It has been two years since people all over the world took to the streets marching and protesting the unjust murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. And while concerned citizens expressed anger about police abuses, injustice and killings of Black men, women and children, in some instances those that demonstrated also became targets of police overstepping their bounds.
The aftermath of late spring and summer of 2020 uprisings included felony charges, lawsuits and secret surveillance of activists and protestors.
It took almost two years of investigation to indict Dallas police officer Ryan Mabry, former Dallas officer Melvin Williams and Garland, Texas police officer Joe Privitt on felony assault charges for their use of excessive force against protesters.
All three men were indicted on felony counts of aggravated assault by a public servant. Mr. Mabry and Mr. Williams face additional counts of deadly conduct for their involvement with the protests, according to a press release. Mr. Mabry and Mr. Williams are also accused of firing or threatening to fire so-called less-lethal projectiles.
“There actually is some type of mental issue that’s going on in the police force where they can’t control their emotions under high stress, which is a job requirement,” said Nation of Islam Student Minister Alshaheed Muhammad, based in Dallas, to The Final Call. “So will they come back guilty? I’m not sure until all the evidence is presented. But what I do know is that the first order is to protect the citizens so they can lawfully protest.”
Mr. Williams was fired from the force in late January for violating the department’s use-of-force policy. Video footage showed him punching a man repeatedly in July 2021.
But what happened in Dallas was not the only instance where cops targeted protestors.
In March, a federal jury awarded Denver, Colo., demonstrators $14 million in a lawsuit for police violation of their constitutional rights. And 19 police officers in Austin, Texas, are facing criminal charges for allegedly using excessive force on protesters.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights released a scathing, 72-page report accusing police and local leaders of mishandling their response to protests in Minneapolis.
“In one case, an MPD officer used an MPD covert account to pose as a Black community member to send a message to a local branch of the NAACP criticizing the group,” the report reads. “In another case, an MPD officer posed as a community member and RSVP’d to attend the birthday party of a prominent Black civil rights lawyer and activist.”
That prominent Black lawyer and activist was Nekima Levy Armstrong, founder of the Racial Justice Network. In 2017, she had been running for mayor on a police accountability platform and was having a birthday party at a local restaurant. They had worked everything out with the owners.
But suddenly, “the police show up and they sit down and they’re having dinner. And there’s multiple officers in uniform within view of my party,” the activist recounted to The Final Call. “I just thought there’s no way that this can be a coincidence, that they happen to show up here at the same time as my party to have dinner,” she said.
It has been five years since that incident, yet a recent investigation by MIT Technology Review revealed that federal and local law enforcement agencies are still running secret surveillance on activists and journalists.
Dubbed “Operation Safety Net,” the program started a month before the trial of Derek Chauvin in order to maintain public order. Activity stopped after Mr. Chauvin’s guilty verdict in April 2021 in the murder of George Floyd. Despite telling the public the program would be stopping, officials are continuing to stack up information on activists and journalists, including people not suspected of a crime. Data includes pictures and protest locations.
“It’s not nothing new. It’s the same as what they were doing with COINTELPRO. It’s just an extension. They have different devices now. And because of security around the cities, they have more access to videos and opportunities for surveillance,” said Chauntyll Allen, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, to The Final Call.
She wanted one thing to be clear: “It’s not just protesters. They’re surveilling Black folks.”
She described the secret surveillance as unconstitutional. “It again shows that Black folks are not able to be honored under the Constitution in the same way that White folks are. So, this is just another one of those situations where we can apply the statement Black Lives Matter, because in this situation, Black lives are not mattering,” she said.
“Again, we are cut out of our constitutional rights. Everybody else has the right to protest freely and even try to take over the doggone White House if they want to,” she added. “We can’t even gather at the governor’s mansion without full surveillance. It’s just another one of those situations where we have to yell ‘Black Lives Matter’ until people start to listen.”
She and Ms. Armstrong made the same observation: Black activists are labeled as “Black Identity Extremists” while White supremacists can storm the U.S. Capitol with fewer repercussions.
“It went from watching Dr. Martin Luther King to the Panthers to the Nation of Islam. … Anybody who wants to empower Black people, this government is not okay with, and they want to know about it ahead of time so that they can try to stop it. And that’s what we’re up against,” Ms. Allen stated.
Ms. Armstrong explained that the 72-page report could result in a consent decree, which she feels is a step in the right direction, given the “many years Minneapolis Police were able to operate in an abusive and deadly manner without any real repercussions.”
“We’re still demanding accountability,” she said. “We want to see reparations for Black residents of Minneapolis by the city of Minneapolis for the leadership failures and for their cooperation with the abusive conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department,” continued Ms. Armstrong.
“And, we want to see accountability of those officers who engaged in that conduct over the years.”
