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The Criminalization of Solidarity: The Stop Cop City Prosecutions

Georgia’s sweeping, political application of conspiracy law echoes tactics that shattered the left a hundred years ago, when the government targeted socialist parties and militant unions with laws against criminal syndicalism, espionage, and sedition

Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) demonstration, Union Square, New York City, April 11, 1914.,(Bain News Service photograph; George Grantham Bain Collection; Library of Congress)

Just after sunrise on November 13, 2023, hundreds of protesters gathered in Gresham Park on Atlanta’s outskirts. As they zipped up painted jumpsuits, a police helicopter circled overhead. It was the start of the latest action in a sprawling, decentralized campaign to stop construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, better known as Cop City.

A two-year occupation of the Weelaunee Forest, the site of the proposed complex, ended in early 2023 after police killed a forest defender known as Tortuguita and, over several months, charged forty-two people with domestic terrorism. The majority of those charged were attending a protest music festival in March while property destruction occurred nearly a mile away. In April, three activists distributing fliers about the police murder of Tortuguita were arrested and jailed for almost three months. It was unclear whether any of the prosecutions would go forward until September, when Georgia’s attorney general, Chris Carr, brought a single case against sixty-one protesters, using the state’s exceptionally broad Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to paint the Stop Cop City movement as a criminal syndicate akin to the Mafia. The sprawling indictment accused them of a conspiracy to spread “virulent anarchist ideals.”

Amid this campaign of state repression, one segment of Stop Cop City put out a national call to action: Meet in Atlanta. March onto the construction site. Issue, through nonviolent direct action, what organizers called a “people’s stop-work order.” Render absurd, through widely publicized mass participation, the notion that this is a conspiracy and not a broad-based political movement.

“It’s vital to make sure everybody knows . . . that there are people in Atlanta that want this to stop,” said Lorraine Fontana, a seventy-six-year-old activist who was arrested days before the march for blocking the entrance to the construction site. “We’re holding saplings,” a young protester said. “To replant the forest that the police have destroyed in trying to build Cop City,” another added. Papier-mâché puppets and protest signs sat in the grass, collecting dew; one sign, shaped like a dragonfly, read, “This is what a domestic terrorist looks like.” Hours later, as the tear gas dissipated and the protesters retreated to Gresham Park, a riot policeman was photographed removing the same sign from nearby Constitution Road. In the hands of the officer, it seemed to turn this charge back on the state.

The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a jail support network established in 2016, was prepared to coordinate bail and legal representation for detained protesters, and to notify their families and workplaces in the event of arrests. Its organizers were taking a big risk, too. In late May 2023, a SWAT team broke down the door of the Solidarity Fund’s office, seized its records and electronics, and arrested three of the fund’s organizers. They are now defendants in the RICO indictment, which charges them with money laundering and charity fraud for their organizational support of Cop City protesters. The raid and the indictment made the Solidarity Fund’s partner organizations afraid to work with the group, and as a result its citywide mutual-aid programs collapsed, interrupting food access for hundreds of families. When a separate group of activists launched a campaign to put the future of Cop City to a referendum vote, the Solidarity Fund heard concerns from numerous people that merely signing the petition could expose them to legal risk.

“My speculation is that the authorities understand that their political objective is to discourage a political movement,” said Marlon Kautz, an indicted Solidarity Fund organizer. That goal effectively requires targeting not only protesters but organizations, such as civil liberties groups and bail funds, that empower protesters to carry on in the face of intimidation, brutality, and aggressive prosecution. It’s an attempt, according to Kautz, to create “a blueprint that can be applied to solve the problem of social movements as a political force in the U.S.” What is ultimately at stake, he said, “is the notion of solidarity within a broad social movement.”

The criminalization of a left-wing movement comes as no surprise. But Georgia’s sweeping and openly political application of conspiracy law is a particularly concerning case. It was this tactic that shattered the left roughly a hundred years ago, when the U.S. government targeted growing socialist parties and increasingly militant unions with laws against criminal syndicalism, espionage, and sedition. Now, as then, conspiracy stands in as the evil double of plain solidarity—the tool we need to fight repression, and what makes protest possible.


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Paranoia about violent, left-wing conspiracies has appeared throughout American history: in the labor-conspiracy laws of the nineteenth century, the Smith Act prosecutions of the 1940s and ’50s, the McCarthyist purges, and the trials of Vietnam War protesters. Yet it was never more damaging than during the antiradical panic that gripped the country between 1917 and 1920.

