“There was a lot of anger, people were actively grieving,” A’Brianna Morgan, a 26-year-old mass liberation organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia, tells Refinery29. Morgan, who had been participating in direct actions for months before last summer’s racial justice movement, was focused on getting people released from jails as the COVID-19 pandemic surged nationwide. When the summer of civil unrest began, there was, she said, a surge of energy around the work she had already been doing.
That June night, the demonstration started with a gathering outside the police headquarters in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood before marchers headed in the direction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then, they started blocking traffic on the highway.
“At that point, everyone felt so in awe: We had enough people to shut down this highway right now,” Morgan recounts. “It was joyful, there was cheering, clapping, big smiles. We are powerful in this specific moment. I was reveling in it.”
“We turned and started running,” says Morgan. “Some people just kept kneeling and holding the line. I saw an officer pull down someone’s bandana and pepper-spray them in the face.” While some people were able to exit the highway using the on-ramp, it quickly became inaccessible. From there, the only way for anyone to escape the kettle was by climbing over a fence.
Panic set in as roughly 200 people started rushing toward the fence, all while police continued firing tear gas, says Morgan. “I’m trying not to panic because I don’t want this toxic gas in my lungs,” Morgan describes. While she was able to make it out of the kettle, she said she saw law enforcement dragging protesters down the hill and beating them with batons. “It was so traumatic and I felt heartbroken.”
Nearly one year has passed since a wave of protests swept the world in response to the police murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black people. Chauvin was found guilty on charges of second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder on April 20. Law enforcement have killed 414 people in the U.S. as of May 23 of this year, and racial justice advocates continue to demand the abolition of police departments across the country and an overhaul of the existing legal system, which at times might provide something resembling accountability, but is not capable of meting out justice.
In the first two weeks of 2020’s Black liberation protests, police arrested more than 17,000 people in 50 major cities, according to The Washington Post. Publicly available arrest records show that the overwhelming majority of people arrested in 15 cities nationwide were accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, most on charges of violating newly imposed citywide curfews or emergency orders.
Some of these people remain on house arrest with no trial date in sight, like Mohawk Johnson, a Chicago-based rapper and comedian who was arrested at an August protest for allegedly swinging a skateboard at police to defend protesters. Some received home visits from federal agents after attending protests or providing community mutual aid. The FBI conducted door-knocks and home raids of anti-racist organizers across the United States, including in New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Portland, OR, and within prisons. Often these visits were in connection to last summer’s uprisings, but federal law enforcement also used the far-right attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 as an excuse to visit the homes of anti-racists and anti-fascists in an effort to further target activists on the left.
We talked with nine protesters in five different cities. Some told us they were grabbed by police and detained just for being at a protest; some say they were detained while providing mutual aid in the form of jail support to arrested protesters. Others experienced violence at the hands of police, including allegedly being restrained with zip ties in a police car for over an hour in the summer heat. Several protesters told us that their property was seized for weeks at a time, including vehicles they used to attend protests. The purpose of this harassment, it seems, was to make participating in dissent so traumatizing, and so much of a burden, that protesters might stop showing up altogether. But, it didn’t work.
State repression of Black rights activism isn’t new. The FBI has a long history of targeting Black liberation movements, using tactics like the COINTELPRO program, in which the agency infiltrated civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s with the intention to disrupt them. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2014 to protest the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, the FBI began tracking activists’ movements across the country and surveilling their social networks. Later, under former President Donald Trump’s administration, the FBI created a new domestic terrorism category called "Black Identity Extremism" — and it’s so vaguely defined it could potentially be used to describe pretty much any type of activism for the rights of Black people.
