The Racketeering of State Violence

Image of No Cop City rally.

Image: YouTube Screenshots\Wikimedia Commons

On 5 September, the US state of Georgia made public an indictment under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act against 61 activists involved in the Stop Cop City movement. The indictment alleges a “criminal conspiracy” among people who have distributed flyers, coordinated a bail fund, and participated in protests to prevent the construction of a militarized police training facility in the middle of a public forest in Atlanta. The charges explicitly name solidarity, protest, and mutual aid as activities that “intimidate” law enforcement and other citizens.

At the same time as the RICO charges were being handed down in Atlanta, over in London another social justice movement was gearing up for its biennial protest against one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Stop the Arms Fair organizers were initiating two weeks of action to disrupt the billion-dollar industry of war profiteering and global death-making. Among the resources organizers made available to protestors was information about the legal rights to protest and action guidelines on interactions with the police—which, as the organizers explained, protect and are part of the arms trade.

Stop Cop City and Stop the Arms Fair are happening in different cities in different countries operating under different legal systems. This might seem to make the RICO case in Atlanta irrelevant for organizing in London. But both movements are working against further militarization of police. Both are working to prevent investments in weapons and violence. Both are working to centre human and planetary needs over the interests of profitmaking by corporate investors. And both movements illuminate the real “criminal conspiracy” or “racketeering” enterprise: that of organized state violence through war and policing.

This relationality highlights the need for solidarity among all our social justice movements, regardless of the issue or location. Abolishing state violence is a team effort, not a criminal conspiracy.

About Cop City

In September 2021, the Atlanta City Council passed legislation to build a $90 million police training facility, euphemistically called the “Public Safety Training Center,” despite overwhelming opposition from the Atlanta community. The compound, more accurately called “Cop City” by its critics, would include a mock city complete with houses, a school, a gas station, a bank, and a community centre; it would also feature a Black Hawk landing pad, shooting ranges, and a bomb testing site. At 85 acres, it would be the largest police training facility in the United States, serving as a rehearsal space for cops from all over the country and the world to practice urban warfighting with the latest military technologies.

Much of the project is being funded by private corporations, which see police militarization as a key safeguard of their wealth and profits in the years to come. The rest will be funded by Atlanta taxpayers, with or without their consent (and as the efforts to Stop Cop City have shown, most Atlanta residents do not support the training facility).

As noted in an earlier article for CounterPunch, Cop City carries within it a confluence of catastrophes, including police brutality, militarism, racism, gentrification, environmental damage, and corporate profiteering. From the destruction of wetlands and forests to gentrification of predominantly Black neighbourhoods to corporate corruption and police militarization, Cop City has turned into a battleground even before it’s been built. The state has charged 42 people so far with “domestic terrorism” for undertaking a range of actions against the site, and Georgia State Police murdered an unarmed, nonviolent forest defender.

Now, the state’s RICO indictment describes the Stop Cop City movement as a coordinated criminal organization comprised of “anti-government anarchists” that, apparently with no sense of irony (as one activist pointed out, anarchists don’t care about money), is engaged in racketeering—including through donations to bail funds, the purchasing of glue sticks, and social media posts in support of groups like Defend the Atlanta Forest and the Atlanta Solidarity Fund.

Activists engaged with the movement to Stop Cop City have undertaken many activities. Micah Herskind and Kamau Franklin, two organizers and writers involved in the work, describe actions that range from City Council hearings and petitions to food distribution, music festivals, and art builds, to occupation of the Weelaunee Forest and destruction of construction equipment, to protests outside the homes of politicians and phone calls to construction companies, and much more. This has been decentralized and autonomous—no person or organization is in charge. Instead, various groups and people have engaged in different actions together or independently, all to prevent the destruction of the forest and the construction of Cop City.

Most recently, some Stop Cop City organizers have coordinated a petition to add a ballot question to cancel the city’s lease of the land for Cop City to the Atlanta Police Foundation. So far, 116,000 signatures have been collected for this referendum, yet the City Council has repeatedly rejected these efforts. “By refusing to accept or validate the Cop City petitions, Atlanta is once again sending the message that it doesn’t matter what channels you use or how ‘official’ they are,” Herskind points out. “Demanding that people engage in the ‘right way’ is ultimately a smoke screen.”

