Is Political Organizing A Criminal Conspiracy?

Metal link fence
RICO indictments slow the fight against Cop City

By Astra Taylor

I spent much of 2020 and 2021 in Greensboro, North Carolina, working on a co-authored book about solidarity. As the pandemic raged, and a movement against police brutality exploded in response to the murder of George Floyd, our chosen subject matter felt timely. Being in Greensboro made it feel timeless. The famous F. W. Woolworth, where four teenagers kicked off the sit-in movement that helped bring down Jim Crow, occupies a prominent downtown block, and was long ago converted into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. 

At that Woolworth lunch counter decades ago, the four protesters miraculously avoided being bludgeoned or thrown in jail on the first day of their gutsy campaign. Instead, their photo made the local paper and their numbers grew. This latter bit was intentional, solidarity being a core component of their strategy. Plotting in their dorm rooms on the A&T State University campus, the young men built a robust network. Black women students from nearby Bennett College joined the fight, as did a handful of young white women undergraduates. The involvement of local Black high schoolers turned out to be pivotal; they held down the protests when the universities went on spring break and the older kids went home. Day after day, those students, not yet out of childhood, sat at the lunch counter, heads in their school books, flanked by an angry mob. An older white man, Ralph Johns, provided the A&T Four, as they came to be called, with modest financial resources and media connections — much to the irritation of his pro-segregation wife, who was aware that their business would suffer when their captive clientele had other options. At the time, Greensboro was a major railroad hub and members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a prominent Black union, spread news of the protest wherever the trains they worked took them, inspiring demonstrations in other cities and helping to bring new supporters to the cause. 

“The Government Is Cracking Down, But People Aren’t Cracking Up.”

These supporters make up one of the most memorable parts of the museum’s permanent exhibit — a wall of small black and white mugshots, most belonging to people who traveled to Greensboro from out of state. The striking mosaic overwhelms with each person’s name, race, height, weight, eye color, address — and, of course, the charges they faced. 

Researching and writing about solidarity had helped me develop a keener appreciation of the special ire segregationists reserved for those who traveled to support sit-ins, boycotts, and voter drives far from their hometowns. Echoing attacks on Yankee “carpetbaggers” during Reconstruction a century before, the white supremacist power structure of the 1950s and ’60s railed against “outside agitators,” smearing them as foreign and destabilizing intruders who made trouble in once happily “separate but equal” communities. The white kids who originally hailed from the West or North obviously fit the bill, but so did the Atlanta-born Martin Luther King Jr., as he traveled from town to town across the South, helping to knit together an unstoppable movement. “When the South has trouble with its Negroes — when the Negroes refuse to remain in their ‘place’ — it blames ‘outside agitators’ and ‘Northern interference,’” James Baldwin quipped in 1961. “When the nation has trouble with the Northern Negro, it blames the Kremlin.”

As we finished our book about solidarity, that transformative ability to recognize another’s oppression as your own, we witnessed a renewed effort to paint left-wing solidarity as outside agitation — and to criminalize it. Now, the mugshots belonged to organizers against Cop City.

Since 2021, people have traveled to Atlanta to join the movement to halt the construction of the 85-acre, $100 million Atlanta Safety Public Training Center, known colloquially as Cop City, which would be built by cutting down part of the South River Forest, or the Weelaunee Forest, one of the region’s essential air-cleansing “lungs.” Since the Stop Cop City protests began, organizers have built solidarity across communities and causes, connecting the central issues of our time by linking racism, policing, militarism, environmental degradation, infrastructural disinvestment, corporate profiteering, and the crisis of democratic representation and accountability under one umbrella. The resulting coalition unites Black Lives Matter participants, Indigenous organizers, environmentalists, eco-anarchists, community members, Christian clergy, legal experts, voting rights advocates, students, and concerned citizens. So far, despite overwhelming pushback and intimidation, these varied groups collaborate even as they deploy different tactics, a spectrum ranging from permitted rallies, press conferences, neighborhood canvassing, and corporate pressure campaigns to forest occupation, civil disobedience, and property destruction.

