2 Black Lives Matter demonstrators are facing life in prison. Experts say the ‘deeply disturbing’ potential sentences are an ‘unprecedented’ form of government overreach.

  • Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman are facing life in prison after officials said they lit a police van on fire with a Molotov cocktail at a Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn in May. 
  • But Mattis and Rahman aren't alone — more than 13,000 people have been arrested during protests this year, and the Department of Justice said more than 300 people across 29 states have been charged with federal crimes.
  • Experts told Insider that the charges are "unprecedented" and "deeply disturbing."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Early on the morning of May 30, New York police officers arrested two lawyers during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Officials said the lawyers, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman, threw a Molotov cocktail at an empty, already vandalized police vehicle, and drove away.

The lawyers are now facing life in prison for the alleged crime.

After protests first erupted following the May 25 death of George Floyd — who was killed when a then-Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — the FBI said more than 13,600 protesters had been arrested as of  June 6. Of those, the Department of Justice said on Thursday that more than 300 people across 29 states have been charged with federal crimes connected to protests, and have been accused of arson, assault, destruction of property, and more.

Protests have continued through the summer and were reignited nationwide on Wednesday after a grand jury opted not to charge Louisville police officers for the death of Breonna Taylor.

It's unclear exactly how many protesters have been arrested since June, though President Donald Trump repeatedly called for strict crackdowns on demonstrations, and arrests are still happening.

Samuel Spital, the director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said recent charges against protesters have been "deeply disturbing."

"I think that the degree to which we're seeing federal overreach and in many states, state overreach, with efforts to bring extreme charges for conduct that is either innocent or quite low level, is unprecedented," he told Insider.

"I think there is a serious backlash to the protests that are designed to shine light on the epidemic of police violence against black people in this country, and I think that this overreach is connected to that backlash," he added.

Demonstrators are facing 'atypical' charges 

Michael Loadenthal, a professor at Georgetown University and the executive director of the Prosecution Project, a research platform tracking criminal cases involving political violence in the US,  told Insider that there are some "unique features" to what's going on with recent charges filed against Black Lives Matter protesters. 

"It's not precisely unprecedented, but certainly atypical. Demonstrators are being charged using statutes which are not typically used," he said. 

Violations related to low-level offenses like property damage or other non-violent offenses are typically handled by state and local authorities. But Loadenthal said he's seen at least 32 cases of demonstrators charged with misdemeanors being pursued at the federal level.  

In this May 30, 2020 combination of booking photos provided by the United States Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of New York, Colinford Mattis, left, and Urooj Rahman, both Brooklyn attorneys, are shown after they were arrested for allegedly firebombing a police vehicle in New York. Dozens of former prosecutors are questioning the government's handling of a case against the two lawyers on charges that could put them in prison for nearly 50 years for torching the empty New York City police vehicle in May 2020.
U.S. Attorney's Office via AP, File

Additionally, the Justice Department accused at least 76 individuals of violating "interstate commerce" statutes.  Interstate commerce statutes typically refer to charges of drug or weapons trafficking, kidnapping, or making threats against government bodies. 

Many interstate commerce violations deal with the unlawful transport of weapons — typically guns —across state lines. In one instance, the US Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida charged Ivan Jacob Zecher with unlawful interstate commerce after police found a Molotov cocktail in his backpack, that had been made using a Patron tequila bottle. Prosecutors said the charge was valid because the tequila bottle was manufactured in Mexico and shipped to the United States.

Both Mattis and Rahman were charged with arson in interstate commerce as well as aiding and abetting in connection to a police van fire during a Black Lives Matter protest between the evening of May 29 and early morning of May 30 in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood.

According to a criminal complaint seen by New York magazine, prosecutors say Rahman leaned out of Mattis's van and threw a Bud Light bottle filled with gasoline and a toilet paper fuse through a broken window of an empty police car, causing the vehicle to ignite.

"The US attorney in Brooklyn took these cases very seriously and sought out the harshest provisions that he could," Rahman's lawyer, Paul Schechtman, told Insider.

A legal expert speculated to The Appeal that Rahman and Mattis were charged with arson in interstate commerce likely because the NYPD receives federal funding and supplies, including vehicles like the one burned, from out of state.

Dozens of lawyers have since criticized the charges.

Rahman and Mattis aren't alone in facing serious charges, and right-to-protest laws are getting stricter 

But across the country, court records data released by the Associated Press showed that Rahman and Mattis aren't alone. At least 60 people have been charged with arson, 37 people have been charged with illegal possession of a firearm, and 30 have been charged with assaulting, impeding, or intimidating federal employee or officer in connection to alleged incidents stemming from protests.

Seven protesters in Salt Lake City, Utah, were briefly facing life in prison after prosecutors said they covered the District Attorney's office building with red spray paint. The charges have since been downgraded, though protesters still face five to 15 years behind bars for the alleged crime.

Meanwhile, data compiled by the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law shows that 40 states have considered restricting the right to peaceful assembly in recent years.

Since 2017, the agency says, 25 state and local-level laws have been enacted that restrict the right to protest.

In this July 9, 2020, file photo, protesters gather in front of district attorney's office in Salt Lake City, where demonstrators covered the street in red paint
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

"These legislative efforts were designed to curtail a rising and increasingly cross-pollinating intersection of social movements," Loadenthal said, saying that demonstrations from the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-fascist movement, and the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline have led to stricter right to protest laws.

He added that there seems to be an "intentional strategy" used by the federal government to increase consequences and charges against those who engage in disruptive demonstrations.

"Seemingly this is being done to dissuade people from engaging in effective political action outside of the state's mandate — to 'chill dissent' as the courts have called it," he said. "A lot of these anti-protest laws are designed to make something more illegal because of its political focus and because it accomplishes its goal of disrupting capital flows."

Larry Hildes, a civil rights lawyer and member of the National Lawyers Guild, told Insider that there's been a "gradual ratcheting up" of restrictions for decades.

"It's clearly intended to scare some people out of the streets," Hildes said. "It's designed really to drive people out in silence. So that terrifies me."

One legal expert told Insider that the US is in a 'moment of reckoning'

While experts told Insider that the sheer number of charges and severity of sentences related to this summer's Black Lives Matter protests were unprecedented, federal involvement in local cases is nothing new. Federal officials often get involved in hate crimes and gang-related activity, and have previously charged protesters.

Police officers move protestors away from a car that was set on fire during protests near the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, U.S., January 20, 2017.
Bryan Woolston/Reuters

After Inauguration Day protests in 2017, hundreds of people were charged with federal crimes. After a year and a half of back and forth in federal court, charges against the protesters were dropped. 

It's unclear what will happen to the more than 300 people facing federal charges following this year's protests.

Hildes and Spital told Insider that the federal government needs to be held accountable for "overreaching charges' against protesters.

Still, Spital encouraged people to keep protesting because, he said, that's what leads to change.

"We're having a moment in this country where we're having a moment of reckoning with the degree to which there is this epidemic of police violence again Black people. As with other moments in our history where there has been a reckoning… it has always been the result of grassroots organizing, and grassroots protesting. It's a very important tool to kind of awaken the nation's consciousness."

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