals have been recruited, members of Defend the Atlanta Forest also promote anarchist ideas through written documents and word of mouth”; such documents “decry capitalism in any form, condemn government and cast all law enforcement as violent murderers.” (All protected speech.)
Unconcerned about protest attacksHowever, corporate media appear unconcerned with the broad use of RICO to prosecute the anti–Cop City protesters. While many “RICO explainer” articles (NPR, 8/15/23; CBS, 8/15/23) discussing the Trump case mentioned that Georgia’s RICO statute is broader and easier to prosecute than the federal statute—it’s “a different animal. It’s easier to prove” than the federal statute, a defense attorney told CNN (9/6/23)—the notion that this might be in play in the Cop City case was overlooked in many of the articles discussing that indictment (e.g., AP, 9/5/23; CNN, 9/6/23; New York Times, 9/5/23).
The indictment of the forest defenders is an escalation of previous attacks on free speech, advocacy and free association. Earlier this year, Atlanta police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three activists operating a bail fund for opponents of Cop City protesters (AP, 5/31/23; FAIR.org, 6/8/23). An “autopsy of an environmental activist who was shot and killed by the Georgia State Patrol” at an anti-Cop City protest “shows their hands were raised when they were killed,” NPR (3/11/23) reported.
So one might think that even more sweeping prosecutorial action would arouse more suspicion. An opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (9/11/23) admitted that the RICO charges against the protesters were overly broad and thinly supported, making for inefficient prosecution. But the piece seemed dismissive of First Amendment concerns: “Civil liberties groups are howling, saying the indictment is an affront to free speech,” Bill Thorby wrote, adding that “so are the supporters of Trump & Co.”
The Above the Law piece linked above explores and debunks this analogy, but the statement exhibits the lazy journalistic trick of lumping Trump and social justice activists as two sides of the same extremist coin, suggesting centrism is the only legitimate political position.
Anger against Cop City is growing, not just because of the political repression being used against activists, but because the project is the product of police militarization, whopping spending on security at the expense of other needed services, and the destruction of forest land.
With Georgia’s RICO law in the news because of Trump, the media should be connecting this law to the broad suppression of legitimate dissent in Atlanta. While the prosecution is not going unreported, the urgency of the Orwellian use of state power is not felt in any kind of news analysis or in opinion pieces in the mainstream corporate press. At least not yet.
Research assistance: Pai Liu