Swept up by police

Analysis of arrests in 15 cities reveals most George Floyd protesters were charged with misdemeanors and lived within the metro area where they were arrested.

By Meryl Kornfield, Austin R. Ramsey, Jacob Wallace, Christopher Casey and Verónica Del Valle

Protests over George Floyd’s killing included one in Miami May 31, 2020, (Hanna Tverdokhib/Dreamstime.com) 

Protesters arrested after the May 25 death of George Floyd were a diverse, young group of people who demonstrated close to home and were charged largely with nonviolent crimes, according to a Washington Post review of data on more than 2,600 people detained in 15 cities.

The data contradicts suggestions by President Trump and other officials that those who took to the streets were mostly agitators from out-of-town, committing felonious acts.

 Former IRW intern Meryl Kornfield, now a reporter at the Post, led a team that included IRW Fellow Austin R. Ramsey, and American University graduate students Jacob Wallace, Christopher Casey and Verónica Del Valle to research and report this story.
Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police launched one of the largest waves of civil unrest — and arrests — in the nation since the Vietnam War. In the first two weeks, police arrested more than 17,000 people in the 50 largest cities that had organized protests, according to a Post survey of news releases, arrest reports and aggregate data provided by police.

Details of those arrests are not available in most of the cities, though they are widely presumed to be a public record. A patchwork of state record laws and police reporting practices has shielded them from scrutiny.

The Post’s analysis found the overwhelming majority arrested in those 15 cities — 2,059 of the 2,652 — were accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, most on charges of violating curfew or emergency orders.

Almost 22 percent — 582 — were charged with crimes related to violence or the threat of violence to people, businesses or property. These included misdemeanor or felony charges related to rioting, burglary, looting, attempted murder, assault on police, weapons and arson. The remaining 11 cases of the 2,652 were nonviolent felonies, including parole violations, drug charges and driving while intoxicated.

Nationwide, the large number of arrests in those first two weeks occurred because police policies and training were inadequate to deal with widespread demonstrations at such a tense moment in the nation’s history, experts said.

“When it comes to civil disorder, officers are trained to handle riots,” said Edward Maguire, a professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University, who has helped craft federal guidelines on community policing amid social unrest. “They’re not trained to handle peaceful demonstrations or even mostly peaceful protests. They often show up to crowd control events that are not yet riots and handle them as if they were riots.”

To identify those arrested and the outcomes of their cases, The Post filed public records requests with police and prosecutors in 30 of the 50 largest cities, seeking the name, charge and demographic information of anyone arrested at a demonstration from May 25 to June 8. Officials in 15 of the cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland and Portland, Ore., disclosed at least some information about arrestees, providing the most comprehensive snapshot so far of those detained. The data provided incomplete demographic information about the 2,652 people arrested in those cities:

  • Of the 1,076 arrestees for which information about race was available, 542 were Black and 534 White.
  • There were three times as many men arrested as women. Gender information was available for 841 arrestees.
  • The youngest protesters arrested included juveniles of undisclosed ages. The average age of those arrested was 26 and the oldest was 64. Ages were noted for 1,600 arrests.
  • Of the 1,874 arrests that listed a home address, 1,533 — 82 percent — lived within the metro area of where they were detained; 148 lived elsewhere in the state of arrest and 179 were from another state. Fourteen were listed as homeless.
Many of the charges brought by police were later dropped.
Yolanda McGriff stands for a portrait with her 16-year-old daughter in Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 23, 2020. McGriff and her daughter were among of the millions who took to city streets nationwide in protest after the death of George Floyd, and she was one of 74 protesters who were arrested on May 30 in Dallas. (Photo by Zerb Mellish for The Washington Post via Getty Images) 

One such case involved 56-year-old Yolanda McGriff on May 30 in Dallas. McGriff was on her way home to the city’s suburbs from a graduation gift exchange with her daughter Keionna when the teen pleaded to stop at and participate in a demonstration underway downtown.

She and Keionna, 16, joined protesters gathered on a highway for about a half-hour. Some protesters threw water bottles at police, but things were mostly peaceful, McGriff said. As they were about to leave, police descended on the crowd. Keionna, who runs track, jumped over a ledge and out of the way of an oncoming police cruiser and ran out of her mother’s view.

Police arrested McGriff, one of 74 people detained that evening, records show. She was jailed on a charge of obstructing a highway.

She spent nearly 24 hours in jail. The charge was later dropped.

“I wasn’t rioting. I wasn’t looting. I wasn’t doing anything but acting upon a request for my daughter to participate in something that she has a right to do,” said McGriff, who owns an antique furniture shop in Dallas. “It was traumatizing because I always work, I always live my life to where I could be an example for her.”

Other cities that provided detailed information on arrestees included Austin, Honolulu, Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Tulsa and D.C.

Police in Los Angeles and New York City — who arrested more than 5,000 people — provided no records, but prosecutors in those cities disclosed partial data for those with pending cases.

In 15 cities, officials have denied or failed to provide requested records.

In Omaha, city officials said assembling a list grouping arrestees by circumstances would require the creation of a new public record, which is not required under the state open records law. Seattle police said it would take six months to produce records because of an “extreme backlog” of requests. Chicago police blamed delays on the fact their records specialists are working from home during the pandemic.

