By Julietta Bisharyan
WASHINGTON – A report written by the Associated Press strongly suggests that the majority of people arrested during nationwide protests against racial injustice were not violent urban left-wing radicals, as President Donald Trump claims, but rather suburban adults from the neighborhoods that Trump vows to protect from the violence in his reelection campaign.
A review of thousands of court document pages reveal that only a few of those charged appear to be affiliated with highly organized extremist groups.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr has called his prosecutors to place federal charges on protestors who caused violence, suggesting that rarely used sedition charges could be applied. Likewise, the Department of Justice has pushed for detention despite the risks of incarceration during a pandemic and with prisons already releasing those at high-risk of COVID-19.
Defense attorneys and civil rights activists across the nation have questioned why the Department of Justice has taken on these cases to begin with, when most belong in state court, where defendants would get lighter sentences, even if convicted. Some argue that it is being done to discourage future demonstrations.
“It is highly unusual, and without precedent in recent American history,” said Ron Kuby, a longtime attorney who has represented clients over the decades in protest-related incidents. “Almost all of the conduct that’s being charged is conduct that, when it occurs, is prosecuted at the state and local level.”
In one case in Utah, regarding a police car burning, prosecutors had to defend why they were bringing arson charges in federal court. Their reasoning was that the patrol car was used in interstate commerce.
Out of over 300 arrested, there are about 286 defendants; others have had their charges dropped.
Those who have been arrested range anywhere from far-leftists with anti-government views to far-right protestors. Some have been accused of using the protests as an opportunity to commit crime.
Still, many have had no criminal records or ties with antifa, an anti-fascist protest movement opposed to fascism and other forms of extreme right-wing ideology, that Trump has repeatedly called a terrorist organization.
“I know about antifa, and I know about the radical left, and I know how violent they are and how vicious they are, and I know how they are burning down cities run by Democrats,” Trump said at his NBC town hall.
Although a vast, vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, Trump has cast the protests as violent and lawless, asserting that the federal government must step in to stymie the chaos.
In many of the cases, the government has tried to keep protestors behind bars as they await their trials during the pandemic. According to a tracker compiled by the AP and The Marshall Project, there have been more than 16,000 positive cases in the federal prison system.
In certain cases, prosecutors have even appealed judge’s orders to release defendants, when pre-trial detention is generally reserved only for those who pose threat to the community or are at risk of fleeing.
And while some defendants do hold radical or anti-government beliefs, prosecutors have provided little evidence of any affiliations they have with organized extremist groups.
Out of the thousands of pages of court documents, the only mention of antifa is in a case from Boston in which authorities state that an FBI Gang Task Force member was investigating “suspected ANTIFA activity associated with the protests” when a man fired at him and other officers. Authorities have not confirmed whether or not the man accused of firing the shots is a member of antifa.
Over 40 percent of those facing federal charges are white. Most are men and more than two-thirds are under the age of 30. More than a quarter have been charged with arson. More than a dozen are accused of civil disorder, and others are charged with burglary and failing to comply with a federal order.
“If you really want to address these issues, and we stand in solidarity with you, address them in Royal Oak … address them in Dearborn, address them in Grosse Point,” Rev. Wendell Anthony of the NAACP said in May. “Don’t come down to Detroit and tear the city up and then go back home. That’s putting another knee on the neck of Black folk because we got to live here.”
According to court documents, three of the men arrested are far-right extremists, members of the “Boogaloo” movement plotting to overthrow the government. They had been stockpiling military-grade weapons and hunting for the right public event to unleash violence for weeks before George Floyd’s death.
“There was a tremendous amount of anger and unrest and activity that was objectively unlawful,” Kuby said. “There were objections about law enforcement being militarized, but you didn’t see following the quelling of those demonstrations any significant federal law enforcement involvement.”
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