The First Red Scare channeled a feeling of national crisis that began in the late nineteenth century, fueled at first by industrialization, immigration, and inflation, and later by the First World War, the flu pandemic of 1918, and the Great Migration. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, the U.S. government found two targets for its anxieties. The first were the Galleanisti, a small group of Italian anarchists who carried out a failed bombing attack on John D. Rockefeller in 1914 and became a nationwide scourge by the late 1910s. The second was the Industrial Workers of the World, which by 1910 had risen to national prominence as an openly revolutionary union. “The IWW’s links to anarchism were minimal,” the legal historian Ahmed White said, but exaggerating those links “gave the air of credibility to the claim that these people were extremely dangerous . . . in a very immediate, criminal sense.”

The IWW, whose members were called Wobblies, had faced legal and extralegal repression since its inception, in 1905. The government’s justification was stopping the sabotage of industrial equipment—a once-used tactic that the union had distanced itself from but struggled to expunge from its public image. The pressure on the IWW intensified in 1917, after a little-known Idaho lawyer named Benjamin Walker Oppenheim drafted the first statute prohibiting “criminal syndicalism” in the United States.

Idaho lumber interests wanted the IWW gone, but this objective presented them with a legal dilemma. Their loyal state legislators couldn’t target sabotage because it was already illegal, and only small numbers of Wobblies engaged in it; they also couldn’t ban the union outright, which would likely have been unconstitutional. Oppenheim’s draft law threaded the needle by making it a crime “to belong to an organization that advocated industrial or political change by means of sabotage, crime, violence, or other criminal behavior,” White said. Over the next few years, twenty other states copied Idaho’s model.

These laws made life easy for prosecutors. Wobblies were stopped on the street, snatched off picket lines, and rounded up by the hundreds in raids on their union halls, especially when local business owners knew they were planning a strike. If any members tried to help their comrades in court by testifying that their organization was neither violent nor criminal, they could be seized on the spot, having just admitted under oath that they belonged to a group presumed violent and criminal. On one occasion, police stormed into an IWW hall in California during an ongoing criminal-syndicalism trial, arresting members who had assembled to coordinate the defense.

Criminal-syndicalism laws did not cite the common-law conspiracy doctrine, under which two or more persons can be held liable for agreeing to break the law together. Instead, they gave prosecutors something even simpler to prove, what an IWW lawyer described at the time as “constructive conspiracy”: a doctrine that treats mere association with an organization that is deemed to be criminal as an implicit agreement to commit a crime.

The Red Scare hysteria burned hottest in 1919. That April, thirty-six bombs were mailed to well-known politicians, businessmen, and law-enforcement figures. On May Day, riots broke out across the country, turning bloody in Cleveland, where the IWW cofounder Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned. Steelworkers, coal miners, and Boston police officers went on strike; segregated black communities revolted in more than two dozen cities. Ten more Galleanisti bombs, far larger than their predecessors, exploded in June. “For many elites and much of the public, all of the unrest of that year was the work of a perilous amalgamation of anarchism, bolshevism, socialism, IWWism, black radicalism, and feminism,” White wrote in his 2022 book Under the Iron Heel.

The panic began to lift the following May Day, when the attorney general predicted a national uprising that didn’t take place. The IWW never regained its former strength, and the laws created to destroy the union remained on the books. Communists and socialists sometimes faced criminal-syndicalism charges into the 1930s and ’40s, but the doctrine gradually fell out of use. In the 1960s, a few prosecutors rediscovered criminal syndicalism (along with its close cousin, criminal anarchy) and applied the charge to black radicals such as John Harris, who was indicted in 1968 for handing out leaflets condemning a police murder. A year later, the Supreme Court effectively ended the doctrine in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which threw out the criminal-syndicalism conviction of an Ohio Ku Klux Klan leader on First Amendment grounds.

Yet parallels with the legal and political tactics of the First Red Scare are everywhere in Georgia today. Property crimes, whether industrial sabotage or vandalism of bulldozers, are described as acts of terror aimed at people and society at large. Anarchism, a minor current in the IWW and a far larger one in Stop Cop City, eclipses the movement’s other ideological tendencies, serving as a ready-made signifier that its cause is antisocial. The movement suddenly resembles a conspiracy, its objectives reduced to violence and destruction, its positive social vision erased. The more organized it gets, the more sinister the conspiracy appears. Acts of solidarity put everyone at risk of arrest.

