U.S. attorney general Barr likens stay-at-home orders to slavery, as Trump derides focus on Black history

Attorney General William Barr drew sharp condemnation Thursday for likening lockdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic to slavery.

In remarks Wednesday night at an event hosted by Northern Virginia’s Hillsdale College, Barr called the lockdown orders the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in American history “other than slavery.”

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democratic leader, told CNN that Barr’s remarks were “the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful things I’ve ever heard” because they wrongly equated human bondage with a measure aimed at saving lives.

“Slavery was not about saving lives. It was about devaluing lives,” said Clyburn, who is Black. “This pandemic is a threat to human life.”

This is not the first occasion that Barr has condemned stay-at-home orders.

He has previously said that some orders were “disturbingly close to house arrest,” and the Justice Department sent letters to several states warning that some of their virus-related restrictions might be unlawful. Prosecutors also filed statements of interest in several civil cases challenging some of the restrictions.

New Jersey congressman Bill Pascrell Jr., reacting to the comments Wednesday, tweeted: “Bill Barr is drunk with power, an out-of-control fanatic, a frothing enemy of democracy. Barr should be impeached then stripped of his law licences for life.”

Barr was confirmed as attorney general in February 2019, even capturing three Democratic votes in the process.

Some Democrats who voted against him had expressed hopes based on his record as attorney general in the early 1990s under George H.W. Bush that he would be a moderate voice in President Donald Trump’s administration.

But many have since questioned his objectivity due to the Justice Department’s intervention in the cases of Trump associates Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, and more recently, Trump accuser E. Jean Carroll.

Sedition charges could be considered: Barr

Democrats are also expressing concern about Barr’s increasingly aggressive stance toward protests against police violence and for racial justice that have sometimes spilled into violence.

In a private call with federal prosecutors across the country this week, Barr pushed his U.S. attorneys to bring federal charges whenever they could, keeping a grip on cases even if a defendant could be tried instead in state court, according to officials with knowledge of last week’s call who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Federal convictions often result in longer prison sentences.

A protester is arrested as police attempt to take control of the streets during Portland protests on Sept. 5. A considerable number of the federal charges laid in a summer of U.S. protests have occurred in the Oregon city. (Paula Bronstein/The Associated Press)

During the call with U.S. attorneys, Barr raised the prospect that prosecutors could bring a number of other potential charges in unrest cases, including the rarely used sedition statute, according to the officials familiar with the call. Legal experts cautioned the use of that statute is unlikely, given its difficulty to prove in court.

The Trump administration’s crackdown has already led to more than 300 arrests on federal crimes in the protests since the death of George Floyd.

An AP analysis of the data shows that while many people are accused of violent crimes such as arson for hurling Molotov cocktails and burning police cars and assault for injuring law enforcement, others are not. That’s led to criticism that at least some arrests are a politically motivated effort to stymie demonstrations.

“The speed at which this whole thing was moved from state court to federal court is stunning and unbelievable,” said Charles Sunwabe, who represents an Erie, Pa., man accused of lighting a fire at a coffee shop after a May 30 protest.

“It’s an attempt to intimidate these demonstrators and to silence them.”

Reaction from a Democratic congresswoman:

Some cases are viewed as trumped up and should not be in federal court, lawyers say, including one in which a teenager was accused of civil disorder for claiming online “we are not each other’s enemy, only enemy is 12,” a reference to law enforcement.

While many local prosecutors have dismissed dozens of low-level protest arrests, some are still coming down hard. A Pennsylvania judge set bail at $1 million for about a dozen people who allegedly took part in a protest that followed the death of a knife-wielding man at the hands of police.

Trump wants ‘patriot education’ restored

The administration has seized on the demonstrations with an aggressive federal response. Trump claims he is countering rising crime in cities run by Democrats and has derided protesters, though the majority of them are peaceful.

Hinging his campaign on turning out his core supporters, he has increasingly used his public appearances to elevate cultural issues important to his base, which is generally older and white.

In a speech Thursday at the National Archives to commemorate Constitution Day, he derided The New York Times’ ‘1619 Project,’ which aims to reframe the country’s history by highlighting the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.

“For many years now, the radicals have mistaken Americans’ silence for weakness. But they are wrong,” Trump said. “There is no more powerful force than a parent’s love for their children — and patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

WATCH | Trump’s comments about what he calls ‘patriot education’:

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday called efforts like the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which pegs the beginning of U.S. history to the arrival of the first slave ship, ‘ideological poison.’ 1:27

He also stated that “patriotic education” should be restored in schools.

“Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools,” he said. “It’s being imposed into workplace trainings and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbours and families.”

Pockets of violence have popped up in cities, including Portland, Ore., where protests have devolved into clashes with law enforcement for weeks on end. Nights of looting and other unrest have occurred elsewhere, including Rochester, N.Y., Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Federal officials were called into Kenosha, Wis., after unrest and large protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and the gunning down of two protesters and subsequent arrest of a 17-year-old in their deaths.

Notably, that teenager has not been charged with any federal crimes, nor has a man accused of shooting and killing a demonstrator in Louisville following the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of police there. 

Black Lives Matter uses victims as ‘props’: Barr

About one-third of the federal protest-related cases are in Portland, for crimes such as assaulting a deputy U.S. marshal with a baseball bat, setting fires, setting off explosives at the federal courthouse and throwing rocks at officers.

It is not clear whether protest-related arrests will continue apace. Demonstrations have slowed, though not necessarily because of the federal charges. Wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the South have lessened some of the conflict.

Barr has said he does not believe there is systemic racism in police departments, even though Black people are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police, and public attitudes over police reforms have shifted.

At the Hillsdale College event, he said it was a “small number” of cases while taking aim at the Black Lives Matter protest movement.

“They’re not interested in Black lives,” Barr said, according to a report in the Washington Post.

“They’re interested in props, a small number of Blacks who are killed by police during conflicts with police — usually less than a dozen a year — who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”

While Barr has gone after protest-related violence targeted at law enforcement, he has argued there is seldom a reason to open sweeping investigations into the practices of police departments. The Justice Department, however, has initiated a number of civil rights investigations into individual cases.

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