Tuesday Talk*: Should Protest Become “Domestic Terrorism”?

In reaction to the “mostly peaceful” protests of 2020, the City of Atlanta decided to build a police training facility on an 85 acre tract of land, which included a mock city. Protesters of what they dubbed “Cop City,” who called themselves “forest defenders,” have taken to the woods to fight against the initiative.

Protesters, many of whom are college students and or from out of state, have set up camps throughout the 300-acre Weelaunee Forest, as the land was called by its original inhabitants from the Muscogee Nation before serving as a plantation site during the Civil War and later as a prison farm until 1990. They’ve even constructed treehouses and set up barricades in an effort to halt the construction process.

Although seven of them were arrested for trespassing by Atlanta police officers attempting to clear the structures last May, protesters have continued to occupy the forest in opposition, spurring the creation of a joint task force comprised of local and state officers and GBI agents to clear the area.

The protest made its way into national headlines when one was killed by police.

The protests gained national attention last month after one of the demonstrators, 26-year old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was fatally shot by an officer while police attempted to remove protesters from the site. While the incident remains under investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Teran fired at the trooper first with a firearm he legally purchased, but that there is no body camera footage of the incident as they are not required to wear them.

Nonetheless, the protests continues and demonstrators remained in the forest to prevent the construction of Cop City. Apparently, the task force decided to give the protesters a new name: Domestic Terrorists.

In December, the task force arrested five more protesters, this time on much heavier charges of domestic terrorism, which carries a minimum punishment of five years imprisonment.

While some engaged in violence, to some degree, many were merely there, trespassers. This didn’t seem to make much difference as to the charges leveled.

None of the arrestees are accused of seriously injuring anyone, according to the arrest warrants. For nine of them, their alleged acts of domestic terrorism consist solely of misdemeanor trespassing in the woods.

“Domestic terrorism” is defined under 18 USC § 2331.

(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;

(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;

The definition is remarkably broad and vague. Arguably, it would apply to a great deal of protest that involved civil disobedience. It’s unclear whether everyone’s acts need be dangerous to human life, or what degree of danger is required. Certainly, the purpose of protest is to influence government by intimidation and coercion, if only in the broadest sense.

Whether you support the cause or not, and whether you recognize that civil disobedience does not absolve a protester from punishment, is the consequence of being prosecuted as a domestic terrorist proportional and proper, or an abuse of a “lumpy law” as NYU criminal prawf Rachel Berkow explained, that sweeps banal conduct into its purview so that the more serious conduct, the acts the law is intended to cover, not fall through the cracks?

If one unduly passionate dude throws a rock at a cop during a protest, has it just morphed into domestic terrorism? Are all the demonstrators now part of a terrorist conspiracy and subject to the penalties meant for people who blow up courthouses? Is there a line to be drawn or is the inadequate and unreliable hope for prosecutorial discretion the only thing separating protesters from domestic terrorists?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

28 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Should Protest Become “Domestic Terrorism”?

  1. Stanislav

    >While some engaged in violence, to some degree, many were merely there, trespassers. This didn’t seem to make much difference as to the charges leveled.

    I think clearly the answer is no. Trespassers who are not engaged in violence should be charged with trespassing. I think the same stands true for many of those who engaged in no violence whatsoever and are prosecuted for being at (or even outside) the Capitol on Jan 6th 2021. Unfortunately, I suspect that many who are sympathetic to the Atlanta protesters being overcharged will not be sympathetic to the Jan 6th protesters being overcharged.

    1. Mark Daniel Myers

      As if there was a meaningful similarity between cosplaying the Lorax and overthrowing our system of government.

  2. Chaswjd

    One wonders how trespassing is “dangerous to human life.” Also, does the danger have to extend to other lives or does it merely have to be dangerous to the lives of the trespassers?

  3. R C Dean

    “the 300-acre Weelaunee Forest, as the land was called by its original inhabitants from the Muscogee Nation”

    Pretty sure that’s antifa propaganda. The “forest” is scrub trees that have grown up since the prison farm was closed. The term doesn’t show up until antifa started using it for their protest/illegal occupation.

    1. Rob

      The term doesn’t show up until antifa started using it for their protest/illegal occupation.

      The New Yorker published an article in August 2022 where they used the term, not that anything that the MSM publishes should be viewed as accurate nor true. e.g. Jeff Gerth’s autopsy report of the MSM and coverage of Russia- Trump presidency in the January 2023 issue of Columbia Journalism Review

      Nothing can be trusted anymore. Sad state of affairs

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        The protest started in 2021. The New Yorker article is a puff piece about the protest. It quotes protesters and anti-“Police City” activists.

  4. B. McLeod

    This whole thing has a silver lining to it. Far from being domestic terrorists, the campers have essentially built the training facility for the police. Since the woods are now full of “structures” created and occupied by actual protesters, the police don’t need the mock city. It’s a win-win situation.

