A top federal prosecutor appointed by President Donald Trump held a news conference this week to announce that the “outstanding investigative work” of federal and state law enforcement officers had resulted in a federal felony charge against a 29-year-old bassist in an anarcho-punk band over a bag of weed.
Justin Coffman and his friends and family in Jackson, Tennessee, think that U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant, a Trump appointee, is trying to make an example out of a Trump opponent. Coffman joined Black Lives Matter protests, belonged to a rock band with an anarchist theme and posted memes poking fun at what he saw as Republicans’ overblown concerns about the loosely organized anti-fascist movement known as “antifa.”
The law enforcement investigation into Coffman began in the days after George Floyd’s death on May 25. Coffman, like millions of Americans, was outraged that Minneapolis police had choked the life out of the 46-year-old Black man.
“It broke his heart,” Leah Harris, Coffman’s girlfriend, told HuffPost. “It truly disgusted him.”
“It’s just ridiculous that people put in positions of authority could do that,” Coffman told HuffPost in a phone interview from the Tennessee jail where he’s being held on state and local charges. “You literally had people there videoing him telling [the officer] to stop... There’s no reason for him to keep doing that [unless] he wanted to harm the person.”
Floyd’s death sparked demonstrations and sporadic violence in cities across the nation. But Jackson, a city of about 65,000 with a median household income of less than $40,000, wasn’t exactly a hotbed of civil disorder. There was a peaceful demonstration on May 30, and the city’s mayor issued a statement saying city officials were “disgusted by the atrocious actions of the officers responsible” for Floyd’s death and that Jackson officials would “diligently work to make certain nothing like this will happen 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 by how the Jackson Police Department responded to demonstrations in the city.
“Was out in Jackson yesterday and it’s good to see the mayor and the police chief out among the people and talking to them instead of the police attacking people and inciting riots,” Coffman wrote June 1.
But it was another Facebook post that would get Coffman into trouble. On May 28, he posted three images on Facebook ― photographs that were taken before Floyd’s death sparked unrest across the nation ― that showed him posing in front of a Jackson Police Department transport van holding a fake Molotov cocktail. That bottle, Coffman said, was an antique liquor bottle filled with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water.
The photos, as clearly evident in the Facebook post, were staged. The caption included the quote “You will bathe in the flames born from your hatred,” which Coffman said was a lyric from a song he was working on for his band, The Gunpowder Plot.
“Last year, everyone was sharing the ‘V for Vendetta’ stuff on Nov. 5,” Coffman, who won “bassist of the year” at the 2018 Tennessee Music Awards, said. “I just posted, I was, like, ’Hey, I think The Gunpowder Plot would be a cool band name,” playing off the name of the infamous Nov. 5, 1605, assassination attempt in England.
A couple of friends put him in touch with other musicians, and they formed a three-piece band. “It’s basically theater,” Coffman said.
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 this but we’re a band, not a terrorist organization. Stop calling and wasting them people’s time,” read one post on the band’s page.
Nevertheless, law enforcement officers raided his home on June 2. Things were pretty tense in the country at the time, and the Trump administration was making a massive push to go after “antifa.” Trump was tweeting that he was going to declare antifa a terrorist organization and said he was going to “activate” Attorney General William Barr “very strongly.” Barr ― who helped instigate a violent crackdown on a group of peaceful demonstrators at the White House on June 1 ― declared that violence “instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Federal prison riot officers deployed by Barr to respond to protests were on their way to the nation’s capital. Law enforcement departments across the country were on edge. FBI special agents were even interviewing protesters arrested on curfew violations.
The raid on Coffman’s home, authorities allege, turned up a couple of legal guns, the mock Molotov cocktail used in the photo shoot and 24 grams of weed. (That’s about a Ziploc sandwich bag’s worth of marijuana, less than half of the 2-ounce limit on personal possession in Washington, D.C.)
The FBI special agent who interviewed him after the raid, Coffman said, didn’t really seem to care about the bag of marijuana that law enforcement allegedly found in his home.
“He wasn’t even worried about none of that,” Coffman said. “He really didn’t say anything.” The agent, speaking to Coffman on the porch of his home, 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 was asking me if I was ‘antifa’ and all that bullshit, which I’m not,” Coffman said. “He was trying to see if I was a part of any of that so he could use me as a fucking inside person, I guess.”
