The Justice Department targeted more than 300 protesters by charging them with federal crimes for their roles during the civil unrest last summer after the murder of George Floyd, according to a new report from The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of Black advocacy groups.
The report found that more than 90% of federal cases against Black Lives Matter protesters could have been charged in state court – and that in 88% of those cases, the federal charges carried more severe penalties than similar state charges.
“This persecution resulted in hundreds of organizers and activists facing years in federal prison with no chance of parole,” the report read. It was co-authored by CUNY School of Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Clinic.
The report also contends that federal officials have tried to suppress Black social movements going back decades. For instance, at the direction of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, officials spied on and interrogated leaders associated with the Black Panther Party as well as Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
According to the report, this was done “in a deliberate bid to infiltrate, penetrate, disorganize, and disrupt the Black movements for rights, power, and freedom, and to preserve the established white supremacist order.”
The report, which focused on the period of nationwide civil unrest sparked by Floyd’s death in May 2020 at the hands of police in Minneapolis, was released this week. It was first reported by The Associated Press.
Federal officials filed a litany of charges against racial justice protesters over five months after Floyd’s death, including 105 for arson, 49 for civil disorder, 45 for assault against an officer and 30 felon-in-possession of a weapon cases.
According to the report, the “vast majority of charges brought were for non-violent offenses or offenses that were potentially hazardous but were restricted to property destruction, not violence against people.”
Federal arson charges carry a minimum sentence of five years in prison, and offenders can be incarcerated anywhere in the country, while in state court there are different degrees of arson charges, including some that can be classified as misdemeanors carrying up to one year in a local jail, according to the report.
“Every day Americans are now facing prison sentences in more distant locations, higher maximums and mandatory minimums, and no chance of parole as a result of exercising their First Amendment rights,” Princess Masilungan of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Clinic said in a news release. “Incarceration often leads to income and job loss along with the separation of families. It not only harms the individual but also their families, organizations, and communities.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.
The Movement for Black Lives recommends granting amnesty for those who were charged and abolishing local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces to “mitigate the harms” of federal prosecutions in which they claim defendants were over-charged. In more than 20% of the cases against protesters, the charges come with mandatory minimum sentences, according to the report.
The organization also is recommending that people demand reparations from the government, including an apology and acknowledgment of “the long history of targeting movements in support of Black life and Black liberation,” according to the report.
During the civil unrest of 2020, then-President Donald Trump called on governors to deploy the National Guard to “dominate” protesters and the Justice Department launched “Operation Legend,” a collaboration of federal and deputized local law enforcement like the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, to fight violent crime.
“Operation Legend was stretched beyond its original and unrelated purpose in order to contribute to the federal effort to disrupt the movement,” according to the report.
At the conclusion of Operation Legend in December 2020, the Justice Department reported that out of 6,000 people arrested, about 1,500 had been charged with federal offenses.
Black Lives Matter protesters often clashed with federal law enforcement in cities like New York, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, when mandatory curfews went into effect at night. The protesters continued to rally once the sun set, which was in violation of the curfew.
When the protesters refused to leave, police sometimes used pepper spray and physical force to disperse the crowds. Many of the conflicts between Black Lives Matter protesters and law enforcement were captured on cell phone video and on live television.
“Historically, Black protestors have more often than not been met with governmental oppression and accompanying police violence as a result of our unwillingness to accept the systemic disregard for and mistreatment of Black lives,” Dr. Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for The Movement for Black Lives, said in a news release.
The analysis could not break down the racial demographics of the protesters, as only 89 had their races designated. “The available data demonstrates that the majority of protest-related prosecutions, 52%, were brought against defendants identified as being Black. The data indicates that Black protesters were disproportionately subject to federal protest-related charges,” according to the report.