Human Rights Watch has released several reports detailing the injustice that happened during the 2020 protests. June 4, 2020, right before an 8 p.m. curfew, 300 peaceful marchers in Mott Haven, a low-income neighborhood in New York City’s South Bronx, found themselves up against an army of officers in riot gear. Officers used a technique known as “kettling,” the intentional confinement of demonstrators in a small area.
They pushed protesters from behind, while bicycle police formed a wall in front, successively trapping protesters. Police used the opportunity to beat people down and fire pepper spray in their faces, according to Human Rights Watch. The arrests came after. One medic reported to Human Rights Watch that he saw at least three people carried away on stretchers. “[They were] handcuffed to the stretchers, with head bandages, visibly bleeding from the bandage,” he said.
The most the demonstrators received was an apology from then-Mayor Bill de Blasio. The former NYPD police commissioner insisted that the officers did a phenomenal job, according to a 2021 investigation transcript into the incident.
New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board was given a May 4 deadline to investigate cases of alleged misconduct and to recommend disciplinary measures, but staffers have said the NYPD is refusing to cooperate and is still denying the allegations. N.Y. Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the NYPD in January 2021. Claims include use of force, unlawful detention, kettling and extensive violations of federal and state laws.
John Raphling, a senior researcher on criminal justice for the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, edited some parts of the report on Mott Haven. As a lawyer, he has represented people and organizations engaged in protest activity and people who have been targeted due to their protests. He has also done investigations into police abuse and police use of excessive force.
He told The Final Call that police “arrested people and shut down the protests in a very, unnecessarily violent way. And it wasn’t an instance where people were causing property damage or where they were breaking things or just hurting anyone. There wasn’t a rationale at all for the police violence.”
He described “kettling” as a long-used tactic by police and “a particularly harmful tactic, because it punishes people for the act of protesting.”
In the Mott Haven incident, “there was nowhere to go, because there was a skirmish line of police officers with their clubs out, with bean bag and rubber bullet shot guns out, with tear gas and other weapons at the ready. There was a line behind them, a line in front of them, nowhere to go to the sides,” Mr. Raphling said.
He stated that police interference with protests exposes major failings of democracy and that there must be a concerted effort to remove policing from protests and a real accountability mechanism for police violation of rights.
He hasn’t seen one police department with a meaningful accountability mechanism, he argued. In terms of coping with police abuse and surveillance, Ms. Allen explained the importance of tapping into the ongoing trauma of just being Black in America.
“Because I can address losing my grandmother as a child and I can address my parents being divorced, through therapy and all kinds of stuff. But how do I address something that’s going to happen to me tomorrow?” she questioned. “I can talk about what happened to me on Saturday, but we’re not going to come to a resolution around how to fix that problem because it’s going to happen to me again on Wednesday. … How do we start to cope with things?”
She expressed that she’s studied psychology, but she is stumped by that question. “What I need is a table of people to really start talking about what does it mean to practice self-care and healing in America, when it’s an ongoing trauma? When you’re being traumatized? And I think a bunch of professionals need to start having that conversation and start coming up with solutions on how we can cope,” she said.
According to former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, former President Donald Trump inquired about shooting protesters during unrest that took place after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Mr. Esper told NPR he and other top officials were caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s reaction to the unrest in the summer of 2020.
“The president was enraged,” Mr. Esper told NPR in a May 2022 interview. “He thought that the protests made the country look weak, made us look weak and ‘us’ meant him. And he wanted to do something about it,” he said.
“We reached that point in the conversation where he looked frankly at [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. [Mark] Milley and said, ‘Can’t you just shoot them, just shoot them in the legs or something?’ … It was a suggestion and a formal question. And we were just all taken aback at that moment as this issue just hung very heavily in the air.”
ProPublica, an investigative news agency, found few cops using force on George Floyd protesters faced discipline. The agency “compiled 68 videos that seemed to show officers using disproportionate force,” around the country. Departments disclosed discipline for 10 officers. In 17 cases ProPublica followed, the departments have decided not to discipline the officers or could not identify them, reported propublica.org in its June 2021 update. Investigations were still ongoing in 25 of the cases.
Min. Alshaheed Muhammad quoted the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s words, “Separation is the best and only solution.” The Hon. Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam continuously taught separation as the solution for both people, Black and White.
His top student and National Representative Minister Louis Farrakhan explained that it is important to “reason” with what the Hon. Elijah Muhammad lays out in His program regarding separation.
“We are not just somebody that’s desirous of separating from you on our own. The Program of ‘separation’ is given by God, and backed by God as the only solution to the toxic relationship between Black and White,” the Minister explains in a 2017 message titled, “Separation or Death.”
“The only solution given is the one given by God, and that’s to separate from these individuals mentally and then physically,” said Student Min. Alshaheed Muhammad.
(Final Call staff contributed to this report.)