In Atlanta, Georgia, protests continue against the Cop City police training facility. Forty-two arrestees are accused of domestic terrorism. The word “terrorism” evokes mass shootings, bombings, or other acts of violence against civilians. But the only person killed in the course of the Cop City protests, Tortuguita, was murdered by local police. Prosecutors are charging protesters with “domestic terrorism” for mere acts of property vandalism. In fact, the state has no evidence that many of these protesters were connected to the alleged vandalism in any way. “They claim that they’re passing these [domestic terrorism] laws to deal with mass shootings and, like, mass murder of civilian populations,” said Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. “But yet legislators are using it as a cudgel against political activists and against people who dissent against state power” (WWNO).
Georgia’s expanded domestic terrorism statutes are being deployed to suppress an anti-racist protest movement and paint activists “with certain political views in this dangerous, evil light,” said attorney Jenn Hyman, who is representing three Cop City protesters. Though “terrorism” is not a federal crime, 34 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-terrorism laws (The Intercept). Georgia’s law is being used for the first time, not to prosecute mass murderers but to smear protesters accused of potentially having attended the same event as unknown alleged vandals.
• Support the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Community Movement Builders.
• Support the Civil Liberties Defense Fund.
• When thinking about proposed new laws, consider: how will this law be enforced in practice? Could it have unintended effects? Could it be used against marginalized communities? Can we trust an unfair justice system to apply it justly?
You might think that such an overbearing law, with its capacity to be wildly misused against anti-racist activists and marginalized communities, was the product of tough-on-crime, ultra-conservative legislators.
But in reality, Georgia politicians told voters that their state domestic terrorism law was actually an anti-racist law when they passed it in 2017 (The Intercept). Two years earlier, a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into a Black church in South Carolina and opened fire, murdering nine people in hopes of igniting a “race war” (GQ). After the massacre, commentators wondered why Roof wasn’t labeled a terrorist, pointing out that the label is rarely applied to non-Muslim mass killers (CBS News).
One Huffington Post writer wrote an article entitled “Dylan Roof Wasn’t Charged with Terrorism Because He’s White” (Huffington Post). In actuality, Dylann Roof wasn’t charged with terrorism because, despite being defined in U.S. criminal code, “terrorism” isn’t a federal crime (The Intercept). But this line of thinking gave a bipartisan (though predominantly Republican) group of Georgia politicians cover to radically expand the state’s domestic terrorism legislation (Rolling Stone). The expanded statute is now being used for the first time to turn anti-racist activists into political prisoners. The Biden administration is pursuing a similar strategy at the federal level, promising a federal domestic terrorism law to aid the prosecution of right-wing militias (Time, CNN).
As more than 150 civil rights groups told Congress last year, that’s unacceptable (Yahoo! News). We need to protect our communities from far-right violence. But there’s a huge problem with supporting anti-terrorism legislation as the means to that end. Once police, prosecutors, and the prison system get more power, there’s a good chance they’ll turn around and use that power against marginalized communities, too.
That’s why we need to critically examine new laws that expand the state’s repressive power, even when they purport to be for the benefit of diversity, equity, or justice. We were told that police body cameras would end police brutality. They didn’t, but they allowed law enforcement to build massive databases of surveillance footage to use against protesters and innocent people (The Progressive). We were told that the way to fix the Islamophobic association of Muslim people with terrorism was to expand terrorism laws so that white racists could get prosecuted as well. They weren’t, but anti-racist protesters now face decades behind bars.
We can’t depend on an unaccountable government to protect us. We need to protect each other. Cop City protesters got arrested because they took action to protect communities. Now we should take action to protect them, too.
• Cop City protesters are arrested under domestic terrorism legislation created in response to a white supremacist mass shooting.
• Well-intentioned laws that expand police power are used against marginalized communities.
• We need to take action to keep our communities safe.