At least 90 percent of charges against Black Lives Matter protesters in a dozen jurisdictions have been dropped, dismissed or not filed, according to an analysis by The Guardian. Such a high percentage suggests that the police may have been arresting people simply to suppress dissent.
In Houston and Los Angeles, The Guardian found, 93 percent of charges were either dropped or never filed; in some cities like Dallas and Philadelphia, that number rose to 95 percent of charges dropped or never prosecuted. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, 100 percent of 127 cases related to peaceful protesting were dropped.
The extremely high percentage of protest-related charges ultimately being dropped or dismissed suggests that police may have been using arrests as a tactic to prove that the protests were unruly and unlawful. As political commentators from both parties disparaged the movement for racial justice, media outlets kept tallies of arrests from the protests.
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Arresting more people and racking up charges, even if they’ve now been shown to be baseless, became a way for police to justify officers’ violent and deadly behavior.
“What they try to do is spin it and say ‘Look at how unlawful protesters are as is evidenced by all of these arrests that we’ve made,’” Tyler Crawford, director of mass defense at the National Lawyers Guild, told The Guardian. “Then they hope people have stopped paying attention after six, 10, 12 months when prosecutors say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to drop these charges because these people shouldn’t have been arrested.’”
Arrests at the Black Lives Matter protests helped fuel a false version of events being pushed by people like former President Donald Trump. Trump painted protesters, not police, as violent and called for “law and order” — a call the right latched on to during the presidential election.
Even though activists across the country pointed out last year that it was the police who initiated violence at most protests, the right wing has still taken the opportunity to pass anti-protest bills aimed at punishing and suppressing demonstrators.
The charges analyzed by The Guardian bolster the idea that protester suppression was the end goal. Though police sometimes used curfews as excuses to cruelly tear gas protesters and disperse crowds in 2020, officers rarely filed charges for low-level transgressions like curfew violations, the publication found. Instead, officers filed felony charges like assault and looting with no evidence, ultimately forcing the charges to be dropped or dismissed.
In Detroit, where 93 percent of charges have been dropped, one district court judge dismissed more than 100 cases because the police refused to provide basic evidence like body camera footage. Perhaps more egregiously, most tickets issued by Detroit police were written by officers who were not even at the protests and thus could not have witnessed the alleged crime, according to National Lawyers Guild and Detroit Justice Center attorney Rubina Mustafa.
Police often forced these charges onto people. In many instances across the country, police “kettled” protesters by corralling demonstrators into a closed area, not allowing them to leave, and then charging them with refusing to comply with orders to leave or for violating curfew. The thousands of arrests and charges made during last year’s protests served to fill out police departments’ false narratives, even as they forced protesters to defy orders.
The high proportion of charges being dropped is also a stark illustration of how left-wing protesters are punished or face the threat of punishment much more often than right-wing protesters. An analysis of protests from last year found that police are three times more likely to use force against left-wing protesters than right-wing ones.
There’s evidence that protest suppression, especially against left-wing protesters in the U.S. and internationally, is getting worse. A recent letter filed by 400 leading experts shows that people demonstrating for the climate movement, for instance, are being criminalized for protesting.
Meanwhile, state legislators, largely Republicans, are filing a stunning number of anti-protest laws. Some bills criminalize protesting in what appears to be a stark infringement of First Amendment rights to assembly and freedom of speech that the right wing pretends to revere. Others propose legal protection for people who run over protesters with their vehicles or shoot them.