The Backstory: Aaron Miguel Cantú

Reporting on the Prosecution of Protestors

For the past two years, reporting fellow Aaron Miguel Cantú has reported on the federal prosecution of protestors, and particularly protesters for racial justice, by the Trump and Biden administrations. In his newest investigation, produced in partnership with The Nation, Aaron and his co-reporter Kandist Mallett looked into the prosecution of Brittany Dawn Jeffrey, a Little Rock activist who was among a group of activists monitored by local law enforcement in the wake of the summer 2020 protests that followed George Floyd’s murder.

In this conversation, we talk to Aaron about how he started reporting on the federal prosecution of protestors, what it’s been like reporting across two presidential administrations, and how he discovered Little Rock activists were being tracked by law enforcement.

Paco Alvarez: So my first question. Since the protests in the summer of 2020, you’ve done several investigations into the unprecedented federal prosecution of protesters. What initially drew you to investigating the federal reaction to the 2020 protests? 
Aaron Cantú: Thinking back to that summer. The scale of unrest was unprecedented in my lifetime, as was the response from especially the Federal Government. I think it maybe can be hard to remember now more than two years later, but some of the really inflammatory and overtly politicized statements coming from the Trump administration and also from Attorney General Bill Barr. I was watching all of this occur and keeping tabs on federal prosecutions of protesters. First you had this unprecedented surge of activity, protest activity, rioting activity, civil unrest. And then the government’s response – it was extremely, to me, important to track and to follow, you know, to the point where I actually had a job and I quit my job in order to track those cases full time. Because I thought not just, you know, the things that people were doing to protest police killings and white supremacist violence against black people, but also more especially for me, what the federal government was doing under the Trump administration. I just found it to be very fascinating and certainly one of the most important stories of my lifetime

I thought about wanting to document the federal government’s pursuit of these cases in such a way that it was accurate and useful for not just people in the present , but even people looking back on that historic time. And once I began looking at the cases, I noticed that the political motivation by the Trump Justice Department was having an effect on the way those cases were being prosecuted. And to me, that felt important to elevate and to investigate and report on. 

Alvarez: And related to that: What has it been like reporting on the legal fallout of the 2020 protests over two presidential administrations? Have you noticed any differences in their tactics against protesters? 

Cantú: I think really what you’ve seen is kind of the you know, the Justice Department has been the subject of accusations and inquiries into its politicization and for good reasons, I think. Under the Trump Justice Department. You certainly saw the president attempt to use the Justice Department in politicized ways. The extent to which he was successful, you know, can be up for debate – I think, at least in these cases against activists and protesters, certainly there is a strong element of politics motivating the actions of prosecutors in those cases. And then I think, you know, under Biden, you’ve actually had similar accusations from the right, and a lot of that stems from prosecutions of participants in January 6th, to the point where you have far right people in Congress, you know, holding press conferences, you know, voicing concerns about January 6th participants in pretrial detention, enduring poor conditions of incarceration or whatever. And, you know, I’ve heard other even more extreme statements that, you know, that the Biden department, the Biden Department of Justice is cracking down on dissent on the right, pro-Trumpers. 

So this question of like the politicized Department of Justice has been such an interesting one to watch and to follow. But I think at least from the perspective of the 2020 prosecutions of activists, racial justice protesters, you kind of see the more mundane ways that a lot of what the Justice Department does is consistent across administrations. I spoke with one person who was a former high ranking official in the DOJ under Obama and Trump. And she kind of explained that, well, the Justice Department wants to be careful to not immediately drop certain prosecutions from one president to the other, because that would risk, you know, the Department of Justice being perceived as even more political than it already is. So under the Biden administration, you’ve just seen a kind of maintenance of these cases. 

I think one thing I do notice is, you know, whereas you might have had the Justice Department under Trump putting out press releases and statements when individuals involved in civil unrest were arrested. The Justice Department isn’t putting out a press release on those saying people are convicted under the Biden administration. So I think in a way that says something about the way that the Justice Department wants to be perceived. I think under the Trump Justice Department, you had a situation where they wanted to be seen as tough on crime, as tough on rioting and tough on Antifa, even. You have much less of that flashiness and boastfulness under the Biden DOJ. However, these cases have continued, you know, for all intents and purposes in a similar manner. So not too much change as far as changes to people’s actual cases. 

Alvarez: In your newest piece and also in your other pieces as well, you mentioned that there is a disparity between how racial justice protesters are treated and how the police handle other demonstrators. Could you say more about that? 

Cantú: Yeah. So that was specific to the cases that we looked at in Arkansas, specifically stemming from Little Rock. I’ve done maybe five or six stories on activists from the 2020 historic protests under federal prosecution. This was the first one I think we did that was very much anchored in the place where the prosecutions took place. The story really looked at one activist in particular who was very active that summer. She put together a bail fund for protesters across the state. She was well known as an organizer, organizer of nonviolent protests. She didn’t have a reputation as as a bomb thrower or anything like that. And so we really zeroed in on her story and requested a bunch of records from state police, Arkansas State Police and the Little Rock Police Department. And they gave us a lot back to their credit, and they gave it to us pretty quickly. 