Beyond Cop City

The “wrong way,” it turns out, is anything the state sees as a threat to its power—literal or perceived. The RICO indictment identifies “collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity” and “protection of the environment at all costs” as key elements of the criminal conspiracy of Stop Cop City. It also names the use of websites, zines, social media, press releases, and speaking to the media as part of the conspiracy, as well as taking photos and videos of police officers, posting links to news stories about the protests, and using encrypted communication services like Signal, Telegram, or Virtual Private Networks. None of these are illegal activities, but the RICO indictment describes them as evidence of organized crime.

These charges have serious implications for organizers and activists working on any social justice or environmental issue across the country. Academic Dan Berger notes this is not the first time the RICO Act has been used to target left-wing activism and organizing. The US government has also previously criminalized mutual aid, such as the Blank Panther Party’s breakfast program. One can easily imagine how it will extend elsewhere. It could be used to prosecute people distributing food and other material goods to those in need, those helping pregnant people to reach doctors who will perform abortions, and those participating in marches about climate change, as well any land and water protection actions.

In its references to vandalism and “intimidation,” the indictment seemingly posits that people handing out flyers or attending a music festival are intimidating a militarized police force that has already murdered an unarmed person living in a tree. Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, said his priority was to “keep Georgians safe, especially against out-of-state radicals that threaten the safety of our citizens and law enforcement.” Never mind that the Atlanta Police Department has been actively recruiting out-of-state; the attempt to equalize this violent asymmetry of “intimidation” and pin it on “outside agitators” would be laughable if it were not so deadly. As Herskind points out in an interview with Kelly Hayes at Truthout, the state asserts that activists are violent for damaging property, but Georgia is the only side with a body count.

It’s also noteworthy that the indictment cites opposition to police as key to the “criminal conspiracy,” going so far as to date the start of the conspiracy as 25 May 2020—the day when Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. This is before activists began to mobilize against Cop City, and even before Atlanta City Council officially announced the plan for its construction. The state is clearly revealing that, as Berger points out, it intends to prosecute “a nationwide conspiracy of antiracist opposition to police violence.”

“The implication made clear to all is that the state sees the movement to Stop Cop City as interconnected with the movement for Black lives,” writes activist Joshua Hill. They’re saying “that efforts to limit police violence are criminal rather than justified.” As an attorney representing some of the defendants in the RICO case said, “This is a naked political attempt to criminalize political dissent.”

It’s important to note that this attempt to criminalize political dissent is bipartisan. The Democratic mayor of Atlanta and his administration has been on the frontlines of condemning the movement and trying to suppress all efforts of Atlanta citizens to collect signatures for the referendum petition, speak at City Hall, and otherwise protest Cop City. With the RICO indictment, which Congresspeople Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib describe as “one of the most extreme cases of government overreach, oppression, and violence in recent years,” this Democratic leadership’s attempt to repress Stop Cop City aligns with the far right agenda and rising fascism in the United States and globally. As Bush and Tlaib write, “The indictment reads less like a legal document and more like a MAGA manifesto.”

Stopping the arms fair

At the same time that the Stop Cop City RICO indictment was made public, over in the United Kingdom, activists affiliated with another decentralized coalition, Stop the Arms Fair, were gearing up for two weeks of action against one of the world’s largest racketeering networks: the Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEI).

Every two years, thousands of vendors—weapon companies—use the DSEI arms fair to market their wares to more than 30,000 attendees from around the world. It is organized by the UK government’s arms sales unit—a civil service entity that exists only to promote the sale of weapons. The arms fair is the place to be for anyone profiting from war, police brutality, and repression.

In opposition to this flagrant display of violence, activists in London organize a week of action ahead of the fair to raise awareness and disrupt venders bringing in their equipment. They spend the week of the fair itself blockading access to the venue, holding vigils and talks, and posting anti-DSEI art around the city.

