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.