It helps that the organizers have a clear, moral message — working class Atlantans need green space and funding for social services, not a dangerous and costly police playground — backed up by deep research. Activists and journalists, for example, have unveiled the web of corporate interests behind the project, including exposing financial conflicts between “public safety” and surveillance technology companies and the Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Police Foundation. Long before Israel’s war on Gaza dominated the headlines, Stop Cop City organizers highlighted the strong ties between the Israel Defense Forces and the Atlanta Police Department, specifically through the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE), which sponsored a “peer-to-peer executive training program” in 2022. The same tactics and technologies used to surveil and control poor Black communities, Cop City’s opponents observe, are those currently oppressing and killing the people of Palestine and as these mercenary-techniques are further honed they will return home to roost.

Nevertheless, Atlanta’s political class — which includes many ostensibly liberal Black, Democratic leaders (see Lux, issue 7) — remain determined to build the facility, public opposition be damned. At various hearings over the years, thousands of people have shown up virtually or in-person to “marathon” city council meetings, providing hours and hours of public comment opposing the facility. When they were ignored and steamrolled by their representatives, who voted to fund the project, spurned constituents set to work organizing a city-wide referendum, ultimately gathering 108,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure. And yet, Atlanta authorities have so far refused to begin the verification process and instead engaged in a series of legal machinations that may well obliterate the referendum campaign by overturning the decision of a judge who had previously granted the organizers some additional time to collect names. (In its appeal, the city claims the extension violated the state constitution.)

A speaker speaks into a mic, standing in front of a group of people holding up signs that protest Cop City
Steven Hall, a Stop Cop City activist, speaks to the crowd at a jail vigil for slain activist Tortuguita and the 61 activists charged with racketeering, across the street from Dekalb County Jail in Atlanta in November 2023

This shameless manipulation of the democratic process has radicalized many locals and increased sympathy for and solidarity with those who engage in bolder forms of protest. So has the jaw-dropping violence the state has wielded against the movement, from the use of tear-gas and “less lethal” weaponry to the use of lethal force. In January of 2023 Atlanta state troopers shocked the world when they murdered 26-year-old Forest Defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, who sat cross-legged and arms-raised only to be shot 57 times (the troopers haven’t faced any charges; the special prosecutor assigned to the case said he found their use of deadly force to be “objectively reasonable”). Soon after, three activists were arrested for distributing fliers that claimed to name one of the police involved in Tortuguita’s death. They were held for days in solitary confinement and denied bond. 

While the violence unleashed on protesters has been shocking, if not surprising, Cop City has also become a case study for how solidarity itself can be criminalized. 

Prosecutors have consistently brought domestic terrorism charges against Cop City activists since late 2022. The evidence linking an individual to an allegedly terroristic act of property damage can be appallingly tenuous; police have cited things like “wearing black,” having a jail support number written on their arm, or the presence of mud on their clothes or shoes. This was the case during March 2023’s “Week of Action,” a seemingly random round-up of 23 people who were attending a music festival nearly a mile from a construction site that was allegedly attacked by Stop Cop City activists earlier the same day. One Associated Press article about the incident saw fit to mention not once, but twice that this particular batch of arrestees “came from states across the U.S.” and even abroad — in other words, the fact they weren’t local raised suspicion. According to Kamau Franklin, of Atlanta’s Community Movement Builders, city and federal authorities have consistently and purposely targeted what he calls “out of towners” in order to advance the narrative that the city’s trouble is not homegrown: “They would let people with a driver’s license or ID connected to Georgia go and those who were from out of town, out of the state, those folks would get charged with domestic terrorism,” Franklin has explained.

In September, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr escalated the state’s frenzied crusade when he indicted 61 people on racketeering charges, which carry the threat of an additional five to 20 years in prison. (Many caught up in Carr’s dragnet already faced prior charges, including the aforementioned flier-distributors.) By some estimates, legal fees for the defendants could exceed $12 million. The case sets disturbing new precedent by framing a decentralized grassroots movement as a criminal business enterprise using state RICO statutes originally developed to combat the mafia. Don Samuel, a veteran lawyer working on the case, told the Guardian that the 109 page indictment “doesn’t allege a single racketeering act” and called portions of the text “absolutely unintelligible.” And yet the overarching purpose is absolutely clear: The indictment seeks to criminalize people based on their associations and ideologies as opposed to their specific activities. 