The feds didn’t plan to arrest Coffman that day. But the marijuana gave local police a reason to lock Coffman up.
“I was talking to the [FBI] dude, and the local [police] walked up and said we’ve got to take you in for the marijuana,” Coffman said. Coffman was out of jail the next day, but the raid was a major setback. He was evicted from his home, lost his job at Old Navy and had to move in with family.
Over the next few months, the FBI special agent would call Coffman every once in a while with questions. The FBI special agent told him to “just answer whenever I call you, and you don’t have to worry about stuff,” Coffman said. The agent would ask about who was out at protests Coffman had attended. One problem: Jackson isn’t exactly a haven for anti-fascists.
“There ain’t none of them in Jackson,” Coffman said.
Coffman thought he would be able to put things behind him. But he was working the cash register at a Circle K gas station this week and law enforcement officers placed him under arrest.
The federal charge Coffman faces makes it illegal for a drug user to possess a weapon. There are untold numbers of gun owners in the country who also smoke marijuana, even more so now when a number of states have legalized weed. But the charge is rarely deployed by federal prosecutors, although it has been used against a handful of potentially dangerous white supremacists whose conduct didn’t present any obvious violation of federal law.
It’s not clear precisely why the federal government moved against Coffman when it did. But the federal affidavit was dated Sept. 10, the same week that Barr told the nation’s federal prosecutors to seek charges in connection with protests whenever possible, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The case was unsealed this week after a Tennessee grand jury returned an indictment against Coffman on state charges, including one that claims Coffman’s possession of an antique liquor bottle containing apple cider vinegar and water amounts to a “hoax device.”
Tennessee law defines a “hoax device” as “any device that reasonably appears to be or is purported to be an explosive or incendiary device and is intended to cause alarm or reaction of any type by an official of a public safety agency or a volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies.” But there’s an exception under the law when the device was used “in a manner reasonably related to a lawful dramatic performance.” A photo shoot for an album cover for a band with a theatrical motif would seem to qualify.
“A lawful dramatic performance. How about a picture that’s taken to make a point on Facebook?” said Lucian Pera, a Tennessee lawyer who has worked on First Amendment cases.
“There are First Amendment implications here, without any doubt,” Pera said. “I don’t understand why anyone is wasting their time on this.”
Pera said it’s unsurprising that Dunavant would be part of this type of case, calling him a “fairly aggressive U.S. attorney.”
“It is not a shock to me that Dunavant would be a U.S. attorney who would be motivated to act in response” to Barr’s request for a crackdown, Pera said.
Dunavant is a former elected district attorney, and his politics often shine through in a way that would have been striking to see from any U.S. attorney during President Barack Obama’s administration. He’s unabashedly “tough on crime” and an unflinching critic of criminal justice reformers.
“The U.S. does have a very large prison population: not because too many innocent people are incarcerated; but because too many people commit serious, usually violent crimes,” Dunavant wrote in one tweet. “That’s why most people are imprisoned in America. Period. Full stop.”
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 been serving a life sentence for involvement in a Memphis drug trafficking organization.
“Motivated now by continued greed for money, fame and celebrity, the defendant seeks to throw off the pesky burden of supervised release,” Dunavant wrote in a court filing last year, according to The Washington Post. “Uninformed members of the public continue to celebrate her criminality.”
Dunavant, who posted a photo of himself holding a “Make America Safe Again” sign at a 2018 Trump campaign rally in Tennessee, has written about the need to “Back the Blue,” writing that bringing attention to law enforcement successes and encouraging citizens to support police officers is “one of the highest callings” of his job.
“All too often critics of law enforcement talk about police officers like they are the problem, instead of the solution to crime,” Dunavant has written. “Those who feel sorry for criminals and seek to excuse or even celebrate their lawless, antisocial and immoral behavior now engage in dangerous rhetoric to encourage people to ‘resist’ all forms of authority, including law enforcement.”
Dunavant declined HuffPost’s request for an interview about Coffman’s case.
“Because the matter is still an ongoing investigation and criminal prosecution, I cannot comment further regarding the details of the allegations contained in the federal criminal complaint, which has now been unsealed and is a public record,” Dunavant said in a statement to HuffPost. “Therefore, I must respectfully decline a request for an interview at this time.”
