Federal Prosecutors Engaged in Unprecedented Push to Jail Protesters Before Trial

Shamar Betts has been detained since June for a provocative flyer he posted on Facebook amid protests over the killing of George Floyd.

Shamar Betts never thought of himself as a radical. Last year, when he was 18 years old, he had a minimum-wage job at a camp for preschoolers in Urbana, Illinois, teaching them to play chess and explore nature. In a parents’ handbook, Betts described himself as a vegetarian who didn’t “believe in harming any living being.”

As Covid-19 spread, Betts’s hours were reduced to zero, leaving him with more free time. When a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, resulting in a flood of civil unrest, he felt called to action; his best friend had been killed by Chicago police in 2017. He attended a small march where there were more white people in attendance than Black; the crowd’s energy didn’t reflect the rage and pain that he felt.

So the next morning, Betts posted a flyer on his Facebook page, calling for a riot at a local shopping mall in Champaign on May 31. “Ya’ll don’t think we suffer through inequality here EVERYDAY,” Betts wrote. “They didn’t listen when we were peaceful so we gone hit em where it hurts,” he added. The flyer asked participants to bring “friends & family, posters, bricks, bookbags etc.”

At the shopping mall, he broadcast himself on Facebook Live as people around him took items from an Old Navy, boasting that he had “started” the riot. Twenty-seven people were taken into custody and an estimated 50 businesses were damaged. That same day, U.S. Attorney General William Barr denounced nationwide rioting as “domestic terrorism” linked to “Antifa and other similar groups,” and said that federal law enforcement was working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces to apprehend people.

Days later, U.S. marshals located Betts, who was staying at his uncle’s home in Tchula, Mississippi. They banged on the door at 6 a.m., Betts said, and forced him to crawl toward them as they held assault rifles. He was charged in both Illinois and federal courts but detained under federal authority for “using a facility of interstate commerce” — the internet, specifically Facebook — to incite a riot; he faces up to five years in prison. He’s never been convicted of a crime.

About the reporter

Aaron Miguel Cantú

Aaron Miguel Cantú

Aaron Miguel Cantú is an investigative reporter currently based in Los Angeles and a former Lannan Foundation Fellow with Type Investigations. You can see more of his work here.