A former business partner of imprisoned hip-hop mogul Marion “Suge” Knight is launching a new group to support court challenges to measures designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus, calling them steps on the road to a tyrannical surveillance state.
Mark Blankenship, an attorney and former Republican congressional candidate, officially formed a federal political action committee called Occupy Freedom PAC last week. In a lengthy interview with The Daily Beast, he said he plans to use the group to seed legal advocacy efforts around the country to mount constitutional challenges to state and local coronavirus mitigation measures, and to help fund the campaigns of like-minded elected officials.
Blankenship will be doing so from California, where he’s on probation after pleading no contest last year to a felony obstruction charge. The charge stemmed from Blankenship’s role in the sale of court-sealed surveillance footage showing a fatal hit-and-run that landed Knight, the controversial founder of Death Row Records, in prison for 28 years.
“These people need to be questioned,” Blankenship said of state and local officials who have implemented strict quarantine and social distancing measures, “and they need to put the word ‘constitution’ on a tattoo on their forehead before they pass laws that circumscribe the individual liberties of people with what they’re doing.”
The formation of Occupy Freedom PAC comes as protest movements are bubbling up around the country against state laws restricting movement and business activity. Blankenship said he wants to give people a formal way to challenge such laws—simply, he said, by walking into a federal courthouse and asking a judge to rule on their constitutionality.
Occupy Freedom PAC will use the money it raises to try to train activists to conduct “pro se” constitutional challenges, or ones in which they are not represented by attorneys, to various state coronavirus ordinances. In order to mount those challenges, Blankenship is devising various ways that he or the people he recruits for those legal advocacy efforts can set up showdowns with state and local governments that can provide the impetus for a court challenge.
“Go down to the city of Los Angeles, get a permit for a protest in their main square, make sure everybody stays six feet apart,” he suggested. “I’d be willing to bet you that they won't grant that permit. That would be a First Amendment violation, in my opinion. So, those are the kinds of things that we’ll do. And at that point I think a lot of eyes will turn towards that process.”
He then hopes to turn that attention into direct political advocacy. “A logical follow would be, in addition to forced litigation actions, let’s then raise money and help support candidates who have similar goals and values regarding individual liberties as it relates to the creeping tyranny that is emerging as a result of the coronavirus.”
Many states are already starting the process of loosening stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions. But Blankenship worries that fear over another outbreak—and the powers that, he says, governments have already amassed over the last couple weeks and months—will leave measures in place that he considers blatantly unconstitutional.
“I’m concerned that even if they un-restrict people’s freedoms that there’s still going to be tyrannist (sic), if not malicious, control that’s in play that restricts people’s movement and thought, their free will basically,” he said. “We use the term occupy freedom [because] we’re not talking about occupying a place. We’re occupying a metaphysical place, a place of freedom of thought, a place of free will.”
Blankenship said he has made overtures to other legal and activist groups in order to help assemble a coalition to back his coronavirus-related plans. He declined to identify any of those groups, since, he said, no agreements had yet been reached.
Blankenship himself practiced law for years, though his legal record is mixed and mired by ethical missteps. He refers to himself as a civil rights attorney, and spent years as a lawyer in California pursuing excessive-force and wrongful-death claims against police.
But Blankenship resigned from the California state bar in 2006 after being suspended twice over chronic failures to meet court deadlines, resulting in judgments against his clients. He nevertheless wears his legal record on his sleeve; when The Daily Beast asked about his legal background, he proudly sent a copy of a news article detailing his resignation, highlighting a sentence that described him, citing both clients and courtroom opponents, as “a brilliant lawyer committed to serving the underdog but who also appeared to run a severely undermanaged office.”
Occupy Freedom PAC is not his first foray into politics. Blankenship mounted an ill-fated congressional run in 1990, when he tried to primary former Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), for whom he’d interned in Washington just a few years earlier. “I did pretty well in the primary,” he said (Lewis, the heavy favorite, prevailed by 58 points), but Blankenship recalls the experience cementing his anti-establishment views.
“The whole system didn't seem normal to me,” he recalled. “It seemed like it was a graft and corruption-based system.”
Blankenship doesn’t use political labels to describe his views these days, but they seem unmistakably libertarian. “I see how the system rapaciously eats people alive,” he said. Those views also run through Blankenship’s position on the case against Suge Knight, who pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge in 2018 stemming from a hit and run incident caught on a nearby surveillance camera.
“When he was arrested, I've never seen a person in greater agony or pain. He was unable to get any justice at all,” Bankenship said of Knight. “I've never seen more of a political prosecution in my entire career than I saw with what happened to Suge.”
He and Knight had previously been in discussions about using the famed rap mogul’s life rights to tell the story, from his perspective, of the legendary hip-hop beefs of the 1990s that made Knight a music industry fixture, but set the stage for the the deaths of rap icons Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Blankenship said he and Knight are still in talks about selling his life rights.
“Suge Knight was a quest for justice for me,” Blankenship said. But the trial also landed him on the wrong side of the law, when he and Knight’s girlfriend brokered the sale of surveillance footage showing the hit-and-run to TMZ for $55,000. Blankenship was sentenced to five years of probation on the subsequent obstruction charge.
“I have a lot to say about that," he said, "but I don't know if this is the right conversation for me. I have to get to the right spiritual place to talk about that."