Turning Protestors into Terrorists

On January 6, 2021, a mob protesting the “stolen” presidential election won by Joe Biden against Donald Trump broke into the national capitol in Washington, D.C. The incursion was captured by thousands of cellphones and livestreamed on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.

Within days, FBI agents began swooping down on conservative activists, Trump supporters, and anyone thought to have any connection to the capitol breach. On March 2, FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress that the agency viewed those involved in the intrusion as “domestic terrorists.” He also announced that the FBI was conducting around 2,000 domestic terrorism investigations; double the number from when he took office in 2017.

President Biden also called the protestors domestic terrorists. He promised to push for new authoritarian laws to take aim at (some) domestic terrorists. Congress obliged with a proposal called the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021. The proposal would amend legislation used in fighting the War on (Some) Foreign Terrorists and amend it to include the War on (Some) Domestic Terrorists.

But even without a federal domestic terrorism law, 29 months after the incursion, more than 1,000 people have been charged with various crimes relating to the riot. Most were charged with illegal entry to a restricted federal building or grounds, but a few were charged with more serious crimes, including seditious conspiracy.

What’s more, concern over domestic terrorism isn’t limited to pro-Trump supporters. The fact is that anyone who engages in any kind of civil disobedience is a potential terrorist. Indeed, the USA PATRIOT Act states that any act that has the potential to damage property and that “appears to be intended” to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion constitutes “terrorism.”

Indeed, just about anyone is a potential terrorist:

  • Babies. On numerous occasions, babies in their mothers’ arms have not been allowed to board flights because their names showed up on a terrorist watchlist.

  • Catholics. The FBI investigated Quakers, the Catholic Workers Group, Greenpeace, and other organizations engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and gave them an “acts of terrorism” classification.

  • Vegetarians. FBI agents in Indianapolis were so alarmed by the announcement of a “Vegan Community Project” that they called in the agency’s counter-terrorism unit to investigate it.

And while the United States might not have a domestic terrorism statute, some states have enacted such laws. A case in point is Georgia, which in 2002 enacted an anti-terrorism law, which was amended in 2017.

The original statute made it a criminal offense to commit an act intended to or reasonably likely to kill or injure at least 10 people. But after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners at a Bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina, Georgia amended its domestic terrorism law. The new definition defines the offense to include crimes against property committed with the intent to “alter, change, or coerce the policy of the government” by “intimidation or coercion.” Anyone convicted of the offense faces up to a 35-year prison sentence.

At the time, civil rights groups warned that the amended law could be used against anyone exercising their First Amendment right to protest. And recent events show that prediction to be prescient.

The South River Forest area of DeKalb County, Georgia was once home to the Atlanta Prison Farm and a police shooting range. In 2021, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms announced plans to turn 85 acres in this area into a state-of-the-art police training facility. It will be the largest such installation in the United States.

The plans include a mock city to practice urban warfare, dozens of shooting ranges, and a helicopter landing pad. An additional 265 acres surrounding what opponents of the project derisively refer to as “Cop City” are slated to remain undeveloped.

It’s an understatement to say the idea was unpopular. Following the announcement, the Atlanta City Council asked for public comment on the proposal. Nearly three-quarters of the responses were against it.

Dozens of protestors went a step further. In an effort to “stop Cop City,” they camped out in the forest to obstruct construction of the facility. And police responded with overwhelming force. On the morning of January 18, 2023, dozens of heavily armed police raided the encampment. One person camping there in a tent was a 26-year-old environmental activist named Manuel Terán.

Upon encountering the tent, police warned whoever was inside it to exit or face criminal trespassing charges. According to a report written by an officer present at the raid, Terán responded, “no, I want you to leave.”

To “persuade” Terán to leave the tent, police then fired several rounds of pepper balls into the tent. At that point Terán allegedly discharged a firearm from inside the tent, seriously injuring one of the officers. In response, the officers shot dozens of rounds into the tent. Terán died at the scene.

An autopsy from the Dekalb County Medical Examiner showed that Terán had been shot “at least 57” times and that “gunpowder residue is not found on the hands”. That finding contradicts police claims that Terán shot first. The medical examiner classified the manner of death as “homicide.” Meanwhile, in bodycam videos released by the City of Atlanta, it appears the injured officer was shot by another cop.

Terán’s killing enraged the anti-Cop City activists. On March 5, dozens of protestors clad in black clothing entered the Cop City construction site and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails in the direction of police. The protestors also appear to have set construction equipment on fire.

In response, police arrested 23 of the protestors and charged them under the state domestic terrorism statute. Since then, protests have continued and a total of 40 activists have been charged with domestic terrorism. Some of their supporters have been charged with money laundering and charity fraud.

It seems unquestionable that at least some of those involved in the March 5 incident assaulted police and vandalized construction equipment. But laws already exist to punish those who commit such crimes. For instance, in Georgia, assaulting a police officer is a felony punishable by up to a 20-year prison sentence.

The rioters involved in the January 6 capital incursion were successfully prosecuted without a federal domestic terrorism law. And there’s no reason Georgia prosecutors can’t follow the same playbook. They can (and should) use assault and criminal trespass laws to deal with acts of civil disobedience that turn violent – not the state’s draconian anti-terrorism law.

Meanwhile, the apparent murder of Manuel Terán needs to be investigated, and the police officers responsible for killing him held accountable. Georgia politicians also might want to listen to public opinion and cancel or at least scale back the Cop City project.

The debacle playing out in Georgia is a textbook demonstration of how domestic terrorism statutes are already being misused. And they should serve as the latest warning of the dangers of conflating political and social protest with terrorism.

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