Washington • President Donald Trump portrays the hundreds of people arrested nationwide in protests against racial injustice as violent urban left-wing radicals. But an Associated Press review of thousands of pages of court documents tell a different story.
Very few of those charged appear to be affiliated with highly organized extremist groups, and many are young suburban adults from the very neighborhoods Trump vows to protect from the violence in his reelection push to win support from the suburbs.
Attorney General William Barr has urged his prosecutors to bring federal charges on protesters who cause violence and has suggested that rarely used sedition charges could apply. And the Department of Justice has pushed for detention even as prisons across the U.S. were releasing high-risk inmates because of COVID-19 and prosecutors had been told to consider the risks of incarceration during a pandemic when seeking detention.
Defense attorneys and civil rights activists are questioning why the Department of Justice has taken on cases to begin with. They say most belong in state court, where defendants typically get much lighter sentences. And they argue federal authorities appear to be cracking down on protesters in an effort to stymie demonstrations.
“It is highly unusual, and without precedent in recent American history,” said Ron Kuby, a longtime attorney who isn’t involved in the cases but has represented scores of clients over the years 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, where a police car was burned, federal prosecutors had to defend why they were bringing arson charges in federal court. They said it was appropriate because the patrol car was used in interstate commerce.
Not to say there hasn’t been violence. Other police cars have been set on fire. Officers have been injured and blinded. Windows have been smashed, stores looted, businesses destroyed.
Some of those facing charges undoubtedly share far-left and anti-government views. Far-right protesters also have been arrested and charged. Some defendants have driven to protests from out of state. Some have criminal records and were illegally carrying weapons. Others are accused of using the protests as an opportunity to steal or create havoc.
But many have had no previous run-ins with the law and no apparent ties to antifa, the umbrella term for leftist militant groups that Trump has said he wants to declare a terrorist organization.
Even though most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, Trump has made “law and order” a major part of his reelection campaign, casting the protests as lawless and violent in mostly Democratic cities he says have done nothing to stymie the mayhem. If the cities refuse to properly clamp down, he says, the federal government has to step in.
“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 an NBC town hall.
In thousands of pages of court documents, the only apparent mention of antifa is in a Boston case in which authorities said a 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 claimed that the man accused of firing the shots is a member of antifa.
Others have social media leftist ties; a Seattle man who expressed anarchist beliefs on social media is accused of sending a message through a Portland citizen communication portal threatening to blow up a police precinct.
Several of the defendants are not from the Democratic-led cities that Trump has likened to “war zones” but from the suburbs the Republican president has claimed to have “saved.” Of the 93 people arrested on federal criminal charges in Portland, 18 defendants are from out of state, the Justice Department said.
More than 40% of those facing federal charges are white. At least 1/3 are Black, and about 6% Hispanic. More than two-thirds are under the age of 30 and most are men. More than a quarter have been charged with arson, which if convicted means a five-year minimum prison sentence. More than a dozen are accused of civil disorder, and others are charged with burglary and failing to comply with a federal order.
Richer reported from Boston.