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“A Political Prosecution”: 61 Cop City Opponents Hit with RICO Charges by Georgia’s Republican AG

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Image Credit: Atlanta Community Press Collective (center)

Georgia is intensifying its crackdown against opponents of Cop City, with the state’s Republican attorney general announcing sweeping indictments of 61 people on racketeering charges over protests and other activism related to the $90 million police training facility planned to be built in Atlanta. The RICO charges were approved by the same grand jury that indicted former President Trump and 18 others on RICO charges in the same county by the Democratic district attorney, and come after many of the same people were earlier charged with domestic terrorism and money laundering as part of the Stop Cop City movement, which is still seeking to block construction of the new police complex. “They are choosing to use the legal process in an essentially violent way to target protesters,” says attorney Devin Franklin with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which is organizing legal representation for the defendants in the case. We also speak with Keyanna Jones, a Stop Cop City organizer with Community Movement Builders, who notes the indictments are dated from May 25, 2020, the day Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. “Since that date, this country has been upended by governments across the nation trying to build Cop Cities in order to quell protest,” says Jones. “The government is simply upset that people seek to … use their First Amendment right to protest when we see injustice coming from those in authority.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re beginning today’s show in Atlanta, Georgia, where the state’s Republican attorney general has announced a sweeping new RICO indictment against 61 activists and others he accuses of being part of a, quote, “criminal enterprise” to stop Cop City, a massive $90 million police training complex that’s facing widespread opposition and ongoing protests. The charges were brought in Fulton County and approved by the same grand jury that indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 of his associates on RICO, or racketeering, charges brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is a Democrat.

At a news conference Tuesday, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and John Fowler, head of Georgia’s Prosecution Division, laid out their allegations and why they brought the case in Fulton County.

ATTORNEY GENERAL CHRISTOPHER CARR: As alleged in the indictment, the defendants are members of Defend the Atlanta Forest, an anarchist, anti-police and anti-business extremist organization. We contend these 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.

JOHN FOWLER: Why Fulton County and not DeKalb County? Georgia racketeering law allows that, and we availed ourselves of the Georgia racketeering law to do that. Anywhere that a predicate act or an overt act in furtherance of a conspiracy occurred, in any county where that occurred, is where you can indict the case. And we chose Fulton County. …

When you allege a conspiracy to commit racketeering, there’s no requirement under Georgia law that they know each other. The whole purpose of the Georgia racketeering law is that they’re all working in some way, shape or form towards the same goal, and they formed a conspiracy to do that. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every person has to talk to every single person. All you have to do is commit one overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy with the others, and then you can be guilty of racketeering. So that’s why, is because it’s a large case, and so if you want to tie everybody together and they’re all trying to do the same thing, racketeering is the appropriate charge.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the 61 racketeering indictments, five people were also indicted on domestic terrorism and first-degree arson charges. Three people with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund were each indicted on 15 counts of money laundering for their work to provide bail money and legal aid for protesters. The indictment was issued on September 5th and filed August 29th. The indictment alleges the protests included violent anti-police sentiment, that’s now one of the, quote, “core driving motives” of protest to stop Cop City.

For more, we go to Atlanta, where we’re joined by Keyanna Jones, a Stop Cop City organizer for Community Movement Builders, and Devin Franklin, movement policy counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights. He worked over a decade as a public defender in Atlanta. His group has issued a call for lawyers to represent the 61 people now facing RICO charges.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! These are late-breaking developments. Devin, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what happened? Can you explain these RICO charges against 61 activists from the same Fulton County grand jury that approved the RICO charges against President Trump? But this was all led by the Republican attorney general. It almost looks like a response to what Fani Willis did with the grand jury against President Trump and others.

DEVIN FRANKLIN: Good morning.

Yes, it certainly is a response, but I would argue that it is a response to the larger movement that has been [inaudible] as it pertains to several matters of police violence and government prejudice. It’s just a lot going on. And I think that the state has shown that they don’t have a meaningful way to respond to what the people are showing that they want, and they are choosing to use the legal process in an essentially violent way to target protesters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the indictment itself, some of the main aspects of it, Devin Franklin? And the number of people is extraordinary, that are charged.

DEVIN FRANKLIN: Yeah, it’s really rare for this number of people to be included on an indictment. In my 12 years as a public defender in Fulton County, I never had a case that was this large or witnessed a case that was this large. 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 First Amendment — 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. And, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how does it turn out that the same grand jury that indicted Trump and his associates was the grand jury on this particular case?

DEVIN FRANKLIN: It appears to be so, from the limited information that I’ve been given. And it could simply be a matter of timing. It could have been something that has — that was [inaudible] by DA Fani Willis and AG Chris Carr. There’s no way to know for certain.

But what we do know is that for some point in time — for a period of time, rather, the attorney general of the state of Georgia, the governor of the state of Georgia, Brian Kemp, have both expressed discontent with the success that has been gained by the Stop Cop City movement and the momentum that has been created in the streets among the people, and that they have chosen to use those things which they have at their access, at their disposal, to assist the attempt to criminalize otherwise lawful activity.

AMY GOODMAN: Devin Franklin, what’s interesting is that the DeKalb County’s top prosecutor, the DA, announced she is stepping away from every case involving Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center, Cop City. DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston announced she is out. She will not support these charges going forward. Your response to this?

