Story at a glance
- This summer was marked by historic nationwide protests against racially charged police violence.
- In the first two weeks of Black Lives Matter protests more than 17,000 protesters were arrested, largely for nonviolent crimes such as curfew violation.
- Some protesters are still dealing with the aftermath of their arrests, charged with hefty sentences or the threat of deportation.
- Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza says “movements are not just about protests.” Black Americans flock to the polls in historic numbers.
The death of George Floyd this May set into course a historic summer of protest for the Black Lives Matter movement, with millions of Americans marching in towns and cities across the country in protest of racial discrimination and police brutality.
Both the demonstrations and their coverage were intensely polarizing, and despite most Black Lives Matter protests having been overwhelmingly nonviolent, some violence and property destruction took place, and law enforcement in many areas responded with force. Tens of thousands of demonstrators and activists were arrested, and hundreds hit with more serious charges by federal and local prosecutors.
According to a Washington Post review of data on more than 2,600 people detained in 15 cities, those arrested over the course of the past five months were “a diverse, young group of people who demonstrated close to home and were charged largely with nonviolent crimes.”
A country divided
With the presidential election just a few days away, it’s difficult to fathom the events Americans have endured this year but equally impossible to negate the progress that has been made. Just last week Kristen Welker, the second black woman to moderate a general presidential debate, asked Democratic nominee Joe Biden about “the talk” that each Black and Brown parent has with their child — warning them how to minimize their chance of encountering violence with police.
The incumbent, President Trump, has warned voters about Black Lives Matter, anti-fascists and extremist “far left” groups in the lead up to the election. He has called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.”
“Mr. President, you’ve described the Black Lives Matter movement as a symbol of hate,” President Trump was asked by Welker. “You shared a video of a man chanting ‘white power’ to millions of your supporters. You’ve said that Black professional athletes exercising their First Amendment rights should be fired. What do you say to Americans who say that that kind of language, from a president, is contributing to a climate of hate, and racial strife?”
President Trump answered: “You have to understand, the first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, they were chanting, ‘Pigs in a blanket,’ talking about police.”
“That was my first glimpse of Black Lives Matter. I thought it was a terrible thing.”
Despite claims by President Trump and other officials that protesters were predominantly out-of-town agitators and rioters, a report by the U.S. Crisis Monitor shows that demonstrators did not engage in violence or destructive activity in more than 93 percent of the more than 7,750 demonstrations across thousands of locations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia between May 26 and late August.
Yet, in the first two weeks of protests, police arrested more than 17,000 people in the 50 largest cities that had organized them according to the Washington Post — the largest wave of civil unrest and arrests in the United States since the Vietnam War. Now, the protesters who were arrested this summer are speaking out, many wondering why they were picked up in the first place. The details of those arrests are not available in most cities.
In Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed, local police arrested 570 people in the ensuing protests — nearly 90 percent of them from the metro area, with the vast majority being charged with curfew violations. Now, according to city and county prosecutors, all but 44 cases have been dropped.
The vast majority of Black Lives Matter-related demonstrations this year have not involved damage to property, despite the moniker they’ve been given by officials as “looters.” Physical force at protests, it has since been discovered, has often come from militarized police units, and a newly released Homeland Threat Assessment reveals that the FBI still regards white supremacists and far-right groups as the most lethal domestic terror threat.
Still, federal prosecutors have doubled down on cases involving Black Lives Matter protesters, filing more than 300 felony cases related to protests from the end of May through October, according to The Prosecution Project, a research group that tracks political violence. Of those cases, roughly 30 percent are in Oregon, 9 percent in New York, 7 percent in Pennsylvania and 6 percent in Minnesota, but there are cases in at least 25 other states. The most common felony allegations include arson, illegal firearm possession, rioting and interfering with officers.
Some protesters now face multiple charges and threats of life sentences, according to the Guardian, while others have been charged with the assault of police officers despite a lack of evidence of violence and no reports of injuries. Some arrested protesters have been transferred to immigration authorities where they’ve been threatened with deportation.
One man who was arrested in Arizona for “unlawful assembly” was jailed without bond because of outstanding charges from previous demonstrations, his bond later set at $100,000. It was only after the man, Lee Percy Christian III, legally agreed to “no public protests” that his bond was drastically lowered to $1,000. Christian said that while “it hurts” and that he didn’t want to give up his rights, he also doesn’t want to risk his life. “My goal is not to end up in prison because of this movement. My goal is to see change – and I can do that better if I’m not on the inside.”
Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Movement, recently emphasized the importance of exercising one’s right to vote as a means to drive forward the movement during an episode of “Democracy Now!“
“…The only way that that shifts is by Black people and other communities — right? — getting organized and using their vote as a form of protest, using their vote as a form of being able to exercise power…I think that could actually shift in this election cycle. With a massive turnout, it really shows what the mandates are for the future of this nation.”
“Movements are not just about protests,” she added. “Movements are absolutely about how we get more power into the hands of more people.”
Flocking to the polls
With election day just around the corner Black voters have been rushing to the polls at higher rates than they did four years ago, with more than 601,000 Black Americans voting early in Georgia compared to the less than 300,000 from the same date in 2016 according to data company Catalist. In Maryland, about 200,000 had voted compared with less than 19,000 in 2016, and California had more than 300,000 — triple what it had two weeks before the election four years ago.
“For African Americans in this country, voting is the most effective way for us to effect the change we seek,” Nolan Williams Jr., a playwright and Washington, DC resident, told CNN. “Given the events of this summer, it is crucial for our community to translate our social protests into political action.”
“Health care, fair housing, including equal access to home loans, poverty, the environment, meaningful reforms to our justice system, and improvements in community policing are all issues that make this election uber critical,” he said.