In the 1950s and 60s, most people living in the United States were not participating in the civil disobedience sweeping through the country. The reality is that most North Americans were at home while the events that would become historic, memorialized for all of us, unfolded on the TV and in their newspapers. Much like how we are consuming the information today about the protesters, the murder of Tortuguita, and RICO charges in Georgia. Long before RICO was invented, local and state governments described the civil unrest in the South as mostly "outside agitators with no connections to the area" and that people who lived there didn't want the changes that protesters fought for. This trope has been used for ages against valid civil movements.
In present-day Georgia, there are reports that when police were stopping and asking for ID from those in the forest for a music festival or other protest activities, they would let the individual go if they saw a Georgia driver's license. They were looking for those outside of Georgia to prosecute to build their case and narrative that these were "outside agitators." That's why we have three of 61 RICO defendants from Arizona when, realistically, only a handful of people from Arizona (in the dozens, not hundreds) went to Atlanta last spring.
The Stop Cop City protesters have adopted many tactics — often tactical innovations have been introduced by groups with slightly different approaches to the campaign. The convergence of environmental activists, faith leaders, leftists/anarchists, the Muscogee Creek people (who were forcibly removed from that land in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears), artists and creatives, and everyday people who all believe one thing: the answer to our country's current and future problems will not be solved through destroying a forest and spending upwards of $100 million on ensuring the increased militarization and urban warfare tactical skill training for local police forces. The very thing that has made Stop Cop City so effective is the very thing that makes it so dangerous in the eyes of state and police power — solidarity. Those collecting signatures for a ballot measure (which has been stymied by City of Atlanta officials) have not condemned the fact that some people damaged construction equipment in an act of protest months prior (that harmed no one, only the equipment). Those collecting signatures are not publicly mocked or criticized by those who sat in trees in the Weelaunee Forest or those engaging in protests or local demonstrations. Everyone is doing their own thing, devising their own tactic, but all with the same end goal: to stop Cop City. Cop City will never be built.
That is why this concept of "solidarity" is explicitly named and unpacked in the indictment against the 61 people using Georgia's RICO law. Other beliefs and activities that are associated with the criminal enterprise:
- Mutual aid
- Social solidarity
- Sharing food/supporting food access
- Bail fund support
- Publishing and sharing of "zines"
- Protection of the environment at all costs
What does it mean if you participate in any of these activities? This is how the state of Georgia sees mutual aid work or the legal act of bailing someone out of jail: as an overt act in the furtherance of a conspiracy. What does our future look like if we can be accused of being a part of a criminal enterprise for sharing food with a homie, a protester, or someone living outside?
It is essential to understand that the state of Georgia targets these ideals and they are being used against the defendants. They claim that anyone who shares these ideals is part of a "criminal enterprise" or "conspiracy" with intent for "personal gain." The argument is that by sticking together, each individual "personally gains." Because remember, RICO was used for mobsters doing actual crimes for money or power (legitimate personal gain). To characterize and bastardize these concepts of solidarity with personal gain is a twisted state logic, depicting a worldview that does not allow for the belief that "we all help each other because what happens to you matters and affects me." As a Marxist communist, Raymond Luc Levasseur, whose trail statement was published under the title "Until We Are All Free", was appalled that any actions he and the United Freedom Front took would be considered for personal gain and argued as much in his unsuccessful criminal defense. Zines such as the one revolutionaries now circulated with Raymond’s statement would be considered proof of participating in a criminal enterprise under the current Georgia RICO charges.
All eyes should be on this case as its outcome affects us all.
The popular opinion by legal experts is that these charges won't hold up in court; however, let's remember that the "process is the punishment," as Malcolm Feeley described — and the folks indicted in Georgia on RICO are being punished. Through lost wages, travel expenses, legal defense costs, etc. — the financial burden is more significant for those outside the state to appear in court (or risk being in contempt of court). Moreover, the psychological burden of these cases, which will likely drag on for a few years, weighs heavy. Even though they have a legal defense, there are still real, tangible ways the State could harm them in this process on their road to exoneration. Example: When they willingly turn themselves in, they could be jailed for a couple of hours, days, or longer. A reminder that the death toll of the Fulton County jail in 2023 is ten people thus far. Some of the experiences of those indicted when they were initially arrested are detailed in this article by the Guardian and would be traumatic to live through again. While the legal experts anticipate the prosecution's failure, there's always the chance that they could be successful and that defendants are found guilty of their ideologies. This would make for a dangerous, historic moment for the United States. Is that where we are? These charges carry genuine risks for those experiencing them, even as they stand on shaky legal grounds. We must stand with them at every step of the way.
