Dozens face RICO charges over Atlanta police center protests

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) - More than five dozen activists have been charged with an illegal conspiracy to stop construction of an Atlanta police training center, derisively called "Cop City," that has been the target of sometimes violent protests in recent months.

A 109-page indictment, handed up by a grand jury last week and made public on Tuesday, accuses 61 members of a group called Defend the Atlanta Forest of illegally occupying the 85-acre (34.4 hectares) wooded site where the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is being built.

The defendants were charged with violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as the RICO Act. The law, enacted in 1970, was originally intended as an enhanced tool to curb organized crime activity.

The alleged crimes rolled into the racketeering indictments in state court include criminal trespass, vandalism, throwing objects including Molotov cocktails at police, and posting threats on the internet.

"Each individual charged in this indictment knowingly joined the conspiracy in an attempt to prevent the training center from being built," the indictment reads.

Neither members of the group nor the Atlanta police immediately responded to requests for comment.

The indictment describes the members as being part of an Atlanta-based "self-identified coalition and enterprise of militant anarchists, eco-activists and community organizers," who are also "anti-police."

On its website, the group said its mission is to protect the South River Forest site, which is in unincorporated DeKalb County. It describes the area as "the lungs of Atlanta."

It also aims to stop the expansion of what the website calls a "hyper-militarized" police force, which it links to a series of police killings of unarmed Black men across the U.S. in recent years. One of those killings, the fatal 2020 shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, helped fuel nationwide protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis the previous month.

"The movement to prevent the development of Cop City is a fight against hundreds of years of racialized violence and ecological destruction," the website says.

Clearing of the training center site has already begun, but a petition has circulated in Atlanta demanding a halt to the project pending a referendum.

A 26-year-old protester was shot and killed by police in January during a raid to clear the site of demonstrators. Police said the man had fired first at officers, a claim disputed by the activists.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bill Berkrot)