The text of the indictment repeatedly names a shadowy group called “Defend the Forest,” which does not, in fact, exist. “Defend the Forest” is an ethos and a rallying cry, not an entity, let alone one engaged in racketeering. In other words, the state is charging people with membership in a supposedly law-breaking enterprise, but that “enterprise” is simply being part of a movement that the authorities do not like. 

“This is the part that everybody should be terrified about,” Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund who is named in the indictment, told me. “It’s not just about Cop City. It’s an effort to stake out or to test a new legal and prosecutorial playbook that can be put to use at the point a movement starts to become too annoying to the authorities. It grants them a new blanket tool to shut down dissent whenever they want.” 

Cop City has also become a case study for how solidarity itself can be criminalized

The day the RICO indictment was released, my co-author and I scrambled to amend our manuscript, which was about to go to press. Amid the conspiratorial ramblings and tenuous legal theories, the state prosecutors singled out the idea of “social solidarity” as one of the core dangerous values promoted by the Stop Cop City movement. 

Our book’s initial drafts involved a lot of reading between the lines: Elites rarely name solidarity as their primary target, even as they demonize and criminalize it. Given this tendency, the indictment’s overt hostility toward solidarity was refreshingly direct. The authors even define the concept in a passage that reads like it was composed for a school assignment:

The notion of social solidarity relies heavily on the idea of human altruism; that is, individuals will voluntarily offer goods, services, and resources without anything compelling it. Anarchists often shorten the term “social solidarity” simply into the term “solidarity,” and it is frequently woven into the speeches, statements, and writings of anarchists. In addition to the term “solidarity,” and other anarchist terms, anarchists often weave the term “mutual aid” and “collective” into their jargon and writings.

From there the text pivots to the question of violence, including a section that accurately describes many protesters’ views: Their “belief is that the government is engaging in a form of violence by denying individuals basic needs through capitalism, government action, and law enforcement by police.” These solidarity-loving “anarchists” often “accuse the government of using law enforcement to oppress societal change,” the indictment continues, willfully oblivious to the fact that the document provides resounding proof of that very claim.

The Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which raises money to bail protest arrestees out of jail, offers a textbook example of this sort of oppression. On a May morning in 2023, Fund organizers Marlon Kautz, Savannah Patterson, and Adele Maclean were arrested. As news of the raid spread, the internet amplified the state’s accusations of money laundering and charity fraud. Later, the Fund would become implicated in the RICO case in which the most salacious accusations involved the alleged use of donations to buy things like food and camping equipment for the Forest Defenders and their occupation.

“On a personal level, the experience of having your home attacked by SWAT cops and having weapons pointed at you and being hauled away to jail without warning in your pajamas is shocking,” Kautz told me when I spoke to him 10 months later. But the ensuing panic also provided essential cover for a recent Georgia bill that makes it illegal for any individual or group to bail out more than three people in a year. This reactionary law would destroy bail funds, which have been central tools of solidarity in recent years, allowing, for example, sympathetic strangers to bail out protesters arrested during the George Floyd protests. 

The bail fund organizers haven’t backed down. “We’re facing extreme charges that threaten to put us in prison for decades, and we think that they will fail, and we are preparing to defend ourselves vigorously in court,” Kautz told me. Meanwhile, the Solidarity Fund continues to operate: “We are still assisting people in getting bailed out, making sure people have access to legal resources when they are targeted. We’re still educating people about their legal rights, and how they can navigate situations with the police and in the courts.”

