Prosecutors Are Using Gang Laws To Criminalize Protest

Prosecutors in states from New York to Utah are using decades-old gang laws to target participants in the largest uprising against police brutality in US history.

On July 9, Madalena McNeil bought several buckets of red paint, a ladder, and a paint roller from a Home Depot store in Salt Lake City. Later that night, she accompanied two dozen other people to a demonstration outside the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office amid national protests against the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Protesters smashed four windows in the office, stained the building's driveway with red paint, and became involved in clashes with police.

About a month later, McNeil was arrested on an arrest warrant from the demonstration. Along with several others arrested, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill charged McNeil with the criminal mischief of gang reforming under Utah law carries a five year sentence to life.

"I think this is sending a very extreme message to anyone who is considering exercising their civil rights to protest and that they will face the toughest charges and reactions," McNeil told a local television station on August 6, shortly after she was released on bail.

On August 21, a retired judge selected by the Salt Lake County District Attorney to serve as a "conflict advisor" ruled Drop the gang improvements for McNeil and her co-defendants. However, other Salt Lake City protesters accused of property destruction this spring will be charged additional gang amelioration fees still Pending.

The use of decades-old gang laws to target participants in the largest uprising against police brutality in American history has led to this criticism by civil rights groups and advocates of criminal reform. However, Gill is far from being alone in his decision on the McNeil case. Law enforcement in western states has long used gang laws to target activists advocating issues such as animal rights, environmental protection, and even "no-nonsense" sobriety.

Many states – most of them in the west and south – have passed similar gang laws California's STEP Act, passed in 1988. This law banned participation in criminal street gangs and codified strict penalty enhancements for gang-related convictions. In recent years, the classification and enforcement of gangs in states like California, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have been criticized by civil rights groups for promoting unconstitutional and biased enforcement. A scandal over the LAPDs in Los Angeles Forgery of gang records For dozens of people, a quarter of the entries in the CalGang nationwide database became invalid.

Mike German, a former FBI agent who has infiltrated and investigated white supremacist groups for years, told The Appeal that the Trump administration and Attorney General Bill Barr had made an urge to identify racial justice protesters and their allies as a threat to domestic terrorism to contemplate increasingly deadly activity by the far right as they evade the threat. "It ignores the reality of creating a political narrative about the protests to create a specific agenda instead of addressing the protests' concerns," German said. According to German law, gang laws are an effective way for authorities to incriminate a number of associates for a single crime, as the laws work just like the federal and state conspiracy laws.

German said that by using gang laws to prosecute alleged crimes committed by demonstrators, law enforcement agencies could end the protection of freedom of association based on the criminal status granted to the gang. Most alarming is the tenor of national media coverage of the George Floyd protests – one in particular Accepting right-wing topics of conversation around anti-fascists – means that Trump administration arguments are more likely to resonate in the judiciary.

"All it takes is a judge to classify Antifa as a gang in a jurisdiction and others will follow suit," said German.

In California, local and state law enforcement agencies have adjusted the investigative lens of the STEP Act to investigate political groups.

In October 2012, the San Francisco Police Department gang launched an investigation into 20 protesters arrested during a chaotic anti-capitalist protest. The demonstration and subsequent trial took place amid ongoing activism in the Bay Area as part of Occupy and Oscar Grant Movements. SFPD spokesman labeled the arrested as part of a "criminal street gang", alternatively identified as anarchists or "black block", claiming that several detainees were also involved in the destruction of the SFPD mission station during the demonstrations in September 2012 because of a police shot in the neighborhood.

At the state level, California law enforcement agencies are similarly focused on anarchist groups. In 2011, the office of then California Attorney General Kamala Harris prominently listed “criminal anarchists” in the “Domestic Terrorism” category of the year "Organized Crime in California" Report. The report classified anarchists along with the far right wing sovereign citizens as the two main varieties of "anti-government criminal extremism". The same report also identified animal rights activists and “eco-terrorists” such as the Earth Liberation Front as domestic terrorists.

The drive to criminalize left-wing protest groups is a bipartisan approach that has found support in some progressive communities. After repeated clashes in 2017 in Berkeley, California between far-right militants outside the city and anti-fascist counter-demonstrators, Mayor Jesse Arreguín urged that the latter group be called street gangs. "I think we should classify them as a gang," Arreguín said at the time. “They come in uniforms. They have guns, almost like militias, and I think we need to think about that in terms of our approach to law enforcement. "

Washington state law enforcement also appeals to left-wing activists through the prism of gang police and investigation. King County Jail documents The appeal of Seattle Police activists to accountability shows the agency has classified "anarchists", "Animal Liberation Front", "Earth Liberation Front", "Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPS)" and "Hardline Straight Edgers" as "predominantly" Caucasian bikers- , Street and Prison Gangs ”alongside the Aryan Brotherhood, the Peckerwoods, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Adequate evidence also shows that the federal government is conducting several ongoing investigations into left-wing political groups in the United States. A March 2018 FBI internal communications received from The Appeal lists an active "Type 3 rating" of "anarchist extremism" from the Los Angeles branch under assignment code 266H, which the FBI uses for cases it deems anarchist-oriented domestic terrorism to be. An "assessment" is an intelligence mission that does not result in a full investigation but is carried out by the FBI Guide to domestic examinations and operationsenables the office to proactively investigate people or groups who may pose a threat to public safety without evidence of crime.

In August, the FBI arrested Queens-based Samuel Resto and later accused him of setting fire to an unoccupied NYPD patrol car during a nighttime protest in July. According to the government Self-stick note For Resto, the NYPD monitored him as he left his apartment before the demonstration in which the police car was set on fire. FBI agent Sarah Bernal, who made the affidavit for his arrest, is assigned to the New York City Joint Terrorism Task Force. Posts on a left message board Agent Bernal has been investigating the anarchist community in New York City since fall 2019.

Earlier this summer FBI agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed people arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations in New York City about their connections to anti-fascist and anarchist groups. Though NYPD is under one Decades-old declaration of consent This limits the department's ability to oversee political organization. In the past few years she has focused on anarchists groups and Events as a persistent threat, sometimes for a high risk grade. New York's efforts against left groups were part of a move by FBI Director Christopher Wray A week after the George Floyd demonstrations began, all 200 Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country were instructed to "assist local law enforcement in the arrest and prosecution of violent agitators who kidnap peaceful protests".

Local United States attorney in Portland, Oregon on August 27 calculated 74 people with a range of federal crimes for participating in months of often chaotic protests. President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr spent much of the summer Railing against "Antifa" and "anarchists" in Portland who have faced local, state and federal law enforcement in a series of clashes that have attracted international attention.

Josmar Trujillo, a New York City activist involved in gang statutes and police tactics, views the application of laws normally reserved for downtown black youths to political activists and organizers as a targeted attempt to suppress protests against police accountability.

“Cops are tired of just lashing out at protests – they want you to actually pay a much lower price. It's one thing to get hit on the head one night, then you get angrier and come out the next night, ”said Trujillo. “They can just keep you off the street, handcuff you in court, and spend thousands of dollars to keep you out of jail. Not only does this guarantee that you will no longer have protests, but also that your circles will no longer have protests, that your networks will no longer have protests and that people who find out what happened to you will be deterred from joining . "

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