Prosecutors ‘aggressively sought jurisdiction’ in protest cases to impose harsh penalties or massive prison sentences after exaggerating threats of violence, report from Movement for Black Lives finds
The US Justice Department and federal law enforcement “deliberately targeted” Black Lives Matter demonstrators under the “express direction” of Donald Trump and former US Attorney General William Barr, according to a sweeping analysis from advocacy group Movement for Black Lives.
In nearly every prosecution, cases related to protests from 31 May through 25 October “resulted in hundreds of organisers and activists facing years in federal prison with no chance of parole” after federal law enforcement “exploited the expansive federal criminal code” to assert jurisdiction over protest-related cases that “bore no federal interest,” according to the report.
The report – which examines 326 criminal cases brought by federal prosecutors in the wake of 2020 protests amid an uprising against police violence and racial injustice after the police murder of George Floyd – appears to “largely corroborate what Black organisers have long known intellectually, intuitively, and from lived experience about the federal government’s disparate policing and prosecution of racial justice protests and related activity,” the report says.
Movement for Black Lives has pointed to the findings as part of a legacy of government and law enforcement attempts to undermine Black organising and opposition to white supremacy, from the FBI’s harmful legacy of Cointelpro operations to Trump-era prosecutions of racial justice protesters while ignoring police brutality and rising threats of white supremacist violence at the heart of the protests.
Federal prosecutors “aggressively sought jurisdiction” in protest cases despite equivalent state-level charges that were sufficient in nearly every case, according to the report, issued in conjunction with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) clinic at the City University of New York School of Law.
Federal prosecutions typically result in higher conviction rates, and roughly 88 per cent against protesters carried harsher penalties than equivalent state charges, the report found.
“The government greatly exaggerated the threat of violence” from protests, with the “vast majority” of charges involving “non-violent offenses or offenses that were potentially hazardous but were restricted to property destruction, not violence against people,” according to the report.
More than 25 per cent of all cases included “stacked charges” against defendants “with multiple redundant charges being brought arising from the same facts – leading to far more severe potential sentences against defendants,” according to the report.
More than 22 per cent of all cases involved potential mandatory minimum sentences, and 20 per cent involved offences where the defendant was alleged to have conspired or abetted a crime without actually committing any.
Rhetoric from the White House and Justice Department depicted protests as made up of “violence radicals,” while federal law enforcement justified its authority by pointing to state and local leaders’ “abdication of their law enforcement responsibilities in deference to this violent assault,” according to the report.
In May, then-Attorney General Barr claimed that “anarchistic and far-left extremists” hijacked protests and pledged to invoke federal laws against crossing state lines using interstate highways to “incite or participate in violent rioting.” He also directed the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to investigate such acts of “domestic terrorism” and, in one memo, urged prosecutors to charge protesters with sedition.
Mr Trump also announced he would be “mobilizing all available federal resources … to stop the rioting and looting.” He also signed an executive order directing the Justice Department to dispatch law enforcement to cities and states with Democratic-led governments.
“These directives, meant to disrupt the movement, were the primary reason for the unprecedented federalisation of protest-related prosecutions seen in 2020,” the report says.
The most common charge (32 per cent) was arson, which prosecutors broadly encompassed beyond setting a fire, according to the report.
“Civil disorder” accounted for 15 per cent of charges, followed by assaulting an officer (13.8 per cent), which included pointing laser pointers in the general direction of law enforcement.
The report also found that “protest-related prosecutions by federal authorities generally did not correlate to population size, as one might expect, but rather to the deployment of federal law enforcement to police protests,” suggesting that “the deployment of federal law enforcement functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to more prosecutions, and serving to legitimize in circular fashion the alarmist rhetoric that led to the deployment in the first place.”
The only two violent charges related to murder were brought against members of the far-right paramilitary group Boogaloo Boys.
And though Mr Trump, members of his administration and his allies in Congress continue to blame “antifa” for protest violence, the report found just one criminal complaint that listed any affiliation to “antifa”, and one pointed to their self-identification as an anarchist.
The report demands amnesty for protesters and calls on Congress to pass the Breathe Act, which would move federal funding for police departments to community-based public safety programmes.