Georgia can’t be separated from a larger wave of anti-democratic regulation and litigation roiling the country — a proto-fascist surge that picked up momentum following the Standing Rock anti-pipeline protests of 2016 before intensifying in the aftermath of the George Floyd uprisings — and one that will inevitably take an even darker turn should Donald Trump return to the White House. Trump has repeatedly expressed his eagerness to utilize the Insurrection Act, an obscure and antiquated law that would allow him to deploy the military domestically — something he is rumored to have wanted to do at least twice while previously in office, first against Black Lives Matter protesters and then after he lost the election. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal has sounded the alarm. “Fix the Insurrection Act Before a Trump Inauguration: If Congress fails to do so, troops could crush protests to begin a second term,” warned a recent headline. 

A metal chain link fence that breaks and becomes  strings of intertwined thread

In addition to the sweeping and disturbing federal authorities already in his possession, Republican-controlled legislatures would also give Trump plenty of additional material to work with. By some counts, 23 states have expanded the criminalization of protest or increased punishment for protest, and the numbers are only rising. Some have expanded their domestic terrorism statutes or considered doing so (one proposal floated by New York legislators suggested that obstructing traffic meet the standard). Other states have imposed extreme penalties on demonstrators — blocking a sidewalk can now carry a one year jail sentence in Tennessee and Lousianna — or decreasing penalties for those who harm protesters. 

The right is also experimenting with expanding liability, both through state law and potentially precedent-setting lawsuits, exemplified by an ongoing case against Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who is being sued by a police officer injured by a projectile thrown by an unknown person during a protest McKesson helped organize. (As of this writing, the Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from Mckesson, allowing the suit to go forward.) Texas’s “bounty law” remains in effect, rewarding those who rat out individuals who assist people seeking abortions. Efforts are ongoing to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a form of solidarity with Palestinian liberation. These regulations are engineered to inhibit movements for racial and sexual equality by suppressing action, chilling speech, and instilling fear. They erode trust by isolating and ostracizing activists, inspiring confusion and suspicion, and wasting precious movement time and resources.

Our adversaries understand that all of our fights are connected. That’s why they pass seemingly scattershot legislation — outlaw drag performances here, provide immunity for drivers who run over demonstrators there, then deny public sector workers the right to strike for good measure — while railing against every progressive cause under the sun. Conservatives approach social issues not as problems to be solved but as potential wedges — tools to further divide white from Black, Black from Brown, poor from middle class, citizen from immigrant, gay and trans from straight, doctor from patient, teacher from student, local resident from outsider, and “good” protester from “bad” one.  

Whether it can succeed in Atlanta is an open question. “On the one hand, repression is felt really strongly in Atlanta and that is its intended effect,” Kautz reflected, sharing that he’s heard people worry that simply gathering signatures for the referendum campaign might get them into legal trouble. “But on the other hand, given the ultimate purpose of this kind of repression is to shut down a social movement, it is shocking how this has failed.” The referendum campaign continues apace, with organizers attempting to engage the political process in good faith, while others continue to pursue more “underground” direct action tactics. Notably, different sorts of organizers have supported each others’ diverse tactics. 

On February 10, 2024, an anarchist-communique took credit for setting a police car ablaze in response to three house raids two days prior. Mary Hooks, a well-known and respected organizer with Black Lives Matter who has been part of the referendum effort, was asked to condemn the arson at a press conference. Hooks refused to distinguish between
“nonviolent” demonstrators and allegedly “violent” property-destroyers. Instead, she breathed righteous fire: 

To be honest with you, Atlanta deserves more than that. Real talk. They’re lucky, this city is lucky, this country is lucky. Atlanta has its hands in literally murdering Palestinians right now. You think we give a damn about some equipment? Not at all. But some of us, we cannot take that risk. And those who can, bless them. Bless them… I’m not going to condemn nobody for doing righteously what they need to do when our city has silenced every quote-unquote “proper” democratic process… If we don’t get this in the courts, if we can’t get this in the council, then we gonna take it in the streets.

