The protests and uprisings in defense of Black lives that spread like wildfire last summer after police killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people were extraordinary demonstrations of public outrage and Black-led organizing. As it has done throughout the nation’s history, the federal government responded to Black resistance with repression and state violence.
The Trump administration used federal police and courts to deliberately target supporters of the movement for Black lives in order to “disrupt and discourage” Black organizing and freedom movements, according to a new report by Movement for Black Lives and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) clinic at the City University of New York School of Law. The report examines 326 criminal cases arising from Black Lives Matter protests in September and October of 2020, when federal charges were brought against protesters in multiple cities.
To delegitimize and disrupt the uprisings while taking control of the streets in local communities, the report concludes, the federal government spread anti-BLM propaganda and cast protesters as outside agitators, “violent radicals” and even domestic terrorists. Federal police were deployed across the country, and protesters were charged with federal crimes, allowing prosecutors to pursue tougher penalties than state or local law would allow.
Of the criminal cases against protesters examined by the report, 92 percent could have been charged under an equivalent state or local law, but the federal penalties in 88 percent of these cases were “clearly harsher,” according to the report. The crackdown resulted in “stacked” and trumped-up charges against organizers and activists, with many facing years in prison without the possibility of parole.
At the same time, President Trump defended and even encouraged largely white crowds to gather for angry anti-lockdown protests, which were exploited by far-right extremists and inspired actual plots to detonate bombs and commit other acts of terrorism.
“The findings only confirm what Black organizers and movement leaders already understood: The federalization of protest-related charges was a deliberate and cynical effort to target and discourage those who protested in defense of Black lives,” said Princess Masilungan, a staff attorney at CLEAR, in a statement.
The report, titled “Struggle For Power: The Ongoing Persecution of Black Movement By The U.S. Government,” puts the federal crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters in a historical context that was often missing from mainstream media coverage of the 2020 uprisings. Black power and resistance have always threatened the government’s economic interests and the social order that upholds white supremacy. For more than a century, the federal government has either dismissed or attempted to suppress Black social movements in order to “control Black mobility and quell collective action and power,” according to the report.
The report continues: “Throughout history, when Black social movements attract the nation’s or the world’s attention or fight our way onto the nation’s political agenda, we’re disparaged, cast as villains in the story of American prosperity, persecuted, and forced to defend ourselves and our communities against police, anti-Black policymakers, and U.S. armed forces.”
For example, in the 1960s, the FBI infiltrated the civil rights and Black power movements, putting activists and leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Angela Davis under heavy surveillance. In 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which organized youth and community services in Black neighborhoods, a grave threat to “internal security.” Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton was targeted by the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO domestic spy program before Chicago police raided Hampton’s home and murdered him in December 1969.
The report notes that in 1910, two years after the FBI was established, the agency refused to investigate a wave of lynching across the South and said it had “no authority” to protect the civil rights of Black citizens.
“Historically, Black protestors have more often than not been met with governmental oppression and accompanying police violence as a result of our unwillingness to accept the systemic disregard for and mistreatment of Black lives,” said Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, in a statement.
History repeated itself in 2020 as millions of people mobilized for the largest mass movement against police violence in U.S. history. The protests began after Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in late May 2020. The uprising soon spread across the world, bringing global attention to systemic racism in the U.S. and amplifying abolitionist calls to defund and abolish the police and redirect tax dollars back to communities.
Clashes with police made national news, as did instances of property damage, which proponents of Black liberation argued should be expected, as people who are systematically denied political agency will rise up against a racist system that has robbed them for centuries. (Remember, the protests were against the police, and it was the police who were called to subdue them.) In most cases, there were conflicting accounts of who and what caused tensions to escalate as police in riot gear unloaded rubber bullets and tear gas on demonstrators. In Minneapolis, Louisville, New York City, and beyond, protesters and activists defended their neighborhoods from police violence.
Federal officials initially struck a sympathetic tone toward the protests, the report notes, but as demonstrations grew in size and intensity, Trump and his administration seized on an opportunity to divide and crush perceived opponents. Trump threatened state-sanctioned murder in response to “looting,” and with help from his Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department, the administration quickly began characterizing the protests as being taken over by “anarchists,” “antifa” and domestic terrorists.
Meanwhile, the media continued to focus on isolated instances of property destruction and clashes between protesters and police, while largely ignoring the mutual aid and community organizing that was flourishing due to the demonstrations.
Not only did the Trump administration’s framing attempt to de-legitimize a movement led by Black activists, but it also helped justify a federal crackdown that in turn reinforced the Trump administration’s narratives about “outside agitators” and “anarchist cities.” However, of the dozens of criminal complaints examined by the report that described the defendant’s political affiliations, only one recounted that the defendant self-identified as an anarchist.
The report identified more than a dozen counter-protesters charged with federal crimes who are connected to far right paramilitary and white nationalist groups, including an individual who called-in bomb threats to pro-BLM and Black churches.