Justice or bias? Activists decry federal tactics against protesters

Federal prosecutors in Atlanta have brought charges against a handful of protesters who participated in demonstrations following the death of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
Federal prosecutors in Atlanta have brought charges against a handful of protesters who participated in demonstrations following the death of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.

Credit: Ben Hendren

Credit: Ben Hendren

Five months after U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced a campaign against “troublemakers,” authorities tracked down Atlanta housing activist Richard Hunsinger and arrested him Nov. 5 for allegedly crossing the criminal line during this summer’s wave of street protests.

Hunsinger is accused of taking part in the vandalization of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in downtown Atlanta during a July 25 protest where masked activists tossed Molotov cocktails and a nail bomb into the building. The building was closed at the time, but court records indicate at least one federal inspector was inside the building.

Left-wing activists sympathetic to Hunsinger and a handful of others who have been arrested locally in connection with street demonstrations claim the prosecutions are intended to blunt future protest against the government by removing activists deemed “troublemakers.”

”This is outside of the juridical landscape of U.S. law,” said Paul Torino, a member of the Atlanta Anti-Repression Committee, which was formed after the protests to aid those arrested. “Which is more normal in, I don’t know, Iran? Places with a little less political freedom than the U.S.”

U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak’s office declined to comment, but a former prosecutor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that several of the Georgia cases were obvious for federal prosecution because of their seriousness.

”This particular Department of Justice is the most political I’ve ever seen,” said Georgia State law professor Caren Morrison. “But even without an agenda … I would still expect to see (some of) these cases go federal. It would make sense to me.”

The vandalism of the ICE building took place during a July “Rally Against Fascism” protest downtown. Authorities say several protesters threw rocks, cinder blocks and Molotov cocktails into the building. After the protest, FBI agents found several bottles filled with flammable liquid and evidence of attempts to set the building on fire. They also found a “pyrotechnic” device that had nails added to it.

There also was “a large quantity of blood” inside the hallway they believed belonged to one of the protesters, according to court records. Agents called area hospitals and found that Hunsinger had come in for treatment for a cut to his hand in the hours after the protest.

Security footage from the hospital matched photos at the protest to identify Hunsinger by his clothing, including “distinctive white shoes and a keychain attached to his belt,” according to an indictment filed in federal court. Hunsinger was denied bond, despite the fact that he had no criminal record and his defense attorney presented letters from 14 people attesting to his good character.

Arrests and no bond

In addition, federal investigators and local police arrested three men last month and charged them with a string of arsons and vandalism Sept. 30 through Oct. 1. Eddie Melvin Brett, Vida Messiah Jones and John Wesley Wade are accused of setting several postal vehicles on fire at the West End Post Office on Oglethorpe Avenue, smashing the windshield of an unoccupied Atlanta Police cruiser, and setting a MARTA police cruiser on fire, among other acts of property damage.

Social media posts and the criminal complaint suggest the acts were motivated by President Donald Trump’s performance in the Sept. 29 presidential debate when Trump called out the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for street violence, and told them to “stand back and stand by.” According to court records, notes reading “stand by” were wrapped around bricks used to smash the windows of unoccupied police cars.

Wade had been arrested earlier on charges that he participated in the burning of the Wendy’s restaurant that was the sight of the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta Police Officer. Wade was a friend of Brooks’ family and had led demonstrations at the Wendy’s restaurant. Wade and the other men were arrested several weeks later and have been denied bond. Attorneys for the men either did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment on the merits of the charges.

Holding defendants without bond is generally reserved for people considered to be the most dangerous to their communities or most likely to flee. Of 151 felony arrests related to the social and racial unrest around the nation, federal judges agreed with prosecutors to deny bond in a third of cases, according to a joint analysis by online publication The Intercept and the non-profit Type Investigations.

The prosecutions follow a broad pattern of arrests and detentions around the nation in line with Barr’s instructions to U.S. attorneys in May “go after troublemakers” associated with otherwise peaceful protests, following the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police.

“With the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful and legitimate protests have been hijacked by violent radical elements,” Barr said in a statement. “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent and extremist agenda.”

Some cases clear, others murky

Some of the federal prosecutions around the nation appear to have a weak link to federal crimes. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that some defendants are facing federal prison time because property damaged during protests was involved in interstate commerce. In one case, an arson charge was taken federal because the coffee shop that was damaged sourced its to-go cups from a neighboring state.

Georgia State’s Morrison said there was a legitimate federal interest in prosecuting those who damage federal buildings or torch U.S. Postal Service trucks.

“You can’t just be blowing things up,” she said, referring to the nail bomb. “That is from a terrorism playbook. That’s no good.”

The federal nexus is less clear in the case of five men arrested in June for allegedly setting an unoccupied Gainesville Police car on fire. Although the men were initially held on state charges, Pak’s office indicted them on federal charges stating the police car was involved in “interstate and foreign commerce.”

All but one of the men are being held without bond.

“We are not focused on peaceful protests, but instead concentrating on identifying, investigating and disrupting those individuals who are taking advantage of the protests to incite violence and engage in criminal activity,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Hacker said in a statement after the arrests.

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