After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year, the U.S. federal government worked to disrupt Black protest movements by spying on protesters and levying harsh federal charges as states pushed anti-protest legislation, according to a panel of experts convened by the Movement for Black Lives.
Amara Enyia is a policy research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, a national grassroots coalition of 150 Black organizations. Photo special to Black Iowa News.
“There are more than 80 pieces of legislation that were pushed in the last year to criminalize protests,” said Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a national grassroots coalition of 150 Black organizations. “So that coupled with the findings in this report, and the ongoing work that we have to do, shows why this is so absolutely critical.”
Iowa is one of eight states that increased penalties for protest-related crimes after Floyd's murder — a move some Iowa activists have said was in direct response to the Black-led protest movements that swept the state. Other states continue to work to pass similar laws. A judge last week blocked Florida’s “anti-riot” law. North Carolina is trying to pass a similar law.
Enyia, a lawyer and two organizers participated in the panel discussion, Struggle for Power, hosted by the M4BL. Enyia said it’s important to continue to push for amnesty for protesters, organize against anti-protest legislation and pass the BREATHE Act, a police reform bill, among other recommendations.
Princess Masilungan, a staff attorney at Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Clinic (CLEAR) in Queens, New York, helped write the report — Struggle for Power: The Ongoing Persecution of Black Movement by the Government. CLEAR is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law. The report looked at criminal cases from August-October 2020, and the role of the U.S. federal government in the movements that swept the country.
“The federal government literally overnight went from expressing sympathy after the murder of George Floyd to literally the next day condemning protesters,” Masilungan said. “And that's where we began to see the language, calling protesters agitators, calling them outsiders cultivating this idea or constructing this idea of Antifa as this big, bad boogeyman that just poses this grave threat to public safety.”
Efforts targeting protesters came "at the express direction of disgraced former President Donald Trump and disgraced former Attorney General William Barr who deliberately targeted supporters of the movement to defend Black lives in order to disrupt and discourage the movement," according to the report.
Masilungan presented three key findings from the report during the panel discussion.
- The federal government used a “very heavy handed and aggressive approach” in responding to the summer 2020 uprisings in support of Black lives, both in terms of its actions and also in terms of its rhetoric, she said.
- The federal government “went out of its way to deploy federal law enforcement against the protesters supporting the movement,” she said.
In some instances, state leaders had said: ‘No, we don't want this. No, we don't need your help,’” she said. “And so I think that's like a very pivotal difference to appreciate about the uprisings last summer compared to the response in previous uprisings.”
- The data from cases brought against protesters “strongly supports that all of this was very transparently aimed at disrupting the movement," she said.
Masilungan said of the 326 criminal cases analyzed, 92.6% percent had “equivalent state charges” that could have been brought against the defendants. In a majority of the cases, the federal criminal charges carried more severe potential penalties than the equivalent state criminal charges, she said.
“So I think that just that speaks for itself in terms of why it is that the federal government elected to bring these charges against the protesters when they could have just been charged at the state level,” she said.
Iowa City made the list analyzed, with one federal prosecution related to protests. Portland, Oregon, had 95.
Enyia said the government has a long history of using its power to surveil Black people who were considered radicals, nationalists and threats like in Cointelpro, which targeted Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. But the government sometimes took a “hands off” approach and deferred to the states when it came to mob action and the lynchings of Blacks, she said.
“But when it comes to Black folks engaging, utilizing their first amendment rights and engaging in protests to call out these injustices, all of a sudden it falls squarely in the hands of the federal government,” she said. “The context is really important for us as we think about what we need to do in our movements.”
Keedran Franklin, an organizer from Memphis, Tennessee, who works on social enterprises, discussed the issues he has faced while working for racial justice. After he took part in organized protests in 2016 that shut down a busy bridge, he was followed by law enforcement and often noticed unmarked cars. Then, the discovery of a blacklist containing names of organizers, documents and photos, led to a lawsuit, he said.
“There's certain things I just don't do. I don't show my son on social media,” he said. “It created this fear and paranoia."
Enyia said it is important for organizers to "connect the dots" between surveillance and the "federalizing of charges." She said Black people are disproportionately targeted for arrest and also receive harsher sentences.
“This is precisely what these sorts of activities and actions by the federal government are intended to do to create a chilling effect so that we don't exercise our rights to protest or to call attention to these oppressive systems," Enyia said.
Panelists discussed the hypocrisy in the treatment of Black protesters, compared to white rioters during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation's Capitol.
Makia Green, is co-conductor at Harriet's Wildest Dreams. The organization's work includes legal empowerment, political and civic education, mass protest, organizing campaigns and community care that builds alternatives to oppressive systems. Green said Black protesters in Washington, D.C. faced prosecutors “trying to put some charges that stick.” Some protesters were able to beat the enhanced charges eventually, but a lot of them are still battling charges from last year, she said.
“Because we are a Black movement, none of our protests are violence free because the police are there with guns,” Green said, during the Sept. 9 panel. “The police are there with weapons, and there's no such thing as a completely safe protest. And so we make sure that people truly under understand that.”
Read the report.
George Floyd Rally on May 30, 2020, in Des Moines. Cover photo by Black Iowa News.