The YSL Indictment Exemplifies Atlanta’s Predatory Justice System

Young Thug and Gunna’s YSL indictment is the latest example of hip-hop on trial. Here's what it symbolizes about the predatory justice system in Atlanta.

Young Thug bond hearing June 2, 2022

Image via YouTube/11Alive

Young Thug bond hearing June 2, 2022

Young Thug has become a pop culture icon with his lyrics. Now the justice system is making him public enemy number one because of them.

Last Thursday, Thug was denied bond for his RICO charge in the YSL indictment. Judge Ural Glanville stated that he had fears that Thug was a flight risk and would intimidate witnesses if he was released on bond. The denial, which comes after bond denials for YSL Records artists Gunna and Yak Gotti, became the latest setback in a torrent of legal precarity for the 28 individuals who were ensnared on a 56-count indictment in May, including charges of murder, racketeering, armed robbery, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The indictment lists dozens of song lyrics and music videos as evidence.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis claimed in a May press conference that YSL isn’t just a label named Young Stoner Life, but a “criminal street gang” called Young Slime Life that she surmises is responsible for over 50 murders in the Atlanta area, “committing, conservatively, 75 to 80 percent of all of the violent crimes in our community.” 

Willis believes YSL has “to be rooted out of our community,” and says her number one focus as a DA is targeting gangs, warning that we can expect to see more RICO indictments against other street gangs in the near future. Her comments, and a leaked Georgia Bureau of Investigation document that mentioned YSL and Lil Baby’s 4PF as “criminal street gangs targeted for investigation,” spurred concerns that more Atlanta artists and crews would be ensnared in RICO cases. 

Predatory politicians and prosecutors all over the country have used rap lyrics and music videos as evidence in their investigations and court cases recently, criminalizing an art form that’s historically faced racist treatment. Gun violence has risen in economically deprived areas that have suffered even more deprivation over the course of the pandemic, but instead of blaming poverty—the root of criminality—many politicians like Willis are blaming the music. When citizens are desperately searching for answers to stop the violence, it’s easy for them to buy into prosecutors’ tales that artist’s violent songs are real-life admissions of violence and propose to get them off the streets. And it’s advantageous to court headlines by claiming that platinum acts like Young Thug and Gunna are using their resources to fund gangs that actualize the violence some of their music depicts. It’s not a difficult sell for citizens who never liked rap anyway, and the line between art and reality is delicate in hip-hop. But unfortunately, DAs like Willis are bulldozing through the notion of artistic license in furtherance of the justice system’s goal to disproportionately warehouse Black and Brown people. And because of that, RICO is becoming a too-common part of the rap lexicon. 

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Atlanta is a rap mecca dubbed “Black Hollywood.” But Devin Franklin of the Southern Center For Human Rights, a nonprofit firm that works “for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South,” tells Complex that he believes city brass may be looking to shed that reputation in order to push their gentrification efforts, and they’re using the justice system to do so.

“The parts of town where these [rap crews] are from are also some of the most heavily gentrified parts of town,” the Atlanta native and former public defender clarifies. “South downtown, the area by the Courthouse and Mercedes Benz Stadium going east, there is a lot of development potential. You’re starting to see artist renderings of what this renovated part of town would look like. This part of South Downtown that they’re trying to bring this economic presence to is literally on the other side of the highway from Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh, and Peoplestown. So there is absolutely a desire to rid Atlanta of this element that once upon a time is what made Atlanta cool in the first place. It’s like, ‘We used it, we got popular off of it, but now we got another level that we want to get to, so we need to get you all out of here.’”

Franklin, who had 12 years of experience as a public defender before joining SCHR, says he’s seen prominent Atlanta political figures and journalists follow in the lead of cities like New York and L.A. by stoking “crime wave” fears amongst the public. He says there’s a culture of “targeted fear-mongering by everybody who can hold a press conference to advance this narrative of dangerousness,” citing “Fani Willis, the DA’s office, our local news agencies [like] WSBTV, WXIA, the NBC affiliate, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution” as the most prevalent spokespeople for crime wave narratives. 

