Five participants of the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement broke into the construction site of the planned police training compound known as “Cop City” on Thursday morning and chained themselves to a bulldozer. This is by no means the first direct action Stop Cop City protesters have taken to halt construction of the vast facility, but it carries renewed significance just two days after Georgia prosecutors announced extreme and overreaching racketeering charges against 61 other movement activists.
The charges, filed Tuesday under Georgia’s expansive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, are an effort to chill the movement and paint one of the most resilient anti-racist, environmentalist efforts in history as a criminal enterprise. In response, activists on the ground are choosing solidarity and standing their ground.
The stakes are high. For one, activists want to ensure that Cop City — which would be the largest police training facility in the nation and would decimate crucial forest land in a majority Black community — will never be built. Thursday’s action also makes clear that efforts to criminalize whole social movements will only invite further resistance.
All five protesters, including two Unitarian Universalist clergy members, have been arrested by the DeKalb County Police. “Those five people have been taken into custody and we are working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation regarding charges on these individuals,” the department said in a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This is just the latest example of Georgia law enforcement treating typical acts of civil disobedience with a heavy-handed, multiagency response.
Police also downed and confiscated a drone belonging to a documentary crew attempting to film the construction site protest, in a possible infringement on press freedoms.
“Despite the repressive tactics of authorities who wish to disenfranchise the community and charge protestors with domestic terrorism and RICO, people of faith will continue to act to resist the militarization of our society,” said Rev. Dave Dunn, who was among those arrested, in a statement released by organizers.
Thursday’s action offers a defiant lesson in how movement participants can choose to respond when faced with state repression — and the efforts by police, government leaders, and prosecutors to crush the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement have indeed been extraordinary.
“The domestic terrorism and RICO charges against protesters are meant to scare us, or else to orient all of our energy and resources around supporting protesters who have been arrested,” Darcy, an Atlanta resident and movement participant told me. Darcy, like many others in the movement, withheld their last name for fear of law enforcement retaliation — an understandable choice, given how weak grounds for arrest and serious charges have been.
“By shutting down Cop City construction today, clergy and students showed that everyday people can take bold actions to block this facility from being built,” they said, “and that our biggest protection against repression is a movement that wins.”
The sweeping, 109-page RICO indictment paints the decentralized and diverse movement as a criminal enterprise, citing social justice activities such as “mutual aid,” writing “zines,” and “collectivism” as proof of criminal conspiracy. Dozens of people named in the indictment also face malicious state domestic terrorism charges, based on flimsy grounds.
Others facing RICO and money-laundering charges did little more than raise and distribute donations to support arrestees and provide materials for engaging in First Amendment activities, like making protest signs. Also named in the indictment are individuals previously arrested on felony charges for handing out flyers that named a police officer connected to the killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, a forest defender who was shot 57 times during a multiagency raid on the Atlanta Forest protest encampment in January.
Whether the RICO, domestic terrorism, or other extreme charges stick, the prosecutions alone are chilling. If the Stop Cop City movement has offered a model for intersectional, abolitionist, environmentalist, and diverse anti-racist struggle, the charges participants now face present a blueprint for a totalizing approach to repression.
It is no accident that the RICO indictment lists the start of the alleged racketeering conspiracy as the date of George Floyd’s murder by police — May 25, 2020 — which predates the announcement of plans for Cop City. The indictment is explicit in tracing the birth of the Stop Cop City movement back to the 2020 Black liberation uprisings in order to treat any involvement in these connected struggles as grounds for criminal prosecution.
The activists involved in Thursday’s action delivered what they called “The People’s Stop Work Order” against Cop City construction. In a statement, they noted that activists who have attempted to use official, democratic routes to oppose Cop City have been consistently stymied by undemocratic government actions.
“The construction of this project and the destruction of the South River Forest have continued despite over 100,000 Atlanta residents signing a ballot initiative calling for a referendum on the issue,” organizers said. “The city of Atlanta has fought the referendum with lawsuits and technical obstructions.”
Participants in Thursday’s action engaged in just the sort of activity that the government is attempting to cast as criminal conspiracy with the RICO indictment: civil disobedience with a civil rights movement legacy, especially in Atlanta. In the face of such authoritarian responses, ongoing and widespread movement action that uses a range of protest tactics undermines government and police efforts to delegitimize a popular movement. Solidarity rallies and marches have already been organized in over a dozen cities and towns nationwide.
“As we see in the indictment, the act of mutual aid, the acts of our connectedness, are seen as a threat,” Mary Hooks, an Atlanta-based organizer and activist in the Movement for Black Lives, told me. “But these things are exactly what we need for our safety and what we need in the face of rising fascism.”
“Hopefully today does give hope,” she said. “Afraid? Yes we are, but we will choose courage over fear every day in the face of repression and oppression.”