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Cop City Protesters Charged With Racketeering As Georgia Takes Hard Line

Some of 61 defendants charged also face money laundering and domestic terrorism charges for environmental protests

Protestors hold signs and march during demonstrations related to the death of Manuel Teran who was killed during a police raid inside Weelaunee People's Park, the planned site of a controversial "Cop City" project, in Atlanta, Jan. 21, 2023.,Cheney Orr/Reuters

Dozens of activists who oppose a controversial police and fire training facility in Georgia known as Cop City have been charged with racketeering, appearing to confirm fears from civil rights groups that prosecutors are stepping up an aggressive pursuit of environmental protesters.

A total of 61 people – most not from Georgia – were indicted for violating the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act last week, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Some of the defendants face additional charges of money laundering and domestic terrorism, the newspaper reported.

In July, a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to the Department of Homeland Security decrying tactics used in authorities’ surveillance of the environmental protesters, and their use of the label “domestic violence extremism” for opponents of the $90m facility under construction on 85 acres of the South River Forest near Atlanta.

The letter warned of the “dangers of … vague, overbroad, and stigmatizing terms like ‘domestic violent extremist’ and ‘militant’ to describe individuals who may be engaged in protected first amendment activity”.

The US constitution’s first amendment protects Americans’ rights to free political speech and assembly.

The most recent indictment was filed by the Georgia attorney general’s office in Fulton county last Tuesday, the AJC reported, and follows months of often violent protests at the site and in downtown Atlanta.

In June, Sherry Boston, district attorney for DeKalb county, in which Cop City is located, announced she was withdrawing from criminal cases tied to protests, citing differences with Georgia’s Republican attorney general, Chris Carr, over how they were being handled.

At that stage, more than 40 people had been charged with domestic terrorism following incidents in which fireworks and rocks were thrown at police. Police vehicles and construction equipment were also vandalized.

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“It is clear to both myself and to the attorney general that we have fundamentally different prosecution philosophies,” Boston said. The move handed Carr’s office sole responsibility for charging and prosecuting cases.

Protesters have complained of intimidation and heavy-handed action by police, and the shooting death of an environmental activist, Manuel Paez Terán, in a January raid by officers on a camp at the constriction site. Investigators claimed Paez Terán, who was shot 57 times, fired first, but an autopsy found no gunpowder residue on the activist’s body.

Paez Terán’s death was believed to be the first of an environmental campaigner by law enforcement in the US, reflecting what campaigners say is an escalation in the criminalization and repression of those who seek to protect natural resources.

No detailed explanation of the charges against the 61 activists has yet been released, the AJC said. Ché Alexander, the Fulton county clerk of court, told the newspaper the indictment would be released later on Tuesday.

In July, three members of a support group that helped earlier Cop City defendants with legal costs were arrested and charged with financial crimes, including money laundering and “charity fraud”. Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, called the three “criminals who facilitated and encouraged domestic terrorism”.

In a message posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday morning, the ACLU said it was alarmed by the latest indictments. “This is unprecedented and extremely concerning, and we’re tracking the situation closely,” it said.

The activist group Vote to Stop Cop City said the racketeering charges were “a clear assault on the broader movement for racial justice and equity”.

In a statement to the Guardian, the group said: “These charges, like the previous repressive prosecutions by the state of Georgia, seek to intimidate protesters, legal observers, and bail funds alike, and send the chilling message that any dissent to Cop City will be punished with the full power and violence of the government.

“[District attorney] Carr’s actions are a part of a retaliatory pattern of prosecutions against organizers nationwide that attack the right to protest and freedom of speech. His threats will not silence our commitment to standing up for our future, our community, and our city.”

Richard Luscombe is a reporter for Guardian US based in Miami, Florida. Twitter @richlusc