The fact that these charges were released only weeks after RICO charges were brought against Donald Trump in the same county and using the same grand jury is concerning. It paints the picture that no matter which side you go on, if you go to extreme right or left, you could enter the land of "criminal activity." But, in one historic case, there is substantial and documented evidence of attempting to commit a crime for personal gain — evidence like emails that ask and pressure Georgia officials to illegally change the number of votes to allow Trump to win the state of Georgia in the presidential election. In the other historical case on the left, there is a sweeping generalization of anyone with a particular ideology, such as "solidarity," as part of a criminal enterprise. These two cases are not the same, but their timing (which almost feels deliberate) and how they will be understood in the national consciousness is concerning.
A reminder that during the 1980s-90s, as RICO laws were strengthened through the U.S., far-right groups continued to attack and amass power through underground networks that sometimes spilled over into overt and public criminal activity. They bombed abortion clinics, murdered providers, Neo-Nazis even tried to overthrow the government of Dominica, and many other examples; none were charged with RICO at that time. RICO charges have historically been wielded against the left, a group of people who have cried out for a more just, egalitarian society, one based on the prioritization of care of all people, devoid of endless foreign war and suffering through imposed poverty, while championing the protection of the environment, the water, and the land. To use RICO against Donald Trump and his cronies (i.e., illegal activities on the far right) was an unusual approach, a deviation from the norm. The effort tries to paint the picture that these two "criminal enterprises" are equivalent. They are not.
Where do we go from here?
These RICO charges intend to chill this social movement to make protesters fear their participation in the movement. Publish and distribute zines? You, too, might be a part of the conspiracy and can be charged and put at risk. "Better not risk it" is the message to individuals from the State of Georgia.
Will these charges have the chilling effect that they intend? Only if we let them.
What the movement needs now is solidarity and mass action. The day following the announcement of the RICO indictments, a group of faith leaders acted in solidarity with those charged by bravely chaining themselves to construction equipment and ordering a "People's Stop Work Order." They intended to dare the system, "Will you charge us with RICO as well?" They were not. They were booked on simple trespassing and other minor misdemeanor charges.
Here's the conundrum for the State of Georgia going forward in its fight against Forest Defenders and Stop Cop City supporters – the more we continue to show up in protests and actions, the less clear their RICO charges become. If their ideological depiction of who is involved in a "criminal enterprise" is as expansive as anyone who believes in "solidarity," and yet hundreds (and hopefully thousands) of people descend on Atlanta to "Block Cop City" mass action slated for November 10-13, are they going to claim that all those people are a part of the "criminal enterprise" or "conspiracy"? If they try to arrest and prosecute hundreds more with RICO charges, they look like fools. And simultaneously, if they don't charge everyone opposing Cop City with RICO, they also look like fools, and their case logic falls apart.
How do we respond to this political intimidation from the state and the intended chilling effect on the movement? Push harder. Show up more.
What Can You Do?
Your life, finances, and circumstances may not lend themselves to traveling to Atlanta this November. And that's okay (though if you are interested and unsure who to link up with/how to do this, please check out the Block Cop City website and look for a local group in your area for support). You might be following the news from afar, just like thousands of Americans did during the Civil Rights Movement. But that doesn't mean you can't make a difference. Here are things we can all do:
- Donate to Support our local Arizona - RICO Defendants here:
- Cash app: $tucsonarc
- Paypal: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/prisonsupport
- Talk to everyone you know about the importance of this case. People need to know what hangs in the balance.
- All eyes on Atlanta. Do your best to follow the news:follow the Tucson Weelaunee Forest Defense Society and Stop Cop City on Instagram and national news outlets.
I don't personally know all the Arizona defendants, but I know one. A friend, a comrade, and generally a good egg. I don't know how to say this, so I'll just say this: what I want is for all the defendants to feel the full support of everyone, to know that they aren't alone in this battle even when the State tries to isolate and send the message that they live in a world of "personal gain." Through our support, they'll know that this counter-narrative is false, and no matter what happens over the next few years, they know we'll be there for them. We'll be there in challenging times and to celebrate the good times, to break bread, share a meal or a cool zine, at music shows, whatever.
We believe that the forest should stand, and the parts of it that have been destroyed should be replanted. We believe that increased urban tactical training for local police will only be used to further repress protests, from disaffected employees joining picket lines, land and water defenders safeguarding the planet for future generations, and any of those who stand against oppression and repression in all its forms. Everything from police murders to the ever-growing financial inequality and worsening economic conditions of the working class.
The police training center in Atlanta won't be used just to train Atlanta officers. Forty-three percent of the trainees within the first year of operation of the Atlanta Training Center would be from out of state. The police training center harms us all.
Block Cop City this November. Cop City will never be built.