By R.J. RICO (Associated Press)
ATLANTA (AP) — Sixty-one people have been indicted in Georgia on racketeering charges following a long-running state investigation into protests against a planned police and firefighter training facility in the Atlanta area that critics call “Cop City.”
In the sweeping indictment released Tuesday, Republican Attorney General Chris Carr alleged the defendants are “militant anarchists” who supported a violent movement that prosecutors trace to the widespread 2020 racial justice protests.
The Aug. 29 indictment is the latest application of the state’s anti-racketeering law, also known as a RICO law, and comes just weeks after the Fulton County prosecutor used the statute to charge former President Donald Trump and 18 other defendants.
The “Stop Cop City” effort has gone on for more than two years and at times veered into vandalism and violence. Opponents fear the training center will lead to greater militarization of the police, and that its construction in an urban forest will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, majority-Black area.
Most of those indicted have already been charged over their alleged involvement in the movement. RICO charges carry a heavy potential sentence that can be added on top of the penalty for the underlying acts.
Among the defendants: more than three dozen people already facing domestic terrorism charges in connection to violent protests; three leaders of a bail fund previously accused of money laundering; and three activists previously charged with felony intimidation after authorities said they distributed flyers calling a state trooper a “murderer” for his involvement in the fatal shooting of a protester.
“The 61 defendants together have conspired to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center by conducting, coordinating and organizing acts of violence, intimidation and property destruction,” Carr said during a news conference Tuesday.
In linking the defendants to the alleged conspiracy, prosecutors have made a huge series of allegations. Those include everything from possessing fire accelerant and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers, to being reimbursed for glue and food for activists who spent months camping in the woods near the construction site.
Activists leading an ongoing referendum effort against the project immediately condemned the charges, calling them “anti-democratic.”
“Chris Carr may try to use his prosecutors and power to build his gubernatorial campaign and silence free speech, but his threats will not silence our commitment to standing up for our future, our community, and our city,” the Cop City Vote coalition said in a statement.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, praised the indictment, saying in a statement, “My top priority is and always will be keeping Georgians safe, especially against out-of-state radicals that threaten the safety of our citizens and law enforcement.”
Protests against the training center escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said state troopers fired in self-defense after Paez Terán shot at them while they cleared protesters from a wooded area near the proposed facility site. But the troopers involved weren’t wearing body cameras, and activists have questioned the official narrative.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and others say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities, and would help address difficulties in hiring and retaining police officers.
Prosecutors trace the roots of the “Stop Cop City” movement back to May 25, 2020, the date George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, even though the resulting protests occurred months before officials announced plans for the training center. Long after the racial justice protests died down, “violent anti-police sentiment” persisted among some Atlantans and it remains one of the demonstrators’ “core driving motives,” according to the indictment.
Since 2021, numerous instances of violence and vandalism have been linked to the movement. Days after the killing of Paez Terán, a police car was set alight at a January protest in downtown Atlanta. In March, more than 150 masked protesters chased off police at the construction site and torched construction equipment before fleeing and blending in with a crowd at a nearby music festival. Those two instances have led to dozens of people being charged with domestic terrorism, although prosecutors previously admitted they’ve had difficulty proving that many of those arrested were in fact those who took part in the violence.
Among those charged with domestic terrorism in March near the music festival and indicted last week is Thomas Jurgens, a Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney. Jurgens’ lawyer has said his client wore a bright green hat — a well-known identifier used by legal observers — and his arrest alarmed many human rights organizations.
The law center called it an example of “heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protesters.” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, a Democrat, mentioned her concerns about Jurgens’ prosecution in announcing her June decision to withdraw from criminal cases connected to the movement, citing disagreements with Carr over how to handle the matters.
In addition to the 61 racketeering indictments, five of the defendants were also indicted on domestic terrorism and first-degree arson charges. Three previously charged leaders of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has provided bail money and helped find attorneys for arrested protesters, were also each indicted on 15 counts of money laundering.
The case was initially assigned to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the judge overseeing the racketeering case against Trump and 18 others. But McAfee recused himself, saying he’d worked with prosecutors on the case prior to his judicial appointment. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams now oversees the case.