Calling Cop City Activists "Terrorists" Is An Old Government Trick

Several Cop City activists have been arrested and charged with domestic terrorism—something that has long been a legal and rhetorical weapon of state power.

Eric Laursen

A photo of Manuel Teran, who was shot and killed by a Georgia State Trooper earlier in the week, is seen on a makeshift memorial in Weelaunee People's park on Saturday, January 21, 2022 in Atlanta, GA. Getty Images

Last month, Georgia police assassinated environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Tortuguita” Terán, who was defending Atlanta’s Weelaunee forest from the construction of a large police training facility, known by opponents as Cop City.” During the same raid, seven of Tortuguita’s fellow activists were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. If they are convicted, they will receive mandatory minimum sentences of 5 to 35 years in prison. 

Reporting for In These Times over two decades ago, journalist Eric Laursen described how the U.S. government used terrorism charges to suppress environmental protests. His subject, Long Island activist Connor Cash, was eventually acquitted in 2004.

As people continue to mourn Tortuguita with vigils and protests, this piece reminds us that, while their death is shocking, government intimidation is nothing new, and domestic terrorism charges have long been a legal and rhetorical weapon of state power.

In 2001, Eric Laursen wrote: 

NEW YORK — Fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks hit Long Island’s activist community just eight days later when Connor Cash, a member of the island’s lively anarchist collective, Modern Times, was charged with aiding terrorists. Cash had already been indicted earlier this year for conspiring to help members of the shadowy Earth Liberation Front torch a suburban housing development — a charge that could put him in prison for decades if convicted. 

"The new legislation is clearly designed to make it easier to bring people into the sweep of terrorism statutes," says Donna Lieberman, interim director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It's drafted in a way that may lead them to be applied to intimidate people who are engaged in perfectly lawful activities."

Friends of Cash worry that the 19-year-old activist could become a political victim in the climate of fear that has developed since the attacks in New York and Washington. They believe the new charge, which could net Cash additional decades in jail, was lodged primarily to induce the public and, later, a jury to regard him as equivalent to the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks. The charge was amended just as Congress and the White House were hammering out a new anti-terrorism law that some say will make it easier for federal prosecutors to lodge similar charges of aiding terrorism against activists.

The new legislation is clearly designed to make it easier to bring people into the sweep of terrorism statutes,” says Donna Lieberman, interim director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. It’s drafted in a way that may lead them to be applied to intimidate people who are engaged in perfectly lawful activities.”

"Under this provision, the government can apparently go on a fishing expedition and collect information on virtually anyone," says Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), the lone Senate vote against the bill.

A local newspaper account cited sources saying the fact that the new indictments came down just on the heels of the terrorist attacks was only a coincidence. But friends of Cash assert that the U.S. Attorney’s office had offered several times to let him plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for information — offers he had refused. This is a desperate attempt to get him to plead out,” one friend, who asked to remain nameless, says of the terrorism indictment. Cash and his attorney, civil rights lawyer Fred Brewington, declined to comment on the case.

The anti-terrorist bill, which passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Bush in late October, makes it far easier for law enforcement to pin terrorist associations on persons engaged in innocent political activity, according to civil rights lawyers, especially if they were born in another country. A provision that would directly affect cases like Cash’s allows the FBI to demand the personal records of any person under investigation for terrorism, including medical and educational records. Under this provision, the government can apparently go on a fishing expedition and collect information on virtually anyone,” says Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), the lone Senate vote against the bill.

Meanwhile, prosecutors’ claim that the animal rights movement’s campaign of violent crime” had come to an end when it charged Cash with arson conspiracy earlier this year has been belied by a new campaign on Long Island by the Animal Liberation Front, an ELF offshoot. Last month, the ALF took credit for smashing the windows of a Bank of America office — which was targeted because the bank runs a mutual fund program through Stephens Inc., an investment firm that backs the research giant Huntingdon Life Sciences. No charges have yet been filed in that attack.

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