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61 people have been charged in Georgia with racketeering related to the ‘Stop Cop City’ movement

ATLANTA (AP) — Sixty-one people have been charged with racketeering in Georgia following a long-running state investigation into protests against a planned police and fire training facility in the Atlanta area that critics are calling “Cop City.”

In the sweeping indictment released Tuesday, Republican Attorney General Chris Carr claimed the defendants are “militant anarchists” who supported a violent movement prosecutors say can be traced back to widespread protests against racial justice in 2020.

The Aug. 29 indictment is the latest application of the state’s anti-racketeering law, also known as a RICO law, and comes just weeks after the Fulton County prosecutor used the statute to charge former President Donald Trump and 18 other defendants. to sue.

The “Stop Cop City” effort has been going on for more than two years and has sometimes resulted in vandalism and violence. Opponents fear the training center will lead to greater militarization of the police force, and that its construction in an urban forest will exacerbate environmental damage in a poor, predominantly black area.

Most of the accused have already been charged for their alleged involvement in the movement. RICO charges carry a severe penalty that may be added on top of the penalty for the underlying acts.

Among the suspects: more than three dozen people already facing domestic terrorism charges in connection with violent protests; three leaders of a bail fund previously charged with money laundering; and three activists who were previously charged with felony harassment after authorities said they distributed fliers calling a state trooper a “murderer” for his involvement in the fatal shooting of a protester.

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“The 61 defendants collectively conspired to prevent the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center by conducting, coordinating and staging acts of violence, harassment and property destruction,” Carr said at a news conference Tuesday.

By linking the defendants to the alleged conspiracy, prosecutors have unleashed a vast array of allegations. This includes everything from owning an accelerant and throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers, to getting reimbursed for glue and food for activists who camped in the woods near the construction site for months.

Activists who led an ongoing referendum effort against the project immediately condemned the allegations, calling them “anti-democratic.”

“Chris Carr may be trying to use his accusers and power to build his gubernatorial campaign and silence free speech, but his threats will not silence our commitment to standing up for our future, our community and our city bring,” said the Cop City Vote coalition. in a statement.

Republican Governor Brian Kemp, meanwhile, praised the charge, saying in a statement: “My top priority is and will always be protecting Georgians, especially from out-of-state radicals who threaten the safety of our citizens and law enforcement.”

Protests against the training center escalated after the fatal shooting in January of 26-year-old protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, better known as Tortuguita. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said state troopers fired in self-defense after Paez Terán fired on them as they drove protesters from a wooded area near the facility’s proposed site. But the troopers involved were not wearing body cameras, and activists have questioned the official account.

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and others say the 85-acre, $90 million facility would replace inadequate training facilities and help address problems in hiring and retaining police officers.

Prosecutors trace the roots of the “Stop Cop City” movement back to May 25, 2020, the date George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, even though the ensuing protests took place months before officials announced plans for the training center. Long after the racial justice protests died down, “violent anti-police sentiment” persisted among some Atlanteans and remains one of the “core motivations” of the protesters, the indictment said.

As of 2021, numerous incidents of violence and vandalism have been associated with the movement. Days after Paez Terán’s murder, a police car was set on fire during a January protest in downtown Atlanta. In March, more than 150 masked protesters chased police at the construction site and set fire to construction equipment before fleeing and blending into the crowd at a nearby music festival. These two cases have led to dozens of people being charged with domestic terrorism, although prosecutors have previously admitted they have struggled to prove that many of those arrested were actually those who took part in the violence.

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Among those charged with domestic terrorism near the music festival in March and charged last week is Thomas Jurgens, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Jurgens’ lawyer has said his client wore a bright green hat – a familiar identifier used by legal observers – and that his arrest alarmed many human rights groups.

The advocacy center called it an example of “heavy-handed law enforcement intervention against protesters.” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, a Democrat, expressed concerns about Jurgens’ prosecution when announcing her June decision to withdraw from criminal cases related to the motion. , citing disagreements with Carr over how things should be handled.

In addition to the 61 racketeering charges, five of the defendants also faced domestic terrorism and first-degree arson charges. Three previously indicted leaders of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has provided bail money and helped find lawyers for arrested protesters, were also each charged with 15 counts of money laundering.

The case was initially assigned to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the judge who oversaw the racketeering case against Trump and 18 others. But McAfee retaliated, saying he had worked with prosecutors on the case prior to his appointment as judge. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams is now overseeing the case.

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