Eight individuals are facing federal charges for allegedly participating in violent activity during protests in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, back in May, the Justice Department (DOJ) announced.
The individuals who were indicted last week were allegedly throwing projectiles or explosives at police officers or police vehicles, striking horses, or setting police cruisers on fire amid protests on May 30, following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody. Pittsburgh officials and DOJ officials have blamed anarchists and groups of agitators for hijacking the peaceful protests to carry out their own agendas.
Devin Montgomery, 24, and Brandon Benson, 29, were charged with maliciously destroying or damaging a police vehicle with fire and bank burglary; Da’Jon Lengyel, 22, and Christopher West, 35, were charged with four counts, including conspiring to and malicious damaging and destroying a police vehicle by fire.
Meanwhile, four individuals—George Allen, 31, Nicholas Lucia, 25, Andrew Augustyniak-Duncan, 25, and Raekwon Dac Blankenship, 24—were each charged with obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder, for a variety of alleged acts including throwing an apparent explosive device at police officers, throwing projectiles into the windshield of police vehicles, and poking and striking multiple police horses, according to indictments that were recently unsealed.
Prosecutors said their alleged actions prevented police officers from carrying out their law enforcement duties and serving the community. All eight people charged are residents in the Pittsburgh area.
“Throwing IEDs and bricks at police officers, throwing projectiles at and striking police horses, and setting police cruisers on fire are not the protected First Amendment activities of a peaceful protest; they are criminal acts that violate federal law,” U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said in a statement.
“We will continue to identify and prosecute these agitators, whose acts of violence hijacked a lawful protest and undermined a message of equality with one of destruction,” he added.
Violent riots have plagued several cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, amid peaceful protests calling for more police accountability and change to policing since late May.
Attorney General William Barr has long been condemning the rioting and calls to defund the police as a response to Floyd’s death. While there is still work to improve the relationship between the African American community and law enforcement, Barr said, responding to the problems with violence, acts of demonizing the police, and proposals to defund them are counter-productive and can be “gravely injurious to our inner-city communities.”
“When a community turns on and pillories its own police, officers naturally become more risk-averse, and crime rates soar. Unfortunately, we are seeing that now in many of our major cities,” he said, during his opening statement at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.
Barr highlighted the destruction and chaos experienced during the persistent civil unrest in Portland, Oregon, which has seen continuous violence and rioting for two months around a federal courthouse and causing dozens of injuries. Federal law enforcement agents have been deployed to address the violence, sparking widespread criticism from local and state officials and lawmakers saying that the deployment had escalated the violence.
However, Barr and acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf have said on separate occasions that it was the responsibility of the federal government to protect federal property, especially when the states are not fulfilling their duties to do so.
“Every night for the past two months, a mob of hundreds of rioters has laid siege to the federal courthouse and other nearby federal property. The rioters arrive equipped for a fight, armed with powerful slingshots, tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles and explosive devices,” he said in his prepared remarks.
“What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States,” he added.
The DOJ recently announced dozens of arrests linked to the rioting in Portland. The department’s spokesperson, Kerri Kupec, said on July 27 that at least 74 people have been arrested and 60 charged in Portland. She added that nationally at least 236 arrests have been made and 238 defendants charged.
On Wednesday, the DHS announced that they had reached an agreement with the Oregon Gov. Kate Brown where state police officers will work with officers from the department’s Federal Protective Service to make sure all federal properties are protected and secure.