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Georgia has charged 61 'Stop Cop City' protesters with racketeering

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

First, we go to Georgia, where 61 people have been indicted on racketeering charges stemming from ongoing protests of a new public safety training facility near Atlanta. The charges, brought by the state's Republican attorney general, allege the group took part in, quote, "anarchist actions" to stop construction on the site. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Amanda Andrews is following the story. Hi there.

AMANDA ANDREWS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: So about 60 people face racketeering charges, which are usually reserved for gangs and other criminal organizations. How do prosecutors argue that it applies here?

ANDREWS: So the 109-page indictment argues that these people are, quote, "militant anarchists, eco-activists and community organizers" and allegedly all part of the group called Defend The Atlanta Forest. So for the past two years, groups have mobilized against the center they call Cop City. It's a $90 million, 86-acre training center for police, firefighters and other first responders in the middle of a forest. There have been protests, marches, public comments, even a music festival to oppose it. But also, people have been literally occupying the forest land. There's been some vandalism of construction equipment and even vandalism towards people involved with the project.

Now, this is the same sweeping racketeering law used just last month to charge former President Donald Trump and his allies for their failed effort to overturn Georgia's 2020 election. In this case, the attorney general, Chris Carr, says these protesters conspired to stop the construction of the center by their action. The ACLU of Georgia says applying the RICO Act here is anti-democratic. That's what Policy director Christopher Bruce told me.

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE: The Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act to be used against protesters is a means of quelling political dissent.

SHAPIRO: And so is he saying that what started as a disagreement over a new training center has escalated into these RICO charges?

ANDREWS: Exactly - this all came to a head in January of this year during a law enforcement raid on the people living in the forest. Manuel Paez Teran, known as Tortuguita, was shot and killed by the Georgia State Patrol, and tensions kicked into overdrive after that. So state officials started charging protesters with domestic terrorism, and the community was also having concerns. They have to cut down a major forest in a working-class Black neighborhood to build this project, and people are worried the new training center would further militarize the police.

So this is all happening with the backdrop of the 2020 racial justice movement brought by police killing of Black people, both with George Floyd in Minneapolis and, a few weeks later, the killing of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy's here in Atlanta. Ironically, Ari, those protests are both the reason city officials call for the training center and community activists oppose it.

SHAPIRO: And this is all happening at the same time that opponents are working to get enough signatures to put a question on the ballot that could stop funding the training center. Where does that effort stand?

ANDREWS: So organizers have to gather nearly 60,000 valid signatures from voters in Atlanta. They have until September 25. But legal action from the city's really complicating that process, so we're waiting for the courts to clarify how the petition will go on moving forward.

SHAPIRO: Amanda Andrews of Georgia Public Broadcasting, thanks for your reporting.

ANDREWS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Amanda Andrews