(Headline USA) In a private call with federal prosecutors across the country, Attorney General William Barr’s message was clear: Aggressively go after violent rioters.
Barr pushed his U.S. attorneys to bring federal charges whenever they could, keeping a grip on cases even if a defendant could be tried instead in state court, according to officials The Associated Press says were on the call and spoke on condition of anonymity. Federal convictions often result in longer prison sentences.
The Trump administration’s crackdown has already led to more than 300 arrests on federal crimes in the protests that erupted following the death of George Floyd, after many cities with liberal district attorneys continue to re-release subjects to destroy over and over again.
An AP analysis of the data shows that many are accused of violent crimes like arson for hurling Molotov cocktails and burning police cars and assault for injuring law enforcement.
“The speed at which this whole thing was moved from state court to federal court is stunning and unbelievable,” said Charles Sunwabe, who’s representing an Erie, Pennsylvania, man accused of lighting a fire at a coffee shop after a May 30 protest. “It’s an attempt to intimidate these demonstrators and to silence them.”
The Trump administration has seized on the riots and an aggressive federal response to showcase what the president says is his law-and-order prowess, countering rising crime in cities run by Democrats.
Violence has indeed popped up in cities across the U.S., including Portland, Oregon, where clashes with law enforcement have lasted for weeks on end. Nights of looting and other unrest have occurred in other cities, including Rochester, New York; Minneapolis, Louisville, Washington, and Chicago.
Federal officials were also called into to Kenosha, Wisconsin, after widespread riots followed the shooting of Jacob Blake.
While Barr has gone after protest-related violence targeted at law enforcement, he has argued there’s seldom reason to open sweeping investigations into the practices of police departments. The Justice Department, however, has opened a number of civil rights investigations into individual cases. Barr has said he does not believe there is systemic racism in police departments.
Federal involvement in local cases is nothing new. Officials across the country have turned to the Justice Department for decades, particularly for violent crime and gang cases where offenders could face much stiffer federal penalties and there is no parole.
Police chiefs in several cities have pointed to the importance of their relationships with federal prosecutors to bring charges that can result in long prison sentences to drive down violent crime.
Even before the unrest earlier this year, the Justice Department was stepping in to bring charges in states where the government believes justice isn’t being fully pursued by local prosecutors. In January, for example, the department brought federal hate crime charges against a woman accused of slapping three Orthodox Jewish women in one of several apparently anti-Semitic attacks reported throughout New York during Hanukkah.
Most local prosecutors run by Democrat administrations have dismissed dozens of riot arrests, but earlier this week a Pennsylvania judge set bail at $1 million for about a dozen people in a Lancaster protest that followed the death of a knife-wielding man who charged at police.
Even some Democrats, including District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, have called for the Justice Department to pursue federal charges, going as far as accusing the Trump administration of declining to prosecute rioters. Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department had arrested 42 people one August weekend after a protest left a trail of vandalism. But prosecutors said the arrest paperwork didn’t identify specific crimes tied to each suspect.
The federal confrontation with Bowser seemed counterintuitive, though Trump has a history of squaring off against the Democratic mayor.
About a third of the federal riot-related cases are in Portland, for crimes such as assaulting a deputy U.S. marshal with a baseball bat, setting fires and setting off explosives at the federal courthouse and throwing rocks at officers.
Three purported “Boogaloo” members, who use the loose movement’s name as a slang term for a second civil war or collapse of civilization, were charged with possessing a homemade bomb and inciting a riot in Las Vegas.
An El Paso, Texas, man was accused of promoting hate speech, posting a video online with a racist epithet and making threatening comments to Black Lives Matter protesters while holding a military-style rifle at his feet. A Minnesota man was accused of helping burn down a police precinct headquarters there after Floyd’s death.
But other cases simply don’t belong in federal court, lawyers say.
In Seattle, 35-year-old Isaiah Willoughby, who’s accused of setting fire to the outside of a police precinct, faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison if convicted of arson in federal court. He could be looking at around a year behind bars in state court, where his lawyer said the case belongs.
“This is city property that has been destroyed and you have a local prosecutors office that is ready and willing and able to charge these cases in state court, but the federal government is attempting to emphasize these protest-related crimes for whatever agenda they are seeking to pursue,” said assistant federal public defender Dennis Carroll.
Carroll accused federal authorities of using the cases to try to make the protests seem more violent and disruptive than they really were.
Adapted from reporting by Associated Press.