Black Live Matter

Felony charges against BLM protesters are 'suppression tactic'

A Salt Lake county sheriff walks in front of the district attorney’s office in Salt Lake City that was spattered with paint by Black Lives Matter protesters


Kevin Alfaro was at a Black Lives Matter protest in Nutley, New Jersey, when his ordeal began. The anti-racism demonstration, prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, was met by a group of mostly white counter-protesters, some chanting “all lives matter”, and Alfaro felt the police were treating the rightwing crowd favorably.

In a climate where anti-racism protesters have been met with violence from police, Alfaro took a photo of one officer, and posted it to Twitter. “If anyone knows who this bitch is, throw his info under this tweet,” Alfaro wrote.

The post, on 26 June, garnered few retweets, and Alfaro, 21, thought nothing more of it – until a month later, when a letter arrived at his home.

Alfaro had been charged with cyber-harassment, a fourth-degree felony, and a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to 18 months.

It fit a pattern. Since protests against racism and police brutality began protesters across the country have been hit with punitive, felony charges for acts of civil disobedience, in what civil rights experts say is a “suppression tactic” aimed at quashing the anti-racism movement.

In New York City, a man was charged after allegedly shouting through a loudspeaker in a police officer’s ear. In Miami, an activist was hit with a strong-arm robbery charge after being accused of stealing pro-Donald Trump flags. Perhaps the most egregious case is in Utah, where a group faces up to life in prison after allegedly throwing paint on a building.

“The only thing that’s in your mind is fear,” Alfaro said. “I saw I was facing up to 18 months in jail, thousands of dollars in fines. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. It’s a lot of confusion and a lot of fear.”

Four people who retweeted Alfaro were also charged. The Essex county prosecutor’s office dismissed the charges at the beginning of August – Alfaro only found out he was in the clear when a friend sent him a news article – but others have not been as lucky.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, police say Madalena McNeil bought red paint at a Home Depot before she and three other activists threw it on a district attorney’s office, and broke windows, during a 9 July protest.

The group was charged with felony criminal mischief and riot charges, and prosecutors added a “charging enhancement” claiming the protesters operated as a gang. That means the group could face life in prison.

“It’s using maximum leverage against protesters who, at the very heart of it, are protesting the government murdering a community member,” said Jason Groth, Smart justice attorney at the ACLU of Utah.

“To take that context and then to charge someone with life in prison for purchasing or spreading paint, or even breaking windows, it doesn’t really promote this idea of justice in the community.”

Groth said it was common for prosecutors to “overcharge” to deter people from going to trial. It could also deter others from protesting.

“There’s a chilling effect, where generally people are less inclined to exercise rights [to protest] because there’s a perceived danger of exercising that.”

Over a two-and-a-half-week period from the end of May until mid-June, more than 14,000 people were arrested in the US during protest-related events, according to a Washington Post analysis. While there is no national database to examine the basis for each arrest, it is clear that some are facing felony charges.

The severity of some of the punishment, and the potential infringement of first amendment rights to free speech, matches some charges protesters faced during the demonstrations in Ferguson, following the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, and over the course of Occupy Wall Street protests, which swept the US at the beginning of the last decade.

“It’s an attack on freedom of speech,” said Derrick Ingram, a prominent Black Lives Matter protester in New York City and a member of the Warriors in the Garden activist group.

Ingram was charged with felony assault in the second degree in June, after he allegedly shouted in a police officer’s ear with a loudspeaker at a protest. The charge carries up to seven years in prison.

Two months after the alleged incident, on 7 August, police arrived at Ingram’s apartment, without a warrant to enter the home, to arrest him. When Ingram refused to let officers enter, an hours-long saga ensued, as two dozen police vehicles blocked Ingram’s street while a police helicopter hovered overhead.

From his apartment Ingram live-streamed the situation on Instagram, before turning himself in to police. After the Manhattan district attorney intervened, the felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.

“I think it’s an act of intimidation,” Ingram said of the felony charges he and other protesters have faced. “It’s an act to silence a movement that has become stronger and stronger. I think people of color have come together on a centralized message and it’s scaring people in power.”

He added: “It’s to silence us and disenfranchise us politically. A lot of these individuals that may be charged with felonies will no longer be able to be as politically active or able to vote.”

This isn’t a new tactic.

Amid civil unrest in Ferguson following the police killing of Michael Brown, Josh Williams, then 18, was arrested for stealing a bag of potato chips and setting fire to a trash can.

Williams was charged with offenses including first-degree arson and second-degree burglary, and prosecutors pushed for a 15-year sentence, despite Williams having no criminal record. In December 2015 he was sentenced to eight years in prison, where he remains today.

​“We’ve seen this happen all the way back to the Black Panthers and people like that who have spent decades as political prisoners,” said Justin Hansford, founder of the Thurgood Marshall civil rights center at Howard University, who was arrested himself at a protest in Ferguson.

“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the charges are political.”

Whether or not a protester is charged may also depend on what they are protesting about.

Hansford said the harsh charges for anti-racism protesters amounted to “suppression tactics”, and pointed to the mostly white, frequently rightwing, often armed groups who demonstrated outside statehouses in April to protest against lockdown orders.

“Prosecutors were not filing charges against these people even though they were clearly flouting all sorts of different regulations. And police were not arresting those people,” Hansford said.

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