As with Stop Cop City, Stop the Arms Fair involves many people representing different organizations—peace groups, faith groups, antiwar and antinuclear organizations; groups working against institutional racism, police brutality, austerity, and economic injustice; folks working for migrant rights and border demilitarization; others working for climate action and environmental regeneration. It involves a multitude of self-organized and coordinated actions and events, and fosters solidarity amongst those coming together for a common cause. Like Stop Cop City, it involves social media postings, days of action, legal observers, mutual aid, banner making, marches, protests at corporate headquarters, calls to politicians, media work, investigative reports, and more.

Solidarity in dissent

Through the movements to Stop Cop City and Stop the Arms Fair—as with every other movement for social change—organizers are determined to put people and the planet ahead of profit. These movements highlight the violence and repression of the political and corporate systems that currently govern our world. These movements speak to a different possibility for organizing society—one based on solidarity, care, and equality. These movements stand against militarization of police, the state, of international and domestic relations.

This is what is being criminalized by the RICO indictment in Atlanta.

In Georgia, the police, politicians, and corporate financiers of Cop City are conspiring to criminalize dissent. In particular, they are trying to criminalize dissent to a system of “law and order” in which those with capital can rule with the assurance of having the forces, equipment, and training to suppress further dissent to this order. “Read closely, the indictment is an artifact of political repression,” writes Sarah Jones. “In its reach it reveals the anti-democratic truth: Georgia cares more for Cop City than for civil liberties and is determined to quell dissent by whatever means it can.”

The real “racketeering” is the attempt to criminalize care and solidarity among people, the attempt to criminalize protection of land and water. The attempt to criminalize organizing. The charges in the RICO indictment condemn “the notion of social solidarity,” which, “relies heavily on the idea of human altruism.” As Hill argues, “This is more an indictment of the state than of the movement opposed to the state’s interests. The state is revealing itself to be the real villain.”

Local, national, and global solidarity is the only way to confront this attempt to criminalize care for people and the planet. Fortunately, in Atlanta, people are still organizing against Cop City. Just two days after the RICO indictment was made public, five individuals issued a “people’s stop work order” at the Cop City site, chaining themselves to construction equipment. “Despite the repressive tactics of authorities who wish to disenfranchise the community and charge protestors with domestic terrorism and RICO,” said Reverend Dave Dunn, who was among those arrested, people “will continue to act to resist the militarization of our society.”

Continued action—coordinated and decentralized, independent and mutual—is only way to effectively challenge the RICO indictment, the domestic terrorism charges, and other arrests, intimidation, and suppression of dissent. Organizing and activism are essential to deconstructing the system of inequality and repression system that the racketeers of state violence have built, and constructing instead a world that cares for all. As Herskind argues, “The state can try to criminalize collective care and solidarity. But it cannot stop people from caring for each other. It cannot stop people from moving in solidarity with one another.”

There are many ways to support the movement to Stop Cop City, including:

* Sign the Stop Cop City Solidarity Statement and publish a solidarity statement from your organization;

* Donate to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund to help bail out arrested protesters and fund the legal effort to challenge the repression of this movement;

* Contact Mayor Dickens and the City Council and tell them to Stop Cop City and cancel the lease of forest land to the Atlanta Police Foundation;

* Contact Board Members of Atlanta Police Foundation and demand that they denounce Cop City and leave the APF Board;

* Contact the contractors and subcontractors working on Cop City and tell them to pull out of the project; 

* Use and share the resources of Stop Cop City Solidarity, Defend the Atlanta Forest, and Atlanta Community Press Collective;

* Join the mass nonviolent direct action to Stop Cop City in Atlanta from 10–13 November 2023.

Ray Acheson (they/them) is Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They provide analysis and advocacy at the United Nations and other international forums on matters of disarmament and demilitarization. Ray served on the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons, and is also involved in organizing against autonomous weapons, the arms trade, war and militarism, the carceral system, and more. They are author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages (Haymarket Books, 2022).

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