The disturbing indictment of 61 people who protested the Georgia police training facility commonly referred to as “Cop City” lays bare everything that is wrong with RICO laws and the prosecutors who abuse them. Even the author of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, on which the Georgia law is based, agrees that it’s meant to fight organized crime, not stifle dissent.
The implications of the indictment for press freedom may seem like an afterthought considering everything else that is terrible about it. Its working theory is essentially that whenever some members of a protest movement commit crimes, everyone involved in the movement is responsible for the “conspiracy,” no matter how tenuous their connection to the alleged offense. It seeks to criminalize a centuries-old political theory — anarchism — and to frame the activism following George Floyd’s murder as a plot by domestic terrorists (the indictment says the quiet part out loud by listing the date Floyd was killed as the start of the “conspiracy”). Perhaps most importantly, it has upended the lives of all those baselessly indicted.
That said, the threat to press freedom is real and shouldn’t be ignored. Any source considering talking to a journalist about a protest or controversial cause couldn’t be blamed for thinking twice after reading the indictment.
“Defend the Atlanta Forest uses websites, social media, and statements to traditional media to sow disinformation and propaganda to promote its extremist political agenda, legitimize its behavior, and recruit new members,” prosecutors allege. “[I]n an effort to de-legitimize the facts as relayed by law enforcement … members of Defend the Atlanta Forest often contact news media and flood social media with claims that their unlawful actions are protected by the First Amendment.”
The indictment also alleges that Defend the Atlanta Forest has “worked with external entities to produce videos and podcast interviews” where they discuss “anti-authority movements”; that the group holds “media-attended press conferences to control the story and promote their own narrative”; and that it posts “press releases, misleading information, propaganda, and disinformation” on its website.
The message is clear: Try to spread opinions cops don’t like through the media, and you might find your name listed after “State v.”
Incidentally, it was cops, not protesters, who broke the law in trying to control the media narrative about Cop City. Here’s video of an officer threatening to arrest a journalist and seize his footage unless he agrees to give police favorable coverage. And when a journalist tried to cover the protests firsthand, they stole his notes. At another protest two days after the indictment, police shot down and seized a documentary crew’s drone as it filmed the events. But, according to the indictment, seeking to influence media coverage is a “traditional activity of anarchist organizations.”
The indictment’s framing of “zines” containing “anarchist ideas” as evidence of some sinister plot is just as dangerous as its effort to criminalize talking to journalists. The indictment might leave the impression that the zines contain nothing but catnip for wannabe radicals. In reality, many of them are academic — or even journalistic — in tone. They discuss everything from public records revealing Cop City contractors’ political contributions to research by environmental organizations on the projects’ impact on carbon sequestration rates. One, called “A Brief History of the Atlanta City Prison Farm,” contains 164 footnotes. Sure, the zines include ideas some may find disagreeable. But citing them as proof of a conspiracy is an affront to the First Amendment.
And the indictment’s assaults on publishers don’t stop there: It also finds criminality in, for example, taking photos and videos of officers to “spread the message of Defend the Atlanta Forest,” posting photos of the Atlanta Police Foundation project manager, and posting links to news stories about the protests.
Federal appellate courts with jurisdiction over Georgia have joined courts everywhere else in declaring filming and photographing police in public to be protected First Amendment activity. But the indictment nonetheless lumps actions like these into the “conspiracy,” often through the laughably convoluted allegation that they were intended to “cause and induce the construction officials to withhold records, documents, and testimony in official proceedings.”
The indictment also threatens the press by attacking basic digital security practices journalists and activists both routinely use to avoid illegal surveillance. Ironically, the same prosecutors trying to criminalize taking pictures and talking to journalists can’t think of any reason why protesters might have wanted to avoid prying government eyes, or prepare for potential run-ins with cops, unless they were committing actual crimes.
Prosecutors also allege that protesters’ intent to break the law is evidenced by their “memorizing or writing the Atlanta Solidarity Fund’s phone number on their body in case of arrest.” As we wrote in April, journalists, like protesters, write legal aid numbers on their persons “not because journalists intend to commit crimes [but] because police have an unfortunate habit of arresting journalists for doing their jobs.”
They also cite protesters’ use of “online security measures which disguise a user’s true identity, such as the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN)” and their use of “end-to-end encrypted messaging app[s] Signal or Telegram” to “prevent law enforcement from viewing their communication.”
Technologies like VPN and encryption aren’t criminal; press freedom organizations recommend them to journalists worldwide. Last month’s unlawful police raid of a newsroom in Marion, Kansas, provides a clear illustration of why journalists should use encryption. Same goes for other noncriminals whose communications might interest law enforcement. Earlier this year, we learned that police in North Carolina cited a journalist’s anarchist beliefs as a pretext to illegally search their phone (which, fortunately, was encrypted).
If certain Cop City protesters committed real crimes, then prosecutors can bring charges against those protesters, individually, that are proportionate to their alleged infractions. Instead they’re trying to elevate relatively small-time offenses, like property damage and allegedly improper petty reimbursements, into racketeering — and throwing the First and Fourth Amendments to the wind in the process. Prosecutors are sworn to uphold the Constitution; drawing criminal inferences from things like talking to journalists to avoiding illegal surveillance is offensive.
Scholars and activists have criticized RICO laws, and particularly their use against First Amendment activity, for decades. This unconstitutional indictment should finally force lawmakers to do something about the problem.