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ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and JACQUES BILLEAUD
It’s a common refrain from some of those charged in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and their Republican allies: The Justice Department is treating them harshly because of their political views while those arrested during last year’s protests over racial injustice were given leniency.
Court records tell a different story.
An Associated Press review of court documents in more than 300 federal cases stemming from the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death last year shows that dozens of people charged have been convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison.
The AP found that more than 120 defendants across the United States have pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial of federal crimes including rioting, arson and conspiracy. More than 70 defendants who’ve been sentenced so far have gotten an average of about 27 months behind bars. At least 10 received prison terms of five years or more.
The dissonance between the rhetoric of Capitol rioters and their supporters and the record established by courts highlights both the racial tension inherent in their arguments — the pro- Donald Trump rioters were largely white and last summer’s protesters were more diverse — and the flawed assessment at the heart of their claims.
“The property damage or accusations of arson and looting from last year, those were serious and they were dealt with seriously, but they weren’t an attack on the very core constitutional processes that we rely on in a democracy, nor were they an attack on the United States Congress,” said Kent Greenfield, a professor at Boston College Law School.
To be sure, some defendants have received lenient deals.
At least 19 who have been sentenced across the country got no prison time or time served, according to the AP’s review. Many pleaded guilty to lower- level offenses, such as misdemeanor assault, but some were convicted of more serious charges, including civil disorder.
In Portland, Oregon — where demonstrations, many turning violent, occurred nightly for months after a white Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd — about 60 of the roughly 100 cases that were brought have been dismissed, court records show.
But President Joe Biden’s Justice Department has continued the vast majority of the racial injustice protest cases brought across the U.S. under Trump and has often pushed for lengthy prison time for people convicted of serious crimes. Since Biden took office in January, federal prosecutors have brought some new cases stemming from last year’s protests.
Conservatives have sought to equate the attack on the Capitol with the Black Lives Matter protests, accusing Democrats of being hypocrites for not denouncing the violence after Floyd’s death as loudly as the Jan. 6 insurrection. And some Republicans have seized on the handling of the protest cases in Portland to suggest that the Jan. 6 defendants are being politically persecuted.
That has not been borne out when comparing the sentences that federal judges have given to Jan. 6 defendants and those who are accused of crimes during the protests against police brutality across the country.
Only a handful of the nearly 600 people who’ve been charged in the insurrection have received their punishments so far, and just three people have been sentenced to time behind bars. The vast majority of the most serious cases — involving those accused of assaulting police officers or conspiring to block the certification of Biden’s victory — remain unresolved.
The catalysts for the riot and the demonstrations for racial justice were also fundamentally different.
The mob of Trump supporters whipped up by the former president’s lies about the election descended on the Capitol and pushed past police barriers, assaulted officers, smashed windows and sent lawmakers running in a stunning attempt to overturn the presidential election.
The demonstrations after Floyd’s death were largely peaceful calls to address racial inequality and police brutality that occasionally turned violent. In some cities, protests descended into chaos after dark, with people smashing windows, looting stores, setting fires and assaulting officers.
William Barr, who as attorney general led the Justice Department last year under Trump, pushed federal prosecutors to aggressively go after pro- testers who caused violence. Defense lawyers complained that many of the cases belonged in state court — punishments are typically lighter there — and accused Justice Department officials of carrying out a politically motivated effort to stymie the demonstrations.
Just this month, a man was sentenced to four years behind bars and ordered to pay what his attorney said is likely to exceed $1.5 million in restitution after pleading guilty to inciting a riot last spring in Champaign, Illinois.
Shamar Betts, who was 19 at the time, posted a flyer on Facebook on May 31, 2020, that said “RIOT @ MarketPlace Mall” at 3 p.m. and instructed people to bring “friends & family, posters, bricks, bookbags etc.” He participated in the looting, went live on Facebook during the riot and bragged about starting it, authorities said. More than 70 stores were looted, and the riot caused $1.8 million in damage, prosecutors said.
Betts’ lawyer, Elisabeth Pollock, said Betts was frustrated about police brutality across the U.S., had lost his job because of the coronavirus outbreak and never intended to hurt anyone. Prosecutors pushed for the maxi- mum punishment of five years in prison and the maximum restitution amount for Betts, who had no criminal history, she said.
“They took into account not a single mitigating factor: nothing about how he grew up, nothing about about how the George Floyd protests had affected the community, nothing about how the pandemic had affected Shamar personally and the community. There was absolutely no quarter given to him at all,” his attorney said in an interview.
In the Capitol riot, dozens of defendants have been charged only with misdemeanors, and a standard plea deal has allowed many to plead guilty to a single count of demonstrating in the Capitol.
Only one defendant convicted of a felony has received his punishment so far. Paul Hodgkins, who breached the U.S. Senate chamber carrying a Trump cam- paign flag, was ordered to serve eight months behind bars.