As you may have heard, protesters have occupied the wooded site of an old federal and state "prison farm" in Atlanta (one of the city's last green spaces) which is being developed into a police training facility. According to law enforcement spokesmen, on the morning of January 18, one of the protesters, Manuel Téran, shot and wounded a Georgia State Patrol officer. In return, if it was a return, police shot them (Téran used “they” pronouns) repeatedly and fatally. There's no video, and no witnesses have emerged except law enforcement officers. These are classic conditions in which no one can know what happened, and I don't think any clear or plausible account has been offered.
Police arrested at least 19 "Cop City" protesters over the last couple of months and charged them, astonishingly, with "domestic terrorism." They held these protesters under a Georgia statute that defines domestic terrorism as follows (summarizing a bit): Any attempt to violate the laws of this state or of the United States which is intended to cause bodily harm or death or "disable or destroy critical infrastructure" and which is intended to intimidate people or alter the policy of government and "to further any ideology or belief." This may be committed solo or "as part of a command structure involving an identifiable set of other individuals."
That's vague enough to permit the arrest of anyone who’s engaged in almost any act of civil disobedience for any reason. This, in the home town of MLK. But the statute does require underlying criminal conduct. So, for example, if someone commits a murder, they'll charge him as a domestic terrorist if the murder’s ideologically-oriented or intended to intimidate others. But the underlying crimes of the 19 arrested in the Weelaunee forest (as the occupiers call it, after the indigenous people who once lived there) are things like trespassing and criminal mischief.
A review of the arrest warrants, according to the website Grist,"shows that none of those arrested and slapped with terrorism charges are accused of seriously injuring anyone. Nine are alleged to have committed no specific illegal actions beyond misdemeanor trespassing. Instead, their mere association with a group committed to defending the forest appears to be the foundation for declaring them terrorists."
With regard to the history of the Weelaunee forest as a prison farm, and speaking of terrorism, I’ll point out that a 2021 report by the Atlanta Community Press Collective found evidence of "systemic abuse, torture, overcrowding, neglect, and racialized violence throughout the prison farm's history, as well as the possibility that unmarked graves of prisoners exist on the grounds." That's the kind of "critical infrastructure" that the "terrorists" want to mess with.
Now, with regard to Georgia's definition of terrorism, it's obvious that the "command structure" of the Atlanta Police Department isn’t very impressive. And yet it exists and involves an identifiable set of other individuals, plausibly; someone probably knows who's on the payroll.
Also, the prison farm—for example the Parchman Farm, a couple of hours south of Memphis, immortalized in blues songs—is a classic of American incarceration and American racism, two beautifully complementary activities that have run through the country's whole history. Another classic was provided by the Memphis police, when nine of them or so (by my count, looking at the video) beat Tyre Nichols to death and then chilled out and milled around as he died. As many have pointed out, in this and other cases, the media would’ve accepted the police's ridiculous lies about the event if there had been no video. That's one reason, again, to be suspicious about the death of Manuel Téran.
Let me ask you this, domestic terrorism enthusiasts and legal eagles. In the case of Nichols' death, was there an underlying crime? Let's call it "murder" in this case, as opposed to "trespassing" committed by "camping." Was it, do you think, an attempt to intimidate or control a population? Police beatings have been used to "control" the Black population of this country, as well as other populations, throughout its history.
The "Scorpion" unit that performed the killing was disbanded over the weekend, and didn’t perform impressively from any point of view, as a police unit or a domestic terrorist organization. They pepper-sprayed themselves and pulled their own muscles as they kicked and punched Nichols and beat him with batons. But though they were operating in Tennessee, they and their organization adapted their conduct for maximum violation of the Georgia domestic terrorism statute.
All of this tells you a lot about "the rule of law" as it’s actually practiced right now in the United States. The enforcement of the law leans heavily on grotesque misdefinitions of terms and magnificent breakdowns of self-awareness. More to the point, it relies on the direct intimidation and killing of people.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter @CrispinSartwell