In April 1969, amid a different season of political crisis, President Richard Nixon announced an ambitious plan to crush organized crime, an effort that culminated in the passage of the federal RICO Act the following year. RICO’s main framer, G. Robert Blakey, faced the same problem as Oppenheim before him: the Constitution doesn’t permit the government to outlaw membership in a specific group. His solution—to allow prosecutors to mass-indict individuals who have committed two or more acts of “racketeering” on behalf of a shared “enterprise”—invited wider application of his new statute.

By Blakey’s own admission, the legislation was based on concepts from early twentieth-century antiradical law, and RICO was soon seen as a solution to problems beyond organized crime. Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke had ominous words for the Weather Underground, campus protesters, and other “misguided radicals” in the fall of 1970, when the act was signed into law: RICO, he said, would “bring a number of these lawless acts under federal jurisdiction with penalties appropriate to the seriousness of these offenses.”

There is no reason to doubt that most of RICO’s early supporters saw it as a tool to fight the Mob. Yet, according to the legal scholar Benjamin Levin, “growing the police state or growing a prosecutorial state in a moment of state conflict with radicals means growing the arsenal of weapons that can be used against those radicals.”

More than fifty years after the act’s passage, plenty of Mob bosses and a few executives have gone to jail because of RICO, which allows judges to impose sentences of up to twenty years on figures whose foot soldiers have done the dirty work. But the law also facilitates the prosecution of large groups of low-level alleged offenders. RICO has been applied in controversial crackdowns, especially on poor, black neighborhoods, where police can tenuously link many people to small-time gang activity. In an operation in 2016, law enforcement swept up 120 residents of a housing project in the Bronx, almost half of whom weren’t even accused of gang membership.

Anti-abortion protesters and environmental activists have faced RICO charges, too, though mostly when sued by their political opponents under its civil section. Rarely have prosecutors brought criminal RICO charges against protesters, and almost never with the wide scope and explicit political intent of the indictment against Stop Cop City. It is an exceptional case, at least in recent history—one that marks a stunning revival of America’s long, ugly tradition of criminalizing left-wing organizations.

Levin said that these types of prosecutions tend to come at moments when elites “sense what we might think of as an existential threat to capitalism, or to the state, or to whatever the dominant ideology or political economy may be.” The Stop Cop City movement has its roots in such a moment. In May 2020, Atlanta’s mayor responded to an uprising over the killing of George Floyd by declaring a state of emergency, and Governor Brian Kemp sent more than 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to the city. When Atlanta police murdered Rayshard Brooks the following month, protesters returned to block an interstate highway and set fire to the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot. Huge crowds chanted formerly marginal slogans such as “abolish the police,” and many began to link the issue of systemic racism to the broader failings of capitalism and the American state. Meanwhile, business leaders pressured the city to crack down on property crimes and rioting, and residents of the wealthy neighborhood of Buckhead threatened to secede from Atlanta, taking their tax dollars with them, unless the city invested more in policing.

The following year, the city announced a plan for a $90 million police-training center developed by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a private entity helmed and funded by politicians and corporate executives. Nicknamed Cop City because it is set to include a mock city for urban-warfare and riot-suppression training, the facility would be among the largest police-training centers in the country. Building it required cutting down large swaths of a public forest in unincorporated DeKalb County south of Atlanta. In an age of ecological catastrophe, Cop City threatened a major climate buffer, one of the area’s critical defenses against extreme heat, air pollution, and flooding.

A broad refrain of the movement against it is that the stakes are global—that the struggle over Cop City is a battle over the future of policing, the fate of the climate, and the right of ordinary people to control the cities they live in. The combative response from police and prosecutors has made it clear that Cop City’s backers also sensed these high stakes.

The RICO indictment against Stop Cop City opens with a rambling, historically illiterate passage in which the state attempts to define its political enemy. Anarchism is an “anti-authority” philosophy, the prosecutors write. “Violence is part of the anarchism in some anarchist beliefs,” they add. “Violent anarchists often engage in violent activity towards law enforcement.” According to the indictment, such violent individuals started infiltrating Atlanta during the protests that followed the “justified” killing of Brooks, eventually establishing Defend the Atlanta Forest as a front for attacking police, capitalism, and the government. The indictment does not claim that the majority of the defendants committed any such attacks; it alleges that, by appearing at a demonstration, receiving a reimbursement, or writing a post, they supported an organization that subscribes to an ideology that calls for such attacks.