Many politically appointed U.S. attorneys like Dunavant see their time in the Justice Department as a path to elected office. In 2016, Dunavant supported now-Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.), who preceded Dunavant as U.S. attorney for Tennesee’s western district during the George W. Bush administration.
As Dunavant telegraphs his future, Coffman’s future seems pretty uncertain. He and his family members are dealing with the fallout of Dunavant’s actions.
Coffman, his girlfriend and cousin say he had a pretty rough go of things in life. His mother died in a car crash when he was young, and his father has long been absent. His aunt took him in and raised him.
Robert Joe Haynes, Coffman’s cousin, said they grew up like brothers. But their politics were pretty far apart. Haynes is a Republican, although he’s lukewarm on Trump these days. He’s also a supporter of law enforcement and said he doesn’t understand why they had to take this case so far.
“I’m one for tough love... if I have family that’s in jail and they deserve to be there, then that’s on them,” Haynes said. But Coffman, he said, doesn’t deserve this at all.
“I think they’re just trying to make an example out of him,” Haynes said. “But I believe it’s going to backfire on them.”
Haynes called the charges “absurd” and “way overblown.” He understands why police would have to investigate but said they should’ve dropped the matter once it was clear it was a photo shoot for an album cover and not a threat.
“There was no harm at all,” Haynes said. “They’re just trying to find anything and everything they can to charge him with.”
Haynes did say he wishes that Coffman had cleared the photo shoot with police before it happened, which might’ve avoided all this trouble.
“If he had run it by them, or he had run it by me, I could’ve called the sheriff and asked him, and they probably could’ve set it up to make a photo shoot,” Haynes said. “I believe it was kinda dumb the way he went by it, but I don’t believe that it should’ve led to all this.”
Haynes said he thinks the Justice Department is trying to scare everyone by charging his cousin. “They’re trying to keep anybody else from standing up against them or saying anything about them,” Haynes said.
Haynes said the local media coverage has been particularly bad.
“It seems like they’re trying to portray him as a terrorist, pretty much. That’s going to go blow up the courthouse,” Haynes said. “It’s just somebody in a band trying to take a picture, trying to stand up for different communities.”
He also said it was important to note the region’s gun culture, saying that two guns is considered a small collection in Jackson.
“Everybody in Jackson owns guns,” Haynes said. “Every friend I’ve got has eight or 10 guns at least.”
Haynes said he believes Coffman’s tough life is the reason he’s so willing to stand up for others.
“He’s been through a lot,” Haynes said. “He don’t wanna see nobody go through what he had to go through, and they’re throwing the book at him for trying to stand up for what he believes in.”
Coffman said his bond was set at $50,000, meaning he would have to pay a bail bondsman $5,000 to secure his release on the state charges. Haynes said they were trying to raise money and see if a bondsman would accept any of Coffman’s guitars as collateral. (Even then, Coffman might still be held on the federal charge, depending on whether federal prosecutors move to detain him ahead of trial.)
Harris, Coffman’s girlfriend, has set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for legal representation. On it, she writes about how Coffman used the fake “Molotov cocktail” as a centerpiece when they had dinner.
Harris said that Coffman is a Christian of Jewish ancestry and that his political views ― small government, antiwar, anti-corruption ― aligned most closely with Jo Jorgensen, the 2020 Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate.
“He has always wanted to get into politics so he can change the world for the better,” Harris said. “He sees so many people suffering, so many people that have fell through the cracks because the government cares more about their own pockets than they do the American people. This is the whole purpose of the band. To bring awareness. Granted, we never expected this kind of attention, but there needs to be change.”
Harris said she met Coffman on the music scene last year. She wasn’t interested in romance at first. She had just gotten out of a relationship and was about to start nursing school. But they got to talking and had “deep, profound, meaningful” talks. She started “falling for his heart,” she said.
“He was different. He was respectful,” Harris said. “He is the most patient, caring, funny, lovable man I have ever been with.”
Coffman’s art and lyrics, said Harris, are the last things the federal government should be investigating when there are real evil people in the world.
“I guess they have to make an example out of someone,” Harris said. “This is the beginning of our rights being hushed... George Orwell in the making.”