DOJ's Antifa Push Spurs Trump Appointee To Charge A Band's Bassist Over A Bag Of Weed
A top federal attorney appointed by President Donald Trump held a press conference this week to announce that federal and state law enforcement officials' “outstanding investigative work” has led to a federal crime charge against a 29-year-old bassist in an anarcho . Punk band over a bag of weeds.
Justin Coffman and friends and family in Jackson, Tennessee believe U.S. attorney D. Michael Dunavant, a Trump appointee, is trying to set an example out of a Trump opponent. Coffman joined the Black Lives Matter protests, was a member of an anarchist-themed rock band, and posted memes poking fun at Republicans' exaggerated concerns about the loosely organized anti-fascist movement known as "Antifa".
US attorney Michael Dunavant with President Donald Trump, who appointed him. (Photo: White House Photo by Shealah Craighead via Twitter)
The law enforcement investigation into Coffman began in the days following George Floyd's death on May 25. Like millions of Americans, Coffman was outraged that the Minneapolis police had suffocated the 46-year-old black man's life.
"It broke his heart," Coffman's girlfriend Leah Harris told HuffPost. "It really offended him."
"It's just ridiculous that people in positions of authority can do that," Coffman told HuffPost in a telephone interview from the Tennessee prison, where he is being held on state and local charges. "They literally had people there filming him and telling [the cop] to stop ... There is no reason for him to keep doing this [unless] he wanted to harm the person."
Justin Coffman at a protest against police brutality following the death of George Floyd on May 25th. (Photo: Courtesy Leah Harris)
Floyd's death sparked demonstrations and sporadic violence in cities across the country. But Jackson, a town of roughly 65,000 and a median household income of less than $ 40,000, wasn't exactly a hotbed for unrest. A peaceful demonstration took place on May 30, and the city's mayor issued a statement saying that city officials were "disgusted with the cruel actions of those responsible for Floyd's death" and that Jackson officials would " Working diligently to make sure nothing like this happens. " in our city. "Several other protests in the city remained peaceful.
Coffman joined Jackson's peaceful protests. He even posted on Facebook that he was impressed with the way the Jackson Police Department responded to demonstrations in the city.
"Was in Jackson yesterday and it's good to see the mayor and the chief of police are among the people talking to them instead of the police attacking people and causing rioting," Coffman wrote on June 1.
But it was another Facebook post that would get Coffman in trouble. On May 28, he posted three pictures on Facebook - photos taken before Floyd's death and sparking riot across the country - that showed him posing in front of a Jackson Police Department van holding a fake Molotov cocktail. That bottle, Coffman said, was an antique liquor bottle that was filled with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water.
As can be clearly seen in the Facebook post, the photos were staged. The caption included the quote, "You will bathe in the flames of your hatred," which Coffman said was a text from a song he was working on for his band, The Gunpowder Plot.
Images posted on The Gunpowder Plot's Facebook page resulted in charges against the band's bassist. (Photo: The Gunpowder Plot / Facebook)
"Last year everyone shared the V for Vendetta stuff on November 5th," said Coffman, who was named Bassist of the Year at the 2018 Tennessee Music Awards. "I was just writing, I thought," Hey, I think The Gunpowder Plot would be a cool band name, "played the name of the infamous assassination attempt on November 5, 1605 in England.
A couple of friends introduced him to other musicians and they formed a three-piece band. "It's basically theater," said Coffman.
After his post sparked controversy, Coffman tried to make it clear that the photos were artistic in nature. "I don't know who needs to hear that, but we're a band, not a terrorist organization. Stop calling and waste people's time," read a post on the band's website.
Despite this, police officers ransacked his home on June 2nd. At the time, things were quite tense in the country and the Trump administration made a massive push to persecute "Antifa". Trump tweeted that he would declare Antifa a terrorist organization and said he would "activate" Attorney General William Barr "very strongly". Barr, who contributed to crackdown on a group of peaceful protesters at the White House on June 1, stated that violence “instigated and used by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the riot is domestic terrorism and appropriate is treated. "The federal prison riot officials employed by Barr to respond to protests were on their way to the capital of the country. Law enforcement agencies across the country were nervous. FBI special agents even interviewed protesters arrested for violating the curfew.
The raid on Coffman's house, authorities claim, revealed a few legal weapons, the counterfeit Molotov cocktail used in the photo shoot, and 24 grams of weed. (That's roughly the value of a Ziploc sandwich bag of marijuana, less than half the 2-ounce personal property limit in Washington, D.C.)