Prosecutors in a handful of major cities, including Houston and Chicago, have announced they would not prosecute many of those arrested. Portland and New York City prosecutors told The Post that they were revising policies to exclude demonstrators from prosecution for certain offenses.

“The prosecution of protesters charged with these low-level offenses undermines critical bonds between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said on June 5, announcing that demonstrators arrested for unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct would not face court.

‘Why was it me that had to be the example?’

Some Black protesters, including 42-year-old Yamil Little, question whether officers targeted them based on their race.

In Atlanta, over eight nights of unrest, police arrested 581 protesters, including Little. Nearly half of the people arrested were, like Little, Black men.

The evening of May 30, Little, who lives in the suburb of Smyrna, said he was among hundreds of people gathered on the sidewalk outside the governor’s mansion, where Gov. Brian Kemp (R) lives. After 15 minutes of marching, Little said police moved in and an officer pushed him to the pavement. He said two other people, one Black and one White, stepped in to help him and police arrested all three.

They were jailed on misdemeanor charges of obstructing the roadway, among the 194 arrested that day, records show.

Little told The Post that he believes the officer, who was White, arrested him because he’s Black. “Why was it me that had to be the example?” he said.

Officers took away his phone, Little said, and he could not call his family from jail because he had not memorized their phone numbers. After 24 hours, he said he was released on bail.

Asked about Little’s arrest, Atlanta police referred to his arrest report, which stated that officers asked some of the demonstrators to step out of the road and Little and the two others refused.

“We support those who protest and demonstrate peacefully,” Sgt. John Chafee, an Atlanta police spokesman, wrote in an email. “However, criminal and disruptive behavior sometimes does lead to arrests or charges.”

Of those arrested, 573 faced misdemeanor charges, most commonly a curfew violation, records show. Police arrested eight protesters on felony charges, ranging from burglary to aggravated assault.

Five months later, Little said he does not know the status of his case.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “What is happening with my charge? Am I not being charged? And if I’m not being charged, why was I arrested in the first place?”

Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage said he is reviewing Little’s case and more than 100 of the other misdemeanor arrests. Gammage said his prosecutors have been hampered because they are working from home during the pandemic. “If we determine that an individual was exercising their lawful First Amendment right and engaging in civil disobedience, then those cases I plan to dismiss,” Gammage said.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd died, local police arrested 570 people in the ensuing protests. Nearly 90 percent of them were from the metro area and the vast majority were charged with curfew violations. All but 44 cases have been dropped, according to city and county prosecutors.

Of the dismissals, Casper Hill, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, wrote in an email that “it’s a better use of resources to focus on other cases that were delayed due to the COVID-19 impact, such as domestic assault cases, [driving while intoxicated] cases and other cases involving victims.”

Minneapolis also saw one of the more high-profile acts of violence involving protesters. On May 28, demonstrators overran and set fire to a police precinct station. In the aftermath, four men — two from the city and two from rural Minnesota — were arrested. The U.S. Justice Department is prosecuting those four for federal crimes related to the arson.

Nationwide, federal prosecutors have filed charges against 286 demonstrators since the unrest began, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press. Most of those facing federal charges are men, more than two-thirds are under the age of 30 and at least one third are Black, the AP reported. More than one fourth are charged with arson.

These federal prosecutions for more serious crimes were the exception among arrests overall, according to The Post’s review.

Attorney General William P. Barr and others have suggested the Black Lives Matter movement has been hijacked by violent members of antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists. In arrest records reviewed, police did not record political or other affiliations of those detained. The Department of Justice declined to elaborate on Barr’s comments about antifa.

In Austin, however, a county prosecutor blamed the May 31 looting of a Target store during demonstrations on a local antifa group, charging three members with felony burglary and other crimes.

“The three people arrested are known members of a local anti-government group, which is a self-identified communist/socialist ANTIFA group,” according to a June 6 news release from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors and Austin police both declined to comment on the case, citing its pending status.

Attorneys for the three — Austin residents Samuel Miller, 22, Skye Elder, 23, and Lisa Hogan, 27 — denied the claim and the charges. Miller and Elder are White; Hogan is Black.

Hogan is a married mother of a 2-year-old girl, works in the service industry and is not a member of antifa, her attorney George Lobb said. “My client has never espoused to hold that idea or be a part of whatever imagined group exists,” he said, adding that she was motivated to protest because of racial injustice.

Arrested while reporting

In addition to the 17,000 protesters arrested in the 50 major cities, police detained an unknown number of demonstrators in smaller cities. By some estimates, more than 350 cities had demonstrations in those first two weeks.

On June 1 in Asbury Park, N.J., police arrested 12 demonstrators, including Gustavo Martínez Contreras, a multimedia metro reporter for the Asbury Park Press.

Martínez, with two press badges around his neck, said he set out to cover protests in downtown Asbury Park as the city’s 8 p.m. curfew took effect. The curfew exempted “credentialed members of the media,” and the newspaper told police their reporters would be on the scene, according to a federal lawsuit he later filed against the city.

