AAG Statement in response to Georgia RICO Charges

The American Association of Geographers (AAG) is carefully monitoring the recent indictment of 61 individuals in relation to their activities around the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests in Atlanta. The indictment uniformly characterizes these activities as “racketeering” and violent dissent to two impending developments — a police training facility and a commercial movie studio — within Atlanta’s last great forestland. On closer examination, the indictments appear to have swept up individuals engaged in formal observation activities, constitutionally protected protest activities, and Hannah Kass, a geography graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was conducting engaged scholarship onsite, combining conscience with conscientious study of the protest movement.

AAG firmly opposes any suppression of an individual’s right to free speech and freedom of assembly. The State Attorney General of Georgia’s use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to prosecute the 61 defendants is especially concerning. This attempt to apply RICO to a case involving organized public dissent rather than organized crime sets a dangerous precedent for official action in response to local public protests. We believe that this legal overreach threatens the nature and health of public dissent, a right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, as well as the crucial public service of witness, observation, and documentation carried out by academics, researchers, and journalists. Without them, the public would have far less access to accurate, well-documented, and truthful accounts of current events and controversies.

The AAG stands in support of the vital protections for individual and collective dissent, as well as the integrity of journalists’ and researchers’ rights to access and document important inflection points in history such as the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests. We will continue to stand in witness to the proceedings in Atlanta, reaffirming the importance of First Amendment rights that are the cornerstones of our democracy.

The AAG calls on all levels of government to respect and protect the rights of citizens to peacefully assemble and exercise their freedom of speech without fear of unwarranted legal consequences. We urge law enforcement agencies to exercise discretion and uphold due process when considering charges against protestors, and to ensure that these charges are proportionate to alleged offenses. We also call on the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as legislators at both the federal and state levels, to review and reform laws and regulations that enable the misuse of RICO charges against peaceful demonstrators. Such reforms are critical to safeguarding our democratic principles and upholding the values that make our nation strong.