The asymmetry of the two sides is striking. While Black liberation activists come from grassroots movements, police departments are hyper-organized, trained, and equipped like mini armies. Since 1997, the 1033 program under the National Defense Authorization Act has allowed the Department of Defense to funnel excess military equipment to local police departments that has been used against protesters in times of civil unrest. The Pentagon shipped over $7.4 billion in military property to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies in that time, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. It should come as no surprise, then, that the National Guard would later use militarized language, such as “enemy forces” and “adversaries,” to describe protesters in Ferguson. They used the language of war because they were armed for one.
“By no means is this new and by no means is this unique to the Trump administration,” Moira Meltzer-Cohen, an attorney, educator, and abolitionist, tells Refinery29.
From assaulting protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas to targeting and threatening community mutual aid efforts, the prevalence of police violence both during and following protests points to the ways in which some forms of activism are often met with excessive force, no matter how people show up to an action. It’s not only the state’s use of violence that acts as a tactic of repression, though — it’s also the narratives that cast the Black Lives Matter movement as violent that are used to delegitimize righteous acts of dissent. And they have long been used, Meltzer-Cohen points out, as a means to “consolidate executive power” and uphold systemic inequality.
In Gainesville, a small Texas town just north of Dallas, three people were arrested and charged with obstructing a passageway in August 2020 while protesting in favor of the removal of the Confederate statue outside the town’s courthouse. According to Alison Grinter, the attorney representing them, organizers had secured a permit for the small protest. They were charged with obstruction after they were accused of leading the 150-person rally outside of the perimeter of the march where they said they walked around a puddle. Grinter said the city issued an arrest warrant on a Friday so that the organizers would have to spend the weekend in jail. On top of that, they were held on a bail of $2,500 each, “which is what I would generally expect to see for a felony,” Grinter writes in an email. “For this low-level misdemeanor, I’d generally expect no more than $500, although a release on personal recognizance would be more standard.” The county attorney's office declined to comment on the bail amount because the case remains open.
When asked about the case, Gainesville Chief of Police Kevin Phillips tells Refinery29 that protesters “were in the roadway for several blocks, it wasn’t because of a puddle.” He added that when officers instructed protesters to move out of the roadway, they allegedly began chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" As far as the timing of the arrests, Phillips said the police deliver cases to the county attorney’s office, and he can’t speak to that office's timing.
Law enforcement have used these types of tactics across the country. Mayors in major liberal cities, like Chicago and San Francisco, have imposed aggressive curfew orders on short notice, leading to hundreds of arrests for failure to disperse. In many of these cases, legal experts said that protesters didn’t actually do anything besides attend the demonstration. These orders have faced scrutiny from civil liberties groups for violating First Amendment rights by suppressing political protest. And protesters weren’t the only people caught up in arrests over curfew violations. In Atlanta, for example, jail support organizers said such arrests almost exclusively targeted young Black people, whether they were involved in the protests or not.
While some have latched on to the police talking point that there is a “right” or “peaceful” way to protest, in reality, no protesters are safe, and Black and brown youth are particularly vulnerable. “There has never been a kind of protest that the state has embraced,” says Meltzer-Cohen. “One of the mechanisms of state repression is to cast all protest as somehow in excess of what is guaranteed by the First Amendment and to cast all protesters as a violent, dangerous threat to American life in a way that will rationalize state intrusion and state violence.”
One of the mechanisms of state repression is to cast all protest as somehow in excess of what is guaranteed by the First Amendment and to cast all protesters as a violent, dangerous threat to American life.
Moira Meltzer-Cohen, attorney and abolitionist
Maggie Ellinger-Locke, the chair of the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild, adds that this messaging is racially coded and supports systems of white supremacy in the state’s efforts to criminalize dissent. “When people are being murdered daily, it's appropriate to be angry and upset,” she says. “We have to do better, we have to change these systems, we have to tear them down. When we embolden law enforcement by using a narrative that really comes from them, we're harming our movement's ability to do that.” This is especially true in the context of last summer’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was called one of the largest movements in U.S. history, with more than 20 million people taking to the streets between May 31 and June 28, 2020.