When it comes to sensationalist media coverage, Franklin remembers reading a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed noting that shootings have gone down, but there have been more murders. “It was kind of an odd thing to see them write about, and to actually read about,” he says. “We’re talking about wanting crime to go down and you’re able to say, ‘Look, less people are actually pulling guns out.’ The fact that they wanted to mention the fact that despite there being fewer shootings, more of them are resulting in deaths, was an indication to me that they’re still trying to work from this place of fear.”

The Atlanta Police Department and DA’s office plays into its citizens’ collective fears by pursuing sweeping, high-profile indictments like the ones against YSL and YFN. In 2021, rapper YFN Lucci was one of 12 people charged in a RICO indictment that alleged YFN as a subset of the Bloods. The 105-count indictment accuses the crew of charges like murder, racketeering, aggravated assault, gun possession, and armed robbery. Notably, the crew’s social media posts and song lyrics are referenced in the indictment, used as evidence to suggest Lucci’s gang ties. 

“You put all this money, effort and energy into creating a way to prosecute folks. But you put no energy, money or effort into figuring out ways to teach folks conflict resolution or to engage folks like Thug or Lucci in nonviolent initiatives.” – Devin Franklin  

In the YSL case, Thug and Gunna’s lyrics are also being used to portray their status in what prosecutors claim is a YSL gang. During Thug’s bond hearing, prosecutor Don Geary read out dozens of Thug’s lyrics in an attempt to prove he’s a danger to his community. The use of rap lyrics in court is a controversial, historically racist tactic that’s picked up in recent years after a series of landmark cases. In January 2021, the state of Maryland ruled that rap lyrics were permissible as evidence of guilt after Lawrence Montague was sentenced to 50 years for second-degree murder, in part because of rhymes he recited over a jail phone. The ruling set a dangerous precedent for prosecutors in other states to follow. 

Franklin can’t discuss his own cases because of attorney-client privilege, but he says he’s seen Georgia prosecutors use hand gestures in music videos to accuse his co-workers’ clients of gang ties. He says using lyrics in courtrooms is an “issue that is fraught with First Amendment concerns.” He explains, “I think that it puts a more onerous weight on Black creatives than others. We have a culture where movies and music of other genres frequently recognize or portray violence—or even just tough talk in a way that doesn’t mean that it’s a real-life consideration—and I think that it’s dangerous and abusive to hold young Black creatives to a standard that’s not applied to others.” 

Willis’ tactic of taking lyrics literally isn’t the first time she’s been creative with RICO cases. She gained national attention last year for admitting that she was considering RICO charges against Donald Trump for election fraud, and she was the lead prosecutor in a 2012 RICO case against 35 Black educators who falsified standardized test scores at their schools, blaming “inordinate pressure” by the city. In all, 23 of the indicted educators took plea deals, and 11 of the 12 teachers who took it to trial were convicted and sentenced to jail time. The Washington Post reported that then-assistant DA Willis said “many of the victims of the cheating were struggling Black students who would have been eligible to receive ‘millions’ in federal aid for tutoring, but never received the money because test scores showed they were meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.”

However, Franklin bemoans that the students Willis expressed sympathy for grew up in the same areas that the justice system is targeting. “Their rationale was that these teachers are harming the children because they’re not teaching,” he says, “but if you look at the timeline, the same kids she was supposed to be protecting through this prosecution are the same age range and from the same part of town as most of these folks who are tied up in this YSL indictment.” 

It’s tenuous to expect someone with the gall to charge teachers with racketeering to care about that connection, however. The RICO law was created to ensnare the Italian mafia and other large criminal organizations, but now prosecutors like Willis are taking advantage of the law’s vagueness to target any grouping of people in her crosshairs. As a University of Michigan study states, the RICO law’s “reliance upon enterprise theory enables prosecutors to introduce all aspects of a gang’s history and criminal conduct into evidence.” In other words, it allows prosecutors to make everyone in the RICO culpable for another person’s actions, regardless of whether they had any real complicity or knowledge of the others’ crimes. 

