A brown wooden gavel on a white surface.

How the RICO Act Penalizes Artists and Protesters

What are RICO charges? 

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 prohibits participating in an organization engaging in “racketeering” — anything from bribery to gambling to obscenity to murder. Engaging in such crimes as part of a criminal “enterprise” carries an additional penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment. “As long as you can show a pattern of two or more crimes committed by this group of people that are organized together, you have a potential RICO case,” says legal analyst Page Pate (11 Alive).

The RICO Act also allows prosecutors to seize property they say was acquired through racketeering. The burden of proof is on the accused to prove it wasn’t gotten illegally (Britannica). In addition to the federal RICO statute, 33 states, including Georgia, have passed their own version of the law. 


• Have conversations with people in your community about why it’s never advisable to talk to the police or prosecutors. 

Share the National Lawyers Guild’s Know Your Rights guides. Support the Atlanta Solidarity Network and National Lawyers Guild.

Why was the RICO Act passed? 

The RICO Act was originally passed under the Nixon Administration to facilitate the prosecution of the Mafia. Mafia leaders had previously escaped criminal charges since their subordinates were the ones who committed criminal acts. With the RICO Act, prosecutors were able to convince Mafia members to testify against their leaders, who were charged with criminal conspiracy. 

How do prosecutors use the RICO Act to coerce cooperation? 

The government often pressures defendants into cooperating by filing expansive charges under the RICO Act. “What prosecutors do is they walk in and just throw everything out there and see what sticks. They charge conspiracy against a ton of people to get everybody running in to make a deal. And they invariably do,” says one criminal defense expert. The government can seize assets they claim were acquired through the conspiracy. Defendants often cannot afford to hire legal counsel, increasing the pressure on them to testify against others (Yahoo!).

Has the RICO Act been misused? 

Doctors, protesters, and adult bookstore owners have all been charged under the RICO Act (Britannica). Influential gender non-conforming rapper Young Thug is currently facing RICO charges (Complex) based on allegations that rap crew YSL is a criminal gang, with Young Thug’s lyrics forming part of the prosecution’s evidence (ABC News). The Atlanta Solidarity Fund has warned that the state of Georgia may deploy RICO charges against members of the movement to defend the Atlanta forest and Stop Cop City. Peaceful protesters would face decades of imprisonment, as if participating in a multiracial movement for social and environmental justice were comparable to killing people for the Mob (Unicorn Riot). 

Why does this matter?

It’s important to remember that if you’re ever questioned by the police or face legal charges, the best course of action is always to remain silent and refuse to cooperate, even if you’re sure you’re innocent. Exercising your Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination is the most certain way to keep yourself and the people you care about safe, though the government is legally permitted to lie to trick you into testifying (AlterNet). If you are questioned or charged in connection with political activities, remain silent and contact the National Lawyers Guild for support (NLG).  

The wild overuse of RICO charges to criminalize dissent and constrain free speech is also a reminder that we can’t trust a systemically racist and unaccountable government to do the right thing. Most people would agree that Mafia violence and extortion are wrong. But the tools that the government gave itself to combat the Mob are now used against artists and nonviolent protesters. As the title of a recent book puts it, strong communities make police obsolete (NPR). 


• The RICO Act allows the government to coerce testimony from those accused of belonging to a criminal enterprise. 

• First used against the Mafia, RICO charges are now deployed against protesters, doctors, and artists. 

• We can’t trust the government to use its powers in equitable ways. 

2400 1600 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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