'The stakes are incredibly high': An interview with Devin Franklin on RICO charges against 'Cop City' activists

Devin Franklin

Devin Franklin, an attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, is recruiting attorneys to ensure legal representation for activists who face a sweeping set of new charges under Georgia's RICO statute. (Photo: Southern Center for Human Rights)

On Aug. 29, 2023, 61 people were indicted by Georgia’s Republican Attorney General Chris Carr under the state’s racketeering statute for protests related to a planned police and fire training facility, which opponents have dubbed “Cop City.” The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, which will be built on 85 acres of land in DeKalb County, has been a focal point of activists who argue the facility, which will cost the city $67 million, will further militarization of the police as well as destroy sensitive forest and wetland areas.

Most of those named in the RICO indictment are already facing severe charges for Cop City protests, including three dozen people charged with domestic terrorism for their involvement in protests that turned violent; three individuals who are accused of money laundering for coordinating a bail fund; and another three activists accused of felonies for distributing fliers that called out a state trooper for the officer’s involvement in a fatal shooting of protester Manuel Paez Teran earlier this year. The indictments allege the conspiracy began in the aftermath of the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by police officers in 2020.

Days after the RICO charges were unveiled, Facing South spoke with Devin Franklin, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. A former Atlanta public defender for 12 years, Franklin now holds the position of Movement Policy Counsel at the Center, and is coordinating efforts to recruit attorneys to ensure Cop City activists have legal representation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 109-page indictment appears to be very wide-ranging in terms of the people and activities that it targets. Could you talk about some of the things that stand out to you about what’s in this RICO case and what the attorney general is trying to do?

It’s really wide-ranging and varied. It has the feel of spaghetti against the wall. 

The thing that stood out to me is that they are essentially trying to link the George Floyd protests and the things that went on there as if they were part of a concerted action that is directly related to the current [Cop City] protests.

The AG’s office is saying the quiet part out loud, which is that we don’t want anyone to make any noise about things we want to do. We want to increase the size and footprint of the police state, we don’t want to hear any dissent about it, and if you do, we’re going to punish you for it.

I think it also shows a great deal of pettiness. To allege money laundering for reimbursing people for lunch is just unseemly. [Seven of the RICO counts charge three Georgia citizens with “money laundering” for using funds raised through a charitable intermediary, the Network for Strong Communities, to pay another activist for “food” and “forest kitchen” materials.] Passing out flyers, regardless of what the content is, is clearly a First Amendment-protected activity. 

There’s so much about this that flies in the face of it being an objective prosecution that is focused on community safety or protection of the laws. It really reads like, “We disagree with your politics, we disagree with your tactics, and we want to punish everyone for the potential action of a few.”

Several of those charged in the RICO case apparently were already facing domestic terrorism charges related to the Cop City protests. What do you think Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr intends to do by adding these RICO charges on top of charges that many thought were extreme to begin with?

I think what we’re seeing is the AG being very clear that he’s not interested in a legal case. He’s interested in creating a narrative. We are all very much aware of his future political desires to seek higher office later on. He is officially reading a manifesto of sorts that lays out a bunch of right-wing talking points, and seeking to further vilify people who haven’t done much of anything.

Three of those charged are activists who were already facing felony intimidation charges because they had distributed a flier labeling a state trooper a “murderer” because of his role in the fatal shooting of [Cop City protester] Manuel Paez Teran. So the RICO charges seem to be a further attempt to criminalize what many would assume was speech protected under the First Amendment. Could you speak to what you think are the speech issues raised by this RICO indictment?

It’s so plain on its face. [The protesters distributing fliers are] not a media agency, but it’s still the dissemination of information. It’s still drawing attention to those issues which the state has not made public for whatever reasons. And it’s information that would help create accountability. There’s no potential for accountability if the public doesn’t know the name of the person who perpetuated the harm … It’s just another example of the continued effort to neuter the dissemination of useful information that would encourage and make possible accountability of state actors.

The Dekalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston has said she won’t be part of the case. Did that surprise you?

When I first heard the news, I was very surprised, and a bit disappointed, to the extent that Sherry Boston appeared to be the one voice of reason in the room. And without her, it became all but inevitable that Chris Carr would become creative and fanciful in his efforts to charge as many people with as many things as he could.

Sherry Boston getting off the case is helpful to the extent that it does draw attention to the fact that Attorney General Carr is proceeding with prosecution in a manner that is not becoming of a respectful prosecutor. But it’s also disappointing, because she may have been the one voice of reason to prevent this overreach by the state. 

My view of this movement was always that it was fairly decentralized, and it didn’t really fit this narrative of a vast conspiracy. What does the state have to prove? What’s the test in terms of proving that this is a RICO case and there is a conspiracy afoot? 

It’s an interesting question. When I was actively practicing, RICO cases weren’t very common. The Atlanta public school case was probably the most notable one. It was, as far as I could tell, the only one that really existed prior to the last few years, where prosecutors all over the state have gotten to a point where everything is a RICO. 

I think what’s important for people to know is that evidence of a common scheme, an intentional collaboration and criminal activity, is what should be required … The movement has been kind of an amorphous, organic engagement of people who come together for a rally here, or a direct action there. But, beyond safety planning to make sure that people know how to get in touch with loved ones if they get arrested, I’m not aware of anything that connects people who were just in attendance at certain actions, to the more ominous things that are being alleged.

I do believe it’s going to be extremely hard [for the prosecution]. They created a formal name for the movement [“Defend the Atlanta Forest”] that nobody has ever used, it’s a Twitter account name. It’s a really odd and creative way of trying to infer the existence of an organization when nothing ever has in fact been organized, beyond the referendum efforts, which, of course, are prescribed by law.

For those who are outside of Atlanta and Georgia, what do you think are the larger issues that this case raises about protests, and movements for racial justice and police accountability?

I think that this is a testing ground for prosecutors all across the country, it’s like a how-to for quelling and squashing movement, squashing dissent. So I think the stakes are incredibly high. If the state was to have a level of success, it means that movement-builders and organizers across the country are under threat. 

It means the myriad ways that we have used to build community and create support will be in danger. They will essentially be saying that, if you have a thousand people at an event, and one person does something over here, then you’re creating a legal basis for implicating everyone who was there. The state is trying to make the argument that everyone should be able to be punished regardless of their personal actions; they’re criminalizing their presence. It [could have] large, broad impact for activists and organizations and supporters of all kinds of movements, all over the country.

As it pertains to policing specifically, this is another feather in the cap of the concept of the police state … Police have justifiably and rightfully been under great criticism for at least a decade now. There was a time when police violence would occur, you may see a news story about it, but there was never anything sustained. That’s changed. … If we are essentially criminalizing criticism of police officers, I think that it could make life more dangerous for the poor and Black people and Latinx people and other people of color, who most frequently are the ones who fall victim to the tactics of policing.