The FBI special agent who interviewed him after the robbery didn't seem to really care about the bag of marijuana that law enforcement allegedly found in his home.
"He wasn't even concerned about it," said Coffman. "He really didn't say anything." The agent who spoke to Coffman on the porch of his house was more interested in his political beliefs.
"He started telling me all these things like, 'You're a bass player," blah, blah, blah. "You don't seem like a bad guy," Coffman said.
"He asked me if I was 'Antifa' and all that crap that I'm not," said Coffman. "He was trying to see if I was a part of it so he could use me as a fucking inner person I guess."
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Justin Coffman, the bassist for a punk rock band, faces crime charges after posting pictures from an album photoshoot. (Photo: Courtesy Leah Harris)
The government had no plans to arrest Coffman that day. But the marijuana gave the local police a reason to lock Coffman up.
"I was talking to the [FBI] guy and the local [police] came up to us and said we need to invite you over to the marijuana," Coffman said. Coffman was out of jail the next day, but the robbery was a major setback. He was evicted from his home, lost his job at Old Navy, and moved in with his family.
Over the next several months, the FBI agent called Coffman occasionally with questions. The FBI special agent told him to "only answer when I call you and you don't have to worry," Coffman said. The agent would ask who was at protests Coffman had attended. One problem: Jackson is not exactly an anti-fascist paradise.
"There aren't any of them in Jackson," said Coffman.
Coffman thought he could leave things behind. But he was working at the cash register at a Circle K gas station this week, and police officers arrested him.
The federal indictment against Coffman makes it illegal for a drug user to own a gun. There are innumerable gun owners in the country who also smoke marijuana, all the more so now that a number of states have legalized weed. However, the charge is rarely brought by federal prosecutors, despite the fact that it has been used against a handful of potentially dangerous white supremacists whose conduct did not constitute an overt violation of federal law.
It is not clear why the federal government took action against Coffman. However, the federal affidavit was dated September 10, the same week that Barr asked the country's federal prosecutors to bring protests-related charges whenever possible, the Wall Street Journal reports. The case was overturned this week after a Tennessee grand jury charged Coffman with state charges, including one alleging that Coffman's possession of an antique liquor bottle of apple cider vinegar and water was a "hoax" device.
Tennessee law defines a “joke device” as “any device that appears, or is purported to be, an explosive device or an incendiary device, organized by a public safety officer or volunteer agency to raise an alarm or response of any kind to deal with an emergency . “There is, however, a legal exception if the device was" used in a manner reasonably related to a legitimate dramatic performance ". A photo shoot for an album cover for a band with a theatrical theme seems to qualify.
“A deservedly dramatic achievement. How about a picture taken to make a point on Facebook? "said Lucian Pera, a Tennessee attorney who worked on First Amendment cases.
"There is definitely an impact on the first change here," said Pera. "I don't understand why someone is wasting their time on it."
Pera said it was not surprising that Dunavant would be part of this type of case, calling him "a fairly aggressive US attorney".
"It comes as no shock to me that Dunavant is an American attorney motivated to crack down on Barr's plea," said Pera.
Dunavant is a former district attorney-elect, and his policies often shine through in ways that would have been conspicuous by any US attorney during President Barack Obama's tenure. He is fearlessly "tough on crime" and a staunch critic of criminal justice reformers.
“The US has a very large prison population: not because there are too many innocent people in prison; but because too many people commit serious, usually violent, crimes, ”Dunavant wrote in a tweet. "That's why most of America's people are incarcerated. Period. Period."
Dunavant even attacked Alice Johnson, the former federal prisoner who was pardoned by Trump after Kim Kardashian came across a video about Johnson on her Twitter feed. Johnson had served a life sentence for participating in a drug trafficking organization in Memphis.
"The defendant is now motivated by continued greed for money, fame and notoriety and is trying to get rid of the onerous burden of supervised release," Dunavant wrote in a lawsuit last year, according to the Washington Post. "Uninformed members of the public continue to celebrate their crime."
Dunavant, who posted a photo of himself with the “Make America Safe Again” sign at a Trump rally in Tennessee in 2018, wrote about the need for “Back the Blue,” referring to prosecution successes Draws attention and encourages citizens to support police officers is "one of the highest calling" of his work.
- Mike Dunavant (@ MikeDunavant1) October 3, 2018
"All too often, law enforcement critics speak of cops as if they were the problem rather than solving the crime," wrote Dunavant. "Those who pity criminals and try to apologize or even celebrate their lawless, antisocial and immoral behavior are now using dangerous rhetoric to encourage people to oppose all forms of authority, including law enforcement."
