By: Christopher Vreugdenhil
The RICO Act – Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations – is typically reserved for convictions of criminal organizations. So why were 61 activists indicted under the RICO Act on Sept. 5, when the legislation is usually applied to mobs, gangs and white-collar corruption?
The RICO Act was enacted in 1970 to deal with the Mafia, but was written in a way that allowed the government to apply it to other criminal organizations. A person can be indicted by this act if they commit at least two acts of racketeering within 10 years – this includes a laundry list of crimes related to illegally acquiring a business, operating a business with illegal income or using a business to commit crimes.
To be indicted under RICO, a person also has to be proven to be involved in an “enterprise”, which can be defined by having a pattern of investing in the proceeds; acquiring, maintaining or controlling the enterprise; or broadly, participating in the enterprise. So, how can this apply to protestors?
It’s important to know, first, what they were protesting. An over two-year long protest has been happening in Atlanta, Ga., over the construction of a training facility called the Atlanta Public Safety Center, or as locals call it, Cop City. The website for Cop City calls it a “[reimagining of] law enforcement training” that will be the “vanguard of major urban law enforcement agencies.”
However, this $90-million venture that takes up 265 acres of Atlanta forest leaves locals frustrated. Their two main concerns are how this will affect the Atlanta forest and how this will influence the already rocky relationship between the Atlanta Police Force and its citizens. Cop City protestors are not backing down anytime soon, as they believe the money used to build the facility would better serve their community somewhere else.
Now, how are these protestors being indicted under the RICO Act? In reporting for NPR by Odette Yousef, Ga. Attorney General Christopher Carr said that “(t)hey hold a core belief that society should abolish police, government and private business. And as further alleged, they’re willing to bring about such changes, quote, ‘by any means necessary,’ end quote, including violence.”
Carr also said that the “members of Defend the Atlanta Forest subscribe to a philosophy of anarchy,” and the protesters used fireworks and molotov cocktails, while the actual indictment does not include any such charge. There was one account of arson listed in the proceedings; however, this was only listed under eight of the 61 protesters.
Those same eight are also listed under money laundering, asserting that the Atlanta Solidarity Fund (who gave legal support to the activists and were taking donations to pay bail of those who were arrested) was commiting charity fraud. The remaining protesters were indicted simply under the aforementioned RICO charges.
This begs questions of government corruption and an abuse of power. In Yousef’s reporting, ACLU member Hina Shamasi commented on this indictment: “It is a sweeping criminal indictment of a protest movement, and I think it has to be understood as an extreme intimidation tactic that must not set a precedent elsewhere.”
If they are in fact intimidation tactics, what does this mean for the future of protesting? Over the past few years, it has been shown that rubber bullets, tear gas and bully clubs have not broken the spirit of protestors for numerous causes; but what happens in an America where you can be charged with a felony for protesting?
Michael Mears, professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, commented on this dizzying conclusion, “We shouldn’t be arresting people for protesting. You know, that’s who we are. We protest. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.”
While the general public knows that protesting and domestic terrorism are not one and the same, America’s lawmakers may have created a new loophole for controlling the disgruntled populace, and they are starting in Georgia. Many Georgia citizens are holding their breath as they wait for a jury to decipher how these RICO charges will apply to their activists. Do not let this news dishearten you, the reader, by any means and when problems arise, protest.
As a journalistic publication empowered by freedom of press and guided by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, The Preface believes in the importance of each right granted by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution: the freedom to practice religion, the freedom from imposition of religion, the right to protected speech and press, and the rights to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.