Activists Denounce Heightened Federal Repression of Protesters under Biden and Trump

Cover photo: An unknown protester fearlessly confronts a DPS Trooper during the May Uprisings in Austin.

By Michael Nolan, David Martinez

The Biden administration continues to expand and intensify the federal government’s repression of protesters and activists fighting for progressive causes across the US. Activists have highlighted how these repressive efforts ramped up under Trump during the protests following the May Uprisings last year, and that since taking office Biden has only amplified the persecution of the people through the imperialist justice system.

The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a non-profit organization, released a report titled “Struggle for Power: The Ongoing Persecution of Black Movement by the U.S. Government” in early August. The report analyzes data from The Prosecution Project, a legal data research initiative, collected from May 31, 2020 to January 24, 2021 that details and quantifies the tactics used to inflate the charges of activists in 326 federal cases resulting from the May Uprisings.

The predominant prosecution tactic is to escalate local charges to federal charges by tying the cases to interstate commerce (as happened in 206 of 326, or 63.2%, of cases). If there is property damage, a firearm in unlawful possession, or an implement used to start a fire that was manufactured in another state, then prosecutors can and will use this to argue for federal jurisdiction.

Those charged with federal crimes are convicted at a higher rate than those convicted of state charges, and the convicted are not eligible for parole, must serve at least 85% of the sentence, and are held in federal prisons typically further away from their home and families. The study highlights how the federal government’s tactics also included the practice of over-charging (pressing charges disproportionate to the alleged crime), and the threat of enforcing minimum jail sentences to encourage plea deals.

The M4BL report states, “The most common charge brought was arson (32.21%), which prosecutors used to capture a broad range of acts not limited to the setting of a fire, such as adjusting a cloth that was said to aggravate the fire or ‘conspiring’ to commit an arson through possession of a Molotov cocktail. Arson was followed by civil disorder (15.03%); assaulting an officer (13.80%); and felon-in-possession (9.20%). Assaulting an officer, similar to arson, captures a broad range of acts not limited to the use of actual physical force against an officer, such as pointing a laser pointer ‘in the general direction of the police.’”

M4BL see these efforts as part of the federal government’s long history of targeting Black liberation movements. While the report’s analysis of judicial data confirms a concrete escalating pattern of federal repression against protesters, absent from M4BL’s report is mention of Biden and his role in continuing Trump’s persecution of the Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive struggles.

Biden’s trajectory for the federal repression of activists was made clear in June 2021 with the release of his study titled “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.” Opportunistically framed as countering reactionary violence against Black people and other oppressed groups, the study explicitly targets revolutionary and anti-capitalist organizing. Overall, the Biden administration seeks greater powers to attack progressive and revolutionary movements by strengthening the intelligence services under him and the Justice Department’s prosecutorial abilities.

Other activists have highlighted the role of the Biden administration in targeting progressive movements more broadly. Drop the Charges is a coalition of organizations fighting to force the State to drop the charges of the estimated 14,000 people arrested during the protests for Black lives. In recent months, they have focused on those protesters facing federal charges, raising demands for Biden to end his administration’s prosecution of not only anti-police brutality protesters but also other progressive fighters in the State’s sights.

Jessica Reznicek, Dakota Access Pipeline Protester, sentenced to 8 years on an enhanced terrorism charge.

In an online presentation on August 18, Drop the Charges brought together the National Lawyers Guild, the Prosecution Project, Red Aid (which supports political prisoners), and the activist group Detroit Will Breathe to discuss the federal repression of protesters.

Lawyer Bill Quigley identified his client, Jessica Reznicek, as one of the first targets of the Biden administration’s heightened repression strategy. Reznicek is an environmental activist who has admitted to sabotaging the Dakota Access pipeline with an acetylene torch in 2017. In 2019, she faced federal charges, and in February of 2021 pled guilty to one count of conspiracy.

At the request of federal prosecutors, on June 30, a federal judge added a terrorism enhancement that doubled Reznicek’s sentence from four years to eight years. The judge accepted the prosecution’s argument that Reznicek was attempting to intimidate the federal government according to the State’s hazy definition of terrorism, even though the Dakota Access Pipeline is privately owned infrastructure.

A spokesperson for Red Aid told Tribune, “By pursuing these federal charges from the uprisings, to repressing those taking action in support of indigenous movements, it’s clear that Biden is continuing to repress the people’s movements, and we need to be organized to fight back even harder against this repression.” Without this, they say, those who have made sacrifices fighting for the people will be left facing even more devastating consequences to their lives at the hands of the imperialist State.

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