An Indigenous man faces up to 10 years in prison over “threats” allegedly made on social media at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the United States last year, drawing outrage from activists and observers who say the case is part of a “heavy-handed” law enforcement response to the protest movement.
Loren Reed, 26, of Page, Arizona, was arrested on June 2, after the FBI and the Page Police Department (PPD) investigated comments on public social media and in a private group chat surveilled by police.
The complaint against Reed, filed on June 2, outlines the case and accuses him of making “a threat to unlawfully damage or destroy” the Page Magistrate Court Building by “fire”.
The arrest stemmed from a Facebook status posted on Reed’s account on May 30 asking people to “React to my status if you didn’t get my invite to the Page riot happening tomorrow”.
Someone responded asking him not to “torch the bars”, to which he replied: “nah. Just the courthouse”.
Following the post, a “Concerned Citizen” alerted the police about Reed’s public comments on the “Page riot” on May 30, according to documents obtained by Al Jazeera through a public information request, leading to a PPD officer to go undercover and join a private Facebook group, wherein Reed allegedly stated a desire to burn the Page courthouse, “riot” and “loot”.
Reed has been in pretrial detention since June 2. The court ruled he was a flight risk on July 14, citing the length of his possible sentence, his previous non-violent criminal history of failure to comply with court orders and providing false information to law enforcement, and his “unknown” social history.
He was formally indicted on September 29, after prosecutors filed two extensions to indict due to the coronavirus pandemic. Grassroots activist groups have urged for Reed’s release. The Tucson Anti-Repression Crew said his arrest for “organizing a protest” means his “repression is a political act”. Illinois’s Flyover Social Center urged people to “[f]ight for his release, and the release of all political prisoners.”
The conversation in the Facebook group is documented in more than 90 pages attached to the criminal complaint. It is peppered with memes and apparent humour and covers topics like systemic racism in the US, police violence, and comments by Page’s mayor about alcoholism among Indigenous communities, for which he later apologised.
Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program and former FBI agent, reviewed the Facebook conversation referenced in the indictment and said law enforcement took “an overwrought response to” what appears as “a private group of people engaging in shock talk”.
The complaint says an undercover police officer received a private message from Reed that read: “I wanna burn down the courthouse” before inviting the officer to the private group. Throughout the chat, Reed expressed a desire to burn down the courthouse, the complaint says.
The publicly available documents do not show that Reed was in possession of fuel or supplies necessary to burn the courthouse.
Hoax threats are also illegal, German noted, “but … this is a private group, so it’s not as if they were articulating a threat that the public could have been alarmed by.”
The complaint says members of the private group also expressed “dislike for police and their willingness to engage in violence” towards police and mentions a “photograph of a box of rocks with anti-law enforcement messages painted on the rocks”.
The document further alleges that a similarly painted rock was found by PPD after being “thrown” at an officer’s house on June 2. Neither the PPD incident report nor officer body camera footage of the rock being collected obtained by Al Jazeera show allegations of it being thrown.
The complaint also mentions Reed going to a bar and yelling anti-police slogans. German noted this and other allegations of anti-police attitudes have “nothing to do with the charge of burning down the courthouse”.
Loren Reed is a 26-year-old Native man from AZ facing more than a decade in prison for private comments made in a Facebook chat during the George Floyd Uprisings. Cash app: $TucsonARC or https://t.co/MtUyl2THKV (Add the note "For Loren Reed" in your donation.) pic.twitter.com/TBXaJBhQ3L
— Tucson Anti-Repression Crew (@TucsonARC) November 7, 2020
The arrest and investigation came as US President Donald Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr were adopting tough, “law and order” rhetoric against sometimes violent racial justice protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. Trump vowed to designate Antifa – a decentralised movement of far-left protesters – as a “terror” organisation.
German said he feared the “hyperbolic” rhetoric surrounding “so-called ‘Antifa’” from Trump and Barr “would spark an over-aggressive police response, and this case seems to be an example of that”.
Reed’s lawyer, Doug Passon, declined to comment on the case and said he instructed Reed to do the same.
Al Jazeera spoke with several of Reed’s friends and coworkers, none of whom said Reed posed a serious threat.
One of the allegations included in the complaint covers plans to “loot” during the riot and appears to stem from this exchange in the private chat. A member writes: “people ask, why do they drink? can’t they just go home … it’s trauma at a young age that’s causing these sorts of problems”.
