Amid the Trump administration’s aggressive campaign against antifa, federal authorities in Tennessee have leveled charges against the bassist of an anarchist rock band after he posted Facebook images of himself holding a fake Molotov cocktail during a photoshoot back in May.
Justin Coffman, a 29-year-old from Jackson, is facing a federal charge of being a drug user in possession of firearms after a police raid on his home in June turned up two guns and Coffman allegedly admitted to smoking one or two grams of marijuana per day.
The Justice Department has used the same charge to go after white supremacists and neo-Nazis whose conduct didn’t constitute an obvious violation of any other federal statutes. That federal charge is relatively rare: One federal judge declared it “unusual,” and a federal public defender said he never saw federal prosecutors move forward on it during his entire 30-year career.
Coffman was also indicted by a Madison County grand jury and is facing several state charges: “possession of a hoax device,” which is a felony, and six misdemeanor charges for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. DOJ’s press release, which describes the mock Molotov cocktail as a “glass bottle containing a liquid substance,” makes clear it lacked the critical component: an accelerant.
The investigation began because Coffman “was posting photographs to his Facebook page and another page titled ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ that depicted him holding a Molotov cocktail near Jackson City Court building,” according to a federal affidavit by Jackson Police Department Officer Ashley Robertson, who is also a task force officer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Coffman “was also seen at two protests against police violence in the day leading up to the investigation,” the affidavit states.
The Gunpowder Plot is Coffman’s band. Its Facebook page reads, “Punk rock that makes government buildings crumble from beneath.” A video features members in Guy Fawkes masks, and the page is generally supportive of anarchists and pokes fun at conspiracy theories about antifa. One meme using a popular “Distracted Boyfriend” format features a man (“conservatives”) lustfully staring at “made up stuff about Antifa” while ignoring “tangible proof of violent white supremacists.” Posts by the band, and by Coffman, are critical of both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Attorney General William Barr and Justice Department leaders have encouraged federal prosecutors to take an aggressive posture toward defendants arrested at protests in the months since George Floyd’s death. In dozens of cases, federal prosecutors have leaned on rarely used federal statutes that were rushed through in 1968, when political and racial unrest was also sweeping the nation.
The Justice Department touted the unusual charge against Coffman in a national press release on Wednesday. U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant, a Trump nominee, said in a statement that drug users in possession of firearms were always a threat, “but especially so when multiple weapons are recovered during a potentially volatile situation, such as civil unrest.”
But it’s not clear the images that set off the investigation were taken during a “potentially volatile situation” or amid civil unrest. The caption for the three images of Coffman ― posted on May 28, days after the death of George Floyd ― says that the poster “Was saving these pictures but now seems like a good time.”
The Facebook caption also included the quote “You will bathe in the flames born from your hatred.” Later, the post was edited to read: “Edit: Whoever called the feds over this mom’s a hoe.”
“I don’t know who needs to hear this but we’re a band, not a terrorist organization,” the band’s page posted on May 29, days before the raid. “Stop calling and wasting them people’s time.”
There’s no indication that Coffman (or anyone) used a real Molotov cocktail to burn the police vehicle featured in the photos. And speech that merely encourages unlawful acts generally ― as a federal appeals court recently confirmed ― is protected by the First Amendment.
It’s unclear precisely why the feds and local authorities took so long to charge Coffman. The federal complaint against him was filed under seal on Sept. 10 but wasn’t unsealed until after the local charges were announced.
The day before the raid on his home, Coffman posted on Facebook about Trump’s claim that he was declaring antifa a terrorist organization.
“If this happens you can be jailed for saying you’re ANTI-FASCIST and held without due fucking process!!! You know what country had a law like that? NAZI FUCKING GERMANY!!!! If you’re for this you don’t deserve to call yourself an American,” he wrote. “FIGHT ME!!!!!”
About a week after the raid, The Gunpowder Plot’s Facebook page declared that the incident gave the band “some street cred.”
In a GoFundMe posted on June 17, Coffman wrote that the SWAT team that raided his home on June 2 pointed rifles at his face and dragged him down the stairs, “ripping my favorite joggers.” He said the raid caused more than $1,000 in damages, which got him evicted.
“All of this happened after I talked to police concerning people calling the cops on me over Facebook posts,” Coffman wrote. The GoFundMe raised $65 of its $2,000 goal.
Read the entire federal affidavit below.