As the IWW and other leftist groups found out a century ago, these tactics are chillingly effective. Whether you consider yourself an anarchist or not, to be denounced as one by the police and mass media is to be branded with one of the state’s most damning scarlet letters.

Because the defendants have not hurt anyone but the police have, the indictment relies on rhetorical leaps to illustrate an association between anarchism and violence. It describes the George Floyd uprisings as a movement “centered around a message of anti-police violence,” rather than a movement calling to end police violence; likewise, it claims that the high-profile police killing of Brooks caused “anti-police violence tensions to boil over.” The indictment links Tortuguita, the forest defender killed at Cop City, with an “extremist ideology” that justifies the police shooting them fifty-seven times as they sat in their tent with their hands raised, according to an independent autopsy. (As evidence, the indictment twice quotes an anonymous, uncited blog post that reads, “Tortuguita died trying to kill a cop in defense of the Weelaunee forest.”) The most overt acts of violence committed by police are not swept under the rug, as one might expect, but severely contorted into instances of victimization.

The indictment blames the violence on “outside agitators,” a civil rights–era dog whistle, and provides paranoid interpretations of terms such as “mutual aid” and “social solidarity.” For Levin, the language paints the movement as “another world and another group of people, and they almost have their own vocabulary.” RICO requires that defendants be charged with two “predicate” acts of racketeering that further a criminal enterprise. The presumption that anarchists speak in code thus has high stakes: by implying that reimbursements for, say, “glue” and “bins” are actually euphemisms for illegal transactions, the prosecutors create acts of racketeering for some defendants who would not otherwise have the two necessary to be indicted.

The stigmatization of social solidarity and mutual aid carries consequences not only for individual defendants but for left-wing political organizing more broadly, as the police raid on the Atlanta Solidarity Fund office shows. Once the basic values and tactics of left-wing politics become criminal, “effectively any political organizers or organizations which can be accused of assisting or empowering this organization are just sort of presumed to be inherently criminal themselves,” said Marlon Kautz, the Solidarity Fund organizer. Defining a movement as an ideological conspiracy doesn’t just prevent it from acting as a movement—it deters others from lending support.

For Levin, this is the distinctive feature of American conspiracy law: how it can be wielded against collective action itself, eliminating the need to separately prosecute people for breaking laws in service of the collective. Georgia police demonstrated how far they were willing to press this doctrine when property destruction at Cop City led to twenty-three arrests at a nearby music festival in a public area of the forest. In the RICO indictment, the concert became “an organized mob of individuals designed to overwhelm the police force . . . and cause property damage”; the attendees, many of them peripheral to the movement, some in Atlanta for the first time, became domestic terrorists.

“It’s really hard to actually understand what the proper way, under that framework, would be to protest this,” said one Atlantan in Gresham Park in November. “Individualist democracy?” said another. “What is that?”

Another point of the indictments is to make it harder and harder for those named to maintain their original struggle: legal bills pile up, protesters return from jail traumatized, and sympathizers keep quiet to avoid the same fate. During the First Red Scare, criminal-syndicalism laws “devastated the lives of people, wrecked them, left them ravaged in body and mind,” White said. The threat of repression must be overwhelming.

In their rhetoric, officials have tried to justify force and repression by distinguishing between good and bad forms of protest. In practice, even the most orthodox channels of democratic dissent have been suppressed. The coalition working to put Cop City to a vote submitted more than 116,000 signatures in early September 2023, but the city has appealed to invalidate the referendum and, failing that, plans to check the petition using a controversial signature-verifying technology associated with voter suppression. Elected officials seem unlikely to defy powerful police interests and affluent voters; hundreds of critical comments at city council meetings have not shaken their support for the project. And the threat of criminal charges hangs over all who engage in the Stop Cop City movement, no matter how lawfully they behave.