Dunavant declined HuffPost's request for an interview on Coffman's case.
"As the matter is still an ongoing investigation and prosecution, I cannot comment on the details of the allegations contained in the federal criminal complaint, which has now been unsealed and is public knowledge," said Dunavant in a statement to HuffPost. "So I have to respectfully decline a request for an interview at this point."
Many politically appointed US attorneys like Dunavant see their time at the Justice Department as a path to elected office. In 2016 Dunavant supported now-Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.), Who preceded Dunavant as a US attorney for Tennessee's Western District during the reign of George W. Bush.
While Dunavant telegraphs his future, Coffman's future seems pretty uncertain. He and his family members study the aftermath of Dunavant's actions.
Coffman, his girlfriend and his cousin say that life has been pretty tough. His mother died in a car accident at a young age, and his father has long been absent. His aunt picked him up and raised him.
Robert Joe Haynes, Coffman's cousin, said they grew up like brothers. But their policies were pretty far apart. Haynes is a Republican, although he's lukewarm with Trump these days. He is also a proponent of law enforcement and said he doesn't understand why they have had to address this case so far.
"I'm one for hard love ... if I have a family in jail who deserve to be there, it's because of them," said Haynes. But Coffman, he said, didn't deserve it at all.
"I think they're just trying to set an example out of him," said Haynes. "But I think it will hit you back."
Haynes called the allegations "absurd" and "far exaggerated". He understands why the police need to investigate, but said they should have dropped the matter once it became clear it was a photo shoot for an album cover rather than a threat.
“There was no damage at all,” said Haynes. "They're just trying to find what they can to incriminate him."
Haynes said he wished Coffman had cleared the photo shoot with the police before it happened, which could have avoided all of these problems.
"If he'd directed it from you or me, I could have called the sheriff and asked, and they could probably have set it up for a photoshoot," Haynes said. "I think it was a bit stupid how he did it, but I don't think it should have led to all of this."
Justin Coffman with his Tennessee Bassist of the Year award. (Photo: Courtesy Leah Harris)
Haynes said he thinks the Justice Department is trying to scare everyone by indicting his cousin. “They're trying to stop others from opposing them or saying anything about them,” Haynes said.
Haynes said local media coverage was particularly bad.
“It seems like they are trying to portray him as a terrorist. That will blow up the courthouse,” Haynes said. “It's just someone in a band trying to take a picture and advocate for different communities. "
He also said it was important to be aware of the area's gun culture and said two guns in Jackson were considered a small collection.
"Everyone in Jackson has guns," said Haynes. "Every friend I have has at least eight or ten guns."
Haynes said he believes Coffman's tough life is why he's so ready to stand up for others.
“He's been through a lot,” said Haynes. "He doesn't want no one to go through what he had to go through, and they throw him the book because he's trying to stand up for what he believes in."
Coffman said his bond was set at $ 50,000, which means he would have to pay a surety administrator $ 5,000 to secure his release on state charges. Haynes said they were trying to raise funds and see if a Bondman would accept one of Coffman's guitars as collateral. (Even then, Coffman could still be on federal charges depending on whether federal prosecutors arrest him before trial.)
Harris, Coffman's friend, set up a GoFundMe account to raise funds for legal representation. She then writes about how Coffman used the fake "Molotov Cocktail" as the focal point at dinner.
Justin Coffman having dinner with his girlfriend, where the table is set with the "Molotov cocktail" as the centerpiece. (Photo: Leah Harris)
Harris said that Coffman is a Christian of Jewish descent and that his political views - small government, anti-war, anti-corruption - most closely align with Jo Jorgensen, the 2020 Libertarian Party's presidential candidate.
"He's always wanted to get into politics to change the world for the better," said Harris. “He sees so many people suffering, so many people who have fallen through the cracks because the government cares more about their own pockets than about the American people. That's the whole purpose of the band. Create awareness. Granted, we never expected this kind of attention, but there has to be change. "
Harris said she met Coffman on the music scene last year. At first she was not interested in romance. She had just got out of a relationship and was about to start nursing school. But they got into conversation and had "deep, deep, meaningful" conversations. She was starting to fall in love with his heart, she said.
“He was different. He was respectful, ”said Harris. "He's the most patient, caring, funniest, and lovable man I've ever been with."
Coffman's art and lyrics, Harris said, are the last things the federal government should investigate if there are really bad people in the world.
"I think you have to make an example of someone," said Harris. "This is the beginning of our rights that are being covered up ... George Orwell nascent."
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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