DEVIN FRANKLIN: I think it’s telling. I think it’s really telling, because the DeKalb County prosecutor has, you know, a pretty good reputation in the legal community. And for her to take a look at the actions that the attorney general was seeking to go forward with in her county and for her to say, you know, “I don’t want to be parts of it. I have concerns about the legitimacy of these charges. I have concerns about the intent of the charges that the prosecutor, Attorney General Chris Carr, is seeking,” I think that it is kind of a unique way of saying the quiet part out loud, which is, “Something is not right. Something doesn’t smell right with this entire situation, and I want no parts of it.” And I think that will bear out as we get deeper into the discovery that is to follow the indictment.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, before we go to Keyanna Jones, your own center, the Southern Center for Human Rights, has it been named in any way in this? You have called for lawyers around the country to come help represent the protesters, but you, yourself, are a lawyer, and you’re a former public defender.

DEVIN FRANKLIN: Correct, yeah, in no way that I am aware that we have been named in anything. We are, essentially, just trying to make sure that persons who are brought within the arms of the legal system have access to counsel. That’s a constitutional right, and there is nothing unlawful about ensuring that people have fair, accurate, zealous representation when they’re taking on a system such as what the state of Georgia is being at this point in time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Keyanna Jones into the conversation, an organizer against Cop City. Welcome to Democracy Now! And your response to these indictments?

KEYANNA JONES: Thank you for having me.

My response to these indictments is just the same as Devin’s. We know that this is retaliation for anyone who seeks to oppose the government here in Georgia. A very clear message was sent with this particular RICO indictment. We see that the date on this indictment reads May 25th, 2020, the date that George Floyd was murdered, the date that people all across this country stood up and said that “Enough is enough. We won’t stand for police terror, excessive violence and brutality, and the senseless killings of innocent Black people around this country.” Since that date, this country has been upended by governments across the nation trying to build Cop Cities in order to quell protest, because the government is simply upset that people seek to oppose and use their First Amendment right to protest when we see injustice coming from those in authority.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about examples of the charges — for example, handing out flyers, Keyanna?

KEYANNA JONES: Yes. People were indicted for handing out flyers. And what those flyers contained, first of all, messages that say stop Cop City, messages that give details about what Cop City truly is, that it is not just a public safety training facility, that it is actually a militarized training facility that would destroy 381 acres of forest land in a Black neighborhood, where the city of Atlanta essentially had no jurisdiction in DeKalb County, but somehow backroom deals were made and laws were broken in order to acquire the land. Some of the flyers actually named the murderers of Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita.

There is nothing that is wrong with giving information. So, information that was obtained through public record that said, “Hey, there was a protester that was killed for sitting with their hands up. These are the perpetrators. We need justice. We want justice” — I don’t understand how giving out flyers with information is domestic terrorism. I don’t understand how holding a sign that says “Stop Cop City” is domestic terrorism. I don’t understand how opposing the government, using your legal right to protest, your right to freedom of speech, is domestic terrorism. And I certainly don’t understand how attending a music festival is domestic terrorism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Keyanna, what about this issue of the campaign for a ballot referendum against Cop City, the impact of something like these indictments on potential voters?

KEYANNA JONES: Oh, absolutely. This is the state’s last desperate attempt to shut down the ballot referendum. We have been back and forth in court with Mayor Dickens and the city of Atlanta, also the state of Georgia, about the validity of this ballot referendum, which we know we have the right to under the Georgia Constitution. The same way Attorney General Carr went to the laws of the state of Georgia to throw together this RICO indictment, we searched the laws of the state of Georgia and the Georgia state Constitution, and we know that we have a legal right to this ballot referendum. But instead, Attorney General Carr, Mayor Andre Dickens of the city of Atlanta have tried to tie us up in court to invalidate not only this referendum, but all referenda going forward, which is a very dangerous precedent that would be set, because what it says, essentially, is that if you don’t like the laws that have been passed or something that’s been done by your local government, then you would have no recourse. And I believe that that, in itself, is the ultimate pinnacle of anti-democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney Devin Franklin, all of these activists will be processed at the Fulton County Jail in the same way that Trump was and his co-conspirators? And can these charges be expanded to others? And as people organize for the referendum, as they organize against Cop City, which would be the largest such training facility in the country, does this completely derail it as they fight for their own vindication?

DEVIN FRANKLIN: Nothing derails the movement. As Keyanna spoke, there have been ups and downs throughout the entire period of this. But one thing that we know is that the movement has shown a great deal of resiliency, intelligence and structure and organization. It is a wide-ranging movement — Black people, white people, heterosexual people, transgender people, environmental and social justice activists. It’s a coalition of people who have come together around several issues and allowed each other — allowed people to learn from one another about a variety of things. So I do not believe that this farce of an indictment is going to intimidate those members of the movement.

To answer your first question, I do believe that the persons who have been charged at some point in time will go through the same booking processes as the people involved in the Trump indictment. It is too early to know if we will have the same access to [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: You just froze, Devin.

DEVIN FRANKLIN: Let me know when I’m back.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Devin.

DEVIN FRANKLIN: Yeah. It’s unclear as to whether or not members of the movement will have access to the same negotiation abilities for bonds as members of the Trump indictment did. We would certainly hope so, but it’s kind of — it’s really early in the process, and we are awaiting word of what that will look like.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Devin Franklin, movement policy counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Keyanna Jones, a Stop Cop City organizer for Community Movement Builders, both speaking to us from Atlanta, Georgia.

Next up, a surprise visit to Kyiv by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Biden administration says it will for the first time send munitions containing radioactive depleted uranium to Ukraine. We’ll speak with a British journalist about his new exposé, “Contamination Fears After Ukraine [Loses] British Tank” with depleted uranium munitions. Stay with us.

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