Conservatives Say the Justice System Has Been Weaponized. Cop City Proves Them Right.

In the wake of the Trump indictments, conservatives are concerned that the justice system is being used to target political enemies. They’re right about that — but as the repression of Cop City protesters shows, they’re wrong about who the real targets are.

Cop City protester Manuel Terán was murdered by police in Atlanta. (CHENEY ORR / AFP via Getty Images)

When Donald Trump was indicted on seven charges related to his mishandling of classified documents and attempting to hide his possession of those materials from federal authorities, Republicans reacted precisely as you would expect.

Marco Rubio predicted the fall of the republic. Kari Lake delivered a “public service announcement” that attempts to hold the former president accountable would result in armed resistance. Kevin McCarthy seemingly forgot that the president doesn’t hand down federal indictments. And presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis sanctimoniously declared that “the weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society.”

DeSantis and company are actually right to be concerned with the weaponization of law enforcement against political enemies. They are, however, completely wrong about who actually gets targeted and just how long this has been happening.

The justice system is a weapon by nature. It’s a tool whose main purpose is to inflict harm on those who have broken the law, and the law itself is politically constructed, with people who have power and resources able to shape it to their needs. If the Republican Party really wants to stop law enforcement from targeting citizens for political ends, they should turn their eyes from Mar-a-Lago to Atlanta.

A Mortal Threat

On the last day of May, Atlanta SWAT teams raided a small house with guns drawn and arrested three people. Any observer of the raid would likely assume that it was a drug bust of some sort. Instead, SWAT was sent to arrest three people on charges of financial crimes relating to a bail fund for protesters of Atlanta’s now infamous “Cop City.”

The Justice Department’s thirty-seven-page indictment of Donald Trump lays out damning evidence in support of its case, including audio of Trump admitting to the illegality of his actions. Meanwhile, a judge overseeing a bond hearing for the three activists charged in Atlanta noted that he didn’t find the state prosecutors’ case to be “real impressive.” This is what the targeted political weaponization of law enforcement looks like.

This raid was only the latest show of targeted police intimidation of activists and protesters trying to stop the construction of law enforcement’s new playground. There has been the usual aggression against protesters — batons, bean bags rounds, and tear gas. But police have also charged protesters as domestic terrorists using a constitutionally dubious statute that the ACLU characterizes as a suppression of free speech. And it appears they murdered a protester in cold blood.

Cop Country

The use of law enforcement to protect power is nothing new. When political pressure mounts to rein in police departments after acts of brutality, police have routinely responded by not doing their jobs in protest. To be precise, they are selectively deciding which laws to enforce in order to put pressure on city governments and protect their political power.

But that’s not all they do. Police are three times more likely to use violence against protesters for left-wing causes than they are against right-wing marchers. In 2020, police in North Carolina pepper-sprayed and violently dispersed what was planned as a peaceful march to a polling place. Then there was that time police tear-gassed peaceful protesters at the Capitol so that then president Trump could get a photo op.

Of course, this is standard for American policing. A major role of the police during the early industrial period was violently putting down labor actions and preventing unionization, a tradition that lives on to this day. Targeted law enforcement enabled the de facto continuation of slavery after the Civil War. The war on drugs that has fueled the prison industrial complex was an invention of political expediency. And we all know how the police reacted to black civil rights protesters in the ’60s.

Points of Agreement

It’s an easy thing to note Republicans’ convenient ignorance of just how much law enforcement has always been politically deployed against left-wing challenges to power. However, their hypocrisy should not overshadow the true observation that law enforcement bodies are political actors. The justice system as a whole enforces laws that are politically constructed — and often grants a pass to those who finance that construction.

During a recent city council meeting in Atlanta to reaffirm the city’s commitment to building Cop City, over three hundred people packed themselves into the city hall to give public comment on the plan, and they were overwhelmingly against it. The city council still approved the construction, and revealed that the cost to the public was going to be much more than initially communicated.

The reason why this is happening despite the objection of local citizens is that wealthy interests and powerful corporations want it to happen. These are the same corporations that have fought with their employees over unionization and unsafe working conditions. They’re the same corporations that claim they can’t pay their employees a living wage and that use child labor, but can nevertheless find the money to donate millions to building a police amusement park to boost morale. These corporations have the resources and influence to make the political process work for them — in this case, making sure there are enough police to manage the human externalities of capital accumulation.

In service to this political goal, the police have been unleashed on protesters, state prosecutors have been given license to use the law in a blatant show of intimidation, and a few cops will most likely get away with murder.

It’s important to note that Atlanta is a Democrat-controlled city in a state that just elected two Democratic senators and helped swing the election for Joe Biden. For their part, Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have offered tepid statements on what is happening to Cop City protesters, making sure to lecture them for their destruction of property before expressing mild concern for obvious abuses of the First Amendment.

The weaponization of law enforcement is ultimately not so much a matter of partisanship, as the Right is claiming in the wake of the Trump indictments. At base, it’s about the wealthy using the police and the justice system to silence those who would challenge their power.