Say No to RICO: Stop Cop City from the A to the Bay

Editor’s Note: Plans to build massive new police training facilities are being developed in Atlanta GA, San Pablo CA and a rapidly increasing number of other US cities. There is a sustained protest movement in Atlanta aimed at stopping this project, which the state has used to further justify its effort to expand and militarize police training tactics. The following article presents details of these projects and the function they serve for both state and private interests, and it provides analysis of how the anarchist strategy in Atlanta has left the movement more vulnerable to state attack.

Photo by Glenn Mercado

In 2021, the city of Atlanta announced their plans to construct a massive police training facility in the South River Forest. This project has sparked an explosion of protest in the area and has served as a rallying cry for activists all around the country. If completed, “Cop City” will even boast its own “mock city” to train police in special tactics to shut down protests against the police and the entire oppressive state apparatus. This facility will not only provide training for local law enforcement agencies but will turn the city of Atlanta into a national hub for cracking down on mass resistance. 

The project in Atlanta is not an isolated development: it is now being joined by another project in San Pablo, California. San Pablo is a much smaller city with only 31,000 residents as compared to Atlanta’s 496,000 residents. With a police force of 59 officers and an annual budget of $66 million the city of San Pablo has committed to spending $43 million to build a police training facility complete with a gym and 20 lane gun range. The scale of this project is revealing of not only the priorities of the political establishment but to the severity of the impact of these facilities on the surrounding communities. Priorities that sideline popular demands for affordable housing or a cleaner environment to instead invest in oppression and incarceration under the guise of “public safety”. The scale of this project points to the intentions of this facility to train more than just the 59 San Pablo police officers but open the small city of San Pablo to police agencies all over the state of California to be trained in new methods of social control. Both projects involve the deployment of new “predictive policing” measures utilizing artificial intelligence to surveil and ultimately detain people. Both projects are also part of a larger strategy to oppress spontaneous uprisings of people in the aftermath of George Floyd. 

The most recent indictment of the Atlanta Cop City protestors itself draws a straight line from the George Floyd uprisings to Cop City: “The beginnings of the anarchist Defend the Atlanta Forest movement formed in 2020 following the high-profile killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officers.” In that indictment, over sixty people face unprecedented Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges in retaliation for their activism.

RICO was nominally passed to prosecute the mafia, but actually has a long history of being used to crush grassroots organizing. 

The indictment implicates anyone even remotely affiliated with the movement as constituting a single criminal organization, alleging that donating money or even handing out a flier constitutes membership in such an organization. Some of the “criminal acts” charged are as harmless as: “transferred $12.52 in reimbursement from the Network for Strong…for forest kitchen materials.” Such charges stand at odds with the indictment itself as it does not provide a single example of actual racketeering or even describe the physical outline of any criminal organization. These overblown charges are part of a larger strategy to portray protest movements as violent, dangerous, existential threats to society and present these law enforcement infrastructure projects as the solution to such threats. This is done in an effort to distract the masses from researching the reasons that protest movements emerge, which is to resist the attacks on the people by the capitalist state. Stoking fear is a way to further drive the masses of people into the arms of the state and to willingly accept the curtailment of their own rights to privacy and free speech.

The state uses opposition to Cop City to justify the project. Look again at the RICO indictment: “The purpose of the police training site is to better train police to deal with Atlanta’s increase in violence while also training law enforcement in de-escalation techniques that avoid unnecessary violence.” The “increase in violence” that they describe in the indictment is a response to the center itself! The logic is circular: the people rise up against the oppressive nature of the capitalist system, the state announces massively unpopular and expensive projects to suppress these movements, people get angry and try to stop them, and this opposition itself serves as the reason for these projects to be built in the first place.

Cops in Atlanta use the same “outside agitators” that law enforcement agencies and politicians around the country used to discredit the George Floyd protests as stated in the indictment: “many violent anarchists and extremists travel from out of state to join the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement. While these individuals may not share a pro-environment ideology, Defend the Atlanta Forest knowingly reaps the benefits of these violent non-Georgians by using violence, threats, and property damage to intimidate businesses, government, and civilians, thus promoting the anarchy movement.”

People have joined the movement from across the country, but this fact should be commended rather than condemned! Their version not only tries to present solidarity in negative terms, it also tries to rewrite the basic facts of the situation and present the people of Atlanta as passive victims that must be “saved” by law enforcement from outside invaders. 

The rise of these cop cities must also be seen in the context of a floundering economy, where many cities in the US have faced tremendous economic slowdown in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. These massive infrastructure projects are another way for local governments to siphon public funds into their coffers and “stimulate the economy” at our expense. In Atlanta, Cop City is set to be built alongside another facility for a production company, Shadowbox Studios; in San Pablo, the training facility will be a part of a larger complex that also includes a major real estate development. The interests of the state and capital align in both of these projects to the point that it’s impossible to disentangle them: “by agreement of Shadowbox and DeKalb County, the parties conducted a ‘land swap’ where the titles to the land was exchanged so that Shadowbox took possession of the 40 acres of land, and DeKalb County took possession of the 50 acres previously owned by Shadowbox.” Business interests push the Cop City agenda because they benefit from these bargain-price land swaps and the extra profits they bring. But more importantly these businesses understand that unlike the public, which has been sold a lie about “community safety,” they will actually enjoy the increased security that comes with Cop City’s stricter policing. 

Both parties in the US exist to protect the interests of capital and they admit this openly in their indictment, through a quote they include from a “local anarchist”: “Are we more concerned about the ‘violence’ of destroying construction machinery and police property, or about the violence of capitalist exploitation, environmental devastation, and police murder? What do we do when it’s liberal Democrats, rather than Republicans, who are leading the efforts to destroy an urban forest, suppress residents’ right to vote, and expand the police state?” In the suppression of the movement in Atlanta, we see the Democrats of the Atlanta city government and the Republicans of the Georgia state government working hand in glove to file these ridiculous and unsubstantiated charges.

The bipartisan and violent repression of the movement in Atlanta by the Democratic and Republican party is another exposure of the insidious nature of this political system that claims to be “for the people.” The response of police and politicians shows the great lengths that this system will go to when the people stand up against them. The movement in Atlanta has done much to slow this project, but its structure has left it wide open not just to infiltration but to criminal indictment. The anarchist strategy of “diversity of tactics” has shown to be ineffective in the current moment. The “diversity of tactics” sets aside discussion of tactics and strategy in an attempt to prevent gridlock and free up the initiative of unorganized activists. Yet these RICO charges should serve as a warning for activists that such loose, unorganized formations are easily targeted by concerted efforts by the state and for those trying to advance the struggle; the state will try to portray groups of activists, however loose, as criminal syndicates and allege collective responsibility for the actions of individuals. 

Activists must steel themselves against this new strategy of oppression. This means that activists must develop new methods of security and prepare to fight both legal and extralegal attacks. In this new era of rising fascist terror, we must become more organized and must struggle to build a strategy that can overcome state attacks.