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61 ‘Cop City’ protesters indicted on RICO charges. Opponents question the timeline and motivation

By Ryan Young, Kevin Conlon and Holly Yan, CNN

(CNN) — More than 60 people have been named in a state RICO indictment filed in connection with the yearslong campaign by protesters in Georgia to thwart construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center – dubbed “Cop City” by detractors.

“All 61 defendants have been charged with Violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act,” Republican Attorney General Chris Carr’s office said in a statement Tuesday. “Several of the defendants are also facing separate charges of Domestic Terrorism, Attempted Arson in the First Degree, and Money Laundering.”

Georgia’s RICO law is similar to a federal one that targets so-called criminal enterprises. It is the same state statute under which former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants have been accused of breaking laws in the Georgia 2020 election subversion case.

Debate over the public safety training facility has been brewing for years. The Atlanta Police Foundation, which is helping to fund the project, has said it’s needed to help boost morale and recruitment among police and firefighter ranks now using substandard or borrowed facilities. Protesters have decried its potential environmental impact and possible role in the further militarization of police, with some camping out at the site for months and clashing with police.

The Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition, which opposes the project, denounced the RICO indictment and questioned the motivation behind it.

“These charges, like the previous repressive prosecutions by the State of Georgia, seek to intimidate protestors, legal observers, and bail funds alike, and send the chilling message that any dissent to Cop City will be punished with the full power and violence of the government,” the coalition said.

“Further, the documents use the day George Floyd was murdered as the date the alleged criminal acts began. This is months before anyone was even aware of Cop City, and is a clear assault on the broader movement for racial justice and equity,” the group said.

The 109-page indictment indeed alleges criminal activity related to the training center site happened “on or between May 25, 2020 and August 25, 2023.” Floyd was killed May 25, 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer – tipping off a nationwide reckoning over police use of force against people of color – but the “Cop City” training center site wasn’t announced until 2021.

“Carr’s actions are a part of a retaliatory pattern of prosecutions against organizers nationwide that attack the right to protest and freedom of speech,” the Vote to Stop Cop City Coalition said.

A 26-year-old protester was killed in January at the planned site of the 85-acre, $90 million training center when officers trying to clear it opened fire. Manuel Esteban Paez Terán sustained at least some wounds while seated with hands raised, an autopsy commissioned by the family found, attorneys said. An autopsy from the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s office noted at least 57 gunshot wounds. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said officers shot Terán after Terán shot and seriously wounded a state trooper. The DeKalb medical examiner found no visible gunpowder observed on Terán’s hands.

Then in March, some protesters were charged with domestic terrorism, including for alleged acts at the site including hurling large rocks, bricks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at officers, the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement. Activists at the time disputed authorities’ characterization: According to Defend the Atlanta Forest, police targeted people at a “local family-friendly music festival” in a public park separate from the construction site.

Police described the accused as “violent agitators.” A similar term, “outside agitators,” has been used broadly by authorities for decades to discredit protesters, including civil rights activists.

Of the 61 defendants indicted August 28, 13 are from Georgia, the attorney general’s office said. It said all defendants are members of Defend the Atlanta Forest, Carr said, describing it as an “anarchist, anti-police, and anti-business extremist organization.”

CNN has reached out to Defend the Atlanta Forest for comment.

Stop Cop City, which also opposes construction of the site, condemned the indictment.

“These charges not only attempt to criminalize the resistance against Cop City, but try to associate our current resistance to the 2020 uprising in Atlanta,” the group posted on Instagram, referring to protests after Floyd’s murder. “This document and AG Chris Carr’s own press conference makes it very clear that Cop City is the state’s response to the 2020 uprising and that any dissent against it is to be crushed.”

But the attorney general said, “Violence is not political speech.”

“If you come to our state and shoot a police officer, throw Molotov cocktails at law enforcement, set fire to police vehicles, damage construction equipment, vandalize private homes and businesses, and terrorize their occupants, you can and will be held accountable,” he said.

“As I have said for months, the state of Georgia would not tolerate the repeated acts of violence and destruction that have occurred in an attempt to stop the construction.”

The investigation was led by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in partnership with law enforcement organizations including the Atlanta Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Carr said.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Christina Maxouris and Devan Cole contributed to this report.

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