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RICO case against cop city protesters in Atlanta stirs concerns about free speech

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's a big racketeering case in Georgia, but it's not the one involving former President Donald Trump. It is against 61 activists who oppose the development of a new police and fire training facility. And it could have major free speech implications. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Alex Papali traveled to Atlanta in March. He says he just wanted to learn firsthand about the movement that has come to be known as Stop Cop City. He never expected to end up in jail for three weeks and ultimately charged in a massive racketeering case.

ALEX PAPALI: It's absurd.

YOUSEF: Pappali is one of more than 20 people arrested after attending an outdoor protest concert. He says he doesn't know most of the others who were detained that night or the dozens of others who've been indicted along with him.

PAPALI: You know, I can say with certainty that I'm not involved in any conspiracy of this kind.

YOUSEF: But in its indictment, the state of Georgia claims that the defendants were all part of a well-organized conspiracy.

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CHRISTOPHER CARR: As the indictment asserts, members of Defend the Atlanta Forest subscribe to a philosophy of anarchy.

YOUSEF: This is Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr at a press conference a few weeks ago. He's bringing the case in Georgia's Fulton County. That's where Donald Trump and his co-defendants face charges of election interference. But there's a difference. The case against Trump is being prosecuted by the county district attorney, Fani Willis, a Democrat. Willis' office is not involved in the case against the Cop City defendants. Instead, that case is being driven by Carr, a Republican. Carr has characterized defendants in this case as part of a, quote, "extremist organization."

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CARR: They 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.

YOUSEF: Carr talks about protesters throwing Molotov cocktails and fireworks, but the indictment lists just one count of violence - arson. It also charges some defendants with money laundering. Together, the arson and money laundering counts underpin the alleged criminal scheme in this case. But only eight people are charged with those counts. Georgia attorney Christopher Timmons says the rest of the 61 defendants could still be guilty under the state's broad racketeering law.

CHRISTOPHER TIMMONS: It doesn't have to be an actual agreement to be a conspiracy or an enterprise. You just all have to be moving in concert.

YOUSEF: Timmons has prosecuted and consulted on numerous RICO cases in Georgia. He says they'd all have to be working toward the same criminal goal or what's known as a corrupt agreement.

TIMMONS: And in this particular case, your corrupt agreement is to illegally and improperly stop the building of the training facility here in Atlanta.

YOUSEF: But why would it be a crime to try to stop a government project? This is where Georgia's domestic terrorism statute comes in. The law allows prosecutors to look at a crime, like setting fire to a bulldozer, and to apply a further question - was the criminal behavior intended to change or influence public policy? If yes, the prosecutor could charge someone with the serious felony of domestic terrorism.

MICHAEL MEARS: It puts it up in the air. What can I do to protest and to show my anger or to show my discontent with this policy and not get arrested?

YOUSEF: Michael Mears is a professor at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School.

MEARS: 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.

YOUSEF: Anecdotally, some Atlantans say that the use of the domestic terrorism charge against some protesters is already chilling their First Amendment activity. And there's concern that the impact of this case could extend beyond Georgia's borders.

HINA SHAMSI: It is a sweeping criminal indictment of a protest movement.

YOUSEF: Hina Shamsi is with the ACLU.

SHAMSI: And I think it has to be understood as an extreme intimidation tactic that must not set a precedent elsewhere.

YOUSEF: Shamsi says 35 states and the District of Columbia all have laws that make committing acts of so-called domestic terrorism felonies. She says a successful prosecution in Georgia could become a playbook for how dissent could be suppressed elsewhere. One defendant in this case is challenging the constitutionality of Georgia's law, but Michael Mears says he doesn't see the state's conservative courts walking the domestic terrorism statute back. So he and many others will be watching closely to see how a jury navigates these questions. Odette Yousef, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.