The narratives that have painted Black liberation protests as “violent” have translated into a number of anti-protest bills introduced at the state and federal levels. More than 80 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 34 states just this session, according to Ellinger-Locke, who described this as an “unprecedented uptick” in legislative crackdowns on dissent. Since May 2020, at least six anti-protest laws have been enacted, while 67 more are still pending, according to data collected by the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law’s (ICNL) U.S. Protest Law Tracker. Many of these bills heighten penalties for activities deemed riots, while others protect drivers who injure or even kill protesters while they are blocking traffic. Police officers, as well as their unions and lobbyists, support legislation introduced in more than 13 states nationwide, researcher Connor Gibson found. Moreover, the language in many of these bills is so vague that it becomes susceptible to selective enforcement against leftist protest.
This is the case with a law in Oklahoma, where the largest number of anti-protest bills has been introduced since Floyd’s murder, according to Nora Benavidez, Director of PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression Programs. On April 21, Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law HB 1674, which protects drivers who unintentionally injure or kill someone while attempting to “flee a riot” from criminal or civil liability, as well as classifies obstructing a roadway as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The law also holds liable organizations that “conspired” with individuals found guilty of protest-related offenses — a provision that could be used to target a variety of protest-related support, from publicly sharing information about a protest route to funding mutual aid. The legislation was co-sponsored by Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey, formerly vice president of a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. (We reached out to Humphrey for comment and have not received a response.)
“Conspiracy in OK requires an agreement to commit any unlawful act, even a misdemeanor, and some step or action towards that end,” Elly Page, senior legal advisor at ICNL, tells Refinery29 in an email. “So, for instance, an organization that plans to participate in a protest that ends up unlawfully blocking traffic, and takes any step in furtherance of that plan (e.g. sending an email with a meeting point for the protest), could potentially be liable.” Page adds that organizations providing funding, food, water, and medical assistance to participants in a protest that is later deemed unlawful by law enforcement could be considered part of a conspiracy as well.
Benavidez says that because of the legislation’s ambiguity, jail support, bail funds, and even legal observers could be swept up in the provision. It would basically come down to whether or not “law enforcement think it’s an appropriate way to crack down on First Amendment rights.”
State legislatures have extended their attacks on First Amendment-protected dissent to legislation that targets other types of protest, including Indigenous anti-pipeline activism fighting the construction of Line 3. As water activists staged direct actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 to protect Indigenous lands in Standing Rock, they, too, were met with militarized police and aggressive federal surveillance. Some people who participated in those actions faced felony charges, with states across the country using the protests as an opportunity to push further anti-protest legislation in an effort to crack down on dissent led by marginalized protesters.
Already, President Joe Biden’s administration hasn’t signaled that much would change in how it handles similar protests. Since Biden’s inauguration in January, racial justice and legal groups have pressured his administration to drop the charges against protesters arrested during last summer’s demonstrations. Ellinger-Locke says that “while there have been a few high-profile examples of charges from last summer dismissed recently,” like in Portland where roughly half of federal cases were dropped, many activists are still fighting for their freedom.
On May 25, activists with the Portland Anti-Repression Defense League announced a campaign demanding that all charges in relation to last summer's protests be dropped. The group of defendants and their supporters said they would not accept any of the charges and would not cooperate with the state against their co-defendants. "With every act of resistance against injustice, we are forced to reckon with the abusive powers of institutions that advance it," Portland activist Alexa D. Graham said in a press release.
In addition to the high number of federal charges, federal judges agreed to detain more than 50 people pre-trial, an investigation from The Intercept and Type Investigations found.
Rob, who is 31 and African American, recalled being arrested at a protest in Atlanta on May 29, 2020, before being held in pre-trial detention. Speaking with Refinery29, he says he made his way to the CNN headquarters around 8:30 p.m., where he says he saw law enforcement in tactical gear with armored vehicles. The building was cordoned off with police cars and tanks.