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Should Protest Become “Domestic Terrorism”? Yes, absolutely! But only in cases of “Insurrection.” If it’s merely a peaceful protest, with a few buildings happening to burn down, or a few bad apples shooting guns at the police, then of course not.

    The important question is, what kind of headgear are they wearing?

    1. Miles

      Some were charged with trespass. Some with insurrection. Can you guess why? No, of course you can’t.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Are you referring to 18 U.S. Code § 2383? Who was it, that was charged with insurrection?

        [Ed. Note: Doubling down on dumb is rarely a good tactic.]

  6. Michael McNutt

    Not a lawyer but the 18 USC could well define the Memphis police unit that murdered Tyre Nichols.

  7. Redditlaw

    Be careful out there everybody. Take note of where you protest, transport firearms, or engage in self-defense or defense of others. Measure the political atmosphere first, so you will understand in advance whether the hammer will fall on you or you will receive a nolle prosequi after your arrest.

    Those are the new rules, and everyone is going to have to live with them.

  8. Charles

    The five arrestees apparently weren’t merely trespassing with a tent and a sleeping bag. According to yesterday’s GBI press release, “mortar style fireworks, multiple edged weapons, pellet rifles, gas masks, and a blow torch were recovered” from the campsites. Whether “multiple edged weapons” is nothing more than a couple of pocket knifes and a “blow torch” a small butane torch lighter for starting a campfire, who knows. But fireworks and a pellet rifle would seem to be sufficient evidence of the requisite intent to cause serious bodily harm under Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute, O.C.G.A. § 16-11-220.

    “Domestic terrorism” means any felony violation of, or attempt to commit a felony violation of the laws of this state which, as part of a single unlawful act or a series of unlawful acts which are interrelated by distinguishing characteristics, is intended to cause serious bodily harm, kill any individual or group of individuals, or disable or destroy critical infrastructure, a state or government facility, or a public transportation system when such disability or destruction results in major economic loss, and is intended to:
    (A) Intimidate the civilian population of this state or any of its political subdivisions;
    (B) Alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government of this state or any of its political subdivisions by intimidation or coercion; or
    (C) Affect the conduct of the government of this state or any of its political subdivisions by use of destructive devices, assassination, or kidnapping.

    The press release doesn’t go into specifics, but it does state that three people were free to go after providing their names, suggesting they didn’t have any of the aforementioned items in their presence. In other words, mere trespassing didn’t automatically equate to domestic terrorism.

    1. David

      You put a lot of work into completely missing the point. Was this about this one instance only, or is this an example used to raise a larger question? Then again, puny minds gonna puny.

      1. Charles

        We’re free to converse about the first half of the post (the incident here in Georgia) or the second half of the post (a more general question regarding the U.S. statute that is not at issue in the Georgia case). I simply was offering some additional background information regarding the first half. I’m glad you appreciated it.

        [Ed. Note: I don’t appreciate it. Am I making myself clear?]

  9. Eliot J Clingman

    If the last word in section 5bii were ‘and’ instead of ‘or’, this would almost be a good definition of terrorism. With an ‘or’ this is insane!

    I therefore conclude that whoever drafted this was up to no good, or in technical parlance was being an asshole and a thug.

    1. Rengit

      I don’t see what’s wrong with the “or”; if it required all three elements to be met, then “terrorism” would be restricted to a tiny set of rare events like 9/11. Even the OKC bombing, which most would agree is paradigmatic domestic terrorism, probably wouldn’t rise to the level of “domestic terrorism” as defined by the statute, because McVeigh’s intent was to intimidate and affect the conduct of the U.S. *government*, not the “civilian population”, who he and his clique of nutjobs imagined were primarily on their side, but just needed awakening by seeing an attack on the government.

      But on the other hand, I don’t even know what it means to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population”. If a gang member commits an execution on the street in broad daylight in order to demonstrate that his gang controls that neighborhood, is that a “civilian population”? There’s certainly an attempt to coerce and intimidate combined with a crime.

  10. Sgt. Schultz

    It looks like the right wingnuts have grown a bit too comfortable here, contributing nothing of use or interest and instead pushing their idiocy just as the SJWs want to push theirs. Maybe it’s time to put TT to bed, as I know you don’t want to become home to the flaming assholes of either end of the spectrum.

      1. Alex S.

        It’s usually the same 3 or so names who are regularly spouting the right wing propaganda instead of thoughtful comments. You could just give those people the “Bill” treatment.

  11. Tom B

    The line I would suggest is the domestic terrorists should include those actively “unduly passionate” (shooting the gun, throwing the rock, etc.) as well as supporters (cheering the shooter on, handing the dude rocks, etc.). Anyone actively distancing themselves would get trespassing.
    Not sure how to handle those are unaware.
    I am sure there are other problems with this idea but was all I could come up with for the vagueness problem.

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