The logic of conspiracy seems to turn every way forward into a trap: when the criminalized movement fights back, it risks furnishing the state with more material to make its case. This is as true today as it was during the First Red Scare. For one group of Stop Cop City organizers, the way out of this bind was the action on November 13. Activists toured more than seventy cities to get the word out, hoping call the state’s bluff by “massifying” the movement: if we’re all conspirators, lock us all up. Fueling the action was the belief that a political prosecution requires a political response; the movement and its participants were not going to be vindicated by the legal system, which had been cynically weaponized to indiscriminately charge activists and jail them for months without evidence. “What is on trial is a set of ethics and values and beliefs,” said Sam Beard, a spokesperson for the action.

During its multiyear occupation of the forest, the movement created “a massive political crisis for the city of Atlanta,” Beard said. However, “through the domestic-terrorism charges, the assassination of our comrade Tortuguita, and the RICO charges, the state of Georgia had created an even bigger political crisis for the movement.” Now, he said, “the only way that the movement can win is to create once again an even larger crisis for the city of Atlanta.” Part of the movement’s national strategy is to make Cop City politically toxic and bad business, driving contractors and insurers away from the project.

On the day of the action, protesters set out from Gresham Park holding puppets, banners, and saplings to plant. A drum circle representing several Native American tribes set up alongside the march. At the edge of the forest, the crowd approached scores of riot police. Behind them stood rows of cruisers, dogs, snipers, and a hulking armored vehicle labeled “The Beast.” Helicopters circled overhead. Almost immediately, officers fired tear-gas canisters—first into the press area, then into the crowd. Rubber bullets soon followed. The tightly knit crowd of marchers decided to retreat rather than push through the police line toward the construction site. It could hardly be called a decisive victory, but many departing marchers reported feeling mobilized: they had kept each other safe and the police hadn’t arrested anyone, proving that, with sufficient numbers and support, it was still possible to come to Atlanta without being branded a coconspirator.

State legislators moved to close that possibility in subsequent months, by writing the anti-solidarity premises of Chris Carr’s RICO indictment into the criminal code. In January 2024, ten Republican state senators introduced a bill to expand the Georgia RICO Act, explicitly stipulating that acts such as trespassing, littering, loitering, and flyering fall under its mandate. If passed, the bill would add hate crimes to the statute’s purview—a sinister revision considering that, in January, Georgia officially incorporated into its hate-crime law the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which cites criticisms of Israel as antisemitic speech. Meanwhile, the Stop Cop City movement has ramped up its pro-Palestine activism, protesting a Georgia law enforcement program that sends officers to receive “anti-terrorism training” from the Israeli police.

The RICO-expansion bill is still being debated, but both houses of the Georgia legislature have already passed a bill that would expand cash bail while severely curtailing the activities of bail funds. Federal law enforcement also came to Carr’s aid in February, with agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launching predawn, SWAT-style raids on three homes linked to the movement.

But the struggle in Atlanta continued the evening after the November 13 march. A smaller group of protesters convened outside the DeKalb County Jail to hold both a vigil for Tortuguita and a press conference; among them were members of the Muscogee (Creek) people from Oklahoma, for whom the Weelaunee Forest is ancestral land. They had been arrested while visiting the forest over the weekend. “We wanted to say hello and goodbye, just in case,” said one young Muscogee, just released from Fulton County Jail. She and her friends had been kneeling at the site of Tortuguita’s death, sharing a cigarette, when they were surrounded by a SWAT team and arrested without explanation.

Earlier that afternoon, Atlanta Chief of Police Darin Schierbaum had described the march as a gathering of “professional protesters and anarchists.” He identified a row of gardening tools intended to plant saplings as “makeshift weapons.” Holding up a gas mask, he added, “You bring these because you know that you are going to craft that action and prompt that action from law enforcement.” Protecting yourself from police violence, in other words, was evidence of violent intent.

The evening vigil was disrupted when police confronted someone projecting an image onto the jail. People at the vigil flooded across the street to surround the protester. The police retreated without making an arrest, and the protester then started projecting “Fuck the Police” onto the opposite side of the street. Voices from the jail joined the chants, shouting “Viva, viva Tortuguita” and “Stop Cop City.”

With so many protesters spending time inside, other inmates at the jail have grown familiar with their struggle. When the demonstration moved to the sidewalk below the jail, they shouted from their cells about conditions inside: “We’re hungry.” “No hot water.” “They killed an inmate.” They lowered bags from windows, into which demonstrators stuffed pizza, water, and cigarettes. “We love you,” the protesters shouted. “Free them all.”

[Tadhg Larabee is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine.

Eva Rosenfeld is a writer from Michigan.]