In 2012, Willis proposed that the teachers’ collective plan to defraud test results made them a criminal organization, and now she’s surmising that anyone who wore a YSL chain or rapped violent lyrics were conspiring with the other defendants during their alleged violent acts. It’s an ugly, precedent-setting maneuver in the war on rap that can only happen because the law allows her to be creatively predatory with their definition of a “corrupt organization.”

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Some observers have suggested that Willis is pursuing the YSL indictment to raise her profile, but Franklin doesn’t think the “DA at heart” has political aspirations. “In terms of flipping to become mayor or city council or state senator or something, I would be surprised at that,” he says. “She ain’t Kamala, I’ll say that. They both went to Howard and were these tough-branded prosecutors, but I think the comparisons end there. If she was DA for the next 20 years, I think she’d be totally content with that.“

Willis has only been DA for a year and a half, but she has continued the relentless prosecutorial tone of former Fulton County DA Paul Howard, a much-maligned official who is currently being investigated for stealing $200,000 in city funds. Willis was in his office as assistant DA, and succeeded him because of a reputation as a charismatic-but-tough DA. “Fani wasn’t no punk,’ Franklin says, adding that “talent on your feet as a trial attorney is not underrated and Fani knew what she was doing. She had swag in court and all that kind of stuff.” He goes on to explain, “She’s not an untalented or dumb or bad attorney. But in my opinion, as much as Fani says she loves justice, Fani loves Fani. She wants it to feel like if I got you, I got you.”

That tone is reverberating throughout the Atlanta justice system in what Franklin says is an “abuse” of the state’s “participation in criminal gang activity” charge, which shows up throughout the YSL indictment. Franklin says that during his time as a public defender, he saw the charge constantly used in order to link individual defendants to gangs and paint them in a worse light for juries.

“What I saw a lot of was, ‘This guy did xyz and he happens to be in a gang. So we’re going to throw this gang charge on top of it,’” Franklin says. “And legally, what that means is that when they go to trial, everything that everybody in that gang has done is something that can now be talked about at a trial. In any other situation, it would be considered hearsay or irrelevant information, but now when you add this gang charge, it allows for DAs to get into information that would otherwise be excluded from the purview of a jury.”

That practice dovetails with Willis’ press conference admission that she likes pursuing RICOs because it allows “communities to see the complete picture of a crime” and gives them “facts to weigh.” Franklin chides the indictment’s assertion that YSL members were carrying guns to “further the gang’s reputation” instead of to merely protect themselves. As he explains, “I think [the case] is a manufactured opportunity to make a lot of people look bad and dangerous based on association, more so than actual dangerousness. And it’s not going to have the desired effect on public safety that she would hope for, because it still leaves unresolved the systemic and root issues of criminality.”

If Franklin was representing one of the clients, he says he would pursue Willis’ overzealous framing of YSL in her press conference. “Every case should be just a case, to the extent that this involves somebody who was famous is going to draw more attention, but holding a press conference and talking about how over 50 murders in Atlanta over years are connected to this gang dances all up and down the lines of ethics violation,” adding that her framing of YSL encourages “pretrial judgment before a person’s able to defend themselves.”

Despite this, Franklin thinks the tone is set for more Atlanta artists to find themselves entangled in sweeping indictments. “She went after YFN, and now she got YSL,” he says. “From the experience I know generally of the Atlanta Police Department’s gang unit, their assessment is that a lot of these music companies are not music companies, but gangs instead. And of course, the gang unit for APD works hand in hand with the gang unit for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office.”

Atlanta is synonymous with its bustling rap scene. But now, one of the biggest arts movements in modern history is set to be criminalized in attempts to sterilize it. It won’t actually make things better. As Franklin notes, warehousing people doesn’t change the material conditions of communities. 

“The only way to make the city safer from the perspective that they’re approaching it, is to engage these folks that you would consider to be gang members or violent folks and invest in the alternatives,” Franklin says. “You put all this money, effort and energy into creating a way to prosecute folks. But you put no energy, money or effort into figuring out ways to teach folks conflict resolution or to engage folks like Thug or Lucci in nonviolent initiatives. You recognize that these folks have a voice, which is why you’re going after them in this way.”

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