As state and federal politicians send a surge of police and soldiers to confront the nationwide protests that emerged over the last week, the number of people arrested is already double the number of white-collar criminals federally prosecuted in all of 2019.
The quickly rising tally is a reminder that while some forms of theft and devastation are punished, others draw little response at all; the criminal justice system is designed to make it easy to prosecute some types of crimes and not others. At least 11,000 people around the country have already been arrested during the protests, while just 359 white-collar crimes were federally prosecuted in the entire month of January, down 25% from 2015 levels.
Meanwhile, President Trump told governors dealing with protests on Monday: “You have to arrest and try people.”
The number of arrests is certain to rise as the protests continue and the National Guard is deployed on the streets. The rapid surge, which happened within days of the protests beginning, contrasts with the Trump administration’s light-touch approach to enforcing financial crimes, with federal white-collar prosecutions on track to reach an all-time low this year.
“If prosecutions continue at the same pace for the remainder of ... 2020, they are projected to fall to 5,175 — almost half the level of their Obama-era peak,” according to TRAC, a research group at Syracuse University that tracks federal law enforcement patterns.
Politicians and law enforcement have declared zero tolerance for looting as protests go on. Alleged financial crimes by major corporations, meanwhile, almost always end up with no one being prosecuted, and often with the companies paying the government a settlement in return for it dropping the case. Wells Fargo, for example, agreed to pay $3 billion to settle its fake account scandal, which led to customers being charged unexpected fees and likely damaged their credit scores. Bank of America paid $16.65 billion to settle claims of fraud over its role in the economic carnage caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
“People are being arrested for what — peaceful protesting and being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Getting caught breaking a window?” asked Geert Dhondt, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The larger crimes, and the larger harm to society, goes unpunished.”
There have already been at least 11,000 arrests since peaceful protests and violent demonstrations erupted around the country in response to the death of George Floyd, according to estimates by BuzzFeed News. Some were arrested for failing to obey orders from law enforcement, stealing, obstructing traffic, or disturbing the peace. In Minnesota, 150 were arrested Sunday and early Monday for breaking the 8 p.m. curfew.
“Tactically a lot of the [protest] arrests are just for order keeping. So they’re not worried about prosecuting these folks, they’re arresting them to get them off the streets and trying to maintain control,” said Jesse Jannetta, senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute. “One question being put in front of us by the protests is, Who does the law tend to protect versus people who are constantly being enforced on by the law? Low-income communities, particularly predominantly African American communities, have a ton of police presence.”
The outsized police reaction to the George Floyd protests echoes the response to the Occupy movement that followed the 2008 financial crisis. More than 7,700 protesters were arrested, according to the site OccupyArrests.com; only one US banker was sentenced to prison for their role in the financial crisis, which led to 10 million families losing their homes.
Berkeley professor and former labor secretary Robert Reich tweeted, “More peaceful protestors and journalists have been jailed in the past week than all the bankers who were jailed for fraud during the financial collapse.”
“What happened in the financial crisis caused huge amounts of harm, but that’s not thought about the same way,” said Jannetta. “George Floyd, our understanding is he tried to use a fake $20 bill … So is there equality of protection and is there equality of enforcement? And I think when you look across these things, the answer isn’t yes.”
Dhondt said this inequality is only growing with every crisis. “Who does the real looting in society? Someone who smashes a window or private equity firms that buy up companies in crisis and sell off their parts and destroys thousands of people’s lives?”
“The crimes of the rich are not prosecuted; they’re ignored,” Dhondt added, “even though they do a lot more harm than a few broken windows.”