The federal government deliberately targeted Black Lives Matter protesters via heavy-handed criminal prosecutions in an attempt to disrupt and discourage the global movement that swept the nation and beyond last summer after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, according to a new report.
Movement leaders and experts said the prosecution of protesters over the past year continued a century-long practice by the federal government, rooted in structural racism, to suppress Black social movements via the use of surveillance tactics and other mechanisms.
The report was released by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 activism and advocacy civil rights groups and professional associations representing Black communities and published in partnership with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (Clear) clinic at City University of New York (Cuny) School of Law.
“The empirical data and findings in this report largely corroborate what Black organizers 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 stated.
The report, which was first shared with the Associated Press, argues that as the uprisings in the summer of 2020 increased, so did police presence, the deployment of federal agents and prosecution of protesters.
Titled Struggle For Power: The Ongoing Persecution of Black Movement By The US Government, the report details how policing has been used historically as a major tool to deter Black people from engaging in their right to protest, and to weaken efforts to draw attention to issues affecting Black Americans.
It also draws a comparison to how the government used counter-intelligence program techniques to “disrupt the work of the Black Panther Party and other organizations fighting for Black liberation”.
“We want to really show how the US government has continued to persecute the Black movement by surveillance, by criminalizing protests, and by using the criminal legal system to prevent people from protesting and punishing them for being engaged in protests by attempting to curtail their first amendment rights,” said Amara Enyia, the Movement for Black Lives’ policy research coordinator.
“It is undeniable that racism plays a role,“ Enyia said. “It is structurally built into the fabric of this country and its institutions, which is why it’s been so difficult to eradicate. It’s based on institutions that were designed around racism and around the devaluing of Black people and the devaluing of Black lives.”
In the report, the Movement for Black Lives calls for amnesty for all protesters involved in the nationwide protests.
The group, also known as M4BL, is demanding reparations from the government that include an acknowledgment and an apology for the long history of targeting movements “in support of Black life and Black liberation”.
It also is pushing for passage of the Breathe Act, proposed federal legislation that would radically transform the country’s criminal justice system, and ending the use of joint terrorism taskforces in local communities.
The report also points to the stark difference in how the government handled the Covid-19 protests against local government shutdowns and mask mandates amid the pandemic during the same period.
It analyzes 326 criminal cases initiated by US federal prosecutors over alleged conduct related to protests in the wake of Floyd’s murder and the police killings of other Black Americans, from31 May 2020 to 25 October 2020.
A key finding of the report is that the push to use federal charges against protesters came from top-down directives from Donald Trump and the former attorney general William Barr.
M4BL and Clear found that in 92.6% of the cases, there were equivalent state-level charges that could have been brought against defendants, mostly with less severe potential sentences.
“We saw Barr overnight go 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,” said Ramzi Kassem, founding director of Clear and a law professor at CUNY, adding that it was “very transparently aimed at disrupting a Black-led movement for social justice that was happening both spontaneously and in an organized fashion nationwide”.
Race data was only available for 27%, or 89, of the defendants. Of that number, 52% were identified as Black. Of the Black defendants, 91% were identified as male.
Portland, Oregon, led in the number of charges brought for protest-related activity, making up 29% of federal charges. Chicago, Las Vegas, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis followed.