By Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
Related: What is antifa? An ideology, not a group, testifies FBI director Wray
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 dozens of cases, the government has pushed to keep the protesters behind bars while they await their trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 people across the U.S. There have been more than 16,000 positive cases in the federal prison system, according to a tracker compiled by the AP and The Marshall Project.
In some cases, prosecutors have gone so far as appealing judge’s orders to release defendants. Pre-trial detention generally is reserved only for people who are clearly dangers to the community or a risk of fleeing.
In Texas, Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin repeatedly challenged the prosecutor to explain why Cyril Lartigue, who authorities say was caught on camera making a Molotov cocktail, should be behind bars while he awaits his trial. Lartigue, of Cedar Park, described his actions that night as a “flash of stupidity,” prosecutors said.
The 25-year-old lives with his parents in the Austin suburb and had never been in trouble with the law before and wasn’t a member of a violent group.
The judge said there are lot of people “who do something stupid that’s dangerous that we don’t even consider detaining.”
“I’m frustrated because I don’t think this is a hard case,” the judge said. “I have defendants in here with significant criminal histories that the government agrees to release.”