Attorney General William Barr drew sharp condemnation Thursday for comparing lockdown orders during the coronavirus pandemic to slavery.
In remarks Wednesday night at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Barr called the lockdown orders the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history” since slavery.
“greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in 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 Donald Trump’s administration.
But many have questioned his objectivity since 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.
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,” he said.
Reaction from a Democratic congresswoman:
Each day Bill Barr remains in his position, he does an injustice to justice in this country. He continues to dangerously use the DOJ as a political weapon because he sees himself not as the Attorney General for the American people but as the personal henchman for Donald Trump. <a href=”https://t.co/ga5GR2GuXj”>https://t.co/ga5GR2GuXj</a>
Some cases are viewed as trumped up and should not be in federal court, lawyers say, including a teenager 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 in a protest that followed the death of a knife-wielding man by police.
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.
Pockets of violence have indeed 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: Rochester, N.Y., Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Federal officials were called into Kenosha, Wis., after large protests and unrest following the shooting of Jacob Blake 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 a man accused of shooting and killing a demonstrator in Louisville following the death of Breonna Taylor.
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 and 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.