Federal prosecutors on Wednesday filed charges against two men accused of causing civil disorder in attacks on police officers during a night of sometimes violent protests in Rochester, N.Y., over the weekend.
It was at the least the third instance this week in which federal prosecutors intervened in cases where people have been accused of attacking officers during protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Such cases have typically been handled by state prosecutors.
Federal prosecutions of people arrested during protests have escalated since the civil unrest that emerged around the nation after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. President Trump has blamed antifa — a label that has come to be associated with a loose movement of left-wing protesters who engage in aggressive techniques like vandalism — for the disorder.
The administration has pushed federal prosecutors to clamp down forcefully on the demonstrations, using the civil disorder statute to charge protesters, most recently in Portland, Ore., and Charleston, S.C.
The protests in Rochester began last week after the public disclosure of the circumstances surrounding the March death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who suffocated after police officers put a hood over his head and pinned him to the ground.
The men who were charged on Wednesday, Dallas Williams-Smothers and Adam Green, were part of a crowd of protesters that grew to around 1,500 people on Saturday night, the authorities said.
Some of those in the crowd hurled rocks, bottles, lit fireworks and other objects at the police, while others shined lasers at the officers’ eyes, officials said. The police responded by ordering the crowd to disperse.
Mr. Green, 20, swung a wooden shield at one officer who approached him while trying to clear the streets, and then he resisted arrest, officials said. Mr. Williams-Smothers, 20, threw a mortar-style firework at a line of officers and then ran off, officials said.
“These arrests are not about deterring free speech,” James P. Kennedy Jr., the United States attorney for the Western District of New York, said at a news conference. “They are about deterring violent and dangerous criminal activity.”
Prosecutors’ use of civil disorder charges against people arrested during protests has been criticized as a warping of federal authority in an attempt to satisfy President Trump’s goal of forcefully clamping down on the demonstrations. The Constitution, critics of the practice say, limits the federal government’s role in cases that are typically handled by state authorities.
Without commenting on the specifics of the Rochester case, Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University, said that, generally speaking, “it should be left to state and local authorities” to prosecute the kind of crimes that have been committed during some of the protests, even if current Supreme Court precedent gives the federal authorities wide latitude.
He added that while individual prosecutors made their own choices about which cases to bring, Mr. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr have made it clear they want a tough federal response to the protests.
Crossing state lines often provides a justification for filing federal charges, but it was not an issue in the Rochester cases: Mr. Williams-Smothers lives in the city; Mr. Green lives in Dansville, N.Y., about an hour’s drive south.
A spokeswoman for the Monroe County district attorney, Sandra Doorley, said that the federal authorities had consulted with her on the cases against the two men, and that she supported prosecuting them in federal court.
As of Wednesday, around three dozen people had been arrested and charged with various crimes in connection with the Rochester protests, the spokeswoman, Calli Marianetti, said. For now, the district attorney was handling the other cases, she added.
The protests have been fueled not just by the circumstances of Mr. Prude’s death, which came a week after his encounter with the police, but also by the lag of more than five months before those circumstances were made public by his family.