After catching up with some people he recognized, Rob says he was on the frontlines for a little while, chanting through a megaphone. “There was a line of people, we were locked arm in arm,” he says. “At the time, it felt like everybody was pretty much in coalition. Everybody seemed willing to have a show of power.”
That’s when police started tear-gassing protesters and making arrests. “I was one of the first protesters arrested,” says Rob, who was toward the front of the line at that point.
Protesters in several different cities have told Refinery29 of similar occurrences of seemingly targeted arrests and harassment from law enforcement. In some cases, including Rob’s, protesters speculated that police were targeting people who regularly attend protests, or who are known organizers in their communities. Others mentioned how even someone who had simply posted flyers to social media or discussed the protests online could be targeted by police as a “protest leader.” This isn’t an accident, according to legal experts and anti-repression activists. “A lot of what state repression is intended to do is to discourage dissent,” says Meltzer-Cohen. “It will make an example of certain people.”
After his arrest, Rob said he was taken to the Fulton County Jail where he was charged with one felony for destruction of property, one felony for destruction of government property, and inciting a riot. He was also accused of destroying a police car, but Rob said the incident happened hours before he arrived at the protest. “There was no way I could have done what I was accused of,” he says. As a result of the charges brought against him, he was denied bond and incarcerated with a judge deeming him a “danger to society,” Rob says.
Rob was held in pre-trial detention for five weeks, until his release on July 3. “It’s a very scary thing, being incarcerated and not knowing when you’re going to get out,” he says. Thankfully, he said the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that offers jail support, bail, and access to representation for people who have been arrested and detained, made sure he had access to books and commissary. Activists on the outside also started a call-in campaign to the District Attorney’s office to demand Rob’s release. As of May 2021, he hasn’t heard any updates on his federal cases and still doesn’t know when he will get his day in court. He later tells me, “I don’t have any fear because I know I’m falsely accused.”
The Bail Reform Act states that individuals cannot typically be held in pre-trial detention without a judge determining that they would pose a threat to the community or a flight risk. However, federal prosecutors under Trump increasingly requested pre-trial detention, with federal district courts detaining 61% of defendants pre-trial in 2019 alone, The Intercept reported.
Moreover, Trump also signed an executive order last June allowing federal law enforcement to make arrests and prosecute “to the fullest extent [...] any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalizes, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States or otherwise vandalizes government property.” The order painted efforts to take down monuments, memorials, and statues as nefarious, Marxist, or anarchist political violence and subject to federal investigation. It remains active under Biden.
The tactics used by law enforcement to quell dissent became increasingly more extreme amid Trump’s moral panic over people he referred to as “Antifa,” or antifascists, as federal agents in places like Portland abducted and detained protesters at random, taking them in unmarked vans to unknown locations. While antifascism is a broad political ideology in opposition to fascist organizing, Trump weaponized the terminology to essentially mean anyone who disagrees with him. “In the way [Trump] and many others have used it, that discourse has really just started to mean ‘protesters’,” says Meltzer-Cohen.
Many anti-racist activists aren’t exactly holding their breath waiting for the Biden administration to deliver justice, either. Biden’s 1994 crime bill contributed to mass incarceration in the 1990s and led to more aggressive policing against Black and brown communities. “During this extremely hard movement for racial justice, [voters] chose two people that made their political careers exploiting the injustices in our carceral state,” says Rob, referring to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a prosecutor for years prior to being elected to national office. “It's a slap in the face.”
On September 23, 2020, after a Kentucky grand jury decided not to indict two Louisville police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor, civil unrest again swept the nation. A third officer, Brett Hankison, was indicted, but not for taking Taylor’s life. Instead, Hankison received three counts of wanton endangerment of the first degree, for shooting 10 bullets into Taylor’s home, one of which entered a neighboring apartment. He pleaded not guilty.
