A Black Proud Boy gets the Black people treatment in court, Stop Cop City activists are punished for supporting the Atlanta Black community, and prosecutors indict on specious and politically motivated charges. The justice system isn't very just.
Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys, was sentenced on September 5, 2023, to 22 years in prison. He was convicted in May on seditious conspiracy and other charges for the central role he played in organizing Trump followers to attack the Capitol on January 6, 2021, while Congress was certifying the electoral results of the 2020 presidential election.
Until now, the longest prison term connected to the January 6 events had been 18 years. That sentence was issued to co-defendant Ethan Nordean. Three other men in the case — Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl, and Dominic Pezzola — were each sentenced to between 10 and 17 years in prison. Pezzola was acquitted of the seditious conspiracy charge.
Explaining why he had imposed the longer 22-year sentence on Tarrio, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly read aloud the seditious conspiracy statute, noting that it was a “serious offense” ultimately led by Tarrio, who had been “motivated by revolutionary zeal.”
However, just last week when he sentenced Proud Boys leaders Joseph Biggs to 17 years and Zachary Rehl to 15 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, Judge Kelly insisted that while he was "not trying to minimize the violence" of the day, but stated that it was not on par with a mass casualty event and he wanted to avoid creating disparities by imposing a stricter sentence.
Even Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia also found guilty of seditious conspiracy and other charges, received a lower prison sentence of 18 years. So why did the judge have no problem establishing a high sentence for Tarrio? It is difficult not to see that racism here.
The reason Tarrio was given extra time was ostensibly because Kelly found his “conduct constituted an official act of terrorism” intended to influence “the conduct of government by intimidation and coercion.” He said this sentencing enhancement technically could apply to the four men convicted of this charge, although he also acknowledged that none of them engaged in typical acts of terrorism like blowing up buildings or attacking military installations. Nevertheless, Tarrio, the sole Black person among them, was the only one to receive the terrorism enhancement.
And even though Tarrio, the Proud Boys, and the right-wing that loves them have used Tarrio’s ethnicity to claim the Proud Boys were not a racist organization after Tarrio took the leadership mantle from the blatantly racist misogynist founder Gavin McInnis, Tarrio has experienced his own group’s motto, FAFO, F*ck Around and Find Out, by how the system treats him. I hope Tarrio thinks about that in prison, considering it was he who led a mostly white group in Washington, D.C. in the month leading up to January 6 to vandalize four Black churches and destroy one church’s Black Lives Matter banner. The Proud Boys also encouraged attacks on counter-protesters in the months leading up to January 6, including an assault on a young Black woman.
The contradictions and hypocrisies in this so-called justice system are obvious as indicated by Enrique Tarrio receiving the terrorism enhancement and harsher sentencing treatment that is usually meted out to Black people. Even he couldn’t use the cover of right-wing nationalism to save himself from a racist system. In the end, being the Black Cuban-American face of white supremacist patriarchy didn’t help him in the face of good old U.S. white supremacy.
In the same country and legal system, 61 citizens protesting Cop City in Atlanta were charged with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law. About 40 of the activists were already facing “Domestic Terrorism” charges and three were previously charged with felony intimidation after distributing flyers calling a state trooper a “murderer” in the fatal shooting of Manuel Esteban Paez Terá, who was known as Tortuguita. (n). Three previously charged leaders of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provided bail money and helped find attorneys for arrested protesters, were also indicted on 15 counts of money laundering. There is even a charge in the indictment against one person who signed his name as ACAB as proof of furthering a conspiracy of violent anti-police sentiment that allegedly fueled “militant anarchy” since the murder of George Floyd in 2020!
A racist capitalist carceral state explains why progressive and left-wing organizers working for years to stop the financing and building of a militarized police training center in a Black community that doesn’t want it are deemed terrorists involved in a mob-like conspiracy and are considered particularly dangerous since they allegedly got together and planned their activities on the day George Floyd was publicly executed by Minneapolis police. Georgia’s particular RICO law makes criminalizing legitimate acts for clearly political reasons possible.
Georgia’s version of the RICO Act is modeled after the federal RICO statutes and was passed in 1981, but differs in defining racketeering more broadly. It allows a district attorney to introduce evidence that would not reflect a criminal act on its own. It also allows a prosecutor to use crimes committed outside the state to prove a wider conspiracy. This aligns with the catchall indictment against the Stop Cop City protesters. Aside from the outright self-serving misdefinitions of collectivism, solidarity, and mutual aid in the indictment, classic support efforts like organizing a bail fund and reimbursing organizers for expenses are categorized as money laundering, and speech and associational activities like flyering and using the acronym ACAB are considered actions to further a conspiracy.
Yet the same RICO statute was used in the same state to indict Trump a week earlier. Rather than believing that the statute was appropriately applied in Trump's case, the dubious nature of the charges in the Stop Copy City indictments should instead cause healthy skepticism about the Trump indictment too. The law that is used in both cases is manipulated so easily for political and ideological purposes. How does it make sense to trust the just application of the law in one case and not the other?
For many supporting the Stop Cop City protesters, the Republican Attorney General leading that prosecution is the Bad Guy. But the same law was also used by Black woman Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, now hailed a hero for securing the RICO indictment against Trump and Company, against mostly Black teachers in the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal in 2015. Her office accused them of changing the standardized test scores of public school students under the punitive and unreasonable requirements established by the Bush-era No Child Left Behind policy. Despite the widespread unpopularity of NCLB by 2015 because of how it scapegoats educators for not doing enough to close the “achievement gap” between students of different racial groups and class backgrounds instead of addressing the material conditions that contribute to that gap such as poverty and systemic racism, and its over-emphasis on measuring student achievement with regular standardized tests, the RICO law was used to criminalize teachers who struggled to teach to the frequent tests, risked losing funding for their schools, as well as their own pay raises or even jobs if they did not, while none of the social issues that actually cause the “achievement gap” were ever addressed. What justice was served by the RICO law being used against teachers in such a grossly unequal educational system and unjust policy that persists to this day?
These cases show that not only is there a multi-tiered system of so-called justice in this country, but how that justice is meted out and why it is influenced by individuals with political and other biases. So even when someone like Enrique Tarrio gets what one would expect in being found guilty of seditious conspiracy, the longer sentence he receives must be considered within the dominant ideological system, which is designed to serve a racist capitalist system and reflects its political-racial ideological biases. And even when Trump and Company seem to have been caught with their hands in the voter fraud cookie jar, the draconian and authoritarian criminalization of organizers using the same statute calls into question the law itself and how the state ultimately uses it.
I think these cases show that if the justice system is not fair and just for everyone - even for people who we don’t support - then it really cannot be trusted to be fair or just for anyone at all.
Jacqueline Luqman is a radical activist based in Washington, D.C.; as well as co-founder of Luqman Nation, an independent Black media outlet that can be found on YouTube (here and here and on Facebook ; and co-host of Radio Sputnik’s “By Any Means Necessary”.