October 27, 2017
Journalists and protestors arrested in J20 demonstrations are headed to court
by Simon Reichley
Waaaaaaaaaay back in January (remember January?) we wrote a little bit about the troubling mass arrests during the Disrupt J20 protests in Washington D.C. At least six journalists, and an unknown number of legal observers and medics, had been swept up in the mass arrests carried out by the D.C. police. Several of those journalists were released without charges by the US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia, but at least two remained in custody, pending charges of conspiracy to incite a riot.
In June, DemocracyNow! reported that Aaron Cantú, one of the freelance journalists caught up in the original arrests, had been indicted by a federal grand jury, and would be facing eight felony charges including inciting a riot, participating in a riot, and criminal conspiracy. Several other journalists, including Alexei Wood, who recorded and streamed extensive footage of the day’s events, as well as hundreds of protestors and demonstrators, were charged with similar crimes, carrying penalties of up to seventy-five years in federal prison.
Now, as Eoin Higgins at reports at The Intercept, the first of those cases have been scheduled to appear in court. On November 15th, six people, including Alexei Wood, will face felony rioting charges in a DC District Court.
Sam Menefee-Libey, a spokesperson for the Dead City Legal Posse—a “collective of activists and legal support workers in DC” who are providing material and emotional support to the defendants—told Higgins that the Department of Justice’s decision to try the cases in staggered groups was an attempt to pit the defendants against each other in court, and to maximize sentences by conflating “the protesters as a whole with the alleged violent acts of a few in the crowd.” This would be a shocking departure from standard legal practice in such cases, according to Menefee-Libey, and could have truly frightening consequences for further criminal proceedings against lawful J20 protesters, and beyond.
As Shana Knizhnik, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, put it, “Even if we take the government at their word, that members of the protest had unlawful goals, it’s undeniable they also had lawful goals.” Which is to say that it’s irrational and unlawful for the DOJ to accuse an individual of wrongdoing based solely on their proximity to an unlawful act.
Another seeming motivation for trying Wood in a group is that the government hopes to use the footage he took during the protests as evidence against the other conspiracy defendants — a common prosecutorial tactic in conspiracy cases. According to Higgins, the government will attempt to use that same footage in every batch of conspiracy cases it brings to court.
In short, the whole thing is fucking bananas. As Alex Stokes, another journalist facing charges, put it “There are approximately 200 people facing 70 years, going to trial for six broken windows. This is insane.”
Things have been moving very quickly over the last couple of months, and (as many predicted) it’s getting ever more difficult to keep track of all the truly horrific things going on. These trials are a reminder that it’s important to stay engaged over the long run, and that certain Trumpian actions play out over months and ever years instead of weeks, with the possibility of truly awful repercussions for anyone who partakes of our fundamental right to public dissent.
If you’d like to offer support to any of the defendants, a organization called Defend J20 Resistance has a useful list of programs and organizations contributing to their defense.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.