Protesters in Multiple States Are Facing Felony Charges, Including Terrorism

Some states have recently increased the severity of criminal penalties for protesters along political lines.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/07/15: BLM protester arrested by police at the Jericho The Power of Prayer rally and march against gun violence on Brooklyn Bridge. Pro-police clergy and law enforcement led rally started in Brooklyn at Cadman Plaza and concluded at City Hall. Protesters from Black Lives Matter interrupted peaceful rally first on Brooklyn Bridge and at City Hall. Many of them were arrested for disorderly conduct. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A protester arrested by police at the Jericho ”The Power of Prayer” rally and march against gun violence on Brooklyn Bridge on July 15, 2020. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

Prosecutors and lawmakers in several states have responded to mass protests against police brutality by charging demonstrators with committing felonies, including terrorism charges. The trend of criminalizing protest has been on the uptick since the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, during and after which numerous states upped charges for protests “near critical infrastructure” as felonies. 

Since 2016, 14 states have enacted new laws to restrict the right to peaceful assembly, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks related state and federal legislation. But in the wake of the nationwide movement in support of Black lives, numerous states have increased the severity of criminal penalties for protesters along political lines and are prosecuting them more aggressively, as demonstrations continue with no sign of slowing down. 

Just last week, following more than 60 days of demonstrations outside the State Capitol, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a law that made it a felony to participate in some types of protests, including camping out overnight on state property. Charges for the same activity were previously classified as a misdemeanor. In Tennessee, people convicted of felonies lose their voting rights — making the new law a tool for disenfranchisement. 

Earlier this month, police in Muscatine, Iowa, apprehended two people they say were attempting to drive a vehicle into the city Public Safety Building and got stuck on a planter. They charged both men with numerous counts, including terrorism. That follows an Oklahoma district attorney’s pursuit of terrorism charges against five young people, including three teenagers and two people in their 20s. The fourth-term prosecutor also threw felony charges at numerous other people in relation to protests and damage to local and police property in late May. 

The terrorism charges reveal a “false equivalency between people who kill, and people who commit acts of property damage,” said Kate Chatfield, policy director at the Justice Collaborative, a policy and media organization focused on mass criminalization and incarceration. “Maybe not a great thing.” 

“To say that the power of the state will be wielded in this way against political enemies is incredibly frightening,” Chatfield said, drawing a parallel to the post-9/11 era, when many people who had never committed an act of violence were prosecuted for terrorism. “Let’s not ignore the fact that we have a history of this in this country. A very recent history. And a continuing history, unfortunately.”

The nationwide protests prompted by George Floyd’s killing have continued through the summer, though at a lower intensity over the last month — before picking back up this week. Streets across the country swelled with demonstrators after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake in the back seven times, in front of his children. Blake is paralyzed from the waist down, his father told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. Protesters burned down a state Department of Corrections building on Monday. The following night, armed white members of a militia group organized counterdemonstrations to protect local property. Video footage from Kenosha shows the militia members chatting with the police. Shortly after the video was captured, one member of the militia shot and killed two protesters, and left a third in serious condition. Police arrested 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse in Illinois on Wednesday and charged him with first-degree intentional homicide. 

“When you hear our president talk about Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization, or antifa as a terrorist organization, it is the kind of thing that — his statement holds no weight in law, but it sends a message to prosecutors like this that they’ll be supported,” said Thomas Harvey, justice project director at the Advancement Project, a non-profit civil rights group. “And even more frighteningly, I think it sends a message to people like the militia members we saw in Kenosha, and gives them the state and the latitude to commit even more violence than what we see on a daily basis in this country against black and brown folks.”

In some states where police have charged protesters en masse with felonies, prosecutors have swiftly dropped them, calling into question the reasoning behind the original charges. 

In Louisville, Kentucky, police arrested 87 protesters who had staged a sit-in on the lawn of a home belonging to state Attorney General Daniel Cameron last month — part of an ongoing call for accountability in the killing of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT whom three Louisville police officers shot at least eight times inside her home in March. (The officers were acting on a no-knock warrant in connection with a suspect who did not live at Taylor’s residence. The police department fired one of the three officers who were involved in June. Local activists including Louisville Black Lives Matter worked with Taylor’s family to develop a list of demands, including firing, charging, and convicting the three officers.) Three days later, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell dismissed the felony charges and said his office would consider misdemeanors and other violations for prosecution at a later date. On Tuesday, Louisville police arrested another 68 protesters and charged them with obstructing a highway and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors.

In some states where police have charged protesters en masse with felonies, prosecutors have swiftly dropped them, calling into question the reasoning behind the original charges.

Earlier this month in Washington, D.C., police arrested 41 protesters in the Adams Morgan neighborhood on charges of felony rioting and assaulting police officers. The Metropolitan Police Department said in a tweet on August 14 that it only arrested people “engaged in rioting behaviors.” Between May 30 and June 1, District police arrested more than 100 people on charges of burglary, destroying property, and violating curfew, including at least 40 charges of felony rioting. Prosecutors dropped most of the charges in both sets of arrests.