When I spoke to Nolan Huber-Rhoades, a filmmaker and member of the Atlanta Press Collective, an independent source of essential Cop City coverage, he marveled at the ways organizers have maintained a united front. “What’s really remarkable about this movement is that every day the government is cracking down, but people aren’t cracking up,” he told me. Huber-Rhoades pointed to the RICO indictment as a prime example. He’d been pouring through the four terrabytes of discovery the state had collected and deemed it “quite an example of solidarity.” From what he and his collaborators have been able to comb through, it appeared that multiple attempts to infiltrate the movement had floundered. One informant quit after meeting people in the movement, and another, a young person caught up in a spate of arrests, failed to provide anything other than what appeared, in Huber-Rhoades’ estimation, to be “planted information.”

Last September, five people, including two ministers, declared a “people’s stop work order” and locked themselves to construction equipment on the Cop City site. Two months later, four older white women hoisted a sign that read “elders for the forest” and blockaded one of the entrances. On March 27, 2024, two forest defenders scaled a crane at a work site of Brasfield & Gorrie, a Cop City contractor, and locked themselves to the ladder system — the action was part of a larger anti-corporate campaign that has succeeded in pressuring multiple affiliates to quit the project, a rivulet in what has become a costly stream of construction set-backs and delays. The crane-climbers shared photos from their perches, surveying the dark city below, before they were removed and detained. 

“One of the big purposes of state repression is to isolate and individuate people.”

Meanwhile, “outside agitators” have been rallying in other states to keep up the heat. Earlier this year, activists confronted Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens during his panel at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. He left before it was finished. The same week, activists in Tucson, Arizona,s took part in a series of protests targeting one of Cop City’s insurers, including blocking the offices of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company subsidiary Scottsdale Insurance Company. Another action involved locking down outside the entrance to a gated community where a Nationwide associate vice president resides. A Day of Inconvenience, a short documentary produced by Huber-Rhoades and his Atlanta Press Collective collaborators, shows a small group of committed and eloquent young people attempting to explain their motives to disgruntled homeowners, sincerely apologizing for the inconvenience while also insisting on disruption: “No peace in your home while you raid ours!” One resident professes his fondness for dissent (“I love protesting until it affects me”); others scoff at the protesters’ youth (“Maybe Gen Z?”); and one man becomes incensed when he learns that Cop City is located all the way in Georgia (“Go away!” he rages). Predictably, they call the cops, who eventually drag them off to jail. 

Such actions haven’t grabbed national headlines, but the fact is that much of the work that makes a movement successful over time happens out of the spotlight. We can think here of the humble work of mutual aid, of providing food and shelter, or talking to skeptical strangers during a neighborhood canvas; the wonky work of accounting, of tracking expenses and receipts to ward off cynical and opportunistic attacks on projects that need resources to exist, or offering free legal aid to people who could not afford representation otherwise; the clandestine work of strategizing and carrying out actions now shrouded in additional risk. In an atmosphere of intensifying repression, it’s all the more critical that people proceed with practical caution without succumbing to immobilizing fear. None of the people whose mugshots now grace Greensboro’s museum wall, who filled the city’s jail and helped break the will of the segregationists, have monuments built to them or even Wikipedia pages. But their confident gazes have been validated by history. 

When my co-author and I read the RICO indictment against Cop City activists, we saw it as a kind of smoking gun. It substantiated the argument we make in a chapter called “Divide and Conquer,” which surveys the techniques that have long been deployed to stifle and sabotage solidarity. A kind of anti-solidarity playbook has been in operation since the days of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonization, through the era of Pinkerton guards and federal laws outlawing labor organizing, to the FBI’s COINTELPRO attacks on the peace, Black Power, and feminist movements in the 1960s and ’70s, to the framing of animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists in more recent decades. We are now in the midst of a new wave of attacks on our very right to work together for social change.

“One of the big purposes of state repression is to isolate and individuate people. You have a big group of people who are all expressing opposition to something. You take one person, you put them in handcuffs and put them in a cage. They are then dealing with a vast hostile bureaucratic system by themselves, and that is scary,” Kautz told me, speaking from experience. “When solidarity is practiced in a widespread way, it takes away one of the main tools that the state has to terrorize people and control them, which is this sense of isolation.”

Astra Taylor is a writer, organizer, documentarian, and member of Lux’s advisory board. Her most recent book, co-authored with Leah Hunt-Hendrix, is Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea.