First passed in 1970 to bolster prosecutions of the mafia, RICO laws dramatically expand the state’s ability to prosecute and punish alleged conspirators. Under RICO, the state can aggregate even legal activities as proof of a criminal enterprise pursued by an unsavory lot. In the case of the Stop Cop City activists, for example, the state alleges a criminal conspiracy among people who have distributed flyers, coordinated a bail fund, and done legal observation of protests—in other words, the Stop Cop City activists are being prosecuted for participating in legal activity but as part of a movement that the state of Georgia deems criminal. The indictment specifically names anarchism (and its attendant interest in “collectivism, mutualism/mutual aid, and social solidarity”), opposition to police, and “protection of the environment at all costs” as the ideological foundations of the conspiracy. It further names the 2020 police killing of Rayshard Brooks as “justified.” Most ominously, it dates the start of the conspiracy to May 25, 2020—the date when Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, and nearly a year before the plans for Cop City, much less the movement to end it, was announced. Dating the indictment to Floyd’s murder shows the state of Georgia to be prosecuting a nationwide conspiracy of antiracist opposition to police violence.
While the charges against the Stop Cop City activists will rightly strike many as both outlandish and terrifying, RICO has a long history of being used as an expansive assault on leftwing radicals. Take the case of Ray Luc Levasseur, whose experience and insight offer a window into RICO suppression. From a working-class Quebecois family in Maine, Levasseur followed in his family’s footsteps—first into the woolen mills and shoe factories of Maine and then by joining the US Army. He was sent to Vietnam in 1967. What he saw there outraged him. “After Vietnam,” Levasseur later said, “I asked the most seditious question of all: why? Why is this government committing crimes in our name? Why were so many of us from poor and working-class backgrounds; why so many Black and Latino GIs over there told to do the killing and the fighting while the kids who have the money are going to the good schools in the United States? I wasn’t coming back to a university. I was going to come back and face the prospect of going back and making some more heels for those shoes.” Upon his return to the United States, Levassuer joined the Southern Student Organizing Committee in Tennessee. He received a five-year prison sentence in 1969 for selling seven dollars of marijuana.