So we spent a lot of time going through hundreds of email records and text messages as well. And we’re able to essentially look at every single message, document, what it was about, who the subject of those law enforcement communications were. And through that larger analysis, that took a long time, really saw a big focus on racial justice protesters, people affiliated with Black Lives Matter. And this sort of attitude among law enforcement that this is what we needed to watch. Even when a demonstration was promoted as as peaceful, it was tracked by the Fusion Center, that nexus of communication between local law enforcement and federal law enforcement, as if it was a potentially violent or explosive event. We compare that with the frequency of communications that mentions right wing or other opposition to racial justice demonstrations, as well as threats to those racial justice demonstrators. And the record as a whole very clearly shows a bias against the racial justice protesters, as seen by law enforcement as where the potential violence and the potential destruction and threat is coming from. While threats to those protesters where kind of ignored or dismissed or downplayed. 

And we supported our analysis of those records through conversations and reporting with others who were present at those racial justice demonstrations, including the executive director of the ACLU in Arkansas, who confirmed to us that she also voiced concern about threats to protesters, that she made those concerns known to law enforcement. And to her knowledge, nothing was done. So I think, through those ways, we were able to establish that kind of institutional bias, at least on that local level in Arkansas. 

Alvarez: When you went into the story, did you know that protesters were being surveilled? Or how did you discover that? 

Cantú: We didn’t. I think what was interesting about the story is or at least initially when we were looking at it, was you had this activist who’s obviously very engaged, very like locally high profile, someone who very clearly was seen as a leader and yet was sitting in federal pretrial detention for at that point, it was a few months. So I think that was just a bit of a clue to us that something was going on here and it was at least something worth looking into. And so it was kind of from that point on that we wanted to scrutinize the actions of local law enforcement and decided that one of the best ways to do that would just to be requesting their internal communications when things were very volatile. So like May 2020 through September 2020, and by reviewing all of those communications, we did identify that this activist, her name was Dawn Jeffrey, was mentioned by name at least eight or nine times by top intelligence officials in Arkansas. 

And so we also supported that analysis, again, with speaking with Dawn herself several times from jail. We spoke with many of her friends. We spoke with her sister and her mother, who confirmed that, you know, she always had this feeling that she was being watched, that at demonstrations, police would seem to already know her name. At one demonstration where video shows that police show up and just and just kind of snatcher they like they come out of their car and say her name and grab her and take her away from the protest. And it kind of confuses everybody. And we established that that specific protest was being monitored by top intelligence officials with the Arkansas State Police. We can’t say for sure whether that local police department arrested her because of that monitoring. But, you know, it fit that pattern of this one specific high profile Black activist being closely tracked by law enforcement. And then, of course, you had her arrested federally a few months laterand then a few months after that, she had her bond revoked. So I think taken together, it really does show a picture of a kind of political repression of a racial justice movement. I think we were very careful and try not to overstate what we found, but I think coming across her name so much in those internal intelligence communications really points it in a in a specific direction that we that we we reported on. 

Alvarez: So back in 2017, you were arrested while reporting on protests surrounding Trump’s inauguration. How has your own arrest informed your reporting on the federal crackdown on protests? 

Cantú: I think that was probably why I was initially so interested in the actions of the federal government and federal authorities around the initial prosecutions, around the racial justice protests in 2020. My experience showed me in a very personal way that the criminal justice system can work in a politicized way. And I think maybe that’s kind of obvious for anyone who’s picked up a book and knows anything about the criminal justice system in the U.S., but to experience it in a very personal way, it’s not something that I can easily forget. 

And I think that certainly made me aware and mindful of certain trends in choices by prosecutors. I think it makes me more aware of which crimes are prosecuted and which ones are not. I think it makes me more mindful also of things such as prosecutors requesting pretrial detention for certain defendants. My initial stories were about prosecutors pequesting pretrial detention for a lot of these activists and protesters, which seemed to again reflect a politicized disposition of U.S. attorneys across the country. 

It’s upsetting when you are the subject of an unfair prosecution. It is isolating and alienating. And it’s very difficult for anybody to understand that experience. Often that experience is dismissed as an example of someone trying to claim that they were innocent when in fact they were guilty. It can feel as if the whole world is against you. And so I don’t want to say that, you know, I started off thinking that individuals prosecuted for the 2020 protests were innocent of the stuff they were charged with. I was concerned with shining a spotlight on the actions of the federal government. Because I think in these kinds of situations, it’s the prosecutors, it’s the state, it’s the Department of Justice that has the resources and has the power. And in my opinion, reporters should be shining their lights on those kinds of institutions in these kinds of scenarios, especially when evidence points to politics informing issues of criminal justice. 

Alvarez: And that segues nicely into my last question, which is do you have any advice for journalists who want to report on the prosecution of protesters? 

Cantú: If you’re wanting to look at federal prosecutions at least get familiar with PACER and install RECAP. That’s a Chrome extension. It makes it much easier to look at federal court cases. If you’re wanting to look at local cases, having a solid understanding of how to navigate those records, being aware of where those records are housed, which courthouse is it? Is it a superior courthouse? Is it municipal? So get familiar with how to find documents in those places. 

And then I think a good first point of contact is the lawyers for those defendants. Often they can be very helpful. Other people who can be helpful or again, if you’re looking at federal prosecutions, maybe contact former US attorneys. There’s also many, many groups that focus on civil liberties that you can contact. And I also think that, if you’re looking at this from a political perspective, understanding the history of the ways that this country has handled and prosecuted individuals struggling for liberation. I looked and read a lot of literature from the late 1960s and 1970s. A lot of the charges that people were stuck with from 2020 were actually innovated back in the late sixties and early seventies, you know, during another period of unrest. So I think having a historical, historically grounded perspective can be very helpful. And can you just just kind of guide you toward asking the right kinds of questions.

About the reporter