First conspiracy trial over Atlanta ‘Cop City’ protests set to begin

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – The first of five dozen activists charged with a conspiracy to stop construction of an Atlanta police center, derisively called “Cop City,” goes on trial on Wednesday in a test case to determine whether the protests constitute criminal racketeering.

The defendant, Ayla King, 19, of Worcester, Massachusetts, is charged with violations of the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as the RICO act. The state law was modeled after the federal law designed as a tool to curb organized crime.

King is accused of being part of a group called Defend the Atlanta Forest that police say has at times over the last two years illegally occupied the 85-acre (34.4 hectares) wooded site where the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center is being built.

The protesters, self-described as social justice activists and environmentalists, have fiercely opposed the project and said it would increase the militarization of police and destroy parts of a forested area defenders call the “lungs of Atlanta.”

Atlanta has said it needs the facility, which would include a mock city and emergency vehicle course, to replace a patchwork of substandard training sites and prepare recruits for urban law enforcement.

“The militant anarchists engaged in violence to bring attention to their own political goals,” the indictment reads.

Chris Timmons, an attorney who teaches law at Georgia State University and has followed the case, said it was the first time Georgia has applied the RICO Act to a protest group.

“Prosecutors are using a massively powerful law on what for some might be misdemeanors,” Timmons said.

If prosecutors can prove that the actions of the group moved beyond protests into criminal activity, “then that could be the proper use of it, like joining in a conspiracy to rob a bank,” Timmons said.

If King is acquitted, it won’t stop the other cases from going to trial, Timmons said. “At most, it might mean that some of the others might get sweeter plea deals.”

King is specifically accused of joining “an organized mob” last March that tried to overwhelm police in a riot at the construction site.

She has been free on $15,000 bond and has pleaded not guilty to the charge of racketeering, court papers say.

Her case was separated from the rest because she was the only defendant to ask for a speedy trial. Lawyers following the case say that those who do not make plea deals with the prosecutors will likely be tried together.

Neither King’s attorney, Suri Chadha Jimenez, nor prosecutors responded to requests for comment on the case.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams has issued a gag order forbidding both the defense attorneys and prosecutors from making statements to the press.

In court papers, her attorney wrote that King was detained after merely being at a concert near the site. “There is no evidence” that she was part of a group that damaged construction equipment, according to the documents.

Christopher Bruce, policy director for the ACLU of Georgia, said Georgia’s RICO Act is “breathtakingly broad.”

“It was meant for acts of organized crime,” he said. “Here it’s being used to stigmatize and target those who disagree with the government.”

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