In Salt Lake City on Friday, a judge dropped possible life sentence charges facing protesters who poured paint, broke windows, and posted signs at the District Attorney’s Office building, reducing some charges to lower-class felonies and misdemeanors. In June, West Valley police and FBI agents arrested two men in Salt Lake who had allegedly threatened officers and were headed to protests armed with multiple weapons. Prosecutors later charged one man with terrorism. 

Also in early June, police officers in Columbia, South Carolina, arrested more than 80 protesters and charged three men with instigating a riot, typically a low-level felony or misdemeanor. 

Elected officials participating in the protest have also been caught in the crackdown. In Portsmouth, Virginia, on Monday, sheriff’s deputies delivered a summons charge to the vice mayor, after a resident pressed misdemeanor criminal charges against her for calling on the Portsmouth police chief to resign. Earlier this month, police brought felony charges against the Virginia State Senate pro tempore, a local school board member, local NAACP leaders, and public defenders for injury to a monument and conspiracy, in relation to the destruction of confederate statues in June.

Federal authorities have also carried out their own crackdown on demonstrations, arresting protesters in Portland, Oregon, and New York City in recent months. The FBI has opened some 300 domestic terrorism investigations since late May. Last year, according to the agency, most federal arrests for domestic terrorism involved white supremacy, though the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit has also investigated a fictional “black identity extremists” movement. The FBI has also quietly investigated white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement in recent years, The Intercept reported. 

Among the most serious recent charges against protesters are those of terrorism in Oklahoma.  There, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater charged three teenagers and two other people in their 20s with terrorism related to their alleged activity during protests in late May. 

“We found it especially inappropriate — and unconstitutional — because it was made with the explicit purpose of silencing protesters who are standing up for Black lives,” American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma Staff Attorney Megan Lambert told The Intercept, regarding the recent terrorism charges. “We didn’t even see terrorism charges for the Murrah bombing,” she added, referring to the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

The terrorism charges, which were filed in June and July, stem from allegations that protesters set fire to a sheriff’s van and caused damage to a local bail bond business. Last month, Prater charged two other teenagers with terrorism in connection to demonstrations at the end of May, bringing the total to five. The DA also charged multiple people with rioting, assaulting officers, and at least five others for incitement to riot for painting murals in the city’s downtown area in June. 

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chair Alicia Andrews, the ACLU of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City Black Lives Matter founder and Executive Director Rev. T. Sheri Dickerson slammed Prater’s move, saying that the charges of terrorism were far too harsh. During a press conference early last month, Andrews said she didn’t condone vandalism or destruction of property but that Prater was using the charges to silence protesters. “‘Use your First Amendment right in a way that we don’t like, and we will ruin your future.’ These charges are an attempt to send a message, ‘We’re tired of hearing about Black lives,’” she said. 

Prater took office in 2007 and is currently serving his fourth term as DA. His current term ends in 2023. He started his career in law enforcement at age 19 as a deputy sheriff, according to his bio. “These people are speaking out against violence that Prater himself has largely been complicit in,” Lambert said. “This is just another example in a pattern from David Prater’s office of upholding white supremacy.” Prater’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“Many of these charged protesters are young teenagers. … So they are facing spending their entire lives in prison simply for, in some cases, attending a protest to try and hold police accountable.”

Last May, Prater declined to charge officers who killed 17-year-old Isaiah Lewis, who was in the middle of a mental health crisis when police shot him in Edmond. Over the last few months, local activists have brought renewed attention to Lewis’s killing, which has been a focus of some demonstrations in the area. Other cases have gotten less attention, Dickerson pointed out. Derrick Scott, 42, died last May after being apprehended and restrained by Oklahoma City police. In video footage of the arrest released in June, Scott tells officers he can’t breathe and asks them repeatedly to give him his medicine. An officer replies, “I don’t care.” 

“The Scott family is not receiving any justice,” Dickerson said, adding that Scott’s killing was eerily similar to Floyd’s. Earlier this month, police shot 32-year-old James Harmon in the head, saying that he had a weapon in his hand (Oklahoma is an open-carry state). Harmon is still in the hospital. 

“Systemic racism, institutional racism, and white supremacy is so deep-rooted,” Dickerson said, agreeing with Lambert’s characterization of Prater’s office. “There’s really nothing more Oklahoman than that.” 

“This was a state that was formed basically for them to literally lump Natives and Blacks here together,” she said. “And so it has always been very intentional and deliberate, for us to be victims of what I consider state-sanctioned violence and state-targeted violence.”

For the Oklahoma City teens and young adults facing terror charges, “what’s next is they fight for their lives,” Lambert said. The statute carries a maximum of life in prison. “Many of these charged protesters are young teenagers. … So they are facing spending their entire lives in prison simply for, in some cases, attending a protest to try and hold police accountable.” Criminal defense attorneys are still working to get those charges dropped or significantly reduced.   

“Some of the young people were saying, ‘We should go to Kenosha and stand with the young people there,” Dickerson said. “And I was like, ‘How do you choose?’”

Correction:  Aug. 28, 2020
A previous version of this article referenced terrorism charges brought by the Oklahoma City prosecutor against environmental protesters in 2013. While police officers initially booked the protesters on such charges, the prosecutor declined to file them. The reference has been removed. 

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