Another member – not Reed – responds “What pharmacies we looting tho?”, to which people responded with laughing face emojis. Reed responds: “There’s only safeway and walmart”, with more laughing reactions.
Johnathan Michael Yellick, 24, has known Reed for 10 years and described him as “spontaneous”, “open” and “talkative”. They bonded through their teen years as parts of a friend’s group, worrying about relationships and school, and going on impromptu hiking trips.
Yellick said Reed was a reliable friend and recalled driving with him for up to four hours to visit sites in Arizona and Utah like Hite Marina and Lake Powell, talking for hours about issues in their personal lives.
He said that Reed “loves making people laugh” and that dark humour was a part of Reed’s sense of humour.
When portions of the chat included in the complaint were described to Yellick, including the section about “looting” a pharmacy, Yelick said “that was definitely dark humour.”
Yellick was not involved in the Facebook conversation, but from his experience speaking to Reed, when serious topics arose, Reed was “talking with emotion more than anything”.
When asked if he thought Reed would engage in “terroristic threats”, Yellick replied: “Absolutely not. It would come down to the dark humour kind of thing. Never have I thought Loren would do that kind of thing.”
Reed was quoted by Forgive Everyone, an artists’ collective that does advocacy work for prisoners, as saying that the summer’s uprising opened the door to discussing issues around race and policing.
“It gave me an opportunity to say what I’ve wanted to say for years … If I tried to have these arguments beforehand, I would immediately get shut down. These things never really got brought to light until recently,” he reportedly said.
Reed is not the only person to be arrested for comments made on social media during the racial justice protests that swept the US last year.
In July, Ebon Ellis, 25, an organiser in Evansville, Indiana, was arrested after posting a video on Facebook threatening the lives of local police and elected officials, motioning with his hand as if it were a gun and pulling the trigger.
Ellis, who is Black, was sentenced to two years’ probation and a psychiatric evaluation on November 13 after pleading guilty to three counts of felony intimidation.
Samuel Mara, a Black man reportedly commonly seen at Black Lives Matter protests in Buffalo, New York, was arrested on July 11 and accused of threatening to kill a person related to a rumoured racist counterprotest during a live video on social media. He faces a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.
When compared to other charges related to making threats and their maximum sentences, including the five-year penalty for mailing the US president a threat, Reed faces “really serious charges, a potential 10-year sentence for essentially mouthing off on the internet”, James Clark, a member the progressive National Lawyers Guild, told Al Jazeera.
Clark noted the statute under which Reed is charged, colloquially known as the federal arson statute, “is one of a series of federal criminal statutes that came out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s” used to discourage protests.
“The Federal Riot Act was passed in 1968, as part of the Civil Rights Act, after [Martin Luther King Jr] was assassinated. The civil disorder statute was passed in 1968,” Clark said. “Then the federal arson statute was passed in 1970.”
The civil disorder statute was cited in dozens of cases against protesters over the summer.
The federal riot act, informally known as the “H Rap Brown law” in reference to a then-non-violent Black activist who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was cited by Barr over the summer when he promised to arrest “instigators” during the wave of unrest.
Four Indigenous protesters at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were charged with civil disorder and use of fire to commit a federal felony offense, under the federal arson statute. They all agreed to non-cooperating plea deal, which dropped the use of fire charges.
Clark said it appears these laws “sit idle until there’s another really serious … Black and Indigenous protest movement, and then they get weaponised against those movements.”
Courts have recently ruled that portions of the federal riot act, formally called the Anti-Riot Act of 1968, are unconstitutional, including those that make it a crime to “encourage” or “promote” riots, as this is protected speech.
German, who has studied far-right militancy within police forces, raised the example of social media groups on the far right, such as the “Boogaloo bois” where “you’d hear hot political rhetoric like this” with little reaction from the FBI.
German described law enforcement’s response to the summer protests as “heavy-handed”. Regarding Reed’s case, only the discovery of an “actual weapon” could “alter [his] perception”, German concluded.
When asked for comment, PPD said it acted in a “supporting role” to the FBI and directed Al Jazeera to “contact the United States Attorney’s Public Information Office for any questions you have regarding this case”.
Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office handling the case, declined to comment due to it being an ongoing case and referred Al Jazeera to a press release and public documents.
Reed’s trial is scheduled for April 6, 2021, following a January 12 continuance filed by Passon to review documents. He will have been in pretrial detention for 10 months.