U.S Police Arresting and Prosecuting Cop Critics Who Speak Out on Facebook


Robert Peralta’s life was derailed by a single Facebook comment.

When the San Franciscan saw a well-known local activist had posted about being “choked” and “slammed” by a sheriff’s deputy at city hall, Peralta fired off a short response: “Wow, brother they wanna hit our general. It’s time to strike back. Let’s burn this motherfucker’s house down.”

Peralta, a 35-year-old activist and musician, didn’t think twice about the 23 January Facebook thread until two months later, when he learned that police had issued a warrant for his arrest – accusing him of threatening to kill law enforcement.

“Why waste all of the county’s money on this?” said Peralta, who turned himself in and was booked into jail, despite having no criminal record. “You’re going to take me to jail … for Facebook?”

Peralta’s felony criminal case is part of what civil rights campaigners say is a disturbing trend of police and prosecutors targeting activists for social media posts, arresting users over innocuous political messages that constitute free speech.

“For a country that purports to be guided by democracy and guided by civil rights, this is a very dangerous and very slippery slope,” said Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. “Black activists are expressing anger, rage, hatred even about the conditions that threaten their daily lives, and they are being held liable for how they express that anger, even though they’ve committed no crime.”

Peralta’s charges have come at a time of heightened concerns about threats against law enforcement following a number of police killings – most notably a Dallas shooter who shot five officers last year. Donald Trump has also lamented a so-called “war on police”, and there has been a wave of “Blue Lives Matter” bills seeking to classify police as a protected class. Government statistics, however, suggest there is no surge in violence against police.

Critics say that digital surveillance is also plagued by racial biases, with law enforcement devoting significant resources to spying on specific activist communities, while ignoring complaints from minorities and women who face violent online abuse.

When Peralta commented on the Facebook post about alleged police violence in January – which included a photo of the officer’s arms around the activist’s neck – he said he knew nothing about the identity of the law enforcement official.

“On Facebook, you comment on so many things in minutes,” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t even mean it.”

He later learned that an investigator had obtained a search warrant for his Facebook and was able to comb through his personal account.

Peralta thought it was a simple misunderstanding he could clear up by talking to police. But instead, prosecutors jailed him, saying the threat was “made so unequivocally, unconditionally, immediately and specifically as to convey to the person threatened a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution”.

His bail was set at $25,000.

“In jail, you just want to get out. You can’t deal with the environment,” he said. “I was not feeling like I was treated like a human.”

A friend helped Peralta post an initial $750 payment on the bail so he could be released, and eventually prosecutors agreed to dismiss the charge in exchange for Peralta giving a presentation to youth about responsible social media use.

Although he is on track to have the case wiped from his record, the prosecution has taken a serious toll on his life, Peralta said. He is still on the hook for $2,500 and is now paying monthly installments that are difficult to afford, given that he has a fixed income from disability payments. The sheriff’s office also seized his phone, which has his music on it, and won’t return it until the case is formally dismissed later this year.

“I’m still dealing with the repercussions,” he said.

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