On January 20, 2017 (J20), President Donald Trump was inaugurated with all of the typical fanfare and political opposition that we have come to expect on Inauguration Day. In a stark contrast to previous years and even other contemporary protests, the Trump administration has chosen to aggressively pursue and prosecute over 200 people for these protests, signaling a new era of political repression.
Designated a National Special Security Event, as presidential inaugurations have been since the turn of the century, the state response to political protest that day was under the command of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and overseen by the FBI and US Secret Service. It was estimated that as much as $200 million was spent on security, including the purchase of massive amounts of weaponry and ammunition.
That morning, among many other political actions opposing the new adminstration taking place in DC, hundreds of protesters gathered in Logan Circle for an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist march. Within a half hour, a few windows of corporate storefronts were broken and, instead of making individualized arrests, police moved in to “kettle” – indiscriminately surround and detain – anyone in the streets at the time.
Those trapped in the MPD kettle included protesters, journalists, medics, and bystanders. MPD arrested 234 people, charging them all with felony riot. A later, superseding indictment from the US Attorney’s Office charged the more than 200 defendants with eight felonies each, including rioting, incitement to riot, conspiracy to riot, four counts of destruction of property, and assault on a police officer. These charges are levied against all of the defendants, even though, as Natasha Lennard wrote in an April 2017 article for Esquire, “[N]o one—neither the police nor the government—suggests that most or even many of the arrestees directly engaged in property destruction or violence.”
If convicted, each J20 defendant faces more than 70 years in federal prison. Notably, neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. who killed aactivist Heather Heyer in August in Charlottesville is facing less prison time than each J20 defendant.
At no time in the past 20 years have so many people been charged with this many felonies. This represents a troubling departure from historic prosecutions where property damage or “black bloc” activity is involved. The state is using extremely harsh legal measures to signal a new level of intolerance to protest and may represent a new norm for political repression in the US.
In addition to these unusual and serious felony charges, the J20 event stands out as an egregious example of police misconduct. For example, when the police want to break up a political protest, law enforcement is typically required to make a “dispersal order” which allows folks to leave the area before being arrested. However, on J20, before any dispersal order was given, dozens of people were subjected to a violent attack when police indiscriminately deployed chemical and projectile weapons, including Stinger Grenades, which blast rubber pellets and chemical agents over a 50-foot radius. After the mass detention of the group, many were made to wait for hours without food, water, or toilets before being transported to the local jail.
The police misconduct on J20 was egregious enough that the Mayor’s Office of Police Complaints (OPC) issued a report that criticized the MPD for violating its own Standard Operating Procedures for Handling First Amendment Assemblies as well as misuse of chemical agents, failure to provide proper dispersal orders, and making questionable arrests. As a follow-up to this report, the OPC began an independent investigation in October into MPD misconduct on Inauguration Day. More than 10 years ago DC Police Chief Peter Newsham and the MPD were sued for conducting an unconstitutional mass arrest of political activists.
In March, after refusing to turn over communication and documentation related to the police response on J20, Newsham and the MPD were sued by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, claiming that police “are standing in willful disobedience of their lawful obligations to disclose information” even where such information disclosures is mandated by law.
Seeking to push back against widespread police misconduct, the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in June against the District of Columbia, the MPD and Newsham himself, accusing the police of committing several human rights violations including the use of sexual assault against arrested protestors as a punitive measure.
INVASIVE INVESTIGATION TACTICS
The J20 cases are unprecedented not only for the number of people charged with felonies and for the quantity of felony charges levied against each defendant, but also for the extremely invasive investigation tactics of the prosecution.
In August, the Department of Justice issued a warrant seeking private information on as many as 1.3 million visitors to DisruptJ20.org, the website used as a clearinghouse of information in advance of the Inauguration Day protests. Judge Robert Morin ruled that the web-hosting company DreamHost did not have to comply with the government’s request for IP addresses and other private data, but the judge ruled that DreamHost must turn over website communications to prosecutors in an effort to search for incriminating evidence against organizers of the protests.
CURRENT STATUS OF THE DEFENDENTS
Most of the J20 defendants have chosen to work together collectively on their legal defense and have agreed to ‘points of unity’ which include not cooperating with the state or testifying against any of their co-defendants. Approximately twenty defendants have taken non-cooperating, no-jail plea bargains, but many have refused and the vast majority has decided to take their cases to trial.
One defendant—Dane Powell—who took a plea in April for rioting and assault on a police officer was sentenced in July to 36 months in prison but was required to serve only four months. Powell has remained resolute while incarcerated and is clear about his politics and the reasons why he was out on the streets that day.
Defendants and their supporters established the website DefendJ20Resistance.org to build public support and have also mounted political campaigns to drop the charges and garner support for an independent police investigation.
In September, Judge Lynn Leibovitz, a former federal prosecutor, denied a motion to dismiss the charges against J20 defendants, paving the way for the first trials on November 15 and December 11, 2017, with additional trials to be held through the fall of 2018.
Also in September, the government dropped its demand that Facebook not tell its users about search warrants it issued for the accounts of three political organizers allegedly involved in planning for #DisruptJ20. The three organizers are fighting the warrants in court.
Update: On November 1, Judge Leibovitz issued an order reducing the ‘riot’ and ‘conspiracy to riot’ charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Each defendant is still charged with at least six felonies and two misdemeanors and faces as much as 60 years in prison.
The defendants’ support website: http://defendj20resistance.org/
Recent and notable media:
- The Prosecution of Inauguration-Day Protesters Is a Threat to Dissent, Oct 20, 2017, The Nation
- How the Government Is Turning Protesters Into Felons, April 12, 2017, Esquire
- Know Your Rights: We limit our resistance to fascism by relying on liberal conceptions of human rights, June 18, 2017, The New Inquiry
- The Whimper of Democracy, May 31, 2017, The Baffler
- Document Shows D.C. Police Threw More Than 70 Grenades at Inauguration Protesters, undated, The Real News