The protests remained calm until 10 p.m., Martínez said, when he heard screams. He said he and a photographer ran toward the commotion and saw officers spraying chemical irritants at protesters. He was live-streaming video as officers threw a young man and his sister to the curb.

Police body-camera footage, later disclosed in response to his lawsuit, showed four officers moving Martínez away when, suddenly, an officer from across the street ran toward him, yelling, “F— him. He’s the problem.” The officer tackled Martínez while another officer yelled, “Take down his f—ing phone.”

Martínez was jailed on a charge of “failure to disperse.” The next day, police wrote in paperwork that they were dropping the charge because he was a reporter.

He said he believes he was arrested because of the video he recorded, and his suit alleges his First Amendment and due process rights were violated. The city has denied his claims.

“It’s about standing up for journalists throughout the country who might be afraid or who have suffered, you know, who have been wounded or maimed or detained by police officers who are targeting the media, because they’re showing their behavior toward the citizenry,” he said.

An investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office cleared the arresting officers of wrongdoing. The review said that Martínez’s attire and behavior indicated he was a protester and that he did not identify himself as a member of the press, which he disputes. Asbury Park police did not respond to requests for comment.

In the first two weeks of protests, police detained 65 journalists in 12 cities, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a database maintained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Of those, 29 were arrested, most commonly on charges of violating curfew or failing to disperse. At least 10 journalists still have charges pending, according to the database.

Martínez’s suit is among a growing number filed by people arrested during demonstrations nationwide. Many of the suits allege wrongful arrests and that police are using anti-rioting laws to restrict free speech.

‘We told you to leave’

In Dallas, police detained more than 800 people during the first two weeks of protests, including the mass arrest on June 1 of 674 people who had gathered on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

Three days later police reversed course and announced the 674 arrested would not be formally charged. Later, police also dropped most of the remaining charges — primarily curfew violations — against other protesters, leaving charges against 13 people, including Madison Rubalcaba.

On May 30, Rubalcaba, a 21-year-old Fort Worth nanny, was protesting near City Hall in Dallas. Police began firing tear gas canisters into the crowds and Rubalcaba, who is Hispanic, said she and her friends decided to leave.

A smoking gas canister blocked access to her parked car, so Rubalcaba said she tried to extinguish it with her water bottle. Police shot her in the thigh with a sponge bullet and a group of officers tackled her, she said.

“I was just looking at the asphalt and thinking, this can’t be real,” Rubalcaba said. “I asked them, ‘Why are you arresting me?’ They just said, ‘We told you to leave and you wouldn’t leave.’ ”

She was booked into jail on a charge of obstructing a highway, a misdemeanor.

In jail, she said her leg swelled from being shot. Officers dropped her off outside a nearby emergency room, telling her to return to jail within 72 hours.

She said she surrendered at 9:30 a.m. two days later. She was again jailed, brought before a judge, and then put into a holding area for about five hours. While there, she got her period. Jail personnel gave a menstrual pad, but it was insufficient. She asked for additional pads, but was given none and soon she was bleeding onto the bench. “It was degrading,” she said.

The night of Rubalcaba’s arrest, police also arrested McGriff, who had stopped by a protest to march with her 16-year-old daughter Keionna.

For about five hours, McGriff did not know what happened to her daughter, who she last saw jumping out of the way of a police vehicle. “Am I upset that she ran? No. Because that’s what saved her life.”

While in jail, McGriff said she was eventually allowed to call her family and found out that Keionna had made it home. After nearly 24 hours, McGriff was released.

“I’m not a criminal,” she said. “And to end up in jail for protesting was very traumatizing.”

In the end, police did not forward her case to prosecutors and it was dropped, according to Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Ellyce Lindberg.

McGriff and eight other protesters have sued the Dallas Police Department in federal court. Attorney David Henderson said police arrested McGriff and his other clients illegally because they deemed the gathering a riot yet most of the people there were nonviolent. Dallas police declined to comment, citing the suit.

“My whole life changed from that one decision,” McGriff said of taking Keionna to the demonstration. “And I have to make sure I tell myself every day that as a mother first that I didn’t make the wrong decision.”



Nate Jones, Jenn Abelson, Nicole Dungca, Emily Guskin and Steven Rich contributed to this report.

To study the mass arrests of protesters in the two weeks after the May 25 death of George Floyd, The Washington Post searched available police and court records online, and filed public records requests with officials in 30 cities nationwide. The Post sought to identify each protester’s name, arrest charges, age, race, gender and hometown.

Reporters assembled all or some of that information for about 2,652 arrests in 15 cities. For analysis, charges were grouped in the following categories: violating curfew, resisting commands by police, theft, damaging property, weapons crimes, traffic violations, and rioting. For example, the arresting charges of “interfering with a peace officer” in Portland, Ore., and “failure to comply” in Cleveland were both categorized as “resisting commands by police.” Less common charges, such as assault, harassment and probation violations, were grouped as miscellaneous.

Separately, The Post classified charges as nonviolent, or violent or threatening violence. Reporters attempted to contact more than 80 people arrested or detained during protests and interviewed more than a dozen.


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