“The federalization of protest-related charges was a deliberate and cynical effort to target and discourage those who protested in defense of Black lives.”
As Black Lives Matter protests grew across the U.S. following the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, so did the federal government’s persecution of activists who marched in support of racial justice.
That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) clinic at the City University of New York School of Law.
“This is not the first or the last time the federal government has utilized coordinated attacks on Black activists as a means to suppress our right to protest,” Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for M4BL, said in a statement. “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.”
In response to concerns about the use of federal criminal charges against those who took to the nation’s streets last year to denounce police violence and racial oppression, researchers at CLEAR analyzed the 326 criminal cases filed by U.S. federal prosecutors over alleged conduct that occurred at demonstrations between May 31 ans October 25, 2020.
Titled Struggle for Power: The Ongoing Persecution of Black Movement by the Federal Government, the report’s key findings include:
- 92.6% of the cases could have been charged under equivalent state or local law;
- The federal penalties for 88% of cases were clearly harsher;
- 72 cases (22.1%) involved charges with mandatory minimum sentences; and
- While demographic breakdowns were only available for 89 of the 326 criminal cases, 52% of the defendants identify as Black, and of the Black defendants, 91% are male.
Princess Masilungan of CLEAR said in a statement that “the findings only confirm what Black organizers and movement leaders already understood: The federalization of protest-related charges was a deliberate and cynical effort to target and discourage those who protested in defense of Black lives.”
According to the report, senior federal officials promoted anti-BLM propaganda and portrayed protestors as “violent radicals” in order to justify the unilateral deployment of federal agents, who brutally suppressed racial justice demonstrations.
The decision to charge hundreds of activists with inflated federal indictments for conduct that typically would have been prosecuted in state courts, if at all, “stemmed from top-down directives from former President Donald J. Trump and former Attorney General William Barr,” the report says.
Ramzi Kassem, founding director of CLEAR and a law professor at the City University of New York, told the Associated Press that Barr went “overnight… from expressing some level of sympathy for racial justice protesters to labeling them as radical and violent agitators with absolutely no basis for that sort of characterization.”
Federal criminal charges typically carry longer sentences than state charges, and they come with higher conviction rates, meaning that the number of prisoners caught up in the nation’s massive carceral system is likely to increase as a result of the federal government’s crackdown on last year’s civil rights mobilizations—a point stressed by Masilungan.
“Everyday 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,” she said. “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.”
State repression of progressive social movements has a long history in the U.S., and the authors note that “the empirical data and findings in this report largely corroborate what Black organizers have long known intuitively and from lived experience about the government’s disparate policing and prosecution of racial justice protests and related activity.”
The report contrasts the police and prosecutorial mistreatment of those who marched for racial justice with law enforcement’s light-handed response to those who demonstrated against Covid-19 precautions. Unlike anti-police brutality protesters, who were greeted with force, individuals at anti-public health rallies were allowed to freely exercise their civil liberties.
Of the 326 criminal cases they analyzed, CLEAR found 20 in which the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) was involved. The report states that the federal government “greatly exaggerated” the threat of violence from racial justice demonstrators, and authorities accused peaceful protesters of looting and rioting.
In addition to documenting how federal agents “deliberately targeted” Black Lives Matter activists last year to deter people from participating in racial justice protests, the report points to COINTELPRO and other iterations of the federal government’s use of surveillance, criminalization, and assassination to undermine the pursuit of racial and economic equality.
M4BL and CLEAR called on congressional lawmakers to take immediate action to prevent further repression.
In the wake of the federal government’s clampdown on last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, GOP lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 bills this year to stifle dissent and criminalize people who demonstrate against police violence, fossil fuel pipelines, and other injustices.
So far, punitive and discriminatory anti-protest laws, which in some cases absolve motorists who run over demonstrators, have been passed in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
In light of the report’s findings, M4BL and CLEAR are demanding that the Biden administration and members of Congress provide amnesty and compensation for all prisoners involved in last year’s protests, pass the BREATHE Act to reallocate funding toward more humane forms of public safety, and abolish the JTTF.
“As the findings in this report are taken into consideration, I urge activists and allies across the nation to be emboldened by the fact that despite repeated attacks, our movement is making progress,” said Enyia. “In the face of fascism, we refuse to relent but rather, we will continue to push and build the power of Black organizing.”
This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)