Protesters nationwide took to the streets in response to the grand jury’s decision, including in Atlanta, where a protester named Chidya* attended an action they described as relatively tame, and with little police presence. A few hundred demonstrators made their way through the Inman Park neighborhood, which Chidya described as a “super-gentrified, trendy area with lots of bars and restaurants.” Onlookers having dinner or drinks cheered on the protesters.
But the scene quickly changed, due to the violent escalation by police, who “waited until we turned the corner when we were on a bridge,” says Chidya. “And then, they started making mass arrests.” According to other witnesses, police were lined up with Humvees, waiting for the march to make its way to them, when they started grabbing people.
“There was no dispersal order given. And we were, like, literally just marching on the bridge,” says Chidya, who was grabbed and arrested along with roughly 17 others.
While most of the arrestees were released that same night, Chidya said they were held all weekend on a jaywalking charge and another for obstruction. “My knee-jerk reaction when the cop grabbed me was to just pull back, like I did not know what was happening,” they say. “I wasn't trying to, like, fight the cop.” As soon as the officer told them to stop resisting, they said they complied, but even then, Chidya said the officer slammed them onto the ground, sat on them, and scraped their knees and elbows, leaving scars. They recalled their disbelief at their situation, asking, “What if my teachers could see me now? I mean, I’ve been out of school for a while but I was a straight-A student.”
When they learned they wouldn’t be released that night, Chidya says they started panicking. The other people with whom they were arrested, who were all white with the exception of one other Black person (a bystander), said they had the same reaction — to pull away from the police. But they weren’t charged with obstruction. Likewise, corrections officers in the jail treated them differently, Chidya said. “Even things like that is a way to further terrorize people of color in the movement for Black lives. All of this is strategic to basically take us off the streets.”
Chidya said the correctional officers spoke to them in a way that they described as psychologically manipulative and abusive. “Nothing I did was okay with [the correctional officer], and she basically made veiled threats that she has the power to delay my court hearing.” Chidya also said the corrections officer threatened to cut off the water in their cell.
While they said they will continue attending protests, Chidya also said they might have to change their involvement moving forward. “I don't know if mentally I can handle another weekend in a fucking cell with a corrections officer mistreating me,” they say, adding that they also can’t afford to lose their job. “These repression tactics are purposeful. They know that a lot of people that come out, especially Black and Brown people, are working-class people.” If they get arrested, there’s a very real fear of material losses, including employment and housing.
I don't know if mentally I can handle another weekend in a fucking cell with a corrections officer mistreating me.
Despite the violent repression people experienced, every protester who spoke with Refinery29 said they will not stop organizing for Black liberation, because that’s exactly what the state wants. “You will always be oppressed, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right,” says Rob. “I don’t want to risk my freedom, but I do believe that me and any number of millions of people over the years must fight for equality, must take to the streets, and must rabble-rouse.”
There are ways that people can protect themselves online, in the streets, after an action, and when awaiting trial. This is why mutual aid around community anti-repression can be a lifeline for many who are involved in movement organizing and protest. These efforts help to sustain the movement and make people feel less alone, because the state’s efforts against protesters are twofold: First, get people off the streets by any means necessary; and second, make arrestees feel isolated and unsupported, explains Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund. “So much of the infrastructure of a movement is about reminding people they're part of something bigger than them. And that that thing can take care of you and can make you stronger than you would be by yourself,” Kautz says.
When she started going to protests last summer, Morgan said her mother warned her not to make herself a target. “The thing is, just being Black, young, and queer, I am a target in this country. I’ve never felt safe, I can end up in jail at any point just for being Black.” But she said that won’t stop her from continuing her fight for liberation.
“I’m still all in,” says Morgan. “I eat, sleep, and breathe abolition.”
If you or someone you know has been targeted by law enforcement for participating in political organizing or direct action, you can contact the National Lawyers Guild at 212-